[Editor's Note: The following piece contains graphic descriptions of horrific, taboo, and potentially triggering imagery and content.]
We delight in watching acts of violence on screen. From the shenanigans of Looney Tunes cartoons to the Avengers beating the shit out of Thanos in a four quadrant blockbuster, moviegoers get a kick out of people getting a kick. Perhaps it's an act of vicarious catharsis; perhaps it's because we know it's all fake which gives us "permission" to enjoy it; perhaps it's because the actual stakes, both in and out of the text, seem so low. I am not here to indict folks who enjoy this kind of content — I am one of them. Instead, I'm here to examine what happens when filmmakers turn this dial past the breaking point.
There is a subset of cinema that is interested in exploring the extreme, the profane, the taboo, the disturbing. A brand of movie that brands the viewer, searing their brain with unforgettable imagery and dissection of the most base and perverse human impulses — impulses which just might have something in common with the more "sanitized" form of screen violence we find acceptable (whoops, I guess I am self-indicting a little!). Some of these movies are made merely to shock with empty provocation; some have something genuine to say at their core; all of them will disturb you.
Here, then, are the most disturbing movies of all time, a list of transgressive cinema that will leave you shell-shocked and cowering. Watch at your own risk.
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A Serbian Film
Director: Srđan Spasojević
Writers: Aleksandar Radivojević, Srđan Spasojević
Cast: Srđan Todorović, Sergej Trifunović, Jelena Gavrilović, Slobodan Beštić, Katarina Žutić
The bluntness of this film's title should clue you in for the bluntness of its content. A Serbian Filmputs the entirety of Serbia in its crosshairs, its director Srđan Spasojević explicitly commenting not just on the broader implications of living in a war-torn, fascist-leaning society and government, but on the specific hypocrisies of this same government funding bourgeois, "safe" films that seek to whitewash their own atrocities. To make this point, Spasojević and co-writer Aleksandar Radivojević have crafted a plot that takes us past the point of the underworld. Retired porn star Miloš (Srđan Todorović) is having trouble taking care of his family. So, despite his better instincts, he agrees to star in an artsy porn film from a provocative auteur (Sergej Trifunović). But the director's methods and subjects involve tranquilizing Miloš into a state of catatonia and forcing him to do unspeakable things on camera. And when I say "unspeakable," I am not being hyperbolic. Taboos involving sexual violence, necrophilia, incest, and pedophilia are lensed with unsparing detail, giving the film an instant sense of notoriety on the festival circuit. The final shot and decision made are purely evil.
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Daisuke Tengan
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina
Takashi Miike is a beyond-prolific director, whose most notorious films like Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q regularly soak the viewer in imaginative viscera and psychologically punishing taboos. Why does Auditionmake the cut over his many other films? In part, because of its borderline-cruel bait-and-switch. Audition starts with a premise and tone of a light romantic drama — Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a lonely widower who's newly looking for a new love. Under the advice of his film producer friend (Jun Kunimura), Aoyama starts literally "auditioning" women to potentially be his love, and immediately falls for Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). The two pledge deep, melancholy feelings of love for each other. And then... shit gets weird. Miike's switch-flip smacks you in the face, forcing you to confront the inherently problematic premise of the film, and the inherent sexism baked into dating, romantic pursuals, and even the film industry. When Asami Yamazaki finally starts acting with her own agency, hoo boy, look out. Images of needle-based torture, dismemberment, and eating a bodily fluid that definitely should not be eaten collide with intense psychosexual obsession in a way that sledgehammers the viewer into submission. Which is, precisely, Yamazaki and Miike's goal.
August Underground's Mordum
Directors/Writers/Cast: Killjoy, Fred Vogel, Cristie Whiles, Jerami Cruise, Michael Todd Schneider
Fred Vogel's Toetag Pictures is an independent horror film production company and studio known for low-budget, boundary-pushing works of extreme cinema. Their defining statement comes in the form of a brutal, aggressively nihilistic, found-footage trilogy of mayhem known as August Underground. All three films involve a found family of serial killers traveling around and shooting footage of each other instilling miserable forms of torture and death on their hapless victims. All three films are shot in jagged, low-fi quality, resulting in an aesthetic that feels as close to a literal snuff film as anyone has produced in a narrative feature film. All three films feature stomach-churningly realistic effects, and committed actors willing to do wild, wild shit to each other. But the second chapter, August Underground's Mordum, might be the most abjectly disturbing of the lot. Bodies are nothing more than anonymous opportunities for morbid dissections and corruptions, and the Toetag team is more than willing to shove it all in our face, with each scene managing to top the previous one in its horrific cruelty. Is there a point beyond the chaos of the content on its face value? That's a question I'm not sure Toetag is interested in asking.
