To most, cinema is a form of escapism from an increasingly complicated society. Teleporting an audience to another realm to make them laugh, cry or think about the complexities of humanity is a hard feat in 2020. While most people enjoy Hollywood blockbusters like “The Avengers”, cinema’s darker side is generally forgotten or given a shallow reputation. Film is a multi-faceted creature, full of strange and deep crevices filled with things you probably never imagined could even be possible, and it’s in this spirit we explore the most disturbing movies of all time.
Horror films are easily the foremost escapist genre in art history. Tackling themes and characters that most humans would try and constantly avoid or don’t even imagine to be real. The most impactful and shocking films combine hyperbolic facets of real life with the impossible.
If a movie stays with you long after the initial viewing then it’s done its job. Despite critics quickly dismissing the darker side of film, there are lots of people who love a wholly different type of escape. Which generally includes: realistic scenes of violence, absurdism, torture and a general disregard for human life.
The Most Disturbing Movies on this list all come with a forewarning with potential to scar your mind for years to come and prove that a movie can still be considered artistic or poignant, even if it’s on the extreme side. If you’re curious to find out what lies beneath the surface of the conventional and one-dimensional movies we see advertised everywhere, you’re on the right list.
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #1
There’s nothing redemptive about this film, which is probably why it was never released theatrically in the United States. In interviews, when asked about the influence for the film director Pascal Laugier has said “Our occidental urban societies are filled with despair and brutality,” a feeling that “we’re living in a world close to its own end.” Martyrs could easily be categorized as self-indulgent, self-masturbatory and nihilistic for no reason. However, there’s something to be said about a movie that has such a polarizing effect on every viewer. At its core, this movie explores torture, revenge and the infinite capacity for human cruelty, which can be pretty topical for anyone living in modern society.
Martyrs tells the story of a once missing child Lucie, found wandering after her escape from some sort of subterranean torture chamber. Years later, Lucie ends up at an orphanage, where she recovers physically but not emotionally or mentally, she is haunted by the ghost of a woman she failed to free in her hurry to flee her captors. With the help of fellow orphan Anna, she eventually tracks down the people who eviscerated her life. This all leads to both troubled women confronting a seemingly normal upper middle-class family in an unusual house in the middle of the forest. Lucie has suspected that the parents of this family were responsible for kidnapping her all those years ago. Without revealing too much, bloodshed ensues and Anna quickly discovers Lucie was entirely right. There is a secret dungeon in the house, currently holding a badly abused woman resembling the ghost she earlier described.
From there a once seen, never forgotten 30 minute sequence begins. The audience is forced to watch the films heroine be subjected to brutal acts of degradation and torture, it sounds horrible … and it is. Led by “Mademoiselle” a sinister middle-aged woman tells Anna about her cult, which involves systematically torturing ‘martyrs’ under the guise of learning secrets of the afterlife through her victim’s extreme pain.
To me Martyrs is not just a most disturbing movie, but a ground-breaking movie. It challenges the audience to endure some of the most heinous acts seen on film and speaks largely on modern day atrocities we ignore, without any restraint. This movie continuously causes discussions about intent behind it all. Which is where all the best horror films come from. It’s exactly why Eli Roth movies are completely forgotten the next day, and some like Martyrs or Possession stay with you forever. Whether it’s a meta commentary on ‘torture porn’, society, or just a brilliantly visceral horror film doesn’t matter, because the impact it’s made on the genre will be hard to top. This movie left me feeling bludgeoned and wrecked emotionally, spiritually and genuinely horrified me.
For the brave few who seek out the darkest and most depraved cinema has to offer this is a must see. Watch the trailer below.THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #1
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #2
After returning from Ukraine, Jay, a British soldier joins an old friend as contract killers. Jay’s troubled past surfaces and spins out of control as shadowy employers raise the stakes of each hit. Combining realistic violence and murder with a non-pretentious, arthouse realism style captures a texture, mood and story I couldn’t have ever imagined myself. All typical genre film rules were broken in this story, and it plays out in a very serious tone because of that, adding depth, tension and an underlying existential dread as you watch.
