Here I have another round-up of worthwhile international horror films that have yet to be distributed (outside the festival circuit) in the United States. This marks my fourth such listing; the last one was in 2012, and since then worthy unreleased foreign films have continued to proliferate. Yes, in recent years many good films from outside our borders have been commercially released within the US, but here are ten that for whatever reason haven’t…
10. RITUAL–A PSYCHOMAGIC STORY [RITUAL–UNA STORIA PSIOMAGICA] (2013)
This Italian production is the first movie to dramatize the practice of Psychomagic, a controversial Alejandro Jodorowsky conceived system of therapy that utilizes elaborate symbolic rituals. In RITUAL Lia (Desiree Giorgetti), a severely depressed young woman, goes to stay with her aunt Agata (Anna Bonasso), who lives in a secluded villa where she practices Psychomagical therapy. Lia seems an ideal subject for therapy, but things are complicated considerably by the arrival of her asshole boyfriend (Ivan Franek), who views Agata as a literal witch. As directed by Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi, the film is stylish and evocative to a fault, filled with bizarre dream scenes that adroitly illuminate the characters’ disturbed psyches and a cameo by Jodorowsky himself–on hand, appropriately enough, to give Agata advice on how best to deal with her charges. The problem is that the filmmakers never bother explaining the principles of Psychomagic, leaving viewers unfamiliar with the practice (outlined in Jodorowsky’s books PSYCHOMAGIC and THE DANCE OF REALITY) in the dark. Furthermore, the bleak ending actually undercuts the Psychomagical theories the film espouses, with the heroine “cured” by symbolically giving birth to a mango she then buries, only to be confronted with a troubling query: what happens if somebody digs the mango up?
9. TALE 52 [ISTORIA 52] (2008)
A most fascinating, if fundamentally flawed, subjective-descent-into-madness account from Greece. The debut feature of writer-director Alexis Alexiou, ISTORIA 52 is a far cry from REPULSION or LOST HIGHWAY (its most evident influences), but it is impressive in many respects. Alexiou’s not-inconsiderable filmmaking skill is evident in the many striking yet unobtrusive innovations he utilizes in depicting his protagonist’s mental breakdown: superimpositions, fixed focus, prosthetic effects, etc. That protagonist, one Iasonas, is played by Yorgos Kakanakis in an impressively modulated depiction of mounting hysteria. He’s a guy whose sense of reality gradually dissolves into a morass of hallucinations and unexpected time shifts that see him reliving certain past events–exiting a parking structure marked with a 52, compulsively rubbing out a toothpaste stain, meeting his future girlfriend at a party–again and again. Eventually Iasonas comes to realize that his mental strife is centered on a horrific past event he’s desperately, and futilely, trying to forget. All of this is appropriately freakish and disturbing, albeit quite single-mindedly so. What’s missing is any sense of a reality outside the madness, leaving us with the question of precisely why we should care about this guy and his delusions, a query Alexiou never satisfactorily answers.
8. CURE: THE LIFE OF ANOTHER (2014)
An altogether unique, visually dynamic psychodrama from Switzerland. 14 year old newcomer Sylvie Marinkovic plays Linda, a pre-teen living in the Balkans during the early nineties, amid the lingering aftereffects of the Balkan war. During a cliff-side argument Linda accidentally pushes her best friend Eta (Lucia Radulovic) to her death. Over the following weeks Linda deals with the tragedy in an odd way: she takes to wearing Eta’s clothes and pretends to actually be Eta around the latter’s mother. But then Linda begins hearing her friend’s voice, and even seeing Eta in the flesh, and the real drama begins. The film has been criticized for incorporating supernatural elements into an otherwise staunchly naturalistic framework that favors handheld camerawork and a reality-based post-war atmosphere, but I feel that’s a large part of its effectiveness. CURE, in other words, doesn’t play like a standard horror flick or a realistic drama, existing in an intriguing realm somewhere in the middle.
7. LAST SCREENING [DERNIERE SÉANCE] (2011)
If Robert Bresson were to make a splatter film it would almost certainly play like this altogether unprecedented French effort. Pascal Cervo headlines as Sylvian, a movie-mad projectionist, and as anyone who’s seen FADE TO BLACK, THE BLIND OWL, APARTMENT ZERO, EVIL DEAD TRAP 2 and quite a few other movie theater set psycho-fests well knows, it won’t be long before this guy loses his head and becomes a serial killer–which does indeed occur after his boss informs Sylvian the theater will be closing. He reacts to this traumatic news by stabbing several unsuspecting women to death and stealing their ears(!). Compounding the madness are flashbacks showing that his late mother traumatized Sylvian as a child, which only intensifies his rampage. Director Laurent Achard visualizes this twisted tale though ultra-precise visual compositions that favor a nailed-down camera, and violence that takes place largely off-screen. The net result is a film that’s oddly fascinating, if a bit too affected for its own good.
6. BORO IN THE BOX (2011)
This 40 minute oddity was made by the French experimentalist Bertrand Mandico, and stars the always-arresting Elina Lowensohn. She plays the famed Polish animator-turned-feature filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, or “Boro,” whose life is portrayed in highly surreal, unorthodox fashion. Taking a cue from Peter Greenaway, Mandico structures the proceedings in 26 distinct parts, each prefaced by a letter of the alphabet that begins an especially pertinent word (B for Bestiality, W for Walerian, etc). As for Boro him–or more accurately her–self, he takes the form of a nondescript individual whose head is encased in a box. He’s the product, we learn, of a rape (with his mother also played by the delectable Ms. Lowensohn), and develops into an insatiable voyeur with a passion for watching nude women that indelibly informs his work as a filmmaker. Mandico packs the film with visual brilliance and a great deal of Cronenbergian grotesquerie; note the slimy umbilical-like formation seen hanging off Boro’s camera during the moviemaking sequences. Sure, the proceedings are often outrageously pretentious, but Mandico’s visual pizazz is what ultimately lingers.