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Gianfranco Clerici
Cast: Robert Kerman, Carl Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Luca Barbareschi, Perry Pirkanen
A notorious 1980 horror film that is a foundational text in the found footage genre, was straight up banned in several countries, resulted in the director Ruggero Deodato getting arrested and having to prove in court the special effects were faked, helped kickstart a wave of cannibal exploitation cinema, and influenced filmmakers in its wake (perhaps most explicitly Eli Roth with The Green Inferno). Cannibal Holocausttells, in mockumentary form, the story of a group of anthropologists who travel to an Amazonian village to try and rescue a group of filmmakers left there. When they arrive, they discover reels of footage with horrific actions perpetrated by the cannibalistic natives, resulting in a knotted, metatextual narrative that pokes aggressively at white saviorism, colonialism, the role of sensational television news in exacerbating violence, and even the role of the audience member watching this very film. Now, is Cannibal Holocaust only interested in making these points with unimpeachable, intellectual acumen? Certainly not. The images shown, in unsparing detail, are clearly designed to court controversy, and in some sequences of actual animal cruelty, may walk a line into purposeless text for some. But there's no denying Cannibal Holocaust has a lot on its mind, and it's willing to eat some minds to try and make its many points.
Director/Writer: David Lynch
Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates
The debut feature of notorious nightmare-stirrer/meteorologistDavid Lynch, Eraserheadis likely the closest I've ever felt to living in the casual, gnawing surrealism of a real-life nightmare in cinematic form. Using stark black and white photography and inexplicably terrifying sound design, Lynch tells the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a feeble and sensitive man who lives in a bizarre, post-industrialized apocalyptic society. He life is turned all matters of upside down by the presence (or threat) of domesticity, child-rearing, sexual intercourse, and even the afterlife. Lynch presents these challenges both with a searingly skin-crawling style and no style at all; while the production design on this film is peerless in its atmosphere, so many of the film's haunting images occur almost inadvertently, with no comment on its bleak oddness. All of this culminates in the revelation of a child whose visage remains controversial for the methods in which Lynch may have made it. Somehow, Eraserhead makes speakable the things in our subconscious we can't speak, by barely speaking at all. Sing it with me: "In heaven everything is fine..."
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Director: John McNaughton
Writers: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Cast: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
If the aforementioned August Underground is the thrash metal of the "found footage serial killer family horror film," Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killeris the quiet jazz improvisation. John McNaughton's low budget 1986 horror film features a career-making lead performance from Michael Rooker in the title role. Rooker's work here is astonishing, managing to find the crevasses of humanity in a person so wired to inflict nothing but nihilistic, meaningless damage upon those around him, especially those who dare show anything resembling human affection. As for the found footage of it all: Henry is not entirely rendered using in-text cameras. Many of the film's quieter, more psychologically bruising scenes are shot in simple, stark 16mm coverage, McNaughton's colors feeling atypically deep and luxurious for such a low-budget, horrific affair. But the film's most startlingly brutal moments of murderous carnage — and, importantly, the dread leading up to said outbursts — are filmed within the text by Henry and his crew. The casualness of the carnage, the inevitability of such wanton destruction is what will linger in the mind long after viewing Henry. It's a portrait of a serial killer, and the portrait of what can happen if we allow ourselves to be dehumanized and desensitized to a point where empathy is impossible.
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)
Director/Writer: Tom Six
Cast: Ashlynn Yennie, Laurence R. Harvey
Tom Six's The Human Centipede, released in 2009, had a raucous premise that instantly became notorious not just among extreme cinephiles, but through the general filmscape. What if you made a "human centipede" by, y'know, attaching people's mouths to other people's butts? I wouldn't blame you if that premise makes you giggle, and the first film's weirdly bright color scheme and charismatic performance from Dieter Laser leans into the accessibly, blackly comic nature of it all. But its sequel, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), takes any sense of accessibility and runs it over with a car, crushing its skull. And yes, that is, unfortunately, a hint at something that happens in the film.