Being able to manipulate your audience is a skill only the most touted directors such as Kubrick, Lynch, Cassavetes or Hitchcock could master. However, Kill List truly puts its viewers through an emotional meat grinder. A seemingly dull and stereotypical dark comedy about hitmen, QUICKLY shifts gears halfway through the film, resulting in one of the most baffling and disturbing buildups & endings to any movie in recent history I’ve seen. Kill List dares to ask ‘does a film even need payoff or resolution? Which makes the entire story more devastating as the story unravels.
Most genre films hit the audience over the head out of the gate, but Kill List has a certain restraint which makes for a captivating watch. A perfect balance of gore, crime, occultism and dry UK humour made this understated film one of my instant modern favourites. For those that want to feel like they’re suffering from a semi satanic themed fever dream, look no further. Check out the trailer below!
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #3
This experimental horror film was initially intended to be a theatre production, written produced and directed by Avant-garde artist Edmund Elias Merhige. Development for the film began in 1984 and wasn’t released until 1990 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Upon release, Begotten was banned in Singapore due to its graphic and disturbing content.
Merhige who owned a small theatre company, worked on several other experimental theatre productions before conceiving this nihilistic and nightmarish project. After discovering that his vision for Begotten as a dance theatre production with live music would cost a quarter of a million dollars to produce, he decided to adapt it to film instead.
At only 20 years old Edmund was cited to be inspired by theories and ideas of Philosophers Artaud and Nietzsche, which he believed needed to be adapted to film properly. References to other experimental artists like Francis Bacon, David Lynch and even themes from Christian and Slavic mythology and religion, including Creation, Mother Earth and various others are found throughout this extremely upsetting and gory black-and-white feature.
The entire movie was shot on 16mm using reversal film, a type of photographic film that produces a positive image on a transparent base. Reversal film is processed to produce transparencies or diapositives instead of negatives. Which gave this cult classic it’s hard to shake & other worldly atmosphere. Merhige reportedly devoted ten hours of work processing each minute of this 78-minute film.
Without revealing too much, if you’re squeamish I’d probably skip this one. And if you’re looking to be scarred with images for years to come…Look no further! Watch the trailer for this most disturbing movie below.
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #5
SEUL CONTRE TOUS
(I STAND ALONE)
While Argentinian-born Noé was traveling to France for the first time, upon landing his father turned to him and said “They eat horses here” which is unheard of in Argentina. Noé then decided that a horse meat butcher would make a great character in a film, and this formed the basis for his first short Carne (1991). Both Carne and Seul Contre Tous follow the nihilistic life of ‘The Butcher’. A nameless horse butcher whose life quickly unravels after a series of poor life decisions.
Unlike most current filmmakers, who execute ideas for shock or to be ‘transgressive’, Noé is a genuine artist who loves nothing more than upsetting his audience (or, in the case of Irreversible, making some faint), while expressing his thoughts and philosophies. This translates perfectly with the inability to look away at most of this very challenging film. For some reason you can’t help but sympathize with this terrible protagonist which makes this film such an incredible watch. Both Carne and I Stand alone weave together into one long tale of The Butcher’s unfortunate demise. And speaks more on the effects of poverty, and how it can force anyone into doing the unthinkable.
Philippe Nahon’s portrayal of The Butcher is a mesmerizing presence on screen, which has made I Stand Alone been likened to Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Schrader’s ‘Hardcore’. Gaspar Noè created a cinematic vision entirely of his own and not seen before with this sorry tale. And for some reason it’s hard to look away for even one frame.
Violence against women, animal slaughter, horse meat, incest and pure nihilism make this a perfect film for anyone looking for something on the darker side of cinema. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. This movie is a literal punch in the stomach for any viewers, experienced or not.
Watch the trailer below.
