Defining the New Extremity

On a recent episode of the podcast, Britnee & I were flattered to be joined by fellow Krewe Divine member Cindy Miller, who performs drag locally as CeCe V DeMenthe. When asked what topic she’d like to discuss on the show, Cindy chose to contemplate the changing art house cinema scene in New Orleans, with a focus on the way things have evolved (or devolved) since the 1970s. Citing a time when weird, ambitious, outrageous spectacles as wide-ranging as Fitzcarraldo, Caligula, and Pink Flamingos would screen in legitimate theaters (as opposed to dive bars & art gallery spaces that sometimes stage art house screenings in the 2010s), she painted a picture of a much more robust, invigorated arts cinema scene. A lot of that art house nostalgia is very convincing too. The internet has shifted the cinephile’s community from local, in-the-flesh sects to a global, disconnected hegemony. Anticipation for a new release is shared in large scale on the internet more than it is experienced in a local scene of art house regulars who’re accustomed to running into each other with each Event Movie. The funding for weird, artsy experiments has also diminished, in terms of both production & distribution. The massive scale of independent films like Caligula & Fitzcarraldo are entirely foreign to the bare-bones budgets of modern indies. Likewise, the marketing behind the modern art picture (save maybe for an A24 production) is anemic compared to the grassroots hype machine of the past. It’s cheaper now than it ever has been to make a movie, but it’s becoming near-impossible to get that movie seen as a result.

That last point was where I differed from what Cindy was saying about there not being any new weird, challenging freak-out pictures at the movies. The budgetary scale may have diminished and jaded, seen-it-all audiences may be more difficult to shock. However, my bet is that there are more weird-ass, freaky-deaky, what-the-fuck art films being made now than ever before. It’s getting them noticed while they’re still fresh & in the theater that’s becoming extremely difficult, especially as media news skews more to MCU, Disney, and Oscars coverage than niche cinema (for obvious$ rea$on$). What I’ve started to compile, then, is a list of recommendations of recent weird art films that prove, at least to me, that shocking, highly stylized cinema isn’t dead – it’s just poorly marketed.

I’ve listed below 20 movies I believe to exemplify the modern extremity of artsy-fartsy movies that somehow managed to reach a sizable theatrical audience, no matter how quietly. These movies, all reviewed since Swampflix was launched in 2015 (and so excluding notable titles like Under the Skin & Upstream Color that we never officially covered), are not necessarily my favorites in the modern canon, but rather the ones I believe best continue the 1970s art house circuit tradition of playing to an audience who can express an appreciation for both John Waters & Ingmar Bergman in a single breath. They are listed in order of streaming availability, not quality. I’ve purposefully avoided more genre-faithful pictures in this vein (such as the “elevated” A24 horror aesthetic), as well as recent films I haven’t seen yet but I’m sure would fit right in: Climax, The Wild Boys, Let the Corpses Tan, etc. The selections lean to unsubtle, morally . . . questionable, self-amused provocations aiming to get a rise out of their audience while indulging heavily in the basic cinematic pleasures of sight & sound. These are 20 recommended streaming watches for a local, Divine-inspired drag queen who wanted to see that new, somewhat widely-seen features could still be dangerous, shocking, beautiful, sickening, and fun. I hope I somewhat captured the vibe of modern cinematic extremism here, the notable swing-for-the-fences freak-outs of the 2010s.

The Neon Demon “I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Greasy Strangler “I found The Greasy Strangler to be an amusingly perverse provocation, one that works fairly well as a deconstruction of the Sundance-minded indie romance. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Forbidden RoomThe Forbidden Room is, in a lot of ways, pure Guy Maddin aesthetic with little to no consideration given to purpose or accessibility. The film is funny, strange, visually astonishing, but purely there to amuse itself with its very existence. The Forbidden Room is High Art with a prankster’s spirit, a feast for the eyes much more interested in juvenile humor than any specific narrative. Its a story within a story within a story within a story story structure is a pure down-the-rabbit-hole adventure, a dizzying mess of dueling timelines that individually hold less & less significance as they multiply. ” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

NovemberNovember is slow and not especially funny, even when indulging in outright scatological slapstick. It’s absolutely fascinating as a curio, though. The D.I.Y. puppetry of the kratts has a distinctly humorous Eraserhead quality. The matter-of-fact depictions of practical effects witchcraft are persistently endearing. The desperation & audacity of the characters’ thievery is cumulatively jaw-dropping, as it proves to show no bounds or shame. The only ways the film stumbles, really, are in being too aggressively odd to stage an emotionally engaging plot and in finding occasional slapstick amusement in rape. In every other way, it’s the exact pagan fairy tale farce it presumably set out to be, as much as anyone could guess what a film this deliberately loose in tone & logic intended to achieve.” Currently Streaming on Amazon Prime.

mother!“Recalling the artificial environments & darkly funny social horrors of surrealist masters like Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Luis Buñuel, mother! is on a very basic level a surreally menacing comedy about the horror of having guests over who will not leave, a sentiment I identify with more than I likely should admit.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime & Hulu.

