When exploring any genre of film you also have to examine the social and political environment of the time in which the film was created.
While often dismissed as a credible artistic medium, the horror genre has, historically, been the most forgiving medium by which directors could express their political opinions.
The first ever horror movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), was a clear commentary on the growing authoritarian presence in a post-War Germany. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is an allegory for the paranoia of the McCarthy era.
George Romero’s sensational zombie movie Night of the Living Dead emerged as a mid-20th century vehicle to discuss the American socio-political meltdown that was the 1960s. The list could go on.
The classic 1980s slasher can be characterized as the epitome of the white, upper/middle-class, American fear. It’s entire premise is centered upon being in the wrong place at the right time.
The final message is clear, be it a group of college kids going on a camping trip, a sleepy suburban town, or a family making a wrong turn onto a seedy dirt road. Terror is universal, indestructible, unexpected, and lurking just outside your white picket fence.
In 2016, this very same trope continued as a wave of horror films with a home invasion premise hit theaters at an unprecedented level. While these films were in production long before the 2016 election, it is no coincidence that these vivid depictions of fear concerning the invasion of the “other” boiled over at the same time.
Now, horror movie creators don’t bother to beat around the bush. Punk rockers must defeat literal Neo Nazis in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2016), and the entire Purge (2013-2018) franchise serves as blatant commentary about (asymmetrical) American class warfare. Get Out (2017) is self explanatory.
Writing for Aeon magazine, M. M. Own, Ph.D, best summarized why people are psychologically drawn to the horror genre. Own wrote,
“We have always told horror stories, and we always will. Because horror is an artistic expression of an ontological truth: we are creatures formed in no small part by the things to which we are averse.”
Films like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) seemed to categorically repulse critics, however they emerged as some of the most commercially successful franchises of the 2000s.
While these films put the “torture porn” genre of horror on front and center stage for American audiences, they were not the first to push boundaries when it came to a cinematic fixation on ultra-violence.
Body-horror obsessed directors like David Cronenberg use the corporeal form to examine human nature because it is the most physically existential part of our existence as conscious beings.
The mutilation of the body as the centermost point of a plot was a new and not to mention gruesome mechanic for audiences; however it does largely deal with our most primal fear, physical pain.
In his 2004 essay “Flesh & Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema,” James Quandt coined the term “French New Extremity” to describe a slew of disturbingly sadistic films that focused on depicting sex and violence as realistically–and frequently–as possible.
While not thematically uniform enough to be classified as a “movement” per-se, New Extremist movies broke down boundaries of filmmaking so unapologetically that many critics proclaimed it marked the end of the horror genre itself.
However, in hindsight, both critics and fans alike are quick to point out the potential influence New Extremism has in subverting genre tropes in order to apply new meanings to traditionally worn storylines.
New Extremism as a whole does not have a cohesive cinematic presence other than its ruthless portrayals of violence. Hyper-realistic violence as “entertainment” is strictly a post-9/11, post-Abu Ghraib, media phenomenon that usually goes dismissed by older critics.
However these movies still, well, happened and they happened for reasons other than sadistic directors and thrill seeking audiences. They are both a direct response and by-product of the period in which they were created.
Any list compiling the most disturbing New Extremist films ever made includes Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs. Laugier, whose newest film Incident in a Ghostland (2018), is, coincidentally, a home-invasion thriller.
The disturbing flick was created in the midst of France’s own “migrant crisis.” Laugier could be considered the father of French New Extremism, not necessarily for its conception but for creating the film that singularly defined the already developed style.
Martyrs follows Lucie, a woman who was kidnapped and brutally tortured by a family when she was young. Years later, Lucie exacts vengeance on the very family who traumatized her, including their teenage son and pre-adolescent daughter.
However is becomes increasingly clear to the audience that violence as a means of revenge is a hollow act. Lucie is still, literally, haunted by her survivor’s guilt after the entire family has been killed.
Her shame is manifested in the form of a mutilated woman, who attacks Lucie after she finishes slaughtering the family. However, it is made clear to the audience that this woman is just a figment of Lucie’s imagination and Lucie is actually just attacking herself.
In the end, violence as retribution is still futile and purposeless violence. Laugier, like the two directors below, makes a slightly hypocritical point by rubbing his audience’s nose into what they came for.
Gaspar Noé’s film Irreversible made its startling debut at Cannes film festival in 2002, in which 20 people fainted and 250 people walked out of the theater. Infamous for a 10 minute long rape scene as well as one of the most shockingly horrific fight scenes you might ever see. Fire extinguisher, face, need I say more?
The film is also filled with vicious (and purposelessly vile) homophobia and transphobia. Irreversible begins at the end of the story and ends at its beginning.
A man, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), goes on a bloody rampage to exact revenge on the man who raped and beat his pregnant girlfriend into a coma. From a narrative point of view, the film does do something interesting in its structure that is organized in order to examine the aftermath of violence.
However, stripped of this cinematic tool (aka, once one reflects upon the story in chronological order) the film brings little else to the table.
New Extremism’s most recent spiritual inheritor is Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018). Seeing as it received a similar reaction at Cannes as Irreversible (although only an estimated 100 people walked out this time around), it has cemented itself as one of the most gnarly releases of 2018.
The film can be interpreted as von Trier projecting both himself and the plight of an artist unable to cope with the ramifications of his creations onto the character Jack, a ruthless serial killer.
Senior film critic at IndieWire David Ehrlich described The House That Jack Built as “a damning self-critique of / backhanded apology for the compulsive violence of artistic creation.”
As a whole, these films share a disturbingly nihilistic worldview that has cemented itself as a tradition within the genre as a whole. Von Trier’s work has carried on a post-Iraq, ultra-violent vision that persists to this day.