The 18 most disturbing movies of all time
Clockwise from top left: Oldboy (CJ Entertainment), Antichrist (IFC Films), Frontier(s) (EuropaCorp), Audition (Vitagraph Films)

Clockwise from top left: Oldboy (CJ Entertainment), Antichrist (IFC Films), Frontier(s) (EuropaCorp), Audition (Vitagraph Films)
Graphic: AVClub

In 1983, horror movie maestro David Cronenberg was asked why movie audiences like scary films. His answer was that “most people would prefer to [confront their fears] in a metaphorical way, in a controlled way. They like to go into a dark theatre and confront their own demons and then have the lights come up and be able to walk out afterwards.” That’s as good an answer as any, although we could add that scary, horrific, and disturbing films are emotionally stimulating—even if those emotions are negative—and they allow us to experience terrifying events that would never happen in real life (at least we hope not). But there are some films that are simply so disturbing that one wonders what the psychological or even entertainment benefit could possibly be. The answer is that, well, we like them and that’s reason enough.

The history of film is replete with movies that are considering disturbing, a word that’s normally pretty subjective, but when you check out our ranking of the 18 most disturbing films of all time, you’ll have to agree that movies dealing with rape (Irreversible), torture (Audition), and sadomasochism (Salo, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom) can be too difficult to watch. So while you may not want to binge these films, they’re all so good at making us cringe, scream, or watch between spread fingers, that you have to tip a bloody cap to them.

“To avoid fainting, keep repeating: it’s only a movie. Only a movie. Only a movie…” says the poster for The Last House On The Left. Scream director Wes Craven burst onto the scene with this 1972 exploitation film which sees a 17-year-old girl raped and killed by a fugitive gang, who later get what’s coming to them by the girl’s parents. Craven was inspired by the Swedish film, The Virgin Spring (1960), but it’s the underside of America that gets exposed here. It’s an unpleasant experience, and the sexual assault and murder scene is an uncomfortable watch. But much of the film’s brief runtime focuses on a couple of keystone cops who create an uneven tonal experience resulting in an easier viewing experience than what follows.

Tom Six’s The Human Centipede isn’t a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it managed to become a cult hit and spawn two sequels because of how gross the concept is. A mad doctor kidnaps three tourists and sews them together from mouth to anus, creating something that resembles a centipede. It’s foul and not particularly interesting beyond a college movie night with friends, but hey, the game here is “disturbing” and not “cinematic excellence,” and Six delivers on that.

On one hand, director Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is a revolutionary piece of horror cinema, the forerunner of found footage films. It also features gruesome practical effects so realistic that audiences at the time believed the footage was real, leading to a government investigation. Surprisingly, that’s not the most disturbing part of Cannibal Holocaust. What really puts the film over the top, making it hard to watch, is the live animal deaths captured on the film, including a scene with a turtle that oversteps the boundary of entertainment.

Long before Michael Rooker became a recognizable face on The Walking Dead and in summer blockbusters, he was Henry, in John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. The title is as bleak as the film itself and takes a cold hard look at a man completely devoid of empathy. Henry takes an ex-con, Otis, under his wing to teach him the ways of serial killing, while also capturing the interest of a young woman. The film serves as a shocking reminder that some evils run too deep to change and things like friendship, love, and loyalty are just additional carnage.

Like father, like son. Brandon Cronenberg follows in his father’s body horror footprints with Possessor, which follows Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an agent used by a secret organization to commit corporate espionage by inhabiting other people’s bodies. Cronenberg creates a sickening unease that permeates the film as we watch Tasya lose herself to the identity she’s inhabiting, and become emotionally detached from her family and from reality. The film crescendoes with a brutal and shocking ending that forces the audience to question what exactly Tasya has become.

Kids can be real monsters. Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) find this out the hard way in James Watkins’ Eden Lake. A couple’s romantic getaway is spoiled by a group of boys who make a game of tormenting the couple with abuse that escalates from theft to tying Steve to a tree with barbed wire. Where could such heinous kids come from? Well, the ending delivers a chilling revelation in that regard, adding another layer of horror to all that’s been experienced.

During the late 2000s, French Extremism had quite the hold on horror cinema. Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) is one of the most notorious films on this list. A group of thieves end up as captives at an inn run by Neo-Nazis in the aftermath of a political election. The film serves as a political allegory for France combating fascism, but don’t worry if you’re not all that familiar with France’s political history. Frontier(s) is so blood-soaked and gnarly that it’s hard to think of any grander message as you’re watching the carnage unfold onscreen.

Another French Extremism essential, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside is a brutal Christmas story of sorts, focused on the birth of a child. Well, maybe that’s a little misleading. The film is centered on a pregnant woman tormented by a stranger who seeks to claim her unborn baby for herself. It’s an assault on the senses and features unshakeable violence, including a climatic C-section performed with scissors. So maybe not the best addition to your family’s holiday watchlist.

Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw The Devil is a beautifully shot nightmare. The film follows a NIS agent on the trail of a serial killer who dismembered his wife. Thematically it feels like a natural extension of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, offering a bleak assessment of justice, or the lack of it, in a violent world. Few onscreen confrontations of evil have managed to be such draining experiences.

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a genre-defying masterpiece and one of the highlights of Korean Cinema. Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is released after being imprisoned for 13 years. His search for his captor and the mystery behind his imprisonment leads him on a trail of violence (including an iconic hammer fight) and memory, and finally one of the most shocking revelations in all of cinema. It’s an ending that’s impossible to shake and haunts with its perfect execution.

He should’ve swiped left. Takashi Miike’s Audition sees widower Shigeharu (Ryu Ishibashi) in search of a new wife. His film producer friend arranges auditions for a fake movie, which secretly serves as a means to scout women with marriage potential. Unfortunately for Shigeharu, he sets his sights on Asami (Eihi Shiina), who turns date night into an evening of brutal, stomach-churning torture with no shortage of needles or vomit. It makes the modern dating scene seem so much easier.

Whichever version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games you decide to watch, you’re in for a cold journey through senseless violence. In both iterations, a family is taken hostage at their vacation home by two young men who force them to play sadistic games for no reason other than the fact that they can. Every glimmer of hope for salvation is snuffed out. Compared to the 1997 original, Haneke’s shot-for-shot 2007 remake has more recognizable actors, including Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, which may slightly soften the blow compared to the original German film. But ultimately the differences are pretty negligible when it comes to leaving you feeling like you just witnessed something that should never have been seen.

It may take several attempts to make it through Martyrs. It is, in no small terms, the distillation of horror. What begins as a seemingly supernatural affair becomes all too human. Pascal Laugier’s film follows two women’s confrontation with a secret organization that seeks to find proof of the divine through human suffering. There’s a climatic flaying scene that is, simply put, one of the worst things you’ll ever see. Martyrs isn’t an enjoyable experience but it feels like an essential horror movie.

War is hell, and Elem Klimov’s Come And See distills that notion into a 2-hour and 22-minute journey through the atrocities of war as seen by young Soviet resistance fighter Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko) fighting against the Nazis. But this is no mere historical retelling. Come And See is a surrealist allegory that sees that young soldier turned into an old man over the course of two days as his innocence is murdered and his mind is broken by all that he is forced to see. Klimov’s film isn’t just an exercise in the disturbing but one of the most powerful anti-war texts ever made.

You could take your pick of disturbing Lars von Trier films, as the filmmaker might as well be the master of feel-bad cinema. But Antichrist sits heaviest in its abundance of sorrow, even as its surrealist vision makes the plot difficult to penetrate at times. A grieving couple, portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, retreat to a cabin in the woods in hopes of a therapeutic getaway. But they find no such thing in this film, which takes the familiar cabin in the woods horror setting into another circle of Hell. Oh, and heads up—a hammer meets a penis in a scene that has left over a decade of nightmares in its wake.

You’ve probably noticed these entries have gotten less fun and entertaining as we’ve gone on. And now we’ve reached the point where the levels of violence are so extreme that we can’t actually say we’re recommending these. Gaspar Noé’s controversial Irreversible is told in reverse order and in a series of long shots. It centers on a woman, Alex (Monica Bellucci), who is raped in a tunnel. Her boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and ex-boyfriend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) seek revenge on the rapists. Yet the story being told in reverse changes the viewer’s relationship to the violence, and to the character’s themselves, culminating in unsettling revelations about the nature of violence and jealousy.

At this point, Salo has become a bit of a punchline in film circles. “What’s your favorite comfort movie?” “Want to watch Salo and chill?” Despite that, the film itself remains a disquieting watch. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, nine adolescent boys and girls are captured and tortured, physically, sexually, and emotionally, for 120 days in Italy during World War II. It’s an experiment in sadomasochism and an unpleasant endurance course for audiences that’s difficult to justify. Regardless, the film has been listed as a favorite and a significant influence on Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé, whose films appear on this list. As disturbing as the film itself is, what might be more disturbing is the mysterious murder of director Pasolini who was beaten, run over with a car several times, and set on fire, three weeks before the film’s release. It’s a terrible instance of art imitating life, and vice versa.

When it comes to scenes of gore and abuse, other films on this list would surely rank higher. What makes Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies the most disturbing film of all time is the fact that it’s all real. This documentary focuses on the patient-inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. The footage feels raw and unstylized, and there is no intervention by the filmmakers, or attempt at an explanation. The audience, much like Wiseman’s camera, simply observes as patients are abused by orderlies, force-fed, and forced to strip naked. The starkness of this reality and the fact that this suffering is imposed not on characters but on real, living human beings often feels like too much to bear witness to. It is an exercise in empathy that forces the audience to walk away changed and reminded of the power of film.

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