Borrowing a touch of Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Human Centipede 2 centers on Laurence R. Harvey giving one helluva committed performance as a malady-suffering man who is obsessed with —brace yourself — the Tom Six motion picture The Human Centipede. This audacious meta-choice is heightened to its most obvious extreme as Harvey, who's gotten a taste for macabre blood after dispatching with his abusive mother graphically, decides to create his own human centipede out of his own very, very amateurish "medical supplies." Sitting at the top of this centipede? Brace yourself — Ashlynn Yennie, playing "Ashlynn Yennie, star of The Human Centipede." While there is something undeniably engaging and unexpectedly self-critical with Six folding in his mythology on itself, he mostly uses this as a launching pad for depictions of unspeakable cruelty in sickeningly greasy black-and-white. The aforementioned "skull-crushing" sequence happens to a person you do not want to see it happen to; barbed wire is used in a sexually violent way; and a scene involving the human centipede, um, "eating" is beyond vile. The Human Centipede 2 feels like the film everyone expected part 1 to be, for "better" or for worse.
In a Glass Cage
Director/Writer: Agustí Villaronga
Cast: Günter Meisner, Marisa Paredes, David Sust
Of all the various subgenres of exploitation cinema, Nazisploitation might be the most eager to break and shove taboos in your face. The ripple effect of psychosexual Nazi-evoking horror-shows like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and Gestapo's Last Orgy could be seen in prestige pictures like The Night Porter and in modern works like Rob Zombie's Grindhouse trailer Werewolf Women of the SS and the Amazon program Hunters. In a Glass Cagethreads the Nazisploitation needle between "empty shock value" and "something to say" queasily but effectively, using uncommonly atmospheric filmmaking to boot.
The person in the titular glass cage is Klaus (Günter Meisner), a former Nazi doctor who tortured, experimented on, and committed horrific acts of sexual violence to children both within the Holocaust and after, where he has exiled himself in Spain. In an episode of his demons catching up to him, Klaus attempts suicide and fails, resulting in his being incubated in an iron lung. A nurse by the name of Angelo (David Sust) offers to take care of him, but he's no ordinary nurse. He is a victim of Klaus', grown up and eager not just to get his revenge on the Nazi doctor, but to inhabit the identity of the Nazi doctor as literally as possible. The resulting narrative is punishing, disquieting, and psychologically fascinating, an effective dissection of the lingering traumas and effects that occur for both abusers and the abused.
Directors: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Writer: Alexandre Bustillo
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis
Of the many violating film experiences produced during the 2000s cinematic movement known as New French Extremity (Martyrs, Trouble Every Day, High Tension, and more French pieces of cinema that brutally render all things transgressive), none stick to my bones as horrifically as Inside(known in France as À l'intérieur). The plot is beyond simple: Sarah (Béatrice Dalle), a recent widow, is pregnant and alone. And then a woman named, simply, "La Femme" (Alysson Paradis), invades her home, obsessed with the idea that Sarah's baby belongs to her. And she's gonna get it by any method she can. What results is a viciously nasty, physical, visceral experience of abject brutality and self-defense, swirled up aggressively with psychological provocations of trauma, entitlement, and motherhood — all involving an incredibly pregnant woman. The final moments of this taut, terrifying film make me shudder to this day.
Director/Writer: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel
Speaking of New French Extremity, enfant terrible Gaspar Noé, the auteur behind other disturbing works like I Stand Alone and Climax, put his mark on both that contemporary movement and the more pervasive exploitation subgenre of "rape and revenge" with 2002's disgustingly thorough Irréversible. In traditional exploitation works in that mold, like The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, or Thriller – A Cruel Picture, we get to know a female protagonist, are horrified by the vile sexual abuse she goes through, and are vindicated when she gets her violent revenge on her male abusers. Noé, quite literally, flips the script, presenting this narrative in reverse order. The film starts with a free-wheeling cacophony of sound, color, swirling camerawork, and abject carnage, as the piece of "revenge" is instilled on someone we have no context about (notably committed not by a woman re-finding empowerment, but by a rage-filled man). It's a brutal slice of contextless violence to start a film with — and the very next scene involves an agonizing, nigh-on-unwatchable long take of Monica Bellucci's leading character being raped graphically, before getting beaten into a coma. Again, Noé is presenting us with the typical beats of a rape-and-revenge thriller, but by reversing their order, he is either forcing us to examine the arbitrary nature of violence and emptiness of revenge, or being a fuckin' asshole who made a worthless film, depending on your take. The rest of Irréversible does "mercifully" show moments of love, character development, and humanity regarding Bellucci, but it all has a glum, sickening pallor, a subconscious reminder that acts of evil are indeed irreversible, no matter the reason.
