Before diving in, let’s touch on the difference between a summary and a description: to summarize a plot is to glean the basic story, which is a simple task in most cases. To go a step further and really describe a movie, the experience you’re about to have, is another beast entirely.
From octopus lovers to biting the fingers off drug dealers, here now are ten great movies with (apparently) straightforward plots, told in mysterious and sometimes upsetting ways.
1. Holy Motors
Stories of family lend themselves well to the bizarre, and Holy Motors, from French director Leos Carax, presents us with a series of relationships centred around love, loss, family – and a lone consistent figure, Oscar.
For his part in all this, Oscar is an aging actor, weary of his business even as he powers through his varied performances with great tenacity and fervor. This is where Holy Motors becomes a real challenge to explain. Oscar is performing on a stage of epic, but deeply intimate, proportions. As the story unfolds, it reveals itself as a solid embodiment of “…and now for something completely different.”
Holy Motors is a tangle of stories and imagery and Oscar’s rapidly shifting roles within his fractured world. Explanations seep through the slivers of time afforded Oscar between each performance, but it’s those performances that make the bulk of the movie and barrel forward with no rhyme or reason.
Just live in the moment with Oscar as he assumes the guise of Monseiur Merde, a violent lunatic sporting a hard-on and devouring fistfuls of flowers before moving on to greater things – Holy Motors will be an experience worth struggling to describe.
There’s a beautiful melancholy woven throughout the story, with one poignant sequence wherein Oscar crosses paths with a woman who seems to be a long-ago lover – but if any scene feels tedious, don’t worry. A radically different one will be along shortly.
2. Happiness of the Katakuris
A tale of a family narrated by the youngest member, Yurie Katakuri (Tamaki Miyazaki). Father Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada) uses his meager savings to purchase a dilapidated manor near Mount Fuji (scenic!) – the clan anticipates the creation of the ‘White Lover’s Inn’, a lavish bed & breakfast tourist hotspot.
Depending on a nearby road project to bring them travellers, things don’t quite go as anticipated by the luckless clan. When the guests finally start to trickle in, they have a disappointing tendency to drop dead – not great for a startup business. Naturally, the Katakuris must conceal the deaths to keep the White Lover’s Inn limping along.
Told with a combination of live-action performances and unsettling stop-motion animation that sometimes beggars belief, Happiness of the Katakuris – like other entries on this list – is at its core a dark comedy about family – a family of failures, but a family nonetheless.
Director Takashi Miike (of Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q fame) is no stranger to the weird and uncomfortable, with Happiness of the Katakuris standing with a foot planted firmly in both territories. A particular scene in a restaurant featuring a delicate young lady and a soup-dwelling flying fetus exemplifies Miike’s particular brand of nightmarish imagination.
3. Beyond the Black Rainbow
Panos Cosmatos has described Beyond the Black Rainbow as the movie he always wished was behind the VHS horror movie covers of his youth. Slow-burn and critically divisive, Beyond the Black Rainbow will deliver on that promise of giallo-inspired oversaturated neon, throbbing dark synth soundtrack and Kubrickian symmetry, populated by quietly menacing Dr Barry Niles (a Machiavellian performance by Michael Rogers) and his forlorn test subject, Elena (Eva Allen). Together with a solitary, cruel nurse (Rondel Reynoldson) they inhabit Arboria Institute: a place trapped in time where enlightenment is just around the corner.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is an exercise in patience (until it explodes whole hog into psychedelic and psychotronic territory), and creeps through its story with a backdrop of ominous ambience and mounting nefariousness. Elena is barely capable of walking at the best of times and while she staggers through Cosmatos’ mazelike Arboria, she is barraged by creatures, colours and sound.
In this way she’s relatable for the audience, having as little clue as to what is going on as we do. At times it feels as if dramatically different movies are playing out, culminating in a horrorshow that defies expectation.
4. Heavenly Creatures
On the surface, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures is a straightforward tale. A retelling of the Parker-Hulme murder case, and the story of two teenage girls: blue-collar Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and fancy Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) who became so obsessed with their friendship they would let nothing stop its course, and explore the lengths they are willing to go to stay together and entrenched in their fantasy world. Equipped with powerful imaginations after both being subject to frequent hospital stays in childhood, they bond fiercely and quickly.
The execution of the story is frantic, manic and peppered with rapid speech and monstrous clay golems. Juliet whirls through the movie with starry-eyed energy, while her dear, beloved friend Pauline possesses an intensity and edge that propels the events forward in earnest. A story of girlhood and tragedy, told through the lens of two very disturbed young women that grab hold of you and drag you with increasing intensity through what happened next.
5. The Dance of Reality
Including Jodorowsky on this list is expected, and here he is!
The Dance of Reality is unapologetically and earnestly beautiful in the way that only Jodorowsky can be – if nothing else, the imagery will stay with you: a weeping mother ritualistically shearing off her hair, to a disillusioned father with paralyzed arms painted vividly in the colours of the Chilean flag. The story told is a dreamlike version of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s childhood, and particularly his parents; rife with politics, mythology, and theatre.
The patriarch of the Jewish-Ukrainian clan is Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky – the eldest of Alejandro’s sons) and Sara (the operatic, rubenesque Pamela Flores), portrayed passionately…to say the least. With a forlorn quality, Jodorowsky’s avatar in the film (Jeremias Herskovits) is a sensitive, flaxen-haired milquetoast looked upon by his father initially with contempt.
The story begins clearly enough within its imaginative, surreal trappings. Once Jaime is cured of the plague by Sara healing him with a steady stream of urine on his chest and he decides to assassinate President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in a plot featuring a horse named Bucephalus, things go a little bit off the rails. The journey is gorgeous, truth is subjective, and a metaphor doesn’t need to be understood to be appreciated.
