As always, a list of the most disturbing films ever made is highly subjective and open to much debate. Regardless, the ones listed below have intense emotional impact due to intense stories, riveting characters, and a visceral nature that permeates the atmosphere. Needless to say, the tone is unsettling for each. From this list, three find themselves free of the horror genre moniker, though many can make a clear argument for their inclusion.
Afterwards, I have two separate lists for other disturbing horrors and non-horrors. As you’ll see, there is only one, if not two, torture porn movies on the main list. Since this sub-genre usually caters to gore without the emotional attachment, the popular installments, like Hostel and Wolf Creek, failed to make the list. After all, if a movie cannot conjure one’s emotions, then they don’t work on any level.
These top ten films come with an emotional sledgehammer to annihilate gray matter, neurons, synapses, and any other gooey parts that remain. Enjoy.
The list is in order by date of release, though the best of the best is the last of the main entries:
Salo (Italy/France, 1975) – 3.5 stars
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s iconic and final film before his brutal death is not a horror, though fans have tried to claim his work since its release. The story involves a group of Italian fascists at the end of World War II who believe they are superior to the citizenry. Reinforcing the terror of totalitarianism, they kidnap teenagers off the street to use and abuse as they wish. The final fifteen minutes of the feature is some of the most gut-wrenching brutality ever filmed. Pasolini used actual teenage actors, many appearing on film for the first time, much to the chagrin of critics and movie-goers.
Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, 1980) – 3.5 stars
Considered to be the most banned movie of all time, Ruggero Deodato was arrested by Italian authorities because they thought he had actually created a snuff film. In a sense he did. During the production, actors killed, butchered, and mutilated live animals – the most disheartening and barbaric focuses on the slaughter of a giant river turtle. Animal rights activists have been calling for Deodato’s head for decades. The story revolves around a young film crew who disappeared in the Amazon, and the film canisters that reveal their undoing. Yes, this is horror’s first foray into found footage.
Men Behind the Sun (Hong Kong, 1988) – 2.5 stars
This film was sponsored by Chinese authorities to expose the hostile treatment of their people at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. The film features Japanese soldiers experimenting upon and torturing Chinese citizens at a camp called Squadron 731. Like Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, animals are dispatched, but something darker rues the day: Human corpses were used to provide realism in freezing experiments and an autopsy. Though many find the film distasteful and horrific, Chinese leaders felt director Tun Fei Mou hadn’t gone far enough.
Audition (Japan, 1999) – 5 stars
From the beginning, Takashi Miike’s film is unsettling, but nothing beats the incredible third act of human torture. Even Miike said in an interview that this was where screenwriter Daisuke Tengan must have been doing drugs to create something so nightmarish. Then again, when a man hosts fake auditions for a non-existent television show because he’s actually in search of a mate, the audience knows karma will rear its ugly head in big, bad ways. Some viewers abandon the film once the notorious third act starts to needle them.
Irreversible (France, 2002) – 5 stars
Though not a horror, Gaspar Noé’s landmark cinematic feat makes it hard to think otherwise. Like the acclaimed Memento, this tale of a merciless attack on a woman is told in reverse. An infamous scene involving the horrific assault on Alex (Monica Bellucci) lasts nearly ten minutes – uncut. When first shown to French moviegoers, many booed, hissed, and walked out. Bikers threatened Noé, yet many women thanked him for not cowering from reality. As a screenplay, Irreversible provides a master class in storytelling craftsmanship.
Grimm Love (Germany, 2006) – 4.5 stars
The last non-horror in the list is Martin Weisz’s biopic about Germany’s Rothenburg case: Where a man allows himself to be killed and consumed by another man. The atmosphere’s mountain heavy and full of sorrow, and the end may leave one in tears. Weisz even referred to police photos, which one can find on the internet, to make certain his film captured the cannibalistic reality of this subterranean like love story, and it is as grim as it is disheartening.
Borderland (Mexico/USA, 2007) – 4 stars
Based upon a Mexican satanic cult murder cartel, responsible for the death of at least twenty people, including Mark Kirloy, a student from the United States, the tension in this film never lets up. One of the very best in the “A Film to Die For” series, Zev Berman delivers the perpetually unnerving and near hopeless nightmare in grand fashion. This may make anyone second guess their spring break choices.
Grotesque (Japan, 2009) – 1.5 stars
This was certainly made with gorehound fanaticism in mind. In Kôji Shiraishi’s exploitation of innocents in agony, a crazed “doctor” kidnaps a young couple on their first date and tears them to shreds, piece by piece, over the course of 73 minutes. That’s it. Shear unadulterated brutality and degradation. The entire film is almost pornographic in the sense that one can’t imagine there being a script. Hold onto your private parts for dear life – and keep your therapist on speed dial.
A Serbian Film (Serbia, 2010) – 4 stars
Srdjan Spasojevic has a couple of scenes in this freakish horror show that might not be topped for years – as long as you get the true uncut version (not the pseudo-uncut trash sold through many a website). In A Serbian Film, a retired adult star is drawn by money to make one last film, which may endanger his relationship with his family. That may sound like a simple thriller but this movie’s far from simple. Plastered with strong acting, excellent cinematography, and a story that may leave you crying, the director’s movie serves as a metaphor for how one’s treated in Serbia – from birth till death. And what an unpleasant birth it is.
Martyrs (France/Canada, 2008) – 5 stars
This is the queen mother of disturbing cinema. Sure, other films may have more gore, more twisted premises, and more diabolical wingnut villains. But Pascal Laugier’s gorgeous ultra-bad dream serves as a traumatic taste for the senses – torture porn with a philosophy. The story, acting, special effects, cinematography, and editing are rock solid. But the crux is the tale itself, which one should never spoil with a plot summary. As far as horror films go, this has one of the most poignant endings of all time.
Other disturbing horrors of merit: Eraserhead (1977), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Visitor Q (2001, Japan), Inside (France, 2007), Deadgirl (2008), and The Bunny Game (2012)
Other disturbing horrors: Shogun’s Sadism (Japan, 1976), The Human Centipede (Netherlands, 2009), and The Human Centipede II (2011)
Other disturbing non-horrors: Sunset Boulevarde (1950), 1984 (UK, 1984), The Cook The Thief The Wife and Her Lover (UK/France, 1989), Glory (1989), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Dogville (Denmark/ Sweden/UK/France/Sweden/Germany/Netherlands/Norway/Finland/Italy, 2003), The Constant Gardener (UK/Germany/USA/China, 2005), Funny Games (USA/France/ UK/Austria/Germany/Italy, 2007 – and don’t forget the 1997 version), Antichrist (Denmark/Germany/France/Sweden/Italy/Poland, 2009), and We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK/USA, 2011)
Now, horror or otherwise, what are your most disturbing films?
(Photo from Movie Posters.)