“A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity.”
Timothy Leary, “The Psychedelic Experience” (1995)
Horror can be stifling. It traditionally limits its scope to blood, sex, and screams. While it has the potential to challenge its viewers to expand their minds, it neglects to do so, often intentionally. The retro fascination with a “return to real horror” or “old-school horror” is usually code for a girl in the woods being chased by a group of deformed, inbred, sexually-depraved redneck cannibal mutants from New Mexico. These stories are usually structured with a very conservative tendency towards narrative coherency — everything unfolds in a linear, chronological manner; The Final Girl exists at Point A, is attacked at Point B, and gets revenge at Point C.
That isn’t to say horror or genre films can’t trip the realm of logical conformity into stranger territory. In fact, this list is intended to highlight films that not only venture outward from the safe confines of traditional horror but completely lose the plot and abandon nearly all sense of coherency specifically to stimulate the senses.
Altered States is probably the first film that came to mind for many when they read the title of this article. The entire point of the movie seems to be to facilitate university professor Edward Jessup (William Hurt) in his quest to consume as many mind-altering substances as is humanly possible. This directly leads Jessup to a mental exploration of higher states of consciousness and indirectly a psychical devolution into the missing link. The push-and-pull between these two concepts, growing mentally while regressing physically, is an interesting take on the potential of pharmaceuticals to alter our very nature, and the film illuminates these transformations with some of the most creative hallucinations you’ll ever see.
Begotten isn’t a film that will make sense, not even when you’re of an altered state of mind. It begins with God disemboweling himself and that’s where all narrative consistency ends. Immediately a film that abandons any semblance of logic in favor of conjuring a dark, oppressive mood, it attempts to give some sense to creation by acknowledging that for many creation isn’t a logical structure. It functions as a nightmarish void full of depravity and violence, filmed in stark black and white photography, to highlight the harsh nature of human existence. In many ways, it’s even a direct, although deranged grandchild of the German expressionists, with its emphasis on madness and mood over traditional American horror feature logic.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is the youngest film on the list, released in 2011, but don’t let that allow you to drop your guard. Panos Cosmatos’ exploration of psychiatric horror is as weird as anything on this list. It very loosely holds together a plot concerning a young psychic who is being held captive by an evil scientist. Following a sort of dream logic, the film finds the young heroine drifting through her escape as she encounters a zombie-like creature, robots, and ultimately the scientist in his true, far creepier form. In an interesting turn, Beyond the Black Rainbow takes a post-modern approach to its hallucinatory nightmares by openly referencing the works of others as a way of pointing to an answer of what might be happening; the film’s setting and clinical tone are borrowed from early Cronenberg, specifically The Brood; and the film’s soundtrack leans heavily on the works of Tangerine Dream. Is this all real, or is it a dream? The film’s final, post-credits scene seems to offer an interesting possibility.
Brain Damage is an odd film even by the lofty standards of its extremely odd director Frank Henenlotter. It exists as an exploitation film that uses the conceit of “drugs are cool” to function as one of the strongest anti-drug statements you’ll encounter, flipping the tradition of exploitation directors making anti-drug films as a way of cashing in on and promoting drug use as in Reefer Madness. The film finds its anti-hero, Brian, stumble into a symbiotic relationship with a brain fluid-dispensing slug-like creature named Alymer. The relationship starts off well with Brian serenely floating through pools of shimmering blue liquids, but quickly deteriorates as Alymer demands more and more of Brian as time passes. What makes Brain Damage distinct from the other films on this list is its unrelenting insistence that drug use is never cool, should not be glamorized, and destroys the lives of everyone associated with the user. Brian’s initial highs seem transcendent but it isn’t long before he’s literally crawling through his own bile to chase those experiences.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is known more for its influence, having birthed generations of filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Tim Burton, than it is for its actual existence. But the film deserves credit for offering some of film’s first truly bizarre sights in its distorted set design. The film’s plot follows a mad doctor who is in control of his somnambulist patient, but that’s all just set up to allow director Robert Wiene to exploit the sleepwalking state of character Cesare as a springboard for his visuals which inhabit that space between reality and dreams. Everything is initially portrayed in slanted angles to keep the viewer off-kilter, but eventually those buildings and figures dissolve into schizophrenic shapes as madness fully consumes the characters. Caligari isn’t so much a film as it is a confrontational experience for your senses.
