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The 20 Most Disturbing Movies of All Time

01 January 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Tom Blicq

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Blood, violence and depravity are themes that’ve shown up in our artwork for thousands of years. The thrill of watching gladiators torn apart in battle was once a popular form of recreation. Indeed, during the times of barbarism and cavemen, the law of the land was kill or be killed.

Mankind’s bloodlust, it would seem, is old as mankind itself. Our methods for pandering to it may have changed, but our repressed, savage desires have not. There’s no denying that the survival instincts of our ancestors remain with us to this day. So, how is one to satisfy their twisted cravings? What outlets exist? The answer: simulation.

Before the rise of disturbing artistry in film, audiences got their fix in the form of live theater. One such theater, the Grand Guignol, was among the first of its kind to depict acts of rape, torture and dismemberment before a voