1. Dogtooth (2009)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Sadistic parents conduct perverse experiment in fucked-up parenting.
Some films self-consciously strive for weirdness like an affected hipster with a handlebar moustache listening to a Sony Walkman. Other films are born weird, like Greece’s Dogtooth, a fully-realized oddity that feels like an alien culture trying to dress-up and play human.
The film depicts a middle-aged couple who raise their three children, now young adults, in complete seclusion. In fact, not only can the kids not leave the house, but their sadistic parents purposefully teach them the wrong definitions of words, that house cats are nature’s most dangerous predator, and that Frank Sinatra is their grandfather and his songs are all about happy families. It’s a twisted metaphor for everything strange and unpleasant that can emerge from the family institution – the hermetic rules, the bitter competition, and the mixed-up Freudian sexuality. And while there is plenty of pitch-black humor, Dogtooth takes its premise to a very uncomfortable extreme. Take that as a warning, folks.
2. Eyes Without A Face (1960)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Scientist kidnaps women for surgical face-swap with his daughter.
Eyes Without A Face has the otherworldliness and classic simplicity of a fairy tale, but it’s the kind of traumatic before-bed story you might get from a drunken uncle who’s not used to being around kids: a young woman, her face disfigured by a horrible car accident, wanders through her father’s mansion wearing a creepy, expressionless mask.
Conveniently, her father is also a mad scientist, and he kidnaps a succession of other young beauties in the hopes of surgically transplanting one of their faces onto hers. That sounds like just another Z-grade 50s drive-in flick, but it’s elevated by director Georges Franju’s somber handling of the material – the father is not a cackling maniac, but a man haunted by his horrific deeds, remarking, “I’ve done so much wrong to perform this miracle.” Franju masterfully uses close-ups and tracking shots to heighten the beauty and tragedy of this unsettling film.
3. Mysterious Skin (2004)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Childhood sex abuse victims reunite after struggling with trauma.
Mysterious Skin is more out-and-out disturbing than creepy, but it’s a worthy watch for anyone prepared to tackle challenging subject matter. Handling sexual molestation with dead-on directness, it follows the story of two young men whose lives have taken wildly different turns since they were both abused by their Little League coach: Neil (played superbly by a clearly stardom-bound Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a prostitute and reckless partier, whereas Brian is a quiet loner who becomes obsessed with alien abductions because he believes they hold the key to his repressed childhood.
Mysterious Skin often surpassed my comfort threshold, and occasionally for reasons that didn’t seem completely necessary (the scene of childhood Neil shooting fireworks out of an intellectually disabled boy’s mouth is a good example), but this emotionally provoking story also achieves moments of sublime beauty.
4. The Brood (1979)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Undergoing psychotherapy, woman somehow births demonic toddlers that kill everyone.
The conceit of The Brood is, in the tradition of director David Cronenberg, both patently ludicrous and unexpectedly resonant: A man must protect his daughter from the horrific demons unleashed by his wife’s subconscious as she undergoes radical psychotherapy at a mysterious institute.
The demons in question – bizarre, deformed children – are unforgettable (trust me, I’ve tried), as are the series of brutal murders they commit. Cronenberg uses this outlandish concept to abstractly explore the emotional stress of divorce for both parents and children, and this subtext makes it less troublesome that all of the characters so easily accept the presence of deranged, homicidal 1st graders.
5. Eraserhead (1977)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Man with incredible hair must care for his mutant son.
Eraserhead is like the gateway drug of mind-blowingly weird cinema. The debut of David Lynch, American cinema’s most notorious eccentric, it comes replete with bizarre deformities, inexplicable developments, and a surrealistic sensibility.
More so than any film on this list, it eschews linear narrative for the logic and visuals of a nightmare, but it’s a worthy trade. After all, no film that “made sense” could evoke as much fear, wonder, and curiosity as Eraserhead – and, when it comes to the themes of sexuality, childbirth, and adulthood it explores, no film that made sense could make as much sense.
6. Hellraiser (1987)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Man opens box, sadomasochistic hell ensues.
Clive Barker’s unrelentingly grim Hellraiser thoroughly and intelligently deals with the complicated relationship between pain and pleasure, employing the fetishized S&M of the 80s punk scene (think leather, studs, and piercings) as a springboard for this tale of hedonistic exploration. It also works as a clever examination of British repression (stifled Brits hiding dark urges) and as a commentary on the predatory nature of male sexuality (note the piggish nature of the men lured into the attic, as well as almost every male in the film lewdly telling Kristy to “Come to daddy”).
The performances are mostly strong, the imagery quite visionary (of course, Pinhead and the box became iconic), and the practical effects still hold up quite well. Some of the internal logic of the film’s somewhat convoluted plot will leave you scratching your head and the ending is rather conventional, but this is an inventive and ambitious horror film.
7. Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Three students inexplicably disappear in Australian mountains during field trip.
Picnic At Hanging Rock is an ethereal, otherworldly arthouse horror/mystery, unsettlingly atmospheric and beautifully lush. Director Peter Weir offers the kind of supernatural mysticism he provided in The Last Wave, but that film can’t match this haunting depiction of a mysteriously doomed picnic outing.
The girls’ final foray up the mountain is breathtakingly creepy and sumptuous, perfectly conjuring teenage sexuality and lost innocence. Unfortunately, like most things involving teenage sexuality, the film climaxes early and the second half is comparatively formulaic and less engrossing (albeit still well-done).