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Incest is a touchy subject, one not typically addressed in mainstream cinema. Independent films, however, tend to explore more gritty subject matter and shed light on a world not typically seen in Hollywood films, in large part because the financing for these films isn’t tied to shareholder interests. This is, perhaps, why we see incest in independent cinema far more often than in studio productions.

The movies about incest on this list, minus two with unsimulated sex, aren’t as obscene or sexually explicit as incest in the foreign film circuit. French and South Korean provocateurs, for example, working outside the puritanical constraints of the MPAA rating system, produce depictions of incest in films like Moebius and Ma Mere that might make you squirm. In American indie films with incest, the act tends to happen behind closed doors, letting the viewer fill in the blanks with their own imagination.

The Quiet
Photo:  Sony Pictures Classics

Jamie Babbit’s The Quiet is a disturbing film about a father’s (Paul) unhealthy relationship with his promiscuous cheerleader daughter, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert). In the movie, deaf, mute girl Dot (Camilla Belle) moves in with her godparents, Paul (Martin Donovan) and Olivia (Edie Falco). Dot hasn’t spoken since the passing of her mother, when she was seven. After living with her godparents for a while, Dot becomes aware of the relationship between Paul and Nina. Because Nina thinks Dot is deaf, she tells the girl her plan to slay her father.

The big twist is that Dot was only pretending to be deaf, and she gets the final revenge in the film.

The film got lackluster reviews, though Variety did describe it as a “Lifetime movie on crack.”

Pink Flamingos
Photo:  New Line Cinema

The taboo act in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) is hilarious because of how ludicrous it is. Divine, a plus-sized drag queen, plays a convict on the run who’s described by a newspaper as the filthiest person alive. Two crooks, Connie and Raymond Marble, challenge Divine for the title by sending her a gift-wrapped turd on her birthday with a card calling her fatso. Game on.

Divine goes on an all-out filth attack. She and her son Crackers (Danny Mills) break into Raymond and Connie’s home and wreak havoc. Divine and Crackers lick everything in the house. Then, in a filth-induced ecstasy, Divine goes down on her son on the couch.  Harry Glenn Milstead actually performed the act on Danny Mills in the movie.

Savage Grace
Photo:  IFC Films

The inbreeding in Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace (2007) is especially disturbing in that it’s based on the true story of socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, her son Antony, and her eventual slaying at her son’s hands.

Julianne Moore plays Barbara and Eddie Redmayne is her son Tony. Barbara’s husband Brooks was the heir to a plastics fortune, and Barbara enjoyed life in the upper crust, her beauty and promiscuity leading to several extramarital affairs. Barbara’s family suffered from mental illness – she had several deep bouts of depression, and Tony was schizophrenic.

In real life, Barbara supposedly seduced Tony to cure him of “gayness.” The relationship continued beyond the first tryst, which made Tony increasingly anxious and depressed. According to the Daily Mail, he told a friend, “I am f*cking my mother. I don’t know what to do – I feel desperate.”

Tony tried to get rid of his mother several times, and finally succeeded on November 17, 1972.

Cat People
Photo: Universal Pictures

If werecats are your thing, check out Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982). The film stars Nastassja Kinski as the feline-esque Irena. She reconnects with her brother Paul, played by Malcolm McDowell; the two were separated as infants and grew up in the system. The story is amusingly ridiculous but aesthetically beautiful.

Irena tries to avoid intimacy and drinking because indulging in this will transform her into a black panther, and only the taste of human blood will return her to human form. Paul tells Irena their parents were brother and sister, and that werecats can only mate with family members, to avoid turning into panthers. Paul tries to seduce Irena, but she fears him and turns down his advances. She instead falls in love with a local zookeeper (metaphor!).

Roger Ebert loved the movie, especially Kinski’s performance: “She never overacts in this movie, never steps wrong, never seems ridiculous; she just steps onscreen and convincingly underplays a leopard.”

The Hotel New Hampshire
Photo: Orion Pictures

The Hotel New Hampshire (1984) is the second John Irving novel to get turned into a feature film – the first was the more successful The World According to Garp. The movie follows a family of eccentrics, the Berrys, after WWII. Win Berry opens up a hotel in New England, called the Hotel New Hampshire, then gets a letter from Freud (not that Freud) asking him to move to Vienna and run a hotel there, which the family agrees to, and renames The Hotel New Hampshire.

There are five Berry children, John, Franny, Frank, Lilly, and Egg. John (Rob Lowe) narrates the film, and has strong romantic feelings for Franny (Jodie Foster). While in Vienna, they meet Susie (Natassja Kinski), a lesbian furry. Her animal of choice is a bear, and she lives most of her waking life in the bear costume. Susie falls in love with Franny. After bringing about the end of a radical fringe group, the family returns to the US as heroes and opens up the third and final Hotel New Hampshire.