Liquid Sky is probably successful at confounding in large part because of what’s lost in translation. Created by Russians, but filmed in English, the film’s dialogue is notoriously strange. It doesn’t help matters that the plot concerns a group of aliens (from space, that is) looking to score some heroin. Add to that a backdrop of the New York fashion and avant-garde art worlds circa the early ‘80s, and you have something that almost exists beyond the realm of human comprehension. It’s the film’s finale which somehow tips the scale, with an orgasm becoming a central plot point in determining the outcome of multiple characters. While the film’s visuals certainly offer a sensory overload, it’s the plot that will leave you feeling like you just tripped into an alternate reality.
Lost Highway isn’t regarded as one of the best films among auteur David Lynch’s filmography, but it immediately jumps out as the darkest. The first half of the film follows a man accused of his wife’s murder up until his arrest and then he literally disappears into thin air. In his place is another man half his age, with seemingly no connection to the first or knowledge of what happened. While there was always an undercurrent of the film noir in Lynch’s previous work, Lost Highway was the genre taken to its logical conclusion and peppered with a generous helping of existential horror to fully push it over the edge. A genre that typically flirted with sex and violence, Lost Highway was a film completely submerged in it. In most noir, you’ll have two characters fighting over an equally dangerous woman; in Lost Highway, these two characters are in fact the same person, and that dangerous woman is replaced by a struggle over identity. This all transpires in a series of disconnected, surreal visuals that attempt to reconcile the two warring personalities until the two stories collapse in upon one another.
Santa Sangre might be the most direct film on this list from a narrative perspective, which itself is odd given that it was directed by surrealist provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky. Broken into two halves, a flashback and flashforward, Santa Sangre follows a man named Fenix through his life and his journey through madness. Using Hitchcock’s Psycho as a starting point, Jodorowsky uses that film to examine in surreal detail the effects of parental influence on childhood. We begin by seeing the formation of the young Fenix in Jodorowsky’s typically erratic style, which then informs the second half of the film when we see how he has developed into a man and the neuroses that follow him. While it’s true that Santa Sangre follows a much more coherent structure, Jodorowsky still infuses the film’s visuals with the mystical iconography and hallucinatory images that run through his better-known works. In this instance, he’s able to reign the excess to offer a much tighter, more controlled trip through hell.
Videodrome was originally supposed to be David Cronenberg’s ascent into the Hollywood mainstream. Somehow the director took that as an invitation to create one of the weirdest studio features in the history of cinema. Combining a wonky conspiracy theory plot involving a government crusade against degenerates with visuals that specifically courted degenerates, the film unfolds in a manner that would probably best described as mind-melting. The lead degenerate in all of this is Max Renn, a programmer for a sleazy UHF station. Renn’s main pursuit is constant stimulation, be it mental, emotional, or sexual; he finds it in the form of Videodrome, a pirate television signal that utilizes images of torture to fulfill all three of those components. Eventually, the signal begins to literally melt Max’s mind as he hallucinates vaginal openings in chests, flesh-weapon hybrids, and a number of other phantasmagorical sights that often defy description. Cronenberg never explicitly develops the idea of whether or not Max is hallucinating everything we see, allowing the viewer to come to his or her own conclusion. All he offers is a direct assault on perception, asking you to question the validity of what you’re watching both in the movie and once you leave it and return to the “real” world.
Xtro was conceived in the wake of the success of E.T. and the public’s newfound interest in friendly aliens. Xtro is not about friendly aliens. But somehow this wrong-footed attempt at a cash-in ended up becoming one of the strangest alien invasion movies ever created. Where the film succeeds is in juxtaposing the relatively dull, normal existence of a family trying to recover from the loss of a member to the surreal nature of the alien that ingratiates itself into their world. The film sets things off to a strange start with the visual of a grown man being birthed from a still living woman, and then continues its descent into the bizarre with toys transforming full-grown figures with murderous intent. Xtro’s psychedelic aspects ride almost entirely its visual component as it offers some of the strangest imagery to found in any alien film, be those aliens friendly or otherwise.