Yorgo Lanthimore’s most recent works, The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer, led to him becoming well-known to a broader audience, capturing people with his slow-moving, ambient and engrossing visions of the world. Dogtooth, from 2009 and his fourth film, brings the theme of control to the fore.
Living within a fenced compound, we are introduced to a nameless family – the parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) and their three adult children, a son (Christos Passalis) and two daughters (Angeliki Papouli as the eldest; Mary Tsoni as the youngest).
Tightly controlled with stories of the dangerous world beyond the compound walls, and filled with distorted ideas of reality and language as filtered through their demented father, the adult children are told they will only be prepared to leave once they lose their dogtooth. When Christina (the sole named character), a woman employed by the father to come and have sex with his son, loses patience in the arrangement and turns her attention to the eldest daughter, the house of cards begins to slowly but surely come down.
Dogtooth is a barrage of intensity and simmering emotion that sometimes breaches the surface, as in an alarming and uncomfortable dance number put on by the two daughters to entertain the family with a bit of dinner theatre. Ultimately a story about control – the gain thereof, and the loss – it sucks you into its cultlike bubble and at the very least, Flashdance will never quite look the same.
Shot in glorious black and white, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is easily summarized as ‘a young woman loses her mind in her apartment over the weekend’ – describing how this all comes about is a little trickier.
Starring a harried and wild-eyed Catherine Deneuve as Carole, frightened of men and living with her flirtatious sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), we are introduced to our suffering protagonist and the apartment, where we will, for the most part, remain. Taking off for the weekend with a married man, Helen leaves Carole to her own devices, which apparently means a total collapse into madness as her demons come out of hiding.
Catherine Deneuve spends much of her performance reacting in horror to the disintegration of her reality, with groping hands materializing out of nowhere and walls shuddering and cracking apart around her, and a guy dropping in to firmly cement her disgust and fear of men. The imagery is stark and jolting but only a small piece of the puzzle, Deneuve delivers an incredible performance, and if you’re a fan of rabbits, tread lightly.
8. Seven Beauties
Italian director Lina Wertmuller’s 1975 Seven Beauties is a triumph, earning her a nomination (the first woman to receive such) for the Academy Award for Best Director. Following the roguish dandy Pasqualiano (Giancarlo Gianni) through a tour of Italian machismo, honour and survival in World War II Italy, Wertmuller paints us a portrait of identity under siege.
After being encouraged to commit a murder to keep a pimp away from one of his seven sisters after she is beguiled into a life of prostitution -and following a lengthy scene with a wilful, flatulent corpse flouting our hero’s attempts at covering up his crime – Pasqualiano is first sent to prison.
This is just one stop in his march toward freedom, weaseling his way first into a psych ward and then the Italian Army, and ultimately into a German concentration camp once he is captured as a deserter.
Colourful characters are expected of Wertmuller and she fearlessly provides. The star of this rogue’s gallery arrives late in the game in the form of a monstrous, frigid Nazi commandant who thoroughly emasculates our hero in a brutal monologue.
Seven Beauties is a difficult watch at times – the horror of war underscored by Pasqualiano’s utilization of his famous Italian libido – but tells a passionate and theatrical story. The women he encounters throughout each have a role symbolic and metaphorical, although Pasqualiano’s first true love will always be his mama.
9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
From director Ana Lily Amirpour and billed as ‘the first Iranian vampire western’ (not hard to believe), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is indeed ostensibly a vampire story. The titular Girl (Sheila Vand), a contemporary vampire with a cool and untouchable affect, meets a be-pompadoured and leather clad young man, Arash (Arash Marandi). Arash, living in a troubled home with his junkie father and massively fat cat, is wooed by the mysterious and murderous Girl. Together they navigate their desolate, nameless hometown (‘Bad City’) of delinquents and savants.
Straightforward, yes? The story is about a vampire and a boy, but there is more humanity at play than first appears. The Girl is an impassive, sharklike force and Arash is her emotional foil, and the City around them mirrors and distorts both.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is quietly, aggressively surreal: the iconic moment comes when the Girl dons a chador and languidly skateboards down the middle of a desolate road, her chador billowing out behind her, batlike and distant.
Arthouse director Andrzej Żuławski brings us Sam Neill as Mark, a spy and beleaguered husband in the actor’s second excursion into outright horror (following his performance in Omen III). His wife, the severe and ethereal Anna (Isabelle Adjani), drops the bomb that she wants a divorce – but she won’t explain why.
She wants their son, Bob (Michael Hogben), and the apartment; she gets her way on both counts…at first. Shortly after, Anna and Mark begin to ramp up the intensity and animosity of their separation, with the results being anywhere from Anna self-injuring with an electric knife and a realistically awkward grapple in a tiny hallway between Mark and the peculiar Zimmerman (Shaun Lauton). The title promises paranormal elements and gives us as much, though not in the way audiences may expect – or want.
The assumption is Anna is possessed, naturally – and Isabelle Adjani goes to extreme lengths to convince us this is the case. The possession itself takes place in a graphic and horrifying sequence filmed in a subway that is pure, undistilled nightmare fuel.
The nature of the demonic energy at play and the cause of all of this is nebulous; the results all at once alien and viciously familiar. Sam Neill is at turns sympathetic, feral, domineering and a feckless victim – and Possession is deep in its heart a story of jealousy and possession of a different sort. Enjoy with a platter of calamari and buckle up.
Author Bio: William Taylor is a horror enthusiast living in Vancouver, Canada with his partner and three grotesque cats. Follow William on Twitter @RatfinkVN for horror movie mini reviews, recommendations and monster love.