5. METAMORPHOSIS [HENGE] (2011)
For those of you who might find the preceding entries too artsy, here’s a fun, unpretentious blast of 54-minute monster movie madness from Japan. It features a guy (Kazunari Aizawa) undergoing horrific convulsions and sprouting monstrous growths on one of his arms, and eventually metamorphosing into a full-blown monstrosity. His obliging wife (Aki Morita) lures unsuspecting men to their house for her husband to devour, and he eventually embarks on a Godzilla-esque rampage of destruction. This film has its share of problems–the ultra-low budget, for starters, is obnoxiously evident throughout–but director Hajime Ohata deserves credit for his commitment to old-fashioned in-camera special effects. The latex creature the protagonist becomes may not be entirely convincing, but is a refreshing sight nonetheless in today’s horror landscape (with its over-reliance on CGI). The real surprise is Ohata’s emphasis on the redeeming power of love; the outrageous final scenes, however, are played strictly for laughs, and the mix of gross-out horror, pathos and camp works surprisingly well.
4. LESSON OF THE EVIL [AKU NO KYOTEN] (2012)
Think of this one as THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE or CLASS OF 1984, Takashi Miike style. It’s the twisted account of a dedicated high school teacher (Takayuki Yamada) who goes too far in trying to discipline his students, which inevitably comes to entail mass gunfire and bloodletting. In true Miike fashion the film, running a highly expansive 129 minutes, is packed with quirky elements, including a rather puzzling obsession with American culture (manifested in the fact that the protagonist is teaching his students English and also a VIDEODROME-ish talking rifle that implores him, in an American accent, to commit mayhem). This may be Miike’s commentary on the American school shootings mirrored in the protagonist’s rampage, or possibly the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. The film works in any event, being startling and atmospheric, and featuring much attention-getting carnage. Such over-the-top insanity is precisely the type of thing Takashi Miike does best, and even if the film isn’t a total success, it’s still better than most anything else Miike has done lately.
3. HARMONY LESSONS [UROKI GARMONII] (2013)
A downright lacerating film from Kazakhstan that tackles a number of pertinent real-life issues, bullying foremost among them. The victim is Aslan, a pre-teen boy (Timur Aidarbekov) tormented mercilessly by the school bully, who extorts money from his fellow students and demands they shun Aslan. He in turn retreats into a private world marked by sadism to the local cockroach population and fantasies of revenge. Aslan eventually puts his twisted schemes into action, but then has to deal with the officially sanctioned sadism of the police, which turns out to be far more severe than that of his schoolmates. The whole thing is done up in a highly constrained, deadpan style comprised of more-or-less self-contained vignettes, with many pertinent plot points left vague. The effect is not a little unnerving, with several distasteful scenes of real-life animal cruelty (this is the only film ever made that made me feel sorry for cockroaches). The beauty of the cinematography, at least, is undeniable, even if the film overall is about as pleasant as a rectal exam.
2. THE TRAGEDY OF MAN [AZ EMBER TRAGEDIAJA] (2011)
One of the most insanely ambitious animated features of all time, a Hungarian made version of the famed 1861 play by Imre Madach. The play is known as Hungary’s answer to PARADISE LOST, with Lucifer tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and later taking Adam on a hallucinatory jaunt through various periods in history, in an effort to prove that mankind’s attempts at progress are all doomed to failure. Director Marcell Jankovics shot this 160-minute adaptation in piecemeal fashion over a 23 year period–hence the disjointedness of the narrative, which feels like a succession of strung-together shorts (as indeed it is), and also the inconsistency of the animation, which appears smooth and streamlined in some parts and jerky and half-finished in others. Yet overall the film registers as an impressive spectacle, with a highly dreamlike, psychedelic air that recalls THE YELLOW SUBMARINE and the films of Ralph Bakshi. There are some amazing images on display, most notably those of the Ancient Rome set section, peopled by talking statues and moving frescoes, and also the final scenes, set in a future where people’s hearts are plucked from their bodies and placed on automated assembly lines. Also, despite its religious underpinnings the film is quite frank in its depictions of gore and carnality, as is evident in the sequence set in Paris during the terror, in which guillotined heads are a constant, and an earlier bit set in the middle ages, which confronts the sexual repression of the era head-on.
1. FISH & CAT [MAHI VA GORBEH] (2013)
There’s never been a “horror” movie quite like this inscrutable masterpiece, an Iranian made exercise in arty apprehension that has been described as “Samuel Beckett meets George Romero.” It has the distinction of having been shot in a single 134 minute take, and for a time held the record for the longest-ever single take movie (it has since been matched) despite the fact that its chronology is anything but linear. Beginning with a textual news report about a restaurant that was busted for serving human flesh, the film opens with two sinister looking cooks leaving what is apparently the very restaurant in question to roam the surrounding woodland, a strikingly arid environ of grey skies and dead trees. Also afoot in the woods are a band of young campers on hand for a kite festival, the minutiae of whose lives we’re made privy to through dialogue, although the ever-roving camera always comes back to the creepy cooks. Conversations tend to loop back on each other, with select details (such as a cat with a human finger in its mouth) recurring in both dialogue and action, and the macabre underpinnings of the opening minutes never far from the surface. For a time it all seems like a formless ramble that’s going nowhere slowly, but FISH & CAT does eventually reach a pointed destination, one that’s gruesome and disturbing but curiously satisfying nonetheless.