I’ve been compiling this twisted little list of frighteningly anti-authoritarian films for about four years now and a lot has changed during that short time for both cinema and authoritarianism. With the epoch-shattering cataclysm of the pandemic and the colossal failures of both the Trump and the Biden administrations, American power has never been more naked and even the card-punching normies can’t help but to be revolted by the shocking fragility of a supposedly mighty creature no longer shielded by the Kevlar cloak of American exceptionalism. The world’s most fearsome beast is wounded, perhaps mortally, and it has never been more unpredictable.
At the same time, perhaps uncoincidentally, American cinema has seen a totally unexpected renaissance in the once unjustly maligned artistic ghetto of the horror movie. After decades lost in a treacherous swamp of braindead Disneyfied remakes and PG-13 cyber slasher fluff, a small but thriving scene of uniquely inventive and thoughtfully cerebral horror movies have emerged from the mire with something far more relevant and far more terrifying to say than ‘Boo!’ While we still have a few miles left to go before we even approach the daringly guttural territory explored by auteurs in France, Japan and Korea, truly terrifying films like It Follows and Inheritance have begun to earnestly explore the guts of what terrifies Americans most in an era of unprecedented imperial decline.
Sadly though, with the possible exception of the at times overrated work of Jordan Peele, even brilliant American horror directors have largely shied away from addressing the omnicidal elephant in the room, even as its fearsome tusks drip toxic nuclear waste from Ukraine to Taiwan, but if a few good anarchists are still interested in being terrified for a cause, I still have another ten movies with something to say to keep you up at night. As usual, I tend to traffic in the strange and the misunderstood but if you really want to explore the grotesque genitalia of naked power, you should consider giving these shocking thrill rides a spin.
The Human Centipede (2009) by Tom Six– Widely maligned based largely on its impossibly appalling premise, Tom Six’s surreal story about a wealthy retired master surgeon who sews unsuspecting tourist’s lips to each other’s assholes in order to create a human centipede is undeniably a work of exploitation cinema but so was Night of the Living Dead. Sometimes it takes the tactless tenacity of the grindhouse to say something simply too unsettling to be said politely and when it all comes down to it, what makes The Human Centipede truly shocking is that it really isn’t all that implausible in the light of even recent medical experimentation.
Doctors are afforded an enormous amount of power in Western Society and all too often that power has been abused in ways both arbitrary and strange. We may never know the true role that American government-facilitated labs in Wuhan played in triggering the Coronavirus but the fact that doctors like Tony Fauci continue to play God with a gain of function research even after such an earth-shattering pandemic should terrify everyone regardless of partisan bullshit. When any institution imbues mere mortals with the powers of gods, it’s only a matter of time before they abuse it just to prove they can. Doctor Laser’s motivations to stitch people together ass-to-mouth can pretty much be summed up as “fuck it, why not? I am a genius after all…” This same line of thinking sowed our mouth to Putin’s asshole with the nuclear bomb.
Under the Skin (2013) by Jonathan Glazer- There has been a great deal of debate in academic circles over this strange tale of a sexually tantalizing extraterrestrial leading unsuspecting male suiters to their horrific demise in her inky black underwater web before she suddenly grows a conscience, and it does appear to have plenty of things to say about feminism, gender, and human sexuality but what struck me as the most fascinating aspect of this arthouse Rubik’s Cube is that it is perhaps the first alien invasion movie to thoroughly explore the ramifications of colonialism from the perspective of the interstellar colonialist.
Scarlet Johansson’s nameless temptress begins her mission with all the cold and clinical precision of a Navy Seal but the moment that she catches a glimpse of herself in one of her victim’s eyes she very quickly finds herself exposed to being scorched by the same xenophobic impulses that once enabled her to conveniently unplug her conscience. There is simply no room for empathy in conquest. You can either light the match or get burned alive. Our best hope is to simply avoid touching that book, to begin with.
High Tension (2003) by Alexandre Aja- This gruesome French shocker has received a lot of guff from my fellow Queers for its portrayal of an insane lesbian antagonist willing to murder her bestie’s entire family just to possess her, but I think the more reactionary LGBTQ critics have really missed the boat on this one. What defines Marie’s psychosis isn’t her sexuality but its repression for the sake of polite puritanical society. It’s no mistake that her split personality adopts the shape of a brutish cis-het caricature of toxic masculinity. In Western society even a heterosexual beast is considered less lecherous than a “straight” girl with a homosexual crush on another straight girl.
