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15 Films You Only Need to See Once

Nothing about these films invites a second viewing

by Simon Crust Jul 11, 2014

  • Movies Article


    15 Films You Only Need to See Once
    Cinema is a powerful medium. Using both sight and sound to tell a story, skilful directors can engage an audience on an emotional level and at its very best cinema is pure art. Honing that art for over a hundred years has led to some classics of the genre, films that demand second, third or even more viewings.

    However, as already stated cinema is very powerful and it can be used to tell some very powerful stories, express repugnant ideas and show grotesque images. Put such ‘delights’ in the hands of said skilful directors and it is possible to create a work of art that hits so hard you may never want to visit it again. Typically it is the horror/exploitation genre that delves into such areas, however they are not exclusive as ‘kitchen sink’ dramas can also explore depraved areas that are impossible to believe; worse still are those that have a basis in reality or are drawn from real events. Man’s inhumanity to man appears to have no limits and when shown, warts and all, some truly disturbing films can come about.

    We’ve brought together fifteen such films below, films that are very, very powerful and contain ideas and images that force the audience to question their morals in viewing such material. Be warned these films are not for the faint-hearted, these are not from the so called ‘Hollywood torture-porn’ genre or disturbing images just for the sake of it; no these are films that are made by competent directors that first give you an emotional investment and as such draw you in before sickening your senses – one thing is clear, however: you will only ever need to see these films once.
    Be warned these films are not for the faint-hearted

    15. Man Behind the Sun (1988)

    Also known as Men Behind the Sun, this torturous film tells the supposedly true story of Japanese squadron 731, who systematically tortured, experimented on and killed hundreds (maybe thousands) of Chinese and Russian war prisoners to test the limits of the human body with biological weapons. This particular title straddles the line between exploitation and drama, but don’t expect leather clad buxom blonds, this is pure and unadulterated horror, filmed in sickening detail and made all the worse by being competently made and having a story to tell. Even the end shows no signs of hope for the poor unfortunates (in a theme that is repeated quite a lot in the subsequent films on this list) as it ends extremely bleakly and not, as you might think, with rescue. Extremely difficult to stomach it led to many sequels, copycat and exploitation films, all in a similar vein, but none hit quite as hard as the original.

    14. A Serbian Film (2010)
    A ghastly film that has to be seen to be believed (but only once) supposedly made by its director as a comment on “the Serbian government’s monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don't want to” but whose result is pure exploitation of rape, graphic violence, necrophilia and paedophilia. The film contains scenes that are so shocking that they have been banned in nearly every country in the world, and pretty much cut to ribbons where it has been released - whilst I never advocate censorship, this is one film that had us wincing! Telling the story of a retired porn star who is enticed back into the business for one last film, he soon finds himself trapped in a world of horror that not only threatens his own life, but that of his family as well; the ending, as bleak as it is, comes as a relief.

    13. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
    Perhaps the most notorious film on this list if only as it has, in the past, been labelled as a masterpiece of the genre and was made by Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini, it is nevertheless very difficult to watch due to the matter-of-fact filming style and the subject: four dignitaries kidnap and systematically humiliating eighteen youths with 120 days of physical, mental and sexual torture before the inevitable conclusion. Like most films on this list, Salò divides opinion, some critics expound its virtues by its frank and shocking examination of such themes as political corruption, power abuse, sadism, perversion, sexuality and fascism, while others view it as nothing but shock tactics of grim exploitation. But one thing is without doubt: you only need see it once.

    12. The Road (2009)
    Taking a break from torture and mayhem we arrive in a post-apocalyptic world where a father tries to protect his son and will do anything to survive. John Hillcoat’s tale, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, is utterly relentless in its depressing nature pitting the best of human nature against the worst of human nature; even the world they inhabit is relentlessly bleak. Made almost insufferable by the Man’s dejected nature and the Boy’s dependence on him when things take a turn for the worse you start down a path that has no turns and no way back – it is as inevitable as a sunset. Desperate, dejecting and desolate but for once there is an infinitesimal grain of hope at the end of this one, but even that will hardly get you watching again.

