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Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of The Neon Demonvia Amazon Studios

Nicolas Winding Refn’s ten favourite fucked up films

We meet the cult director to get a look inside his head at the bizarro cinema that’s inspired his work

Nicolas Winding Refn is a fearless filmmaker who interprets the world differently, not just from his colour blindness, but through an unfiltered urge to challenge the norm. Following the perverse pleasures of Drive and Only God Forgives, he stokes the fires further with The Neon Demon, a sinister fairytale sentencing 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) to LA’s model-eat-model fashion industry. Along the way, Jesse may have her hand held by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), but her chic rivals (Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote) would rather knock her off the catwalk for good. Whether or not beauty is only skin deep, the knives are coming out.

A visual storyteller at heart, Refn ensures each frame is meticulous and outrageous, sometimes daring the viewer to question why they’re enjoying what’s on the screen. The electro soundtrack is seductive, the fluorescent lights glow with precision, and it’s funnier than most traditional comedies. Featuring bitchy one-liners, lesbian necrophilia and Keanu Reeves wielding a baseball bat, there’s something for the Refn in all of us.

So far, critics have compared The Neon Demon with Heathers, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Black Swan, but Refn shoots down these references. “Not in my world,” he insists. OK, what about The Shining? “Yeah, but I don’t consider that to be fucked-up.” Fair enough. Refn is such an expert in transgressive cinema, we couldn’t resist asking the director to pick a top ten – mark these down as essential viewing.

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

“I’ve got to say Cannibal Holocaust because it’s just so vile and relentless and unpleasant to sit through. It’s just too tough for me. I appreciate its qualities, but it’s so relentless. (laughs) The idea is very interesting: examining oneself through depravity, and at the same time for the exploit of pure entertainment and financial gain, yet claiming a hidden message. Once you see that movie, you’ll never forget it.”

THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)

The Holy Mountain is a true experience. It’s interesting and there’s nothing quite like it. I’m very good friends with Alejandro. During The Neon Demon, we had a tarot reading every weekend. I really like him. I think The Holy Mountain is one of those examples that transcends beyond being just a film. El Topo and The Holy Mountain – I like everything about them.”

PRETTY WOMAN (Garry Marshall, 1990)

“It’s one of the greatest tricks Hollywood ever played. Because morally, it’s completely bankrupt. Think about the storyline. It’s a great film, but it’s so morally disgusting and it’s sold as the greatest fairytale of them all. Is it connected with The Neon Demon? Oh yeah, very much. It’s the illusion of a world that is all make-believe. It aspires to our imagination. Just think what it’s about. It’s sexually warped.”

LIQUID SKY (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

Liquid Sky is just a great science-fiction movie. I think it’s probably the best movie about the New York club scene. It really accurately portrays that period. It’s just very authentic, as it was shot in that area and that time. It’s very counterculture, in that sense, and that’s so great.”


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, of course, an incredible film. More than anything else, it’s like an installation movie. It’s disguised as a horror film, disguised as an exploitation movie, disguised as pure ‘made for profit’, but it’s actually a very singular, non-sexual work of art.”

NIGHT TIDE (Curtis Harrington, 1963)

“Again, it’s a great fairytale about someone who falls in love with a mermaid. But it’s shot in California. It’s really well done. It’s pure fantasy. It’s Curtis Harrington’s first film as a director, and it’s just really great. It’s certainly one of my favourite fairytales on film. It’s shot in black and white, in ’63, with Dennis Hopper in the starring role – he’s really good in it. It was very inspiring to me when I made The Neon Demon, because it was another movie about the magical side of Los Angeles.”

MAN ON FIRE (Tony Scott, 2004)

“The movie Man on Fire is really good, and I like Tony Scott a lot. I think I saw it on television. He’s very good in it, Denzel Washington. That was very funky. It’s grotesque. It celebrates revenge as pure pornography. I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in movies. But crazy is interesting.”

PEEPING TOM (Michael Powell, 1960)

“I love Peeping Tom. Part of it was actually shot on that street (by Soho Hotel) down there. It’s kind of an interesting anecdote of what can happen to a filmmaker if you make something as powerful as that (director Michael Powell’s career never really recovered from the controversy the film generated on its release), and how ahead of his time he was. Was it an influence? Probably. I don’t have specific people; I like all kinds of things.”

SCORPIO RISING (Kenneth Anger, 1964)

Scorpio Rising is pretty funky. It’s a very inspiring film that’s all about fetish. How it uses music and has that whole fantasy world, it’s probably the best example of modern cinema, even though it was made in the 60s. I’m not a film analyst, but most of the things we do nowadays, also in advertising, lead back to Kenneth Anger’s work.”


PERFORMANCE (Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell, 1970)

Performance is pretty wacky. It’s very counterculture and it’s an interesting mix of so many elements. I really remember the whole gangster scene – it’s pretty outrageous. In my opinion, I don’t think art can go too far. Any evolution of creativity is always pushing the boundary of anything. If somebody wanted an experience, I would highly recommend watching these films.”

The Neon Demon opens in UK cinemas on July 8