The Most Disturbing Movies of All Time

Mainstream comedies and dramas are great. In an increasingly complicated world, cinema as a form of escapism is a valid move, and transporting an audience to a different world to make them laugh or cry is a noble endeavor in 2018. Plus, the people who claim to not enjoy being entertained by Marvel’s huge blockbusters like Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War are liars. But cinema is an all-encompassing monster, full of strange nooks and deep crevices filled with the most disturbing movies you could think of.

Horror is one of the most escapist genres we’ve invented. The most shocking movies are those that lean into a premise that’s either impossible or more hyperbolic than can be found in our own world. The specific sub-genre of disturbing movies, in particular—with their extended, realistic scenes of extreme violence, anxiety-inducing edits, torture, and total disregard for human life—offer a wholly different kind of escape. The terrifying movies on this list come with mental scarring and potential for years of nightmares, but trust me: there are people who love that kind of stuff.

If a movie can make you squirm, scream, or threaten to throw up your lunch, then it’s done its job. The movies on this list prove that a movie can still be considered artsy or significant, even if it’s on the extreme end of the violent spectrum. If you’re looking to find out what exactly we mean by the most disturbing horror movies, browse this list, choose wisely, and have some comedies queued up to cleanse your palate afterward. You don’t have to enter the Deep Web for these shocking movies; some of the most disturbing movies can be found on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. It’s that easy, so make sure you’re really ready before you press “play.”

10. Irréversible (2002)

Director: Gaspar Noé

Told in a backwards order, experimental French auteur Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible depicts the aftereffects of one of cinema’s all-time most shocking rape scenes. Clocking in at nearly 11 minutes long, the unbearably savage sequence is the film’s centerpiece, boosted into highly challenging performance art by Monica Bellucci’s superb performance. That the rape doesn’t totally overshadow everything else in Irréversible is a testament to its overall power.

In addition to the sight of a guy’s head getting smashed in with a fire extinguisher, shot in an extreme close-up, Noé’s visceral mind-basher of a film operates with an intense sense of dread; credit the unshakeable sensation to the director’s decision to open with a dizzying and nightmarish trip through a seedy gay nightclub that culminates in the aforementioned skull-crushing. Once that scene ends, one gets the feeling that they’re in the hands of a dangerous filmmaker, giving the remainder of Irréversible a haunting command on the nerves.

9. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Being perhaps the most grounded, and therefore horrifying, depiction of drug addition to ever be put on film, Requiem for a Dream is a stylized psychological thriller that shows the desperation of people chasing the dragon. Putting its focus on the lives of four addicts, Darren Aronofsky digs deep into the dark and twisted world these people inhabit and the self-made prisons of their own lives.

What Aronofsky does to make this a disturbing classic is that he is completely unflinching in the physical and psychological depictions of all of these characters. Their paranoid, depraved actions get under your skin right from the start as we witness these once-well-adjusted people spiral out of control.

Between Jared Leto’s gangrenous arm and Jennifer Connelly’s infamous sex show scene, there are images throughout this film that will stick with you well after the closing credits. Add the appropriately pounding score by Clint Mansell and you have one of the most vile, yet engrossing, movies to ever tackle the subject.

8. Aftermath (1994)

Director: Nacho Cerdà

Orchestrated by Spanish filmmaker Nacho Cerdà, Aftermath is a dialogue-free showcase of pointless immorality, albeit of the well-shot and hypnotically contemptible kind. In a darkly lit morgue, a nameless mortician stays after hours to further defile a female corpse after performing an extremely gory autopsy on the body. He probes her privates with his instruments, mutilates the body, and then adds necrophilia to his portfolio, snapping photos as he penetrates the stiff. Once he’s finished, the world’s worst mortician removes the woman’s heart and heads home to feed it to his dog. The end.

With no words spoken, Aftermath relies on its images to drive Cerdà’s vision of casual horror—mission uncomfortably accomplished. The short film’s visuals will sear into your brain, but what Aftermath reminds us about is actually far worse. After we die, what happens next is out of our hands; any sicko can take cues from Cerdà’s work here and desecrate our remains, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Or at least we think that’s the point of Aftermath. Admittedly, we were too busy gagging to analyze it for any rich subtext.

7. In a Glass Cage (1987)

Director: Agustí Villaronga

Of all the disgusting films on this list, Spanish director Agustí Villaronga’s artsy downer In a Glass Cage is certainly one of the most elegant. Viewed as a work of cinematic expertise, it’s actually quite commendable, powered by exemplary acting and a striking visual palette. It’s just not all that easy to subject one’s self to In a Glass Cage long enough to fully appreciate the movie’s technical prowess.

Unflinchingly mean-spirited, Villaronga’s historical button-pusher operates on a firm “humanity is awful” conceit. Klaus, an ex-Nazi psycho, who used to brutally torture young boys both physically and sexually, is left paralyzed in an iron lung after attempting suicide via a roof dive. His new nurse is a teenage stranger who reads through his charge’s journals, becomes obsessed with the stories of sadism, and proceeds to kidnap innocent kids and perform Klaus’ old tactics on them as Klaus is forced to helplessly watch.

When In a Glass Cage presents its devastating murders, Villaronga zooms in on the needles piercing hearts and blades slitting throats open, challenging the viewer to turn away. Not to mention, hate themselves for admiring such impressively executed malevolence.

6. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Director: John McNaughton

Loosely based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a crime thriller that follows the exploits of a crazed killer, played by Michael Rooker. During the film, Henry befriends a fellow prisoner named Otis, and the two go about a savage rampage of random killings with little remorse for any of their crimes.

What this movie does to separate itself from other serial killer dramas is that it never really focuses on cops or an investigation; instead, we’re stuck in the killer’s head the whole time, and after a while it becomes clear that it’s a very dangerous place to be. In the end, even the people Henry calls “friends” and “lovers” don’t stand a chance against his sick mind.

5. Audition (1999)

Director: Takashi Miike

When a middle-aged widower named Aoyama attempts to find love again, his movie producer friend sets up a fake casting audition to find him his next great love. Unbeknownst to them, he falls immediately for a deranged killer named Asami. After going on a few dates, Asami drugs and tortures Aoyama in one of the most uncomfortable and cringe-worthy scenes to ever be put on film.

After brutally poking and prodding him with elongated needles for what feels like an eternity, she then proceeds to stick a few right into his eyes. Then, as a sickening smirk begins to creep across her face, she cuts off his feet with a wire saw. It’s this scene alone that has made Audition a cult favorite for fans of horror/torture flicks everywhere. But we don’t suggest checking out this movie if watching dismemberments and eye torture doesn’t bring sadistic glee to your life.

4. Pink Flamingos (1972)

Director: John Waters

John Waters is one proudly depraved human being, and he came into the public consciousness with his colorful and twisted comedy, Pink Flamingos. Starring drag queen icon Divine, the movie tells the story of “the filthiest person alive” and we follow one disturbing exploit after another. During the course of the picture, Waters assaults our basic human decency with any number of perverse sexual acts and moments of the grotesque.

This movie doesn’t land on this list because of scenes of violence or torture; instead, this is here because of its depiction of incest, cringe-worthy nudity, and the ever-so-famous moment at the end where Divine proceeds to eat a pile of dog feces. But despite this, Pink Flamingos has managed to become an underground cult sensation over the years. We just don’t suggest watching it within 24 hours of eating.

3. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Director: Ruggero Deodato

You’ve got to give it to director Ruggero Deodato—he’s not a dishonest filmmaker. Just look at what he titled this one: Cannibal Holocaust. That right there implies all kinds of revolting imagery and depraved thoughts, which Deodato’s infamous exploitation flick delivers in bulk. It’s not like he called it Fun in the Jungle.

The only people having a good time in Cannibal Holocaust are the indigenous tribe members who tear through the fictional documentary crew at the movie’s center. Posited as a found-footage exercise, Deodato’s controversial picture supposedly shows footage from a missing team’s last days within an Amazonian jungle. What starts out as an all-access project meant to cover the cannibalistic tribe’s everyday practices quickly descends into the systematic killing of the documentarians.

Though, they had it coming: The men of the group rape one of the young female tribe members, which deletes her purity and causes her elders to impale her on a totem pole. As revenge, the Yanomamo natives chow down on one guy like his innards are a buffet and rape the crew’s sole lady before lopping off her head. Vegetarian Delight it’s not.

2. Nekromantik (1987)

Director: Jörg Buttgereit

Don’t let that title fool you—there’s absolutely nothing “romantic” about this German freak show. Well, unless you consider a married couple’s decision to spice up their sex life by swinging with a rotting corpse to be the stuff of Danielle Steele novels.

Obsessed with necrophilia, Nekromantik’s main character, Rob, brings home an anonymous dead body found in a lake and uses it as a sex toy of sorts with his equally disturbed wife, Betty. You can’t have a threesome when only one of the men is thrusting, of course, so she wraps a condom around a steel pipe and straddles it during their naughty time with the corpse. Eventually, Betty takes off with the body, which she’s grown close to after reading to it and cuddling alongside of it. Rob, having sunk into a depression, takes his anger out on a neighborhood feline (washing himself with its blood and guts in a tub) and a hooker (killing her and having sex with the remains).

So, yeah, Nekromantik isn’t ideal viewing for your stay-at-home date night. Shit, it’s not even recommended for lazy Fridays alone in the crib. As a parting gift, director Jörg Buttgereit ends Rob’s misery by having him jerk off and stab himself as he climaxes; if you can think of an appropriate time to subject your eyes to that, pat yourself on the back. And, please, stay away from us.

1. Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Some unbearably scathing flicks, including several on this here countdown, parcel their shocks throughout the course of their running time; Salò, however, never steps out for air. From top to bottom, notorious Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s relentless “statement” film subjects the viewer to uncompromising cruelty, nastiness, and escalating grotesqueries. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Salò’s only moments of calm are its opening and closing credits, though the latter’s more apt to serve as the background noise for one’s inability to pick his or her jaw off the floor.

Based on the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 book The 120 Days Of Sodom, Salò’s plot is skeletal: Four powerful Italian men kidnap nine teenage boys and nine teenager girls, trap them in a huge mansion, and wreak unholy havoc on them for four months. Salò depicts every disgusting act perpetrated by the elders, including, in no particular order: heads are scalped, tongues are cut off, eyeballs are snipped out, one girl is forced to eat feces, and several poor bastards are raped in front of large crowds.

Pasolini, intending to make vicious points about fascism, shows everything, avoiding tricky edits in favor of steady-cam, front-and-center shots of each and every sick visual. One watch is all it takes for Salò to burn itself into your memory for years hence. Just writing about it makes us want to take a shower.

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