    11. Passion of the Christ (2004)
    It’s not the fact that the film is biblical, it’s not the fact that it is told in Aramaic and Latin and subtitled and it’s not the controversy surrounding the film that makes The Passion a one-watch film, it’s the fact that it’s nearly two hours of beatings, torture and humiliation of one man. No matter your personal beliefs or whether or not the Bible’s telling of the last few hours of Jesus’ life has historical or religious value; all it boils down to is the systematic deconstruction of a human being and that, no matter the if, what or maybes is why the film is so difficult to watch and why it is seldom seen twice.

    10. Martyrs (2008)
    Keeping with the religious theme this French shocker from Pascal Laugier starts off as a typical revenge thriller, albeit with horror overtones, but about the half way stage turns into something very different indeed. In common with the (major) themes of this list, the lead heroine suffers the most horrific abuses all filmed with ‘lingering beauty’ which has the effect of making you complicit somehow in what you are seeing. There are cringe worthy scenes made all the worse by the story behind the torture and an ending that, once again, hammers home the bleak and uncomprehending futility of existence. Who needs to see that twice?

    9. Funny games (1997 & 2007)
    Two dates as the film has been made twice by its director, Michael Haneke, once in his native Germany, and later for the American market; whichever you choose, both are an exercise in stamina; not only for the subject matter but the very element of film itself. The film’s premise is two men holding a family hostage and forcing them to play sadistic ‘games’ hinting that it will ensure their survival – but Haneke is a shrewd ole dog and he plays with the medium by making one of the killers ‘self-aware’ i.e. he breaks the forth wall and addresses the audience thus involving them in the on screen action with an almost voyeuristic intent. This is pushed to its zenith at one point close to the climax that has many feeling the medium is pushed too far, but that is the point – this should not be entertainment, it should not conform to ‘horror rules’ and should definitely never be watched more than once.

    8. Hunger (2008)
    Hard to believe that this is a true story. Director Steve McQueen reconstructs the story of Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer and M.P., Bobby Sands, who led the second IRA hunger strike and who also participated in the no wash protest, whose eventual outcome was not entirely fruitless. What makes this such a harrowing watch is just how badly he was treated by the authorities, and how strong his will was to stand up for what he believed in despite the horror wrought upon him. Fassbender’s unflinching portrayal is never better than in the seventeen minute static camera unbroken shot where a priest tries to talk him out of his protest. A powerful film and one that demands attention, but certainly only ever needs to be seen once.
    The further down you go - the worse it gets
    7. City of Life and Death (2009)
    Once again a film based on the true events of the horror war and, this time, its aftermath, in what history has dubbed the “Rape of Nanking”. In 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese military captured the Manchurian capital of Nanking and then systematically tortured, raped and murdered their way through prisoners of war and civilians alike with no one to stop them, no fear of repercussion and all for the ‘pride of their nation’ – and never has such atrocity been so graphically accurate. Made all the worse by the skilful direction, the powerful story and its historical accuracy, director Chuan Lu does not shy away from showing in the most graphic manner possible his disgust at what happened in the hope that the world will feel that disgust with him – it works.

    6. Nil by Mouth (1997)
    Directorial debut of Gary Oldman and based on events he saw when growing up on Council estates. Anyone who has lived in or around such environments can immediately see the truth in this ‘urban horror’ and this is why Nil by Mouth becomes so very difficult to watch. Ray Winston and Kathy Burke are typically awesome in their roles and this dysfunctional family unit is simply skin crawlingly awful to see – the situation of their no hope lives, the decisions they make, the poverty the endure and the sheer humdrum existence hits home in all too real a fashion. You are left feeling despondent and dirty and you never want to revisit it.

