In Hollywood, it’s not hard to find a borderline snuff film that turns the stomach and loosens the sphincter. Some of the most disturbing movies ever made fall into that category.
But there is another type of disturbing movie that may not shed even a drop of blood, yet shakes the audience to their cores by revealing uncomfortable truths, secret perversions, or gleeful, careless violence in humanity as a whole. This latter category of a movie may not even consist of “good”, “classic” or “cult” movies, but they nonetheless will leave you squirming awake at night.
Widely regarded as Ingmar Bergman’s Magnum Opus, this film stars two women, one of whom never talks. If that sounds like a ticket to boresville with a side of yawn sauce, it also has graphic descriptions of torrid, unprotected sex on the beach. As the story progresses, one woman unravels while the other sits there silent, already knowledgeable of the tortuous, disturbing conclusions that true introspection brings one to.
Persona is not just about an awful person understanding another awful person, it’s also about our wider inability to truly conceptualize great tragic things. It’s like trying to envision all six-million faces of the Holocaust — a virtually impossible task. Something about us wants to truly understand, empathize, and come to terms with the tragedy, but something else in us prevents it. If all this sounds ridiculously high-brow and academic, you should watch it just because Bibi Anderson is about as hot as 60s babes get and there is a weird vampire scene (seriously).
For a movie about an insane German doctor who sews several captured tourists mouth-to-anus, Human Centipede is surprisingly not very graphic.
There aren’t many stomach-churning visuals or graphic dismemberments, most of the gore takes place off-screen and is more implied than shown. Which is precisely the point at which your imagination kicks in and has the following train of thought: ”Wow it would really suck to have my mouth pressed up against someone’s asshole for the rest of my life. I guess I would have to eat their feces. I feel like this movie is trying to do something with eroticism but I’m just not picking up on it.”
Then reality grinds to a halt and you realize someone conceptualized, wrote, directed, financed, made costumes and effects, and distributed this movie. That means that many people spent the better part of a year going to work every day where they strapped three actresses together mouth-to-anus and were dead serious about it. That is much more disturbing than any torture porn this movie could have been.
A Clockwork Orange
You’ve either heard of this movie, been disgusted by it or really really really liked it in high school. Perhaps all three. There is something disturbing and disorienting in the way both the psychotic criminal and self-righteous psychologists approach the topic of personal morality with such careless ease.
Sure, there are rapes and beatings that are still kind of shocking even by modern-day standards, but the worst and most gut-wrenching part of Clockwork Orange is that it leaves you baseless — unable to find a moral foothold to judge either the criminal or the society he offends. And then, of course, there’s Malcolm McDowell’s charming, playful and absolutely evil smile which I’m certain could scare ISIS straight and make the Pope masturbate in public.
Forget, for a moment, this movie’s heinous sequels and just dwell on the fundamental question at the center of this tight, terrifying movie. We are all willing to make tremendous sacrifices in the name of good… Okay, most of us say we’re willing to make tremendous sacrifices in the name of good, but wouldn’t actually.
There are a million and one movies, TV shows, books, and plays where that is the central conflict. But what would we do if we had no other choice but to kill someone else — to enter a whole new realm completely cut off from any civilized society. What are we willing to do to survive? It is a question that cuts to the very nature of our history and society, but ironically one which citizens of the modern world rarely consider.
It’s easy and morally absolute to say you’d die for someone or an ideal, but things get incredibly murky when you are willing to kill for it, especially if it’s something as selfish as your own neck. Oh, and the twist endings always keep me on my toe — just kidding, they’re M. Night Shyamalan bad.
There’s a long storied history of romanticizing crime, criminals, and general badasses in American cinema. Look at Scarface, The Godfather, and even Dirty Harry. Then you watch Gomorrah, which basically tears out Tony Montana’s lungs and uses them to strangle Don Corleone. Then it reaches out of the television, bitch slaps you and carves “This is a true story” in your chest with crack rocks. This largely factual account tells the mostly true story of the mob’s dealings in Italy, where they are huge.
There’s a reason Americans gobble up romanticized crime: it makes us feel safe. It is much easier to deal with a world run by Corleones than one run by a violent organization that will kill children and grandmothers with little hesitation. To sum up the story: a fat, old, wheezing man orders children killed or orders these children to kill their close neighbors, family, and friends. People who — just a few days earlier — were tipping them for delivering groceries and parading out patronizing platitudes like “my you’ve grown so much.”
To properly conceptualize why this movie is disturbing first think of the mob. Now think of it being run by every violent, meat-headed, track-suit wearing fat ass you know and reschedule your Italian vacation.
Sure there are many more torture porns that are much, much worse than Hostel. The disturbing thing about Hostel, however, is that it always appeared to have a certain glee about its gratuitous violence. It’s like a grindhouse flick that really wants to be grindhouse but can’t really come to terms with that and so tries to be a semi-serious commentary on human cruelty.
Watching most other gratuitously violent and gory movies feels like going to a theater where everyone laughs at the camp. Watching Hostel always felt like walking into a hushed theater and discovering halfway through that everyone was secretly masturbating.
Requiem for a Dream
This is the movie that everyone saw in high school and, like, thought it was so totally trippy and disturbing. Ask someone why this movie is disturbing and they’ll inevitably bring up attack refrigerators and that one part where Jared Leto has a bunch of track marks and pus oozing out of his arm but he’s still shooting up. These things are not disturbing, they are gimmicks in a good movie that work because it’s a good movie.
