In my household, Halloween is traditionally reserved for playful fare—there’s just something about this season and all of its tricks and treats that’s conducive to fun horror movies. But considering we’re in year two of this goddamn pandemic, I can’t begrudge anyone who’s in a more grim headspace right now. And if you’re one of those people, Severin’s recent release slate has you covered, as they’ve unearthed some positively bleak offerings from around the world. Hailing from cinematic trailblazers and unsung steady hands, this quintet might not be the kind of movies you’ll watch with your candy bowl in-hand, but they make for nice, grim counterprogramming that will have you scouring the macabre depths of man’s depravity.
Born for Hell (1976)
In one of the purest expressions of the exploitation ethos, Denis Héroux and co-writer Géza von Radványi swirl a cocktail of 70s anxieties into Born for Hell. Set in the backdrop of the increasingly violent Northern Ireland conflict during the height of the Vietnam War, it takes direct inspiration from Richard Speck, a serial killer who murdered a slew of women in 1968. It’s almost like Héroux and von Radványi wanted to bottle up the decade’s bad vibes and unleash them as a celluloid howl in crafting a bleak portrait of Cain Adams (Mathieu Carrière) an American soldier who’s fled Vietnam and once again finds himself a stranger in another strange land. Stranded in war-torn Ireland, he listlessly meanders through its purgatorial streets, unable to avoid confrontations with the locals. An encounter with a prostitute reveals a mean, misogynist streak that erupts when he later sexually assaults and murders a group of nursing students. Born for Hell hisses with the same acid of its fellow Flower Power eulogies (Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), coaxing it deep from within its rotting innards before spewing its bile onto the screen. Simultaneously hypnotic and difficult to watch, Born for Hell is an unflinching, unpleasant descent into a psychotic brain whose shattered shards feel molded by the worldwide atrocities unfolding on the airwaves. Carrière’s portrait of madness is one of the most stark and vivid to ever haunt the screen, his sweaty-wide eyed mania matched only by his moments of cruel detachment. An utterly vile piece of work, Born for Hell lives up to its title by subjecting its audience to a repulsive inferno of sleaze and violence.
Cannibal Man (1972)
Another portrait of madness and squalor, Eloy de la Iglesia’s blood-and-grime shocker isn’t one of the films that kicked off Europe’s obsession with the cannibal genre. Its titular maniac Marcos (Vicente Parra) isn’t even a cannibal but rather an everyman slaughterhouse employee who stumbles into a killing spree when an altercation with a taxi driver goes sideways. His attempt to cover up his misdeed becomes a black comedy of errors when he must dispatch everyone who learns what he’s done—even his own girlfriend and his brother. But despite the grim premise and the ample gore (including an iconic hatchet to the face), The Cannibal Man is a surprisingly thoughtful and artful depiction of the banality of evil. Much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would do a year later, it juxtaposes the efficiency of the modern slaughterhouse with primal brutality to remind us that, for all our technological advances, mankind sometimes can’t resist the urge to draw blood. Marco’s double life only becomes more complicated when he strikes up a relationship with a gay man who lives in the swanky apartments that dwarf his dilapidated hacienda, a development that allows de la Iglesia to explore class disparity and repression occurring under the Franco regime. As Marco struggles to reckon with his crimes, The Cannibal Man becomes a moody, existential look at how modern life is one big slaughterhouse, where everyone is headed to the meat-grinder sooner or later. The only question is if they’ll get to keep a piece of their soul as they spiral into oblivion.