    5. Precious (2009)
    Abuse of a child both mentally and physically is quite clearly one of the most brutal things to put on film and Precious, the titular character of the film, suffers both. Living in a depressed part of Harlem and with both her parents abusing her, Precious’ life is bleak at best. When her incestuous pregnancy is discovered she transfers her school and is given a brief respite of hope, but things soon start down a dark and tragic path again. Director and co-producer Lee Daniels keeps the pressure on the viewing audience high, and includes some terrible scenes (the baby!) that have your guts falling out. Whilst it is hopelessly depressing there is an inspirational message towards the end, but even that won’t make you want to watch a second time.

    4. Come and See (1985)
    The final war film on our list, and perhaps the most harrowing – this one does not deal (specifically) with atrocities committed by troops, but instead deals with the forced growing up of a young lad as he is thrust head first into conflict. Set in 1943 and the Nazi invasion of Russia, we view the film through the main protagonist, Flyora’s, eyes as he sees the systematic destruction of his town, the people he loves and those that he has just met. As the atrocities pile up Flyora slips deeper and deeper into horror and as he is powerless to prevent what he sees, turns in on himself, until he finally become what he hates the most. Director Elem Klimov went for absolute realism; he loaded the rifles with real bullets, shot the film in chronological order and encouraged actor Aleksey Kravchenko (Flyora) to undergo severe dieting to simulate debilitating hunger and fatigue and it really shows in the finished product. Harrowing and ghastly Come and See, if you can find it, is well worth stepping into the breech for – but only once… only once.

    3. The Girl Next Door (2007)
    No, not the comedy with Elisha Cuthbert, but an altogether nastier piece based on the book by Jack Ketchum, which takes inspiration from true events; that of the torture and murder of teenager Sylvia Likens by her sadistic and psychopathic neighbour Gertrude Baniszewski. Director Gregory M. Wilson doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing how grotesque a dominating personality can be and the abuse poor Meg suffers at the hands of her aunt and cousins is unbelievably shocking – so shocking that you could fail to comprehend how such atrocities could be committed by a family upon one of their own, then you think of monsters such as Josef Fritzl and it becomes all too real. And that is why this story is so awful, it becomes all too real and you never, ever want to see it again.
    Are you sure you want to go on?
    2. Irréversible (2002)
    Never has wanting to step into the screen and help relieve the suffering of a character been so harrowingly well displayed as by Gaspar Noé appallingly unpleasant and protracted ‘real time’ rape scene. You also have the graphic destruction of someone’s skull in the first ten minutes. But perhaps worst of all is the film’s skewed time line; it plays backwards hurling these horrors at you and working back towards a far happier time when our protagonists are joyful and this just makes the entire ordeal worse as their journey is ‘irreversible’. “Time destroys everything”; and it might, except the memory of this shocker. Even the filming style has you on edge, 16mm stock, use of computer techniques to give the illusion of long unbroken takes and a sound track used to disorientate. Nothing about this film invites a second viewing, and some might argue that a first is unwarranted as well.

    What would be your number one?
    1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
    Of all the films on this list it is this one that left us the most numb once the credits have rolled. Impossible to enjoy, director Darren Aronofsky gets astonishing performances out of his main character actors, all of whom succumb in one way or another to forms of addiction. They story is actually pretty simple and, in part predictable, but where Aronofsky wins out is with a forthright and pervasive filming style that draws you deep into the characters' plight – you feel with them during their highs and once the descent comes you are dragged along, kicking and screaming, into a tunnel of despair that you cannot get out of – for hours after the film, perhaps days, or, for many, years. Watching this film is totally absorbing and you become so engrossed that the final scenes leave you reeling. It is powerful, uncanny and torturous. And you simply have no desire to ever revisit the film again.

    So there you have it, fifteen films that are at once powerful and absorbing, but contain such images and ideas that they rob you of any desire to re-watch. Do you agree, or are the others that require only one watch?

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