The Duke of BurgundyThe Duke of Burgundy’s varied shots of a butterfly & moth filled specimen room sets a tone for how the film operates. It’s a narrative that relies on repetition & ritual, much like the repetition of a specific butterfly specimen is repeated within the display cases. Similarly, each image is tacked to the wall, hovering to be appreciated like a precious, organic object. Strickland finds emotional resonance in the film’s central relationship, but he also spends inordinate amounts of time reveling in the textures of the world that surrounds them. Filming the couple through mirrors, fringes, and fabrics, Strickland finds the same reverence for the sense of touch here that he did for sound in his 2013 ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio. It’s a challenging prospect for viewers, but the rewards are glorious.” Currently streaming on Hulu.

Tale of Tales “It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

High-RiseHigh-Rise is, at heart, a mass hysteria horror, a surreal exploration of a weird, unexplained menace lurking in our modern political & economic anxieties. Instead of simply leaving the titular building when things go horrifically sour, its inhabitants instead party harder and their drunken revelry devolves into a grotesque, months-long rager of deadly hedonism & de Sade levels of sexual depravity. The people of the high-rise are portrayed as just another amenity, one that can malfunction & fall apart just as easily & thoroughly as a blown circuit or a busted water pipe. It only takes weeks for the societal barriers that keep them in line to fully degenerate so that the entire high-rise society is partying violently in unison in their own filth & subhman cruelty. If this is a version of America’s future in consumerism & modern convenience, it’s a harshly damning one, a confounding nightmare I won’t soon forget.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Raw “I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called RawSuspiria meets Ginger Snaps,’ which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Staying Vertical – “The sequence of events in Staying Vertical has a self-driving rhythm & inevitability to it that almost distracts you from the fact that it has no destination or grand scale metaphor in mind. The film functions as an abstract window into Alain Guiraudi’s peculiar anxieties as he pushes a barebones story essentially about Nothing to its furthest extremes, just for the exercise. These experiments in meta attacks on the author’s own writer’s block can lead to fascinating places both visually & philosophically, though, as long as you’re willing to meet the work halfway as an exhibition and an act of self-therapy.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Evolution “If I had to boil my take on the film down to a single adjective it’d be ‘stubborn.’ Evolution presents a cold, discomforting world in which children are put in danger for a supernatural purpose, a circumstance the film has no interest in explaining, only for the camera to quietly, clinically stare at their unlikely predicament. Anyone who might have complained that the obscured, supernatural terrors of 2016’s flagship horror breakout The Witch were too loosely defined & uneager to entertain would cry themselves to sleep watching what director Lucile Hadžihalilović has carefully constructed here. For anyone with a little patience in the way they approach densely puzzling horror cinema with unconventional payoffs, however, it’s an eerie submersion in a stubbornly confounding nightmare, a rare kind of disorientation that’s entirely unfamiliar to the world we live in.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

We Are the Flesh“I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome).” Currently streaming on Shudder.

The UntamedThe Untamed adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to ‘elevated horrors’ of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually penetrates human beings with its tentacles. The film alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

Beyond the Black Rainbow – “Beyond the Black Rainbow is not a straightforward cinematic experience, but instead works more like ambient music or a poem. In an age where the lines dividing cinema & television are becoming increasingly blurred, there’s an exponential value in movies that work this way. Recent mind-benders like Beyond the Black Rainbow, It Follows, Upstream Color, Under the Skin, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears are much-needed reminders that there are still things cinema can do that television can’t, no matter how much HBO wants you to believe otherwise.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

Wetlands – “Most likely the cutest movie about an anal fissure you’ll ever see, Wetlands is by and large an exercise in depravity. It’s as if de Sade or Bataille had written a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy. If there’s a particular bodily fluid, sexual act, or unsanitary pizza topping that you absolutely cannot handle this may not be the movie for you. However, those who can endure a heap of gross-out humor are well rewarded for their fortitude. Like its 18 year old protagonist Helen (expertly played by Carla Juri) the film’s hard, shock value exterior is really a front for a big old softie lurking under the surface.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

Goodnight MommyGoodnight Mommy is a smart, taut movie that is beautifully composed and cinematically crisp, full of beautiful exterior landscape shots that highlight the isolation of the two boys and contribute to the logic of their slowly building paranoia in a home that no longer feels safe and a caregiver they cannot recognize.” Currently a $3 VOD rental.

The Lure The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty.” Currently a $4 VOD rental.

Double Lover “It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.” Currently a $4 VOD rental.

Mandy “Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.” Currently a $5 VOD rental (and playing at The Broad Theater).

Kuso “With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with the internet. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.” Currently a $10 digital purchase on Amazon.

-Brandon Ledet

One thought on “Defining the New Extremity

  1. Pingback: The Rise of Smut: In Praise of Cinematic Vulgarity | Swampflix

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