The World of Surreal and Experimental Horror Movies
Horror movies can be seen as experimental by nature. Trying to find and craft excellent, full-force scares is a form of experimentation, and the trial and error that follows is really the only way to produce results. Since the genre of horror and the practice of scaring ourselves for entertainment has been around for some time now, there are plenty of tried-and-true methods used ad nauseam. Fake-out scares, in-the-mirror-behind-you scares, overloads-of-gore-in-place-of-scares scares are all examples we’ve seen countless times, not to mention the overused storylines and characters whose deaths we can see coming a mile away. There are scores of horror movies that follow formulas, rules, and tropes to the bitter end. Even with the glut of art house horror we’re experiencing, plenty of familiar aspects seem to linger through. To really see beyond the rainbow on this one, we need to look at experimental horror.
Like pornography, experimental horror is one of those things that can’t always be defined but you know it when you see it. Sometimes it’s surreal in nature; sometimes it’s dealing with sensitive topics in unexpected and new ways. Basically, it’s horror that doesn’t care if you understand it or are satisfied with the explanations provided, and there’s no better example of either of those two sentiments than Back Row favorite Ken Russell.
Ken Russell was a British director who made weird movies. Some of them are upsetting but not really horror, some of them are horror but you’re not really sure what you’re watching. One of his not-so-beloved movies is The Liar of the White Worm (1988). Almost gothic horror in tone, the first half is comfortable and predictable while the second half goes completely nuts. What starts out as a movie about an archeologist finding a skull, turns into a murder mystery and then dissolves into a strangely psychosexual monster movie, full of wild visuals and an absurdist tone. Here is where the experimental part comes into play, The Liar of The White Worm cranks the weirdness up and then ends on a down note; it’s a movie that doesn’t care if you’re coming along with it once it decides to go where it’s headed.
Pretty much all of Ken Russell’s work is experimental, so the odds were good that any horror offering he made would fall in line with that aesthetic. The weirdness alone isn’t what makes The Liar of the White Worm so intriguing, it’s in all of the details – from the whole mythology surrounding the White Worm herself, to the smaller details such as the ivory dildos and 1990’s era Hugh Grant in a kilt. Ultimately, the men in the movie become the victims when they fail to destroy all traces of the White Worm and her evil, something they were initially sure they could do. The ending of this movie, while being played for nervous giggles if not full-on laughs, is about hubris and failure. It’s about confidence in science, medicine, and the acts of heroes never being enough, and there is where the true experiment exists.
Moving away from traditional narrative structure, we have The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013). This kaleidoscopic piece of work comes for the directing team of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, whose Let the Corpses Tan wowed critics this summer. Unfortunately, fewer people were impressed with Strange Color because they’re wrong and can’t appreciate art. Strange Color is, in its simplest form, a story about a man who comes home and finds his wife missing. As he searches around for her, quite literally just looking around the building, he begins to find pieces of evidence that don’t make sense to him. The building becomes a maze and mysterious people are roaming around to give him snippets of information. As his search progresses, his world makes less sense, and still he’s no closer to finding his missing wife.
Strange Color is very heavily influenced by the Italian giallos. These films are famous for putting style way over substance, but when the style is this amazing it’s fine. There is a storyline in that a plot is presented and put into action, but once we’re involved in the search the plot becomes a vehicle for style. Strange Color is surreal to a fault, as if there’s no part of this film you’re supposed to take literally. It’s all about how gorgeous, grotesque, and creepy it is. People are listening through walls and blood drips from very vaginal looking cracks in tile. The more the protagonist searches, the less sense it all makes.
Who needs anything even that close to a traditional narrative structure? Let’s talk Begotten (1990). Begotten is classified as a horror movie because we have no word in English for what this movie is. Like Un Chien Andalou, Begotten is a film that uses images to tell a story but damned if you’ll know what. In some moments, it seems like a retelling of Genesis with a God-figure creating but also disemboweling himself with a straight razor. The film is black and white, quite grainy, and looks considerably older than it is. The quality actually makes the images more disturbing and brings to mind the old splattered ink illustrations from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Of course, no experimental horror write-up is complete without bringing up the magnificent world of Mexican horror. I’ve mentioned these movies before but I would be remiss if I left out of this article; if you want real, true experiments in film, characters, visuals, and concepts, Mexico’s got you covered. One of my favorites, We Are the Flesh (2017), is the epitome of experimental with no real concern for the thoughts or feelings of the people watching it. Others like The Similars (2015) and We Are What We Are (2010) are unusual because of the subject matter they cover as well as the way they cover it.
Mexican directors seem to be willing to take on challenging topics in interesting ways, and while most of these movies are well-made, these directors seem unafraid to fail. A film like We Are the Flesh, no matter how crafted and lovingly made, is always going to be dismissed outright by most because of its gruesome, indecipherable nature. Everytime I see another one of these insane horror movies, I wonder if the directors just know in their hearts they’ve made something wonderful because they can’t possibly expect anyone but me and all the other weirdos at the Roxie Theater to really kindle to their work. That, in my eyes, is the purest form of art. Commercial success doesn’t equal art or boldness or the willingness to get weird.
With the latest trend of art house horror, this red-headed stepchild of a genre is getting a newfound sense of prestige. That’s great news of course, and I’ve been enjoying seeing how filmmakers have embraced horror as the manifestations of our human anxieties. Movies that use horror plots as metaphors for mental illness and abuse have been spectacular (almost…) and having richer subtext in movies once considered trash elevates the genre as a whole. But now that we’ve got everyone’s attention, it’s time to start experimenting. Might we see a wave of bigger budget weird, wild horror in the future that eschews the arthouse vibe and goes for the midnight movie madness? Only time will tell but my guess is maybe.