When people watch horror movies, they are essentially testing themselves. Can I watch this? What if some of the images or situations I see stick with me longer than I’d like? What are my limits? Even the subtlest and quietest of horror media presents consumers with these questions, and, of course, the answers for everyone will differ. The movie that gives you nightmares for years may be comfort food for me, while your favorite thriller novel may trigger deep anxieties in me.
There are, however, some works that are almost objectively disturbing, movies and books that will test even the most jaded of horror fans. These are some of my favorites. I know there are movies out there that seek to and succeed in out-goring these movies or that deal with even more shocking material. There are, for instance, entire underground movie series purely devoted to showing people tortured and dismembered (think of the Saw movies but with no character, plot, or dramatic tension, and employing far worse and grimier special effects), and who could forget the collection of real and fake death scenes known as the Faces of Death series?
But I find most of those pieces fairly worthless artistically speaking, having nothing illuminating to say about the human condition and nothing even resembling an artistic style, instead aiming at entertaining gore-hounds interested in splatter over substance. I could write a ten-page story made up purely of obscene words, but that wouldn’t contribute much to the world, nor, in the end, would it even be that shocking. In order to be shocked, terrified, or horrified, you need something to hold onto. Maybe it’s characters for whom you can feel sympathy. Maybe it’s a unique situation, one that creates a sense of mystery to overhang all the gore and extremity. And maybe it’s the themes being addressed, adding layers of intellectual and even spiritual value to the upsetting story taking place.
Whatever it is, I think the movies on this list have that quality, however much they explore depraved topics. I will, though, give this warning: if you need trigger warnings for pretty much anything at all, then these are not movies for you. I mean, they don’t all explore the same territory and some rely more on gore than others. But these are movies intended to bruise, even wound their viewers. They are a lot like those five-star chili peppers that people eat as an endurance test and just as with those foods, these films can leave a burn that lasts longer than the film’s runtime. That said, I’ve got some sort of enjoyment or illumination out of all of these movies, and it is salient to note that from everything I know, no one was actually hurt, much less killed, during their making. So, please be careful wading into this territory and keep telling yourself it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Avant-garde director Pier Pasolini borrowed the setting and situation of this gruesome art-film from the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. Sade’s novel is about a group of thoroughly debauched French aristocrats who hole up in a remote castle with dozens of victims whom they proceed to destroy in increasingly grotesque ways, all the while carefully documenting the effects of their brutality on these unfortunate innocents. Pasolini updated this 18th century story by replacing the libertines with Nazis. Surprisingly, the combination of Sade’s sexual tastes and Nazi violence proves to be truly upsetting. Who knew?
Part of what makes this movie especially disturbing isn’t just the depravities carried out on screen: it’s also how beautifully everything is filmed, as well as the bizarre light tone to much of the horrific action. In this movie, we’re being invited into the cruel imagination of fascism, and it’s only appropriate that the proceedings are aestheticized accordingly, but it makes the film all the more nightmarish.
Ichi the Killer (2001)
Japanese director Takashi Miike is a powerhouse of a filmmaker, often releasing several movies in one year. He’s also known widely for the brutality of many of his movies, but there’s a poetry to his work as well, something that can be attested to by fans of his beautiful Audition. Ichi the Killer is an entirely different vibe from that deliberately-paced thriller. If you can imagine David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and David Fincher teaming up to write a gangster movie, you may get close to this movie, but you have to imagine the story filtered through a Looney Tunes episode.
Ichi is a severely damaged young man who has been brainwashed into slaughtering gangsters for a corrupt cop. When this sad sadist ends up on a collision course with the masochistic Yakuza Kakihara, dozens of people are going to die in spectacular fashion. Seriously entertaining if you can roll with ultraviolence, disturbing sexual assault, and rather colorful gore.
The Devil’s Rejects (2003)
Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses introduced unprepared audiences to the maniacal Firefly family, a gang of cartoonish psychopaths that makes the cannibals of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre look like decent citizens. In this sequel, though, he turns the extremity up to 11, while forcing his viewers into some uncomfortable identification with his horrendous protagonists. When their family compound is invaded by cops, Otis, Baby, and the clown Captain Spaulding have to go on the run from a vengeful sheriff.