What is really disturbing about this movie is how, at the outset, every character has their own little American Dream laid out before them (some more unrealistic than others, but still). Then we are treated to a somewhat uncomfortable reality about the American Dream: it requires one to be really selfish and ambitious. The characters then proceed to ignore everyone who ever loved them in pursuit of their own dreams.
Maybe if their dreams had been “invent a better lightbulb” it would have been a rosier conclusion perhaps including a duel with David Bowie as Nikolai Tesla. Unfortunately three-quarters of the characters’ dreams devolve into “get as high as balls as constantly as possible”, which has predictable results.
Every first-year film student knows that the scariest part of a horror movie is what the audience’s cave-men logic and imaginations are doing to their lower bowel control. Like tantric sex, the whole point of horror should be to get as close as possible to slaughtering everyone, showing the monster, and explaining everything neatly — without actually reaching that point. Few movies accomplish this better than Paranormal Activity.
The story centers around a young couple that is slowly broken down physically and psychologically by an invading demon.
The demon, of course, could be anything to the viewer: a stressful job, an overbearing parent, a crumbling marriage. This movie, and horror films like it, distill the idea of conflict down to its very essence of some vague amorphous force that hates you and lets the audience fill in the blanks with their worst fears.
If you can watch this movie and not feel the slightest bit shaken or disturbed, you’re probably spending too much time on the internet. Go outside.
When someone asks what “Kafkaesque” means, the most appropriate response is usually “your job”.
On most men’s list of “Things I would not like to have happen to me,” “Getting butt-fucked by a squealing hillbilly” usually comes before just about everything else. This is because of Deliverance.
But (no pun intended) while many people focus on that one scene, the broader, more disturbing aspect of Deliverance is the idea that we as a species have become completely incapable of dealing with the natural world. So when confronted with a conflict, the city slickers flail about as survival of the fittest…uh…has its non-reach-around way with them.
Nature is often viewed as a pristine, idyllic place, but in reality, most humans are only protected from its fickle wrath by paved roads and a frail sense of civility.
There are many disturbing aspects to Irreversible, not the least of which is a nine-minute long rape scene starring Monica Belluci. However, the truly disturbing thing about Irreversible is how many people’s eyes light up at the phrase “nine-minute rape scene starring Monica Belluci.”
Many, many people walked out during the initial screenings of this movie — and most of them were men.
Salo’s mention in a list of disturbing movies is somewhat obligatory. There’s no more infamously twisted and gory movie in existence. To have seen it is something of a mark of courage. To have sat through the entire movie is something of a mark of intestinal fortitude.
When you combine Marquis de Sade with Fascists and Italian film making it is an unparalleled confluence of some of the most disturbing things to ever have existed. The movie watches the enslavement, torture, and eventual murder of a handful of young Italian teens by a rich family of sadistic aristocrats. Making the kids eat their own poo with a fork and knife is really just the beginning.
25th Hour is a divisive movie that you either think is one of the best of the aughts, or a lame boilerplate Spike Lee joint. The movie follows Edward Norton through his final day of freedom before beginning a 10-year sentence for possession of heroin. There are no giddy affirmations, no last-minute confessions of love, no sudden changes of heart during this 24 hour period. Just people being the terrible people they have always been.
Even in the face of what is essentially the end of their best friend’s life, no one can seem to get their shit together. The disturbing thing is how real it feels. How many people have truly changed overnight? How many people have truly been able to make themselves a better person without being browbeaten into it?
A final hypothetical fugitive sequence at the end of the movie seals the whole depressing point: even with full knowledge of what can come of a different course of action, it is impossible to make yourself a better person.
It is Fine! Everything is Fine.
Most people know Crispin Glover for two things: Charlie’s Angels and Alice in Wonderland. Bonus points if you still remember him as George McFly.
It is Fine! Everything is Fine. was written by Steven C. Stewart, who was afflicted by cerebral palsy. The story is set halfway between a 70s glitz and an early 80s noir and stars Stewart as a serial killer with Cerebral Palsy and a hair fetish who pays prostitutes to sleep with him then strangles them.
For the entire movie, you squirm uncomfortably in your seat and think disturbing questions: if it wrong for me to hate this serial killer even if he has cerebral palsy? Should I be rooting for him? Is it a positive image to portray a disabled person as having the same agency as a “normal” person?
You are shocked, awed, and absolutely paralyzed, unable to find any framework into which this movie fits, unable to judge, disparage or laud. It’s a gross, borderline exploitative spectacle that you know on some level is “art” but you are completely incapable of understanding. Like the best disturbing movies, it makes you feel stupid, small, and maintaining only loose control of your gastrointestinal tract.
While really anything by Lars von Trier could go on this list, Antichrist is by far one of the most disturbing and cringe-inducing. The movie is incredibly dense (or pretentious without any substance, depending on who you ask) but generally it centers around the idea that everyone is horrible and deserves to have their genitals mutilated…wait, what?
Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as a woman who hates herself and is married to Willem Dafoe who is apparently unable to wrap his head around the concept of self-loathing.
There are few other movies that are so confusing and angry and fill you with a sense of dread and an inability to ever trust anyone enough to have sex with them again. Any movie where the word “bloodcum” can be used to describe a scene will always rank high on this list.