Refn has grounded his career in provoking shock and disgust in the name of bad taste, ‘disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed’, so it’s only fitting that the six films chosen should represent his greatest inspirations in shock cinema: A night at the prom, a new kind of reality television, a chance encounter with a beautiful stranger, a voyeuristic obsession, a mystery in a city full of secrets, and a young dancer caught in a murderous trap.
CARRIE (1976) Dir. Brian De Palma
Saturday 16 July
Based on Stephen King’s first bestselling novel, Carrie is the story of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a shy, bullied high-school introvert who must come to terms with her newfound powers of telekinesis. With an Oscar-nominated performance from Piper Laurie as her domineeringly religious mother, Carrie is a deeply unsettling yet honestly moving film about the heightened absurdity and horror of adolescence that transcends the genre label, cementing itself as another modern classic from director Brian De Palma (this film beginning his ‘golden age’ before moving on to prestigious projects like Scarface and The Untouchables).
Carrie is also notable for the first major appearance of upcoming actor John Travolta as thuggish bully Billy Nolan, a year before the release of Saturday Night Fever and on the cusp of superstardom. He compliments the rest of the cast, which includes De Palma regular Nancy Allen as Nolan’s girlfriend Chris - the author of Carrie’s suffering - alongside Halloween’s P.J. Soles.
As the poster tagline memorably reads, “If you've got a taste for terror...take Carrie to the prom.”
VIDEODROME (1983) Dir. David Cronenberg
Saturday 23 July
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome gives new meaning to the label of ‘reality television’. After intercepting Videodrome – an uncut broadcast of seemingly real murder and torture – cable television executive Max Renn (James Woods) spots the next big thing. Fascinated, and hoping to replicate the format for his own station, Renn seeks out its producers, becoming entangled in a sadomasochistic relationship with a mysterious woman (Blondie’s Debbie Harry) as the lines between his world and Videodrome begin to blur.
As in the film itself and in reality, there is absolutely nothing quite like Videodrome, and indeed no director quite like Toronto-born David Cronenberg. Often associated with originating ‘body-horror’ or ‘visceral horror’, Cronenberg’s style is inimitable, producing films like The Fly, Scanners, Dead Ringers and, of course, Videodrome, which each toe the line between disturbing art-pieces and mainstream horror schlock. That he could convince a studio such as Universal to distribute such a surreal, sadomasochistic techno-nightmare is an achievement in itself. Videodrome is a truly mad, unreal masterpiece, unknowingly peeling away at a disturbing reality which wouldn’t present itself for another thirty years in the form of social media and the smartphone generation.
The film also features some truly disturbing and evocative practical special effects work from VFX legend Rick Baker, as well as an unsettling, understated early score from The Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore.
UNDER THE SKIN (2013) Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Saturday 30 July
A sort of modern-day surrealist riff on Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Under the Skin is the story of an extra-terrestrial who takes on the form of a human female (Scarlett Johansson), abducting and seducing lonely men on the roads of Scotland. Soon however, prolonged contact with human beings leads her to a process of self-discovery and inner turmoil. Loosely based on Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer condenses the source material to its essential elements and creates a stunningly realised film which appropriately feels very, very alien. ‘The Female’ herself is played with instant iconicity by Scarlett Johansson as a slight imitation of a human being, never quite in the same room as the camera, which often takes her point-of-view as she scours the streets in rare female gaze.
Interestingly, most of the characters here are not played by actors, but by unsuspecting members of the public completely unaware they were being seduced by Scarlett Johansson from the window of a generic white van. Gaining a British release in 2014, Under the Skin is one of the year’s best and most original films, a haunting portrait of human nature scored with absolute precision by Mica Levi.
BODY DOUBLE (1984) Dir. Brian De Palma
Saturday 6 August
The second De Palma-directed film of the season, Body Double is another of the director’s efforts to confirm himself as ‘the modern master of suspense’.
Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is a second-rate, unemployed actor, who becomes obsessed with a beautiful neighbour he spies through a telescope. That is, until the night he witnesses her murder. Jake becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine murder plot and meets a punky porno actress (Melanie Griffith) who has been hired to serve as a body double for the murdered woman.
Largely dismissed upon release by critics, Body Double is yet another highly-underappreciated ‘80s gem from Brian De Palma. It has since gathered a cult following alongside modern reappraisals of De Palma’s filmography, not the least for Pino Donaggio’s incredibly chic ‘80s new-wave soundtrack. The film appropriates many of the ideas broached by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, first in the voyeuristic male gaze of Rear Window and second in replicating the romantic obsession of Vertigo.
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) Dir. David Lynch
Saturday 13 August
David Lynch’s magnum opus, Mulholland Drive centres on the soapy surrealist mystery surrounding two women, set in a Hollywood closer to Hell than the angels. Naomi Watts plays Betty, an aspiring actress newly arrived in Los Angeles, who meets and befriends an amnesiac (Laura Harring), unable to remember her own name after surviving a car crash on Mulholland Drive. Together, they seek to unravel the mystery and discover the truth behind a Hollywood façade. Meanwhile, a talented film director (Justin Theroux) finds his personal life crumbling upon the beginning of a new, troubled production.
At once as heart-breaking as it is terrifying, Mulholland Drive set a new standard for Lynch, producing a film many regard as a classic equal to his 1977 debut Eraserhead. It’s a detox of sense and of narrative expectation, with imagery seeming to have emerged from the murky pool of the subconscious. Lynch is less concerned with meaning as he is interpretation, making what is essentially a love story, wrapped up in mystery, comedy, horror and psychological thriller. Long-time collaborator Angelo Badalamenti returns here for what is maybe his greatest ever musical score, an ominous and eerie soundscape that’s organic and vital to the film’s impact.
Leave your expectations at the door; Mulholland Drive is a mystifying masterpiece, a film so rare not even the director’s later efforts could supplant its unique blend of terror and gut-wrenching power.
SUSPIRIA (1977) Dir. Dario Argento
Saturday 20 August
Gloriously gory and stunningly captured, Suspiria is Dario Argento’s masterwork and possibly one of the greatest horror films ever made. Suzy Bannion, an American student, (Jessica Harper) transfers to a prestigious German dance academy, but amidst a series of murders she becomes aware that the academy is hiding something sinister and supernatural behind its walls. It’s another of Argento’s classic murder-mysteries, infused with a supernatural flavour – the first of a trilogy entitled The Three Mothers.
What is clear the moment an Argento film begins (even before the rock band Goblin usually crash in among the titles) is how clearly the director has a hold on his very specific style and tone, throwing in many disorienting angles, jarring jump-cuts and daring set pieces amongst the spattering of deep red blood. As the camera glides elegantly through the Tanz Academy – indeed, like a ballet dancer – it’s clear we’ve transitioned into a beautiful nightmare of abstract design and labyrinthine structure. Above all, an Argento film is glossy and beautiful, colourful and mysterious, dark and disturbing, and just about everything you could want from a cult classic.
It’s difficult not to see the inspiration of the academy’s gothic halls in some of the most disturbing imagery of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Suspiria is a weird, Technicolor puzzle-box of a horror film, and there’s nothing quite like it.
Each as disturbing and unforgettable as the last, this season’s Culture Shock promises to be the best line-up yet. Book your tickets now!