What makes this film so disturbing aren’t just the murders and sexual assaults carried out by the Firefly’s (especially by the Manson-like Otis), it’s that Zombie keeps shifting our sympathies around. One moment, you’re hurting for the poor innocent schmucks unlucky enough to run into the desperadoes, the next moment you are rooting for these same sickos to beat the killers who are trying to hunt them down. Zombie seems like a decent human being in real life, and I doubt he actually wants audiences to approve of the viciousness of his protagonists, but he’s clearly interested in making us see this brutality from the perspective of the perpetrators as well as their victims, reminding us that everyone is the hero of their own story.
Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
Several months after her husband is killed in a car accident, Sarah is in her home on Christmas Eve, awaiting the birth of her child. Her understandable melancholy is disrupted when a mysterious woman appears at her door, trying to get in. The standoff between these two reaches out to involve other unlucky folks and soon the walls of Sarah’s home are blood-spattered.
This is an expertly-made thriller, an update on the home invasion subgenre, and one sporting two excellent performances by the characters at the heart of the situation. But it is grim as hell, almost nihilistically so, and the violence is unforgiving. There aren’t any sexual assaults in this one, so if that’s what you’re looking to avoid in your horror diet, this may work for you, but I can’t stress how dark everything else about it is. This is one of the major movies in the horror movement known as the “New French Extremity,” and it is justly considered one of the most disturbing horror movies ever made.
The Girl Next Door (2007)
The Girl Next Door is based on the Jack Ketchum novel of the same name and it is based on a terrible and true story. Teenagers Meg and Susan are left to live with their aunt Ruth and her sons after the girls’ parents die in an accident. Ruth is a hard-drinking and bitter woman, one who quickly begins taking her frustrations and internalized misogyny out on her sweet nieces. Soon, she imprisons Meg in her basement and begins luring local kids into helping her “punish” the girl for imagined infractions.
This movie is all about the seductive nature of violence and the way the young can be so easily guided into cruelty. I must admit I watched this movie only once, and I doubt I’ll watch it again. It’s just so real and sad. But it is effective at what it does and has no interest in surreptitiously pleasuring its viewers in the ways someone like Rob Zombie does. Instead, it drags you into a very real hell, one similar to that experienced by girls (and some boys) all over the world, laced with woman-hating, sex-despisal, and religiously-motivated cruelty.
Anna and Lucie are two young girls in an orphanage who become close. Lucie, it turns out, was kidnapped and tortured for months by unknown psychopaths before she managed to escape. All of this has left her physically and psychologically scarred and obsessed with the idea that she is being haunted by an emaciated monster. Years later Lucie, having decided she has discovered the people responsible for her torture, sets to work on a bloody plan of revenge. Anna’s along for the ride, despite her doubts about Lucie’s identification of her tormentors. What begins as another home invasion story slowly and terrifyingly morphs into something much worse, and Anna is let in on a profound and hideous secret.
Another prime entry in the New French Extremity, Martyrs is dead-set on wounding its audience as well as its characters. No one is safe in this one, and while much of the violence is quick, the most disturbing of it is prolonged, as if the director is intent on studying pain from as close as possible. As with Inside, there’s a cinematic poetry here, but many viewers will find the agonies they have to witness too much to bear. One thing I liked about this one was that it managed to genuinely surprise me several times, so I’d advise skipping trailers or plot synopses if you’re planning on braving it.
Dogtooth is easily the least violent movie on this list, but that doesn’t mean it won’t leave you feeling pretty tenderized after watching it. Lanthimos is now best-known for The Lobster and The Favorite, but Dogtooth, while indulging in some of the same surrealism and even absurd humor as those two movies, is a much darker film. In this one, a family lives in a weirdly suburban compound. The three “children” are actually adults/older teens, but their demented parents have raised them with no knowledge of the world beyond their walls. Instead, the parents have bound them into a bizarre worldview intended to keep them as clueless dependents for life. As the “kids” reach the age of sexual maturity, though, their parents decide they must resort to new tricks to keep them in their thrall.
This is something like a warped and far more critical remake of The Village, one shorn of that movie’s queasy sympathy with its lying parental figures. This is also probably the funniest movie on this list (except perhaps for Ichi the Killer), but it dives into dark territory nonetheless. You will want to skip this if violence against animals is especially bothersome to you, though of course it’s all simulated.
