2016 will be remembered as the year that so nearly broke us. We were divided by Brexit, and shocked (to say the least) by Donald Trump becoming the next American president. Our shoulders were further weighed down by the death of timeless icons like Prince, David Bowie, Muhammed Ali and George Michael. 2015 was equally devoid of mercy. A rollercoaster of socio-political turmoil with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Calais migrant crisis threatened to throw us overboard. Amid the terror, cinema served to channel our anguish, using film to reimagine a world equally as disturbing as the one in which we exist.
2015 and 2016 were successful years for independent cinema both overseas and domestic. Directors have risen the bar as the thriller/horror genre has undergone a severe revamping. From Farsi chillers to brutal psychodramas this is a recount of the most haunting to the most psychologically perturbing films of the past few years.
Under The Shadow
Babak Anvari has set the perfect premise for this full-bodied Persian thriller, brimming with conflict and catastrophe. 1980s Tehran is torn apart by a landscape of missiles, fear and otherworldly spectres. After being banned from University due to previous political involvement, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter are besieged by both demonic forces and the iron rule of Sharia law.
This is a feminist fable within a ghostly tale. Shideh’s western tastes grant her isolation from her community. Such solitude is the ideal breeding ground for the “Djin that travel on the wind until they find something to possess”. As the pace quickens the fractured relationship between mother and daughter worsens as Shideh’s own maternal shortcomings are conflated with the disturbing figures that lurk in the dark. What’s more, the sharp neorealist style in which it is shot serves to grant these physical manifestations of fear a human quality.
Black is an organic depiction of misogynistic gang culture in a racialised 21st Century Brussels.
Armed with a cast that is part professional part regular kids from the street, you’d be hard pressed to find a film realer than this. It’s loosely based on West Side Story and follows the lives of a Moroccan boy of the 1080 gang, and a Congolese girl of the Black Bronx. As romance tingles between them, the film explores the implications for both.
Black is a hard hitting suspense that’s treading the line between commercial entertainment and gritty realism. The film is so hardcore in fact it led to riots in Belgian cinemas following its release early this year, and earnt itself a ban from French cinemas. Black dares to charge headfirst into the delicate and often unacknowledged realm of gang rape culture. More disturbingly, it asks who’s to blame when a cycle of deprivation and violence makes monsters out of 18 year olds.
The Green Room
People are allegedly throwing up to this film. It’s a stripped down high tempo gore infused thriller operating by shock factor. When a broke urban punk band take a parlous gamble on an out of town gig, they soon realise the error of their ways. A woodland retreat soon makes for the unlikely battle ground between themselves and the skinhead boot and brace gang terrorising them. Jeremy Saulnier’s choice to zero in on punk rock-no doubt a nod to his skateboard youth- makes for a wise decision, as the blaring punk soundtrack keeps tensions running high throughout.
The Green Room is all about extremes. From its explicit violence, faces gouged out by pitbulls, to its ‘white pride worldwide’ stickers and confederate flags, ‘Things have gone south’ takes on a whole new meaning. What’s interesting is how the film upholds its status as a horror with a running element of black humour, yet still managing to critique insidious American right wing rhetoric. The Green Room is a double edged sword, it’s worth the watch if you can handle the pain.
Disorder / Maryland
This French psychodrama is a sexy slick mind-fuck. It follows ex-veteran Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans from The Danish Girl) as he serves as body-guard to the family of a wealthy Lebanese tycoon. However, Schoenaerts is racked with PTSD and Disorder is skillfully filmed in a way that mimics this. Sharp shots showing Schoenaerts trembling hands, unfathomable silences pierced by flashing lights, mean that we, like Schoenaerts, are left confused struggling to decipher between reality and symptom.
We are distressed yet pulled in all the same. Alice Wincour flaunts her directorial expertise by building a Hitchcockian atmosphere of suspense. Her careful manipulation of sound design teamed with Gesafellstein’s ominous electro beats make Schoenaerts paranoia palpable yet delicious. In preparation for the role Schoenaerts even spent time with real life war veterans suffering from the disorder to get a real sense of their vulnerability. Wincour succeeds in conveying the harsh reality of PTSD trauma for sufferers in a way that for many touches too close to home.
Baskin is the kind of blood-soaked horror that will send dedicated fans of the genre reeling. This breakout feature debut from Can Enverol defies the logical linear narrative of most films. What begins as an innocent cop movie descends into an array of recurrent disturbing nightmares, a lucid dream within a dream as its main characters are led to a portal to hell in the form of an Ottoman jail. It’s heavy with all the usual tropes of horror; satanic cults, weird explicit sex scenes and savage violence, but remixed with a Turkish twist.
Can Enverol said he wanted to make a ‘memorable hyper-realism horror that was like those scary films we saw as kids and couldn’t shake off before bed’. He definitely succeeded. Baskin, which was initially a short film before being released as a full length feature, is a Turkish Nightmare on Elm Street. Abstract Freudian symbolism, perverted religious cults, and the occasional philosophical bar, “You carry Hell with you at all times” – what more could you want?