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #5
UN CHIEN ANDALOU
The idea for this surrealist nightmare began when Buñel was working as an assistant director for French filmmaker, film theorist, literary critic and novelist Jean Epstein in France. While out for dinner with Epstein and legendary artist Salvador Dalí, Buñel told Salvador about a dream in which a cloud sliced the moon in half “like a razor blade slicing through an eye”. Dalí responded that he had dreamed about a hand crawling with ants. Excitedly, Bruñel declared: “There’s the film, let’s go and make it.” Both artists were fascinated with what the psyche could create in dreams and decided to write a script based on the concept of suppressed emotions.
Shot entirely in black and white 35mm, the film was shot over a period of 10 days in March 1928. Sources state the film had a physical length of 430 metres. For many years reports have stated that Buñel had used the eye of either a pig, sheep or donkey in the notorious eyeball slicing scene, which has scarred me and generations before since its release. In a 1975 interview it was revealed a calf’s eye was used, in combination with intense lighting and bleaching of the calf’s skin, in order to make the furred face of the animal appear as human flesh.
As far as the plot goes, it can be open to interpretation. Bruñels intent with this film was to shock and insult the intellectual bourgeoisie of his childhood. Later saying “Historically, this film represents a violent reaction against what at the time was called ‘avantgarde cine,’ which was directly exclusively to the artistic sensibility and to the reason of the spectator.” Against his expectations, the film was a huge success amongst the French bourgeoisie leading Buñel to exclaim “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?”
The 17 minute short launched the careers of Buñel and Dalí after its success and scandalized bourgeois society, as they had hoped. The film famously opens with a woman’s eyeball being sliced open with a razor, and from there a parade of surreal images and related vignettes fill the screen: Hands crawling with ants, rotting donkeys on grand pianos; cross dressing men falling off tall bicycles and more make this ground-breaking short film not only one of the strangest and more mentally scarring films I’ve seen, but also probably one of the more daring projects in the history of film and cinema.
Any attempt to explain the meaning of this film I think misses the point entirely. Dalí and Bruñel wanted it to be an illogical mystery for all those who watched it. It’s still difficult to disentangle the film’s influence from the wider influence of surrealism in modern cinema, though critics have found echoes of Un Chien Andalou in everything from Mr. Oizo music videos to David Lynch to Roman Polanski. This film still gets a collective wince from audiences 90 years later, placing it on our Most Disturbing Films Of All Time List.
If you aren’t put off by eye surgery, death, rotting flesh or animals with a dash of surrealism, look no further! Watch the full film below!
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #6
This early 2000’s gem is quite over looked, probably because it was so poorly received and had such a limited release. Gilliam, the genius behind classics films such as Brazil, Time Bandits and The Holy Grail explores blurred lines and childhood trauma from a very surreal and noir fairy-tale esque angle in this Canadian-British made dark fantasy.
The controversy surrounding this film all stems from its use of very adult themes with a young protagonist. Tideland centers around Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) who was 9 while the movie was made, who plays the daughter of two drug addicts in a ramshackle home in a wide-open nightmarish prairie like setting. Both parents ‘check out’ early – though their rotting and later taxidermized bodies remain on screen throughout the film.
After her parents’ demise, Jeliza-Rose is forced into a fantasy world all of her own, and quickly descends into complete hallucinatory madness. Her only friends are three severed dolls’ heads and some very bizarre neighbours named Dell and Dickens.
In true Gilliam fashion, the direction behind this was very similar to his previous work. Featuring swooshing camera movements, tilted frames and over exaggerated acting. Creating a very dark dream like aesthetic, against a very over saturated and bright setting. All shot in Regina, Saskatchewan and the surrounding area in late 2004.
In response to the controversy surrounding the film’s FIPRESCI Prize, selected by an international jury of film critics who in their award statement said “Gilliam’s was the only one that dared to propose a risky and radical image, without any concession, on a specific matter: madness as the only way of escaping in the face of a hostile environment.” Gilliams ability to combine childlike sensibilities with existential themes made this one of the most impactful and disturbing films I’ve ever seen.
