Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

The most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen, both in content and the hard truths it presents.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is a not-too-far-fetched allegory about four  libertines toward the end of Italian fascism. These four powerful men kidnap eighteen young men and women and transport them an isolated house in the countryside. During the titular 120 days they spend there, the men rape, assault, abuse, and dehumanize the youth in increasingly vile and horrifying ways. One of the most memorable scenes is one in which a libertine defecates on the floor, and forces one of the women to eat it. The camera does not look away.

This is one of many squirm-in-your-seat moments that never seem to give up in this movie. When the visuals of the film aren’t stimulating your gag reflex, however, the dialogue and mood of the film are just as troubling. An older woman who helps runs things at the house cheerfully recounts stories of her youth, in which she too was subjected to terrible acts. Now, as an older woman though, she laughs it away and accepts it as perfectly normal.

Such is a recurring theme throughout the film. As the 120 days progress, the victims become less like themselves and more like the captors who subject them to such cruelty. The movie begins with all the youth on equal ground but by the end, they turn against each other, even torturing and raping each other. They fulfill one of the film’s most profound quotes, “Nothing’s more contagious than evil.”

Salo is not an easy film to get through and it’s not one I would necessarily recommend. It is not for everybody and nothing can really prepare you for it. If you do have the stomach for it, however, it is certainly worthwhile and thought-provoking. It is a testament to how powerful, albeit shocking, film can be.

The Birds (1963)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most graphic, chilling, and under-appreciated thrillers, The Birds is the mysterious tale of a small North Bay town under attack by birds gone wild. No real explanation is provided, and the film ends without an answer why. But it wouldn’t even matter if it did.

What does matter is how it affects the townspeople, both in turning against one another and how they deal with the bird situation. Themes of sexism and racism are strong undercurrents throughout the story, as the locals fear the birds came along with the wealthy, single yet sexually liberal protagonist who is new in town.

The theme of the changing role of women extends beyond the central avian conflict; the now-archaic term “Birds” used to be a derogatory word for “Women,” which can be seen through the story’s human narrative. There is one male character, and four women swirling around him, competing for his attentions and affections in different ways. At times, the melodrama of this storyline exceeds the drama of the bird action.

The bird sequences, however, are truly terrifying and unforgettable. I saw this film for the first time in theaters tonight, having grown up watching it on home video, and I have rarely had a cinematic experience as intense as this one. Hearing the audio in full stereo, the clicks and squawks of the birds truly envelop the audience as you hear them sweep through the air around you. The violence is actually quite graphic for Hitchcock standards, and the blood pops off the screen in lurid technicolor. This feature also contains one of Hitchcock’s more disturbing images, of children lying helpless on the ground as birds peck them to death.

When compared to Hitchcock’s more accepted masterpieces like Vertigoand Rear Window, The Birds is less impressive; but taken on its own for what it is, an unsettling thrill ride, it does stand out as a triumph of special effects and storytelling.