No One Heard the Scream (1973)
De la Iglesia and Parra would reunite a year later for No One Heard the Scream, a slippery genre effort that also proceeds from a familiar framework before spiralling off into something that’s downright unclassifiable. In this case, de la Iglesia scrambles the language of the giallo—its murders, its sex, its police investigations, its jet-setting protagonists, and, of course, its wild twist endings—into a bizarre story of star crossed lovers. When Elisa (Carmen Sevilla) witnesses her neighbor Miguel (Parra) disposing of his wife’s corpse down an elevator shaft, she’s sure he’ll target her next. Instead, he has another proposition for securing her silence when makes her his accomplice. Initially repulsed by the idea, Elisa soon grows comfortable with this new, bizarre relationship. Like Cannibal Man, No One Heard the Scream lingers more on the disquieting moments between violence as de la Iglesia hovers around the increasingly twisted life of this odd couple whose shared ennui is enough to keep them together. The two bond over their frustrations and regrets about their empty lives, now filled with a shared, morbid thrill of a forbidden act—only to have it suddenly upended by a clever climax that turns the entire film on its head. If Cannibal Man didn’t make it clear enough that De la Iglesia was marching to his own beat, then No One Heard the Scream certainly cemented his place as one of Europe’s most daring and thoughtful auteurs.
Art once again reflects grim reality in Siege, where Paul Donovan rips the story of Halifax’s 1981 police strike from the headlines and splatters it onto the big screen in this nasty, rough-and-tumble thriller. When a group of homophobic fascists invade a gay bar, hurling slurs and brandishing weapons, only one is able to escape, setting off a city-wide chase that leads to an apartment building, where a couple allows him to take refuge. Siege obviously earns a comparison to Assault on Precinct 13 and, well, the entire siege genre, but Donovan distinctly molds it, fashioning a gritty, harrowing, and just downright mean piece of work. Violence is plentiful, and none of it is exactly rousing: even though the antagonists are the scum of the earth deserve every bit of their gnarly comeuppance, the film’s grim, lo-fi feel makes for a disturbing experience. The mean streak rips through the entirety of the work, weaving its way through shocking plot developments (few people are spared here, including a pair blind students who live in the building) and a coda that’s even more chilling now than it was 40 years ago. Siege is probably best reserved for one of those October nights where you need a breather from the season’s usual assortment of otherworldly goblins and ghouls, when you need something a little bleak and hard-hitting. Between its wonderfully naturalistic performances (Brenda Bazinet and OTH favorite Keith Knight are highlights) and grungy textures, it transports you to an urban hellscape where the filth and grime that seep through the streets are a feature, not a bug. Sporting an aesthetic that often feels as kit-bashed together as its characters’ homemade weaponry, Siege is a Canuxploitation banger.
Skinned Deep (2004)
Skinned Deep is the familiar story of a family breaking down on the side of the road and encountering a bunch of backwoods maniacs; however, it’s the only one helmed by Gabriel Bartalos, perhaps the only madman who would dare to take more cues from Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation than from Tobe Hooper’s immortal classic. Even that doesn’t come close to capturing the lunacy on display here: Skinned Deep is like if Alejandro Jodorowsky and Rob Zombie collaborated to remake Mother’s Day with script notes from Frank Henenlotter. In short, it takes a fairly mundane premise—which finds a girl held captive and tortured by the bloodthirsty yokels—and spins it into something totally wild and singular. It’s not just that the main psycho sports a cyberpunk get-up or that a senior citizen biker gang proves to be a would-be foil for the hillbilly clan: it’s that every single choice is thoroughly, utterly strange, from Forry Ackerman himself leading the bikers to Warwick Davis slinging deadly plates at this victims. More impressively, it’s not just a cacophony of nonsense: each shot is carefully composed, and the eventual gory effects outbursts feel like legitimate punchlines instead of the film’s raison d'être. The frequent fish-eye lenses capture a world askew, almost as if Bartalos is doing his best to put us on his wavelength: that it doesn’t isn’t an indictment of his talents but rather an indication of just how alienating and weird Skinned Deep is. I don’t know that anyone can or will operate on a wavelength that’s so haywire that this movie—which features the murders of kids and senior citizens—somehow qualifies as a kooky palette cleanser for this feel-bad slate.
Further viewing: if you’re in need of cleansing your palate come November 1st, Severin has that covered with other recent releases like Invaders of the Lost Gold and de la Iglesia's Quinqui trilogy. And if those veer a little bit too close to the feel-bad vibes you’re trying to shed, look no further than Severin’s release of Overboard, the heartwarming story of a man who gaslights an amnesiac into becoming his wife. Now that I think about it, Overboard probably is about a step or two away from being some kind of twisted cousin to the giallo. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: