When you pay to see a movie up on the big screen, it’s because you want to be entertained. If you’re disturbed, then you’re not getting a positive experience out of the whole thing. You leave the theater feeling cold and shaken, and sometimes even traumatized. But still, there is merit to disturbing movies.
Some people get an adrenaline rush out of watching something that takes them out of their comfort zone, and directors like David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky — whose recent mother! has scared away moviegoers — have turned disturbing their audience into a weird, experimental art form.
Hold onto your hats — in case you need to throw up in them — because here are the 15 most disturbing movies of all time.
Choose life. Trainspotting is Danny Boyle’s beautifully-crafted adaptation of the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name about a bunch of Scottish heroin addicts, specifically Renton, played by Ewan McGregor (who is now better known as Obi-Wan Kenobi).
Apart from the general subject matter of heroin addiction, which is really grim as it is, the movie features some truly disturbing imagery, namely a dead baby. The baby dies as a result of neglect by a mother who is always high on smack and allows days to go by without so much as looking at her child, let alone feeding it.
This dead baby returns to haunt Renton when he goes cold turkey from heroin and experiences a demented, nightmarish hallucination of the baby crawling up the ceiling and turning its head around 180 degrees, owl-style, to face him. Oh, and there’s the grotty, diarrhea-ridden toilet that Renton dives into in search of a pill. Some truly horrifying stuff.
People didn’t get mother!. That’s why it got such a poor rating on CinemaScore. It was directed by Darren Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan fame, and on the surface, it would seem like a creepy movie about a woman who doesn’t want people coming into her house and her husband, who gladly invites in hundreds of people.
But that’s not all it is. It’s an allegory. mother! is Aronofsky’s adaptation of the Bible. It’s about Mother Earth, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who has just renovated this perfect, beautiful house, and God, played by Javier Bardem, who wants to invite everyone in and give them the free will to fuck it all up, which angers Mother Earth.
And then there’s Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer as Adam and Eve touching the forbidden fruit and the crucifixion of baby Jesus, and that’s when it gets really disturbing. A baby gets killed. Not like in The Passion of the Christ, like an actual baby breaks every bone in its body and dies at the hands of a crowd of people.
And then everyone in the room eats its corpse. It’s totally fucked up. But it has a point. That’s what Christianity is.
Lord only knows what’s going on inside David Lynch’s head. You have to imagine that what Lynch sees when he closes his eyes looks something like Eraserhead, his experimental black and white debut feature that he shot half of, lost the funding, and then shot the other half a few years later. It’s a disturbing piece of work.
There’s a scene where the main character is in bed and he’s staring at the radiator and the camera goes into the radiator and shows a little woman inside there with big, puffed-up cheeks doing a little dance.
There’s a scene where he has dinner with this girl’s parents and her father gets all confrontational about whether or not the two of them have engaged in “sexual intercourse.” And then he cuts the chicken and it starts to bleed…out of its vagina. This is no normal movie.
12. Funny Games
Funny Games tells the story of two young men who decide to break into the home of a family who are on holiday and play some sadistic games with them. They just decided to do it. That was the thought process. ‘Hey, let’s do this. Let’s break into this house and terrorize this family. That’ll be fun.’ That’s all that went through their heads.
One of the guys keeps smiling and winking at the camera, like we’re supposed to be in on it. That’s what makes the whole thing really, truly disturbing. We’re a part of it. He’s winking at us like we’re on his side.
Film critic Jacques Rivette was very unhappy with the disturbing nature of the film, calling it “a disgrace,” “vile,” and “a complete piece of shit.” He’s not far off, to be fair.
11. Requiem for a Dream
Requiem for a Dream is a hypnotic movie about addiction. It does feature drug addiction, but also food addiction. It makes the parallel there. But it’s mostly a portrayal of drug addiction, and it isn’t pretty. Darren Aronofsky very graphically portrays the cravings of people with addictions and how difficult it is to walk away from them.
It’s horrifying, but so true. At the end, Jared Leto is tripping and he falls and it seems like he’ll be fine within the trip, but what’s really happening is that he’s jumping off the side of a building. It’s gruesome in real life. He wakes up in hospital to experience the very real repercussions of what he did while he was high. Now, let that be a message to you all.
10. I Spit on Your Grave
The controversy surrounding I Spit on Your Grave knows no bounds. Roger Ebert called it a “vile bag of garbage” in his review and a number of countries banned the film on the grounds of its gratuitous violence. So, what is it about? Well, as with all of the most disturbing movies, the premise is very simple. A monkey could understand it.
I Spit on Your Grave tells the story of a woman who goes out into the woods for some peace and quiet to work on her novel when she’s kidnapped by a gang of four bad hombres and brutally beaten and raped by them.
What’s the point? There’s no point. The movie exists only to disturb you with a long, extended, graphic rape scene. That’s it. Enjoy.
9. A Serbian Film
A Serbian Film is a really horrible movie. It’s about a porn star who wants to get out of doing porn and into doing serious cinematic work, so he takes a role in what is described as an “art film.” But as he starts work on this damned thing, he quickly realizes it is far from art.
It’s a snuff film that involves sadistic sexual violence involving children and dead people. There is a scene in which a woman gives birth to a newborn baby, and a man immediately rapes the baby. The uncut version sees his penis literally going inside this brand new baby.
You have to ask yourself who the hell decided that would be a good idea and went to the trouble of actually making it. Who in God’s name thought that a baby being raped was something the world needed to see?
Lars von Trier is a wacky director. His movies are an ordeal. Antichrist opens with a baby jumping out of a window and dying while its parents are having sex in the other room. At this point, you’re already beyond disturbed, so you stick around to see where the hell this is going.
The parents are so guilty about the whole experience that they go out into the woods on a whim. There’s a truly horrifying scene where the mother destroys the father’s balls so terribly that he is knocked unconscious, and then she proceeds to jerk him off until he ejaculates blood out of his penis.
That’s not quite what the Lumière brothers had in mind when they invented cinema, but it’s certainly interesting.
7. Blue Velvet
David Lynch is the cinematic master of the sick and disturbing movie. He tried his hand at a Hollywood blockbuster when he made the sci-fi movie Dune and it failed miserably.
So he retreated back to familiar territory with this tale of American suburbia crossed with his own skewed vision of the world, where there’s murder and sex and weird stuff like a dead body that’s still standing somehow.
In the sexy, noir, creepy Blue Velvet, we have Isabella Rossellini forcing Kyle MacLachlan to strip naked at gunpoint, and neither of them are even the star of the show. That title goes to Dennis Hopper as the psychopathic criminal Frank Booth, who is so well known now that he ranks at number 36 on AFI’s list of the top 50 film villains of all time.
6. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
The premise of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is very simple. A serial killer named Henry goes on a random killing spree. That’s it. That’s all the movie is about. It was super controversial when it first came out, especially when the MPAA gave it an X rating.
The risk was minimal to the filmmakers, who spent less than a month making it, shooting on 16mm film, on a budget of $110,000, so they didn’t care about the controversy. They managed to get a limited release out to theaters with an unrated cut. That’s what they wanted. They weren’t looking to make Titanic money or Avengers money.
Their movie is about a serial killer who goes out and kills people. He’s the protagonist-ish. Rotten Tomatoes calls the movie “an effective, chilling profile of a killer that is sure to shock and disturb,” while Roger Ebert called it “a very good film” that was “a low budget tour de force.” It’s true.
5. Capturing the Friedmans
The most vile and shocking piece of cinema you will ever see is a documentary aired on HBO in 2003. It tells the story of a family unit when said family contains a father and son who have pleaded guilty to child molestation and sexual abuse charges.
As horrifying and grim as it is, it is fascinating. You’re completely disgusted and disturbed by these people, and yet you can’t look away, because it’s a riveting documentary and a chilling bunch of people.
The movie was duly well received by critics and audiences, as it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, although real life victims of the Friedmans contested this nomination.
It was also found in a Channel 4 poll in 2005 to be the fifth most popular documentary ever made, which is no easy feat for a movie about the lives of child molesters.
4. The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream fame made The Last House on the Left, one of the most disturbing movies of all time. Here’s the rich premise he cooked up: these guys kidnap these girls, drag them out to the woods, and brutally torture them. That’s it. That’s the whole movie.
The poster for it bore the tagline, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…” That’s because it’s really harrowing and horrifying and borders on being beyond entertainment and veering into the territory of terrible discomfort. It was banned in a number of countries for its graphic depiction of sadistic violence.
Still, Roger Ebert called it “about four times as good as you’d expect.”
3. Man Bites Dog
When you think of the mockumentary genre, you probably think of The Office or Parks and Rec or Spinal Tap or Modern Family. Does a Belgian serial killer cross your mind? No, of course not! But someone made that movie.
Man Bites Dog, whose original foreign title translates into the even creepier “It Has Happened Near Your Home,” is the mockumentary about a serial killer – and it’s funny! It has a very dark sense of humor! This isn’t even a serious movie, it’s a comedy! It’s about a documentary crew who are filming a serial killer’s crimes and get swept up in his dark world.
The film received the rare US certificate of NC-17. A positive review by The LA Times reads, “Man Bites Dog defines audacity. An assured, seductive chamber of horrors, it marries nightmare with humor and then abruptly takes the laughter away.
Intentionally disturbing, it is close to the last word about the nature of violence on film, a troubling, often funny vision of what the movies have done to our souls.”
2. The Human Centipede
One day, a Dutch moviemaker called Tom Six made a joke to his friends that child molesters should be punished by having their mouth sewn to the anus of a “fat truck driver.”
That gave him the germ of an idea for his most famous (and infamous) movie, the story of a mad scientist who kidnaps three tourists and sews them together in this fashion in order to create a “human centipede.” The movie is a truly vile and disgusting thing. It wouldn’t have even been made if Six had been truthful with his investors.
The financiers of the movie didn’t know what it was really about until the film was complete and they couldn’t pull their money out, which they surely would had they been shown a full script or some rushes, or even been told the premise.
1. A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s movies were always pretty weird and had disturbing moments, like the graphic suicide in Full Metal Jacket, the masked orgies in Eyes Wide Shut, and just about everything in The Shining. But no Kubrick movie was as totally disturbing from start to finish as A Clockwork Orange.
It was kind of a comment on bureaucracy, but it was mostly a debauched, depraved, dystopian story of a young boy who does whatever he wants whenever he wants. Unfortunately for the viewer, this involves graphic rape and violence for fun.
And unfortunately for the viewer, he gets caught and subjected to the most vile punishment imaginable, as his eyes are pried open and he’s forced to watch hours of propaganda.
The movie was divisive when it was released, with critical reception ranging from an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture to a review that called Kubrick a “bad pornographer.”
But contemporary critics consider it a classic. It has a 90 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, “Disturbing and thought-provoking, A Clockwork Orange is a cold, dystopian nightmare with a very dark sense of humor.”