At the end of the movie, Franny locks John in her hotel room and is intimate with him all day, hoping this will help him get over his attraction to her. In the end, John ends up with Susie.

Little Boy Blue
Photo: Castle Hill Productions

Antonio Tibaldi’s Little Boy Blue (2011) is a disturbing story about a father forcing his teenage son to have a relationship with his wife, the boy’s mother. John Savage plays Ray West, a Vietnam vet who had his genitals blown off in the war. He’s the patriarch of a rural Texan family and is extremely abusive to his wife, Kate (Natassja Kinski), his eldest son, Jimmy (Ryan Phillippe), and his two younger boys. Because of his impotence, Ray forces Jimmy to sleep with Kate. He also keeps Jimmy in a barn.

Due to Ray’s missing member, it comes as no surprise Jimmy’s the father of his two younger brothers. What does surprise viewers is why Ray continuously calls Jimmy “little boy blue.”

Close to the end of the film, Ray slays a private detective hired by a woman named Doris (Shirley Knight). When Doris shows up to investigate the disappearance of her private eye, we discover she knows Ray. See, shortly after Ray left the war, he was hitchhiking and was picked up by Doris and her then-husband and their infant son. Doris was reading a book called Little Boy Blue to the child. Ray offed the husband, beat Doris, and took the baby, who he raised as his own son.

Flowers in the Attic
Photo: New World Pictures

If you think your family is bad, be glad you’re not the kids from Flowers in the Attic. There are two generations of inbreeding in this film, which is based on VC Andrews’s novel of the same name. Four children – teenagers Cathy and Chris, and twins, Cory and Carrie – are forced live in secret in the attic of their wealthy grandparent’s mansion after their father’s sudden demise leaves their mother penniless.

Corrine, the mother, explains to the children that her parents disowned her, and they must stay locked in the attic so her father won’t know they’re there. Olivia, the grandmother, tells the children on the first day of their attic situation they’re the product of inbreeding (thanks grandma!). Their father was their mother’s uncle. That’s why Corrine was on poor terms with her parents.

After months in seclusion, Cory perishes. The children discover they’re being poisoned by their own mother. The kids eventually discover their mom can’t inherit any money from her parents if she has any children by inbreeding, which mother dearest is trying to get out of on a technicality by offing the kids.

Amidst all this, there’s as relationship between kids Chris and Cathy, in which they fall in love and take care of their remaining sister like parents after escaping the attic. Wes Craven was set to direct the film, but the producers thought his take would be too extreme. In retrospect, they should have let him, because the film wasn’t very well received.

Shame
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

If you’re into Michael Fassbender, check out Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011). The movie is about sex addiction, with hints of taboo relationships. Fassbender plays Brandon, an addict suffering from raging depression. He enjoys his life of solitude, which is shattered when his struggling cabaret sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) appears to live with him out of the blue.

There isn’t an outright scene of intimacy between Brandon and Sissy, though it’s implied. Not knowing Sissy is in the apartment, Brandon walks in on her in the shower. Sissy stands there in front of him, completely unabashed. In another scene, Sissy sleeps with Brandon’s coworker, then crawls into bed with her brother.

Despite the relatively overt implications, some reviewers of the film have argued the attitudes of the characters are more of an implication of a lack of boundaries between the siblings. Or perhaps some very deep past scars.

Caligula
Photo: Analysis Film Releasing Corporation

Caligula (1979) features almost every form of deviant intimacy there is. The Penthouse-backed movie was chock-full of unsimulated acts.

Caligula is based on the escapades of one of Rome’s most twisted emperors. At the core is a love affair between Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) and his sister, Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). He eventually marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren) for legitimacy, but his true love was always his sister. This love also leads to the collapse of his empire.

Roger Ebert absolutely hated the movie. It’s on his “most hated” list:

Caligula is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash. If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty. Disgusted and unspeakably depressed, I walked out of the film after two hours of its 170-minute length.

The House of Yes
Photo: Lionsgate

Getting together with your family on Thanksgiving can be a nightmare. Things get even weirder in the Pascal family. In The House of Yes (1997), Parker Posey play’s a disturbed twin who thinks she’s Jackie O. She and her brother, Marty, have had a long-standing intimate relationship. The first time the two slept together was when Jackie convinced Marty to reenact the Kennedy assassination with her when they were 14. But Marty escaped his family, and much to Jackie’s dismay, brings home his fiancé Lesly (Tori Spelling).