Man Bites Dog
Directors: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde
Writers: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, Vincent Tavier
Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, Jenny Drye, Jacqueline Poelvoorde-Pappaert, Malou Madou, André Bonzel
Of all the many disturbing films I've seen in my lifetime, only one has had the power to make me fast-forward through a scene because of my own personal discomfort. That film is Man Bites Dog, known in its native country of Belgian as C'est arrivé près de chez vous (a take on the phrase "It could happen to you"). From its title on down, the black-and-white mockumentary (another foundational found-footage horror film) has its sights on how we consume and deify acts of violence and their "fun" sense of fear, especially in the news media. A group of journalists follow a man named Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde, disquietingly brilliant). He's charming, funny, and happens to be a prolific, sadistic serial killer. The journalists aim to film him and his increasingly violent crimes with a sense of objective remove. But quietly, sneakily, queasily, the journalists can't help but actively participate in his crimes, indicting not just news media outlets around the world, but even us for wanting to watch and laugh (yes, laugh, the film is often blackly funny) at a film like this. This all culminates with a midpoint scene of carnage and its aftermath that is shown so casually, so graphically, and so without remorse, that I wish I could fast-forward it in my brain.
Melancholie der Engel
Director: Marian Dova
Writers: Marian Dova, Carsten Frank
Cast: Zenza Raggi, Carsten Frank, Janette Weller, Bianca Schneider, Patrizia Johann, Peter Martell, Margarethe von Stern
Notorious German filmmaker Marian Dova has made numerous works of relentless disgust (do not Google what happens in Carcinoma, for your own good). But in 2009's Melancholie der Engel (The Angel's Melancholia), he just might have made his, um, "masterpiece". At a punishing two-and-a-half hour length, Melancholie der Engel has a lot of philosophical musings on its mind, generally leading to a form of absurd nihilism as practiced by Katze (Carsten Frank), who believes he is nearing the end of his life. Thus, in an effort to push the limits of existence as far as he can before it casually snuffs out, he and a group of, um, "friends" engage in increasingly horrendous, graphic, seemingly unsimulated acts of depravity. This acts of human degradation, filmed in inherently ugly looking digital video, are filtered through all kinds of "big ideas" involving Dova's philosophies and Catholic ideals of guilt and redemption, but it's hard to walk away from this film with any thought other than "why?" Which, I suppose, is the point. If you wished Richard Linklater's Before trilogy had scenes involving shit-eating, Melancholie der Engel might be for you.
Men Behind the Sun
Director: T. F. Mou
Writers: Mei Liu, Wen Yuan Mou, Dun Jing Teng
Cast: Gang Wang, Hsu Gou, Tie Long Jin, Zhao Hua Mei, Zhe Quan, Run Sheng Wang, Dai Wao Yu, Andrew Yu
The atrocities of war, rendered in miserable detail. Men Behind the Sun, from Chinese filmmaker T. F. Mou, details the horrific experiments perpetrated to Chinese and Siberian prisoners by imperial Japanese military commanders during World War II with sickeningly grotesque special effects. Beyond the film's obvious visceral disturbances, there are psychological ramifications sledgehammered at as well, both within and outside of the text. Men Behind the Sun wants to explore genuine traumas and real-life pain, wants to depict the limits of patriotism and the sliding scale of nationalism, wants to communicate the necessary message that war is, and always will be, hell. But it also wants to be an exploitative horror film with envelope-pushing gore effects. Can it have it both ways? Does it deserve to? If it succeeds, is it still worth our time? Are there other, more palatable ways to digest and process the horrors inflicted on humans by other humans under the guise of war? Or are blunt messages like this really, truly the only way it can stick to our brains?