I see High Tension as being a sort of anti-Blue-Is-the-Warmest-Color. Human sexuality is a remarkably powerful force of nature and when this force is ruthlessly suppressed it finds equally ruthless ways to express itself outside the bedroom. It’s not a coincidence that the Nazis sprang from the most sexually repressed society in pre-war Europe. To me, the most shocking thing about High Tension is that it highlights the deeply uncomfortable fact that even in our supposedly liberal modern bourgeoise society, casual violence is still considered far less controversial than the casual sexuality that could very well prevent it.
Ex Machina (2014) by Alex Garland- If Valerie Solanas could direct, this jolting sci-fi thriller would be both her timebomb and her manifesto. When a polite, well-behaved, computer programmer finds himself selected, seemingly at random, to work on a special project with the secretive and enigmatic billionaire CEO of his Fortune 500 company at his secluded mansion in the Alaskan wilderness he thinks he’s won the lottery. But the programmer quickly finds himself in way over his head when he’s tasked with testing the artificial intelligence capabilities of a tantalizingly human android named Ava.
It’s only after he falls in love with the charming machine that he discovers that he has been played by the rapacious CEO and it is only after they are both doomed that the audience discovers that we have all been played by Ava, using the condescending chauvinism shared by her savior and her victimizer to liberate herself from their sexist competition. It doesn’t take a radical feminist to get the message loud and clear. If humans exploit devices less capable of empathy, then the borderline sociopathic society that creates them the way that same society exploits women then humans aren’t just fucked but we deserve to be fucked.
Antichrist (2009) by Lars Von Trier- A deeply strange and terrifying opus about human fragility at the mercy of nature and spirituality, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is as baffling as it is brilliant. At the end of the day, I can only draw conclusions about the meaning of this clearly personal project from my own unique point of view. On its surface, the story is about an unnamed couple, played by the equally brilliant team of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, struggling to come to terms with the grief and guilt they share over the tragic death of their infant son. In an attempt to fix his wife, the husband, a renowned psychiatrist, takes her to their secluded cabin in the woods only to find himself hopelessly overwhelmed by his mission.
The wife is revealed to blame the tragedy on what she believes to be the innate wickedness of her own gender and resorts to embracing the monster this embodies as a desperate survival mechanism. The husband attempts to govern her grief much as foolish men in positions of power have long attempted to govern nature and is ripped to shreds by forces beyond any man’s control in the process. There are no easy answers in this horrific masterpiece, only more questions and what few conclusions I’ve reached are undeniably tainted by my own history of trauma and abuse at the hands of organized religion and psychiatry, but I strongly believe that we owe it to ourselves and each other to ask these kinds of questions as boldly as Lars, Willem and Charlotte do. Great works of art provoke.
Crash (1996) by David Cronenberg- Another deeply unnerving masterpiece that Hollywood despised because they’re too goddamn stupid to realize that it’s really just a mirror. David Cronenberg is at his cerebral finest taking on J.G. Ballard’s brilliant novel about bored upper-class professionals ready and willing to obliterate themselves and others in gruesome car crashes modeled after the tragic deaths of celebrities just to get off. This is fucking Hollywood. This is America. This is what a lethally synthetic culture of glamour and carefully simulated stimulation has reduced us to. Anyone who finds this perverse tale shocking should take inventory and address that creature in the mirror. In a world emotionally numbed by the Novocain of technological isolation, destruction becomes the only form of penetration visceral enough to break the skin and connect with another breathing being’s vital organs.
Dogtooth (2009) by Yargos Lanthimos- The great Wilhelm Reich sagefully observed that authoritarianism begins at home and that there are few things more despotic than a healthy nuclear family. It takes a movie as profoundly bizarre and disturbing as the equally great Yargos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth to properly expose the horrors of such evil most banal. Dogtooth is essentially the story of one wealthy businessman’s attempt to exert complete control over his now adult children by holding them prisoner in his gated compound with a meticulously regimented penitentiary of strategic mythology and manufactured ignorance. His son and daughters are rewarded with stickers for learning the incorrect definitions of words and savagely beaten for their curiosity about the outside world. The results become hilariously absurd before the farce turns tragic, all in the name of family values and public safety. However, an infantilized class is only ever as safe as the sanity of their masters and sanity has a tendency to wane with that level of unchecked power.