If you enjoy a difficult and long watch, Tideland is the film for you. Watch the trailer below.
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #7
MEN BEHIND THE SUN
From the depths of Kong Kong’s exploitation film history comes Men Behind The Sun (Hei Tai Yang 731), a “holy shit this actually happened” account of one of history’s most brutal and sadistic war crimes, Unit 731, brought to the screen in 1988 by T.F. Mous.
It’s estimated that 250,000 men, women, and children were experimented on and eventually killed either by the experiment or by soldiers under the direction of General Ishii, the lunatic leader of Japan’s notorious military unit. Unit 731 was a biological and chemical warfare research facility that performed hideous experiments on captured Chinese during World War II. Officially, the operation was known as the Epidemic Prevention of Water Purification Department and was set up by the Kempeitai military police, but in reality it was designed to create the most motherfucking deadly biological plague to end all plagues to unleash on the Chinese countryside. To this end, tens of thousands of people and animals were tortured to discover how to most effectively kill them.
T. F. Mous didn’t intend to make an “exploitation” film though (Men Behind The Sun isn’t an Asian SALO by any means), he wanted to create an educational epic to inform the world of what had been done by the Japanese. In Australia the film was just outright banned, in Japan, there was such a backlash (many Japanese refuse to admit to their country’s participation in war crimes) that Mous received death threats, and there was numerous criticism for the animal abuse that takes place in the film. According to most accounts, the animal vivisections, rat massacres, live cat skinning and other hideous experiments were, in fact, done with live animals. While the director has publicly disputed this fact, many who worked on the film confirm they went all the way…up to including real autopsy footage of a young boy.
But outside of the above scenes, the endless, brutal torture inflicted on the prisoners never lets up. And while not a fantastic film by any stretch, the scenes of over the top, stomach churning torture and gore become more impactful and nauseating by their true-to-life nature…everything in the film is based on notes and “research” recovered by the US when they destroyed Unit 731, research we still use to this day for medical and cosmetic research. Now THAT is disturbing.
THE MOST DISTURBING MOVIES: #8
Inspired by the leaked “Protect and Survive” films, in 1984 a BBC films team set out to create a relentlessly accurate vision of an atomic bomb landing on Sheffield. By accurate, we mean there’s no Will Smith to save us, no precocious teens with powers they’re only beginning to understand, none of that. What there is in Threads, the 1984 UK Post-Nuclear drama, is despair, and filth, and violence, and more despair. Directed by Mick Jackson (who, bizarrely, went on to direct The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston), a veteran BBC documentarian at the time, Threads is still considered to be the most realistic portrayal of Nuclear warfare put to film.
Directed as an unflinching news account of a nuclear attack, In Threads, amputations are delivered without anaesthetic; people bite on rags, a woman chews through her own umbilical cord. Humans build feeble shelters to be obliterated only seconds later, animals are encrusted with disease which they pass on to starving mutants, and looters kill with abandon as society collapses around the slowly dying citizens of Sheffield. We follow Ruth, who unexpectedly becomes pregnant on the eve of the Cold War ending by an ICBM exchange, and Jimmy, who quickly becomes evaporated as a Megaton warhead explodes above the city. As Ruth struggles to survive and escape the collapse of industrial Britain, we see first hand how people without anything left will do anything to survive.
What follows the initial assault is famine, disease and nuclear winter. Almost everyone dies, and those that live do so in barbaric squalor. A feeble harvest a decade after the war shows the hopelessness of the remaining 5%, left to scavenge and scrape by as the military maintains what control they can. Until its unimaginably bleak conclusion, Threads never lets up. There is no comic relief, no levity, only suffering, proving that to truly disturb you don’t need gore or sex, but a horribly real possibly of the future.
Note: This Article Has Been Updated From Its Original Format (April 2020)