Lars von Trier
This Lars von Trier horror movie has my vote for the most stylish piece on this list. Seriously: entire sequences, not to mention stills, from this movie could be excised and appreciated for their visual panache. And the acting from the two leads (and basically the only characters in the movie) is phenomenal. He and she are a polished and affluent couple whose lives are entirely upended when their young son dies tragically. She in particular takes the death so hard she goes into a tailspin, one that he (being a psychologist) thinks he can save her from with a little one-on-one therapy. If they could just spend some time at their cabin in the woods, he thinks, he can pull her out of her all-consuming grief. His plans, however, don’t go all that well.
Antichrist is a fascinating film when considered from the perspective of onscreen brutality: basically, if you stopped watching the movie about twenty minutes before its climax, you could walk away from it thinking of it as a deeply eerie and strange film, but one more or less violence-free. But then the last act kicks in… I watched this in the theater when it was first released, and I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing an audience that upset before. Von Trier engages with lots of ideas in this movie, and it has been interpreted any number of ways, but much of it can be enjoyed purely for its mood and visuals. But if explicit sex or onscreen genitals bother you, you should avoid this one, and if throwing violence into that mix sounds especially horrendous, you probably shouldn’t even be reading this review.
A Serbian Film (2010)
A Serbian Film is hands-down the most upsetting movie I’ve ever seen. Well, the most disturbing movie I’ve seen that I think still has artistic merit. When I finished watching it the first time, it left me feeling like images had been burnt into my retina. There’s a reason many horror fan groups online forbid even the discussion of it. Actually, there are a few reasons. I cannot stress how much sexual violence and cruelty there is in this one, and honestly, most human beings should not watch it.
Miloš is a genial former porn star, one who has quit the industry and settled down with his wife to raise their small son. When the family falls on hard financial times, Miloš is approached by Vukmir, an odd director who wants to create a new type of artsy porn and is willing to pay the man handsomely for his time and the use of his prodigious erection. The only catch? Miloš won’t be given a script and will be chauffeured to his scenes with no knowledge of what will happen there. I’d say this set-up goes as bad as you could imagine it going, but that’s not true: it goes much, much worse.
There are likely people who will think I’m a bad person for “recommending” this movie, and I want to reiterate that it is powerfully fucked up. One friend, after I showed it to her, asked me very seriously why a film like this should have ever been made, something she hadn’t asked about the other 120+ horror movies we’d watched together. It’s a fair question and one I’ve thought a lot about since then. But the movie does have something to say about the exploitation of Second and Third World suffering in sentimentalizing “important” movies, and it isn’t at all trying to get you to identify with the forces of evil at work within it. Beyond that, you’ll have to make up your own mind.
Baskin is a trip of a film, a full-on Grand Guignol horror-show determined to drag its viewers into Hell. It is also, amusingly, one of the most “entertaining” of these movies, in that it doesn’t revolve around pedophilia, genital torture, or one of the other upsetting themes covered on this list. Rather, it explores a type of gory filmmaking reminiscent of the movies of Lucio Fulci, while being far more stylish and coherent than any of that director’s work.
In this Turkish film, five police officers are called to the odd village of Inceagac, where another squadron of cops has run into some mysterious trouble. Before they’ve even reached the village, they encounter a bloody vision that makes them crash their vehicle. In Inceagac, they are directed (with ominous warnings) to a hulking and supposedly abandoned former police station where they will encounter horrors far worse than their training has prepared them for. What follows is a desperate and gory fight for survival, one interrupted by disturbing visions and evil sermons. This movie will be a test of endurance for most viewers, but as I said, many will find it more fun than the other works on this list. The director, Can Evrenol, has released a more recent movie, Housewife, which is a twisted and sometimes Lovecraftian puzzle of a film and one that I recommend as well.
SEE ALSO: The House That Jack Built, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Maniac, Possessor, Suicide Circle, Trouble Every Day, Frontier(s), To Your Last Death, The Void, Terrified, Begotten, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Mother, Hereditary, Three… Extremes, The ABCs of Death, Funny Games