Weekend (1967) by Jean-Luc Godard- The world lost one brazenly brilliant cinematic psychopath this year with the death of Jean-Luc Godard and Weekend catches that madman at his most fantastically unhinged. While not exactly a horror movie, Weekend is undeniably horrific in its brutal portrayal of a bored bourgeoise couple on a road trip to secure the inheritance of an elderly parent by any means necessary while both simultaneously plot to kill the other so long as the check doesn’t bounce first. What transpires is a savagely hilarious circus of gruesome traffic jams, roaming cults of cannibals, and Maoist propaganda that feels like madness until you realize that it’s really about how insanity can become downright normal when it’s reinforced by seemingly omnipotent institutions like marriage. Weekend is a very scary movie about the almost mundane violence that defines existence in the suburbs of late capitalism and only Godard could have made something so terrifying so hilarious. Godspeed you commie coot. You will be missed but never forgotten. We will always have the nightmares.
Punishment Park (1971) by Peter Watkins- Panned upon release for its brazenly anti-American message, Punishment Park only becomes scarier with each passing year as its premise only becomes increasingly plausible with each passing administration. Shot as a documentary about a Nixonian martial law that bans decent but allows political malcontents the opportunity to escape the gulags if they agree to participate in what essentially amounts to a colossal game of capture the flag in the heart of Death Valley while being hunted down like dogs by heavily armed National Guard trainees. Punishment Park ultimately becomes a brutal lesson about the dangers of playing by the rules in a fixed system and expecting anything but treachery for your trouble. The communists in the competition band together to fight the guard and die trying but the principled liberal pacifists ultimately find themselves just as fucked even when they win. It may feel like a cruel lesson but Emiliano Zapata was right when he boldly declared that it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Punishment Park savagely reminds us that all too often those who kneel end up dying too by the same sword as those who resist.
Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho- Every once in a pale blue moon those soulless dead-eyed sycophants at the Academy manage to dislodge their pea-brains from betwixt their pinched buttocks for just long enough to realize that the sun doesn’t set on the Hollywood Hills alone. In fact, quite the contrary, those beams rarely pierce the smog at all unless they’re being reflected off the lenses of South Korea’s new wave of maverick cinematic terrorists. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite seemed to come out the smog like a bolt of lightening to shake Hollywood to its toxic core with one of the most devastatingly brilliant take-downs of the neoliberal class system recorded on any medium. Even Proudhon and Gramsci themselves would have been forced from their cheap seats in a standing ovation.
The Kim Family were just your typical lower-class Korean lumpenproletariats, cutting corners and hustling nickel-and-dime scams just to get by, when they got the brilliant idea to skip over a few rungs in the class ladder by slowly infiltrating a wealthy upper-class family. By posing just above their weight class and slowly replacing the help they hope to get just a whiff of the good life. The only problem is that the Kims weren’t the first hustlers to come up with this scam and they quickly find themselves in a clandestine turf war with other desperate grifters jockeying violently just to get first dibs on the scraps of their totally oblivious overlords. It all comes to a bloody climax at a posh garden party that leaves few backs undecorated by a knife and nothing gained but misery for all the Kim’s hard work. The family’s fatal mistake wasn’t merely their desperate attempt to fuck over the next equally desperate grifter to climb just one measly rung up the ladder. Where the Kim’s really fucked up was when they assumed that those chickens wouldn’t come home to roost. There really is no such thing as a free lunch in capitalism. There is usually a bit of blood in the porridge and all too often it’s your own.
Just like Punishment Park and many of the other films on this list, Parasite is a warning against attempting to fix an existentially rigged system from within the guts of its perverted machine. Institutional hierarchy is a totally unnatural abuse of the earth’s natural order. It only exists like a monster through the architecture of a laboratory of horrors that is totally unsustainable. Any attempt at coexistence with such a system won’t merely fail, it will only serve to mutate its victims into accomplices in their own destruction. The Frankenstein monster of the state cannot be corrected with a wrench. It can only be obliterated by a united final-girl class with a chainsaw. We must bring this beast down in every manifestation from the doctor’s office to the national bank before it can bring us all down with it and we have too little time to waste with flesh wounds. Uncle Sam’s monster must be slain, and these are ten more reasons why.