Director: Jörg Buttgereit
Writers: Jörg Buttgereit, Franz Rodenkirchen
Cast: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice Manowski, Harald Lundt
Quick guess: What do you think Nekromantikis about, based on its title aone? Ding ding ding, correct, fam! It is truly, sincerely, and unabashedly about fucking a corpse — and director Jörg Buttgereit is truly, sincerely, and unabashedly interested in showing it all. The film follows a couple, Rob and Betty (Daktari Lorenz and Beatrice Manowski), who are eagerly and morbidly interested between the intersections of love, sex, and death. Rob works for a company that cleans up corpses from accident sites, and, well, he likes to keep souvenirs and trophies for he and his girlfriend to play with. Eventually, this heightens into the full-on stealing of a full-on corpse, which heightens into a curious thruple situation involving the ickiest use of a steel pipe I've ever seen in cinema. Nekromantik, for those whose senses of humor are willing to take the plunge, actually mines a decent amount of black comedy from its nearly unprintable premise, playing beats of romantic love and maddening jealousy with wry commitment and outsider appeal. But it doesn't stop the film from mucking in the vilest depictions of human flesh, and its ending moments are both astonishing and oddly poetic.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Writers: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Citti
Cast: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Hélène Surgère, Sonia Saviange, Inès Pellegrini
The granddaddy of disturbing cinema, a shocking piece of horror that has, despite (because of?) its extreme content, earned that rare piece of prestige cinema canonization. That's right, friends: You can buy Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodomin a fancy Criterion Collection blu-ray package, with its aggressively graphic depictions of corrupt fascism and animal impulse run amok in exacting, infuriating detail. Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film before his murder, Salò is inspired in equal measure by Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom, an influential work on the limits and breaking points of human degradation and sexuality (it's where the word "sadism" comes from!), and the real-life horrors inflicted by a fascist Italian government during World War II. Countless young people are tortured, mutilated, forced to perform unspeakable acts against each other, and killed in ways that seem to exist only to satisfy the increasingly lurid whims of their oppressors. Salò is a brutal watch, one that I'm not sure anyone can "recommend," but it is a vital one. It's a film that strips bare the thin edge between humanity and evil under the auspices of hierarchical power structures, a film that shows how deep cruelty can run. It is not ideal to watch while eating.
The Snowtown Murders
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Shaun Grant, Justin Kurzel
Cast: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris
The Snowtown Murders, based on a real life series of killings in Adelaide, Australia, is an excruciating slow burn, a look under the decrepit microscope of dysfunctional small-town communities, a cross between Harmony Korine and Michael Haneke, a ferocious debut feature for director Justin Kurzel. Determined to rid his community of the explicit threat of pedophiles and homosexuals, which he is more than willing to toxically conflate, John Bunting (a terrifying Daniel Henshall) recruits a group of lower-class folks, including victim of sexual violence Jamie Vlassakis (a heartbreaking Lucas Pittaway), to find, torture, and murder those who deserve it. Kurzel's frame is both unsparing and disturbingly stylish, using both the power of explicit carnage and implicit terror to constantly shove a screwdriver into the viewer's guts. Psychologically, Snowtown never lets anyone off the hook — not the actual pedophiles being murdered, not the viewers who might find that action in some way vindicating, not Jamie falling under the sway of this new tempting figure, and certainly not John Bunting himself. It's grim, grim, grim stuff, a movie that explores the most base and vile of human nature in ways that will make you empathize, and then make you need a shower.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Director/Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto
Cast: Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Shinya Tsukamoto
If you find Black Mirror disturbing, you ain't seen nothing yet. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a hard friggin’ watch. It’s an experimental, black and white nightmare in dialogue with similar cult classics like the aforementioned Eraserhead or Begotten. It’s less interested in a palatable sci-fi narrative than it is in an unsparing exploration of mood. And the “mood,” courtesy of notorious Japanese cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, is “bleak". Tetsuo is technically a cyberpunk film. Cyberpunk fiction is interested in the blending of human beings with cybernetic enhancements. And Tetsuo: The Iron Man takes that impulse and catapults it to its crystallized extremes, stripping away all other parts for the sheer purpose of “man plus metal.” The “man” of this equation, played with hypnotic obsession by the film’s director, views hunks of metal as violent fetish objects that deserve as full of our praise and fusion as possible — his very first action in the film is to cut open his own leg and shove a piece of metal into it. But when a salaryman (the Japanese word for “white-collar worker”) played by Tomorowo Taguchi starts literally sprouting metal as the culmination of his violent dreams and reality-blurring fantasies, the two face off in relentlessly nihilistic fashion.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is chock-full of upsetting imagery, particularly when the titular Iron Man and his fully human girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) attempt to copulate even though he’s, y’know, an Iron Man. But it’s not shock for shock’s sake — Tsukamoto has a lot on his mind, and every facet of his fever dream, from the grimly handmade makeup effects to the smeary 16mm camera, speaks in service of his ultimate thesis statement: The fusion of technology and the human race will totally destroy us all.
Happy watching, everybody! :)
For further reading, check out our list of the scariest Disney movies ever made.