As discerning, critical film fans, we’re meant to lean toward cinema that’s considered “classy” – crisp, pretty, intelligent. Crude language and behavior, gore and bodily fluids are inherently excluded from this category. Even so, some of history’s most groundbreaking films push our physical and visceral boundaries by shoving aberrance in our faces. These works aren’t vulgar just because they utilize foul language and body humor; they take the word in a way that offends our sense of human decency altogether.
Here are 10 scenes that prove vulgarity and art aren’t mutually exclusive.
FREAKS (1932): One of Us
Banned and torn to shreds upon its release, horror maestro Tod Browning’s follow-up to his classic Dracula is one of the most essential midnight movies. Through the tale of a murder plot gone wrong in a circus community, the film disgusted sensitive audiences by casting real “freaks.” The deformities and otherness don’t make the film vulgar – it’s the way Browning films them; and considering that many of the actors were upset at their depiction, this isn’t something to celebrate. Still, the film remains a potent attack on the morality of the era, and its centerpiece sequence – gooble, gobble, one of us – echoes as an anthem for outcasts everywhere.
BLOOD FEAST (1963): Creep Got Your Tongue
Compared to the chilly, monochrome class of Psycho, this technicolor film is all the more lurid – and disparaging of women. Even so, it’s a landmark of on-screen violence before the Puritanical Hayes code dissolved at the end of the decade. The acting is rough, the gore is a bit magenta, but the story is classic; it might as well be a Universal monster movie without the latex and fake hair, though plenty of brutality – the kind that we see regularly in films and TV now. Its most repulsive scene occurs about halfway through, when the prowling villain does something awful to a woman’s tongue.
PINK FLAMINGOS (1972): Shit-Eating Grin
John Waters’ most infamous film remains a pinnacle of on-screen depravity. While he tells a genuine story – a woman trying to defend her title against villainous cheats – his melodramatic arcs push rudeness and brutality to the fullest extents. Through the screaming, yelling, cussing, moaning and chicken-fucking, Waters touts a firm moral clause: filth and evil aren’t part and parcel. That doesn’t mean he shows us some disgusting images. Our chosen moment is not the most disgusting or violent scene, nor even the only one that’s shot live (poor chickens), but it’s clear that it was the most difficult for Divine to perform. Watching her try not to gag while chewing dog shit brings us to a new level of cinematic empathy.
SWEET MOVIE (1974): Room of Forbidden Treats
This is an arthouse film, but it’s a silly one – full of brash stereotypes, irreverent images, and meaningless intellectualism. There are also copious amounts of on-screen urination, inappropriate sexuality, and people doing weird things with food – yet the film doesn’t feel vulgar in a traditional sense, not dirty or crude, just animalistic. Even through the absurdity and sometimes-sadism, the film remains – as one would hope – sweet in its depiction of sex, whimsical and almost childlike at times in its story. Its innocence and perversity come together in an obvious, rather awful way as a woman seduces young boys in a room full of candy.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986): Home Video
Rarely have psychopaths ever felt so real, so dirty, on celluloid than the titular murderer in this film. Director John McNaughton’s most chilling moments remain the quiet ones, when we watch Henry’s unreadable face and wait for it to crack; yet sometimes the chaos goes to such lengths that they rattle the viewer through sheer force. Shown through a video camera, this scene plays out like every family’s worst nightmare – and it lasts for such a long time that it’s almost a relief when the inevitable occurs. The film as a whole, and this moment, in particular, reminds us that pure evil lurks under the most unassuming of guises; and it makes it look so damn ugly.
NEKROMANTIK (1987): Rob’s Dream
This film was created to disgust. There’s urine in the opening frame (not for the last time), while almost every scene features a plethora of organs and slimes that you can nearly smell through the screen. Perhaps it’s the crudeness of it all – the shaky camerawork, the stiff acting – that makes it awfully compelling; it’s like a student film that went too far, or perhaps not far enough. It’s a mundane picture of a couple who happen to obsess over death, stuffed with vignettes of banal mortality; but it makes sure to tell us that these images aren’t to be enjoyed. At one point, the camera watches mildly as a real rabbit is slaughtered and dressed, a horridly casual moment that serves to forebode one that’s even worse.
STREET TRASH (1987): Fuck the Police
This self-dubbed “melt movie” is more than just a display of gross special effects. It’s a rather vicious (perhaps clumsy) satire on urban life, the wronged and the rock bottom – a cruel world where people step on each other to raise themselves an inch. The narrative follows horror tropes, as a community of bums start melting because of toxic liquor; but its bulk focuses on people trying to survive in a crumbling capitalist society. Crass language, irreverently gross conversations, senseless murder, and gallons of gurgly blue goop accent a world full of petty brutality and hatred. While the meltdowns are fun, the human-on-human violence remains more upsetting – as shown by the sequence when a psychotic trash dweller brutally murders a cop and pisses on his body.
BAD SANTA (2003): Fatherly Advice
A story that manages to rip apart all archetypes of Christmas movies while touching its audience more effectively than many of them. The creative uses of “fuck,” the painfully visceral hangovers, and the disparaging view of American culture – in which a drunken mall Santa can become a child’s only comfort – work in tandem to create a deeply uncomfortable comedy. It’s vulgar, but with a purpose. The cold, honest heart of the film shows itself in this sharp but gutting exchange between a hopeless kid and a bitter, ruined vision of Santa.
THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016): Every Greasy Second
There seems to be a renaissance of well-made grotesques in film, and Jim Hosking’s already-infamous debut serves as a divisive touchstone. When you start off with a grizzled man asking for grease in his coffee, you know you’re about to be taken for a ride. Through copious bodily fluids, much reference to things that are “creamy” and comedic repetition drawn out to the point of madness, Hosking’s vision never strays from its promise, and manages to tell some kind of story along the way. That a filmmaker devoted himself to deeply to this bizarre, gooey world is a feat in itself. It’s difficult to display this with a single scene, however; the film should be experienced as a whole.
KUSO (2017): Boil Job
Who would have expected that master musician Flying Lotus would debut as a filmmaker with one of the most disgusting movies in years? Also known as Steve Ellison, the multi-talented artist has a bizarre imagination – one that populates the screen with all manners of fluid, dystopian nightmares, and an array of creative puppets. Between the gurgling sounds, the shit and pus, the bad-taste jokes (which aren’t meant to land), the film’s final segment remains the one that almost make me vomit while watching it at Sundance. I’ll leave the reader to figure out why.
NOTE: This writer did not have access to Kids or Gummo prior to creating this list, both of which should be included in any such conversation.
What films have nauseated, disgusted and transformed you?
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid
Photo credit: New Line Cinema