Lesly slowly comes to realize the inappropriate nature of Marty and Jackie’s relationship. Their younger brother, Anthony (Freddie Prinze Jr.), plays his part, explaining the situation to Lesly with hopes she’ll be so furious with Marty she’ll sleep with Anthony.  The matriarch, Mrs. Pascal (Genevieve Bujold), isn’t opposed. She tells Lesly, “Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s [member] when they came out of the womb.”

Apparently, the film is loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”, and is more directly based on a play by Wendy MacLeod.

Spanking the Monkey
Photo: Fine Line Features

Before David O. Russell established himself as the Academy favorite behind Silver Linings PlaybookThe Fighter, and American Hustle, he made his first feature, a little-known black comedy called Spanking the Monkey.

Jeremy Davies plays Raymond Aibelli, a college student who gave up a promising medical internship to take care of his mother, Susan (Alberta Watson), who broke her leg. His father, a traveling salesman, is off on an extended business trip. Susan is overly dependent on Ray, and becomes jealous when he finds a high school girl (Carla Gallo) to occupy his time.

The inbreeding in the film happens off camera. In one scene, Ray and Susan are in bed watching a movie and drinking too many vodka tonics. They start rolling around and the scene cuts to the following morning, when Raymond is overcome with guilt.

Julien Donkey-Boy
Photo: New Line Cinema

Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy is told from the perspective of schizophrenic Julien (Ewen Bremner) and follows the titular character’s dysfunctional family. The intimacy in the movie isn’t shown on-screen; rather, the film addresses the aftermath.

Julien’s sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny) is carrying his child. Pearl slips and falls while ice-skating and suffers a miscarriage. At the end of the film, Julien steals the fetus from the hospital and takes it home as he cradles, and weeps over, it. Legendary director Werner Herzog plays the father in this film (as he would).

The character of Julien is based on Korine’s uncle. To secure the role for the movie, rumor has it Bremner had to work several months at an institution for the criminally insane (when discussing the film, Bremner only speaks of visiting Korine’s uncle to capture the nature of the character).

Julien Donkey-Boy was the sixth film that adhered to the Dogme 95 manifesto, which restricts filmmakers to the use of hand-held cameras, natural light and sound, and the use of naturally available props. Korine said the only thing that was faked was Sevigny’s pregnant stomach, which was a pillow found in his grandmother’s house.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Photo: IFC films

The intimacy in The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) is as tame as it gets. As Roger Ebert describes it, “[the film] is not about [inbreeding], but it is about [those] feelings, and about the father’s efforts, almost too late, to veer away from danger.”

The film deals with how such notions rise in a family living in extreme isolation. Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s married to Miller) suffers from a bad heart. He is a hippy father attracted to the bohemian ideal of communal living. Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t go according to plan, and everyone in the community, including Jack’s wife, left. Jack stayed, raising his daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), in isolation on a secluded island.

Jack senses Rose’s feelings developing into something more than the love a daughter has for her father. To counteract this, Jack brings a girlfriend (Catherine Keener) to live with them, but she comes with two sons. Rose, furious with the situation, teases the boys to get a rise out of Jack. She’s successful, and Jack realizes his feelings for Rose go beyond parental love.

In the end, Jack and Rose are alone again after a major blow out involving one of the boys taking Rose’s virginity. Jack is frail and very ill. They share one kiss before Jack pulls away shouting “No!”

The Sweet Hereafter
Photo: Fine Line Pictures

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) is a critically acclaimed film – considered one of the best Canadian movies of all time – about a school bus crash that leaves 14 children dead in British Columbia. It was based on a real events from September 21, 1989, when a Dr. Pepper truck hit a school bus, slaying 21 students in Alton, TX.

Inter-familial relations are not by any means a main theme. In the film, a lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), persuades the bus driver and parents of the children to file a class action lawsuit against the town. One of the survivors and key witnesses, Nicole Burnell, is left paralyzed from the waist down after the accident. We discover later in the film that, before the accident, Nicole was being sexually abused by her father, Sam.

Roger Ebert called The Sweet Hereafter one of the best films of the year.

The Unspeakable Act
Photo: The Cinema Guild

What better name for a film about inbreeding is there than Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act? It doesn’t happen in the movie, though. Rather, the film explores the unrequited love a sister has for her older brother using a sparse, realist style that makes it feel like a documentary.

Jackie (Tallie Medel), the narrator, explains her love for Matthew (Sky Hirschkron), and becomes unhinged when brother dearest gets his first real girlfriend. She explains to the camera how she thought she and Matthew had an unspoken understanding that they belong to each other. When Jackie brings up the “I word,” Matthew denies her.

When Matthew leaves for college, Jackie goes to therapy, and comes to terms with the fact that she and her brother will never have a real romantic relationship. She decides to leave the subject alone, chooses a different college to go to than that of her brother, and, of course, majors in psychology.

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