17. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005)
In the final installment of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy, Lee Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) is wrongly convicted for the murder of a young schoolboy. In prison, she puts on a kind and soft demeanor and prison officials believe that she is reformed, so they release her early from prison. Once on the outside, she gets her revenge by kidnapping the real killer, who has murdered a number of children, and gives the parents of the dead children a chance for some revenge.
This movie should have been satisfying, but the justice rings hallow. The scene where all the parents are gathered together, waiting for their turn shows how one man can take so much from so many people. What could they possibly do to him that will fill that hole he has left in them?
16. The Snowtown Murders (Justin Kurzel, 2011)
Growing up in a poor neighborhood in Adelaide, Australia, 16-year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is a lonely and lost young man. He seems resigned to his horrible fate as a constant victim of sexual assault at the hands of both his brother and a boyfriend of his mother.
One day, a man named John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) is introduced to the family. John is a dominant figure that loathes pedophiles and he runs the boyfriend off. Afterwards, the new father figure spellbinds Jamie and he starts doing everything that John asks of him, which happens to be brutal crimes.
It’s not often that a movie about a serial killer also shows a murderer as a sympathetic victim. Jamie was so lonely and yearning for so much attention and the wrong person filled that void. The Snowtown Murders shows that when a poisonous person finds the right person to infect it can be utterly devastating.
15. 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003)
Told out of chronological order, 21 Grams tells the story of three people who are connected by one heart. They come together when Jack (Bencio Del Toro) runs down Cristina’s (Naomi Watts) husband and her two daughters. Before her husband dies, his heart is taken out and transplanted into Paul’s (Sean Penn) body. After the surgery Paul finds out whose heart he has and gets in contact with Cristina. They start a relationship and Paul vows to kill Jack for Cristina.
21 Grams examines how the tragic nature of accidents can have earthquake-like ripples through the lives of complete strangers. These accidents can leave a hole in people’s soul that is easily temporarily filled with sadness, anger, sex, religion, alcohol, and even violence. But as the film shows, there is no cure for grief and loss; at best it may just not hurt as much in time.
14. Menace II Society (The Hughes Brothers, 1993)
Menace II Society was released in the early 1990s during the rise of movies about young African American men living in the inner city. The dreary tone of the film is set in the first scene with the main character Caine (Tyrin Turner) and his best friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) in a store owned by an older Korean couple.
O-Dog starts arguing with the couple and ends up murdering both of them in cold blood. O-Dog takes the security footage with him, which was a way to hide his identity from the police. But then a short time later O-Dog shows it off to his friends and he laughs while he re-watches it. That is just one example of how awful things can get in Menace II Society.
It has an unshakable aura of violence that could explode at any time and anyone could be the victim. Due to the terrible and random violence there is also a sense of hopelessness that is thick in the film’s atmosphere. The only thing left to hope is that this is not an accurate depiction of street life.
13. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)
American History X is an intensely morose film where Edward Norton plays the role of Derek, a Neo-Nazi who has just been released from prison after spending three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. When Derek returns home he finds out that his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is following in his footsteps and he doesn’t like it. Danny is tasked with writing a report on Derek and Derek is hoping to show his younger brother the error of his ways.
It’s a horrifying film because it shows the long lasting effect that one person can have on another. It also shows that if the anger and the passion of a bright young person are molded in the wrong way, then the path of that person is forever altered, along with anyone they come in close contact with. Upon his release from prison, Derek realizes all that and he knows the way he lived his life was wrong. But does he still feel that way after the shocking ending?
12. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Martin Scorsese’s quintessential outsider drama follows anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) as he traverses mid-1970s New York. Travis lives in a city of millions, but he has no real connections in his life until he meets Iris (Jodie Foster), a prostitute who is in her early teens, and a political campaign volunteer named Betsy (Cybil Shepherd). Both women are at opposite ends of the culture spectrum and both reject him.
After the rejections, his mind mentally shifts from what seems like restraint to a quiet fury. And of course, all of this culminates in Bickle committing a triple homicide. Yes, he did it for good intentions, but he also massacred three men and not too many dramatic characters can be considered a hero after doing that.
Another element that changes the tone of the film is the ending. Did that cab ride really happen? Or is Travis really just dead? After all, if he did die, then everything he did might have been in vain – Iris’ fate is left unknown and his legacy may be that of a brutal mass murderer.
11. I Saw the Devil (Jee-woon Kim, 2010)
When the pregnant wife of secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) is brutally murdered by a serial killer named Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), he goes looking for revenge. However, his plan is much more complicated and sadistic than merely killing him. Instead, Kim repeatedly catches Kyung-chul, inflicts some brutal injuries on him and then allows him to go free.
The sadistic game of revenge leads to a number of innocent people getting killed in brutal ways, all so Kim can get his revenge. It’s a twisted plot that asks, who exactly is the devil?
While the plot itself is incredibly dark, the crimes, like sexual assault and murder, are so disturbing that they easily get under the skin. When someone is watching a serial killer movie, there can be a bit of a disconnect because the viewer knows they are watching a movie. But the crimes in I Saw the Devil are so perverse that they come across as intimate and realistic. This is definitely not a movie you want to watch on a first date with anyone.
10. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Roman Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece starts off a beautiful woman, Marilyn Elwray (Faye Dunaway), asking private eye J.J. “Jake” Getts (Jack Nicholson) to do some surveillance on her husband, who is the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. During the course of his investigation, Jake uncovers crimes that are much seedier and more disturbing than your standard noir film.
On the surface it looks like a case of murder and corruption, but as Jake gets closer to the truth, there are horrifying secrets that are so vile and shocking that it can leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. But what makes Chinatown one of the darkest of the noirs, neo or not, is the ending. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The line stings like a knife cutting through a nostril.
9. Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)
In this infamous Belgian mockumentary, a camera crew follows around a serial killer named, Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde), who is a charismatic psychopath that spends most of his time gleefully killing people in sadistic manners. At first, the camera crew just records Ben’s murders, but as the film goes on, they get more involved with his crimes.
At the time of its release the film was much too ugly for many critics and audiences. However, today Man Bites Dog is considered a cult classic, but that isn’t because the shock of the ugliness and the darkness has decreased in the ensuing years; that shocking bleakness is the reason it has secured its cult status.