In 2019, I covered different kinds of disturbing movies in my EXTREME HORROR series, by focusing on controversial filmmakers like Sion Sono, discovering underground horror from a specific country or analysing a specific theme.
However, all 53 movies I covered so far in the series have something in common: they are fictional. Some of them might have gone to extreme lengths to become as realistic as possible (like Cannibal Holocaust), but they still manufactured stories and characters that don’t exist nor have any counterpart in the real world. One can argue this fictional nature of most extreme horror movies is what makes them bearable: you’re witnessing truly atrocious and confronting stuff, but you know it’s not real, therefore the impact might be lessened. This won’t be the case with the six movies covered in this article, which are based – sometimes very closely – on true events. Bearing in mind that aspects of the films we are going to talk about might have been exaggerated and dramatised for “entertainment” purposes, the disturbing stories told in these pictures really happened… which truly is shocking! Without wasting any more time, let’s take a look at these six extreme horror movies based on true events, in chronological order.
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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (USA, 1986)
Based on the story of real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole (check the Netflix documentary The Confession Killer to know more about their story), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer follows Henry (a great Michael Rooker), a drifter who murders scores of people – men, women, and children – as he travels through America with his friend Otis (Tom Towles). Most of what happens in the film is based on Lucas’ confessions rather than proven murders, and some elements and relationships have been added for creative purposes, but the story is still extremely effective and brutally realistic.
In fact, this picture was filmed in 1985 but had difficulty finding a film distributor: it premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1986 and played at film festivals throughout the late 1980s. Following successful showings, during which it attracted both controversy and positive critical attention, it was rated “X” by the MPAA, further increasing its reputation for controversy. It was subsequently picked up for a limited release in 1990 in an unrated version. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is, indeed, a really hard watch: the killings are depicted in a gruesome, unflinching way and the film doesn’t shy away from disturbing gore and rape sequences. Shot on 16mm and provided with a unique style, Henry is also a very well-made picture: it features great acting – and thoughtful character study – and a fantastic visual style, wrapped up in an ending that’s truly bleak and effective. This is probably the film I love the most in this article, so you should check it out even if you’re not too fond of extreme horror cinema.
Men Behind the Sun (Hong Kong, 1988)
Based around the war atrocities committed by the Japanese at Unit 731, the secret biological weapons experimentation unit of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, this exploitation horror film depicts the various cruel medical experiments Unit 731 inflicted upon the Chinese and Siberian prisoners towards the end of the war. Considering how disturbing war crimes really were during WWII, Man Behind the Sun doesn’t sugar-coat anything: in fact, the filmmakers utilised real corpses or animal parts to recreate the goriest, most disturbing scenes.
This decision enhanced the nasty feel the movie delivers, which is also provided by a series of gory torture scene, sexual abuse and animal cruelty (simulated and made realistic by clever editing). Even though Man Behind the Sun looks somewhat dated during some sequences – like the frostbite torture scene – it’s still an impactful watch due to the relentless approach to the subject matter, the historical accuracy of the picture and the truly disturbing depiction of war crimes that actually happened. Watch this movie only if you are a true fan of extreme horror, otherwise you might not make it to the end!
Cannibal (Germany, 2006)
Marian Dora, fictional name of a German director whose real identity is unknown, is one of the most controversial figures in the history of cinema: in fact, some of his movies feature killings of animals as well as real torture on people – the actors agreed on that, though. Cannibal is Dora’s take on the true story of Armin Meiwes, a German man who killed and ate a man whom he met on the Internet. With this being a Marian Dora film, the story is told in the most uncompromising, disgusting way possible.
This movie is truly hard to sit through, not just because of the gory mutilation and hardcore male-on-male sex scenes, but also because the director gave an artsy look to the picture, which often looks quite pretentious. In terms of being disturbing and extreme, Cannibal truly delivers. Is it a good movie though? Well, not so much…
The Girl Next Door (USA, 2007)
Based on the 1989 novel of the same name by Jack Katchum, which is a fantastic read just like his other books, The Girl Next Door reinterprets the true events surrounding the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by Gertrude Baniszewski during the summer of 1965. Way less exploitative than the previous titles in this article, this film was received very badly by critics and caused quite the controversy: director Gregory Wilson was heavily criticised for the spectacularising of such a tragic, sad story just to make a quick buck.
While I agree on the distasteful approach of The Girl Next Door, the movie is still very well-made, effective and hard to watch. Even though Gertrude Baniszewski’s character is depicted in a one-dimensional, kind of cartoonish way, every other character in the film feels well-developed and realistic. On top of that, the movie is technically worth-praising due to its accurate representation of 1960s USA, as well as great lighting and interesting social commentary on American society. Yet, the hook of the film for fans of extreme cinema lies in how unflinching and gruesome it is: and, in this department, The Girl Next Door fully delivers.
Snowtown (Australia, 2011)
The directorial debut from Aussie filmmaker Justin Kurtzel is truly one of the most compelling serial killer / character study made in recent years. Snowtown (AKA The Snowtown Murders) is a biographical crime horror film based on the true story of the Snowtown murders: a series of murders committed by John Bunting, Robert Wagner and James Vlassakis between August 1992 and May 1999, in and around Adelaide, South Australia.
Despite not having made any good movie since, Justin Kurtzel really nailed it with Snowtown: this film has a great script and tons of phenomenal performances, besides an atmosphere that truly captures the setting these people must have lived in. By intertwining character study of psychologically disturbed individuals with racism and poverty, Snowtown manages to be shocking in a very tasteful and respectful way: the movie succeeds at getting under your skin without ever becoming gratuitously graphic or gory. I love this film, therefore I would highly recommend it regardless of how deeply uncomfortable it is.
The Golden Glove (Germany, 2019)
Even though I only recently watched (and reviewed) this movie, I feel like The Golden Glove deserves a place on such a list. Why? Because the content of The Golden Glove is very disturbing and unapologetic. From the opening scene, we are right into the action as we witness Fritz getting rid of a body in a rather bloody and uncomfortable way. As the film goes by, these violent acts become more and more intense.
However, what’s really shocking about this is how close the movie is to the real events that took place in Hamburg (Germany) in the 70s, where Fritz Honka, also known as the butcher of St Pauli, raped, murdered and dismembered the bodies of old prostitutes in the area. This is not just a fucked up film, though, it’s also a very well-made movie by a fantastic director (Fatih Akin). Check my recent review of The Golden Glove to discover more about this movie.
What did you guys think of this list? Is there any major title I missed out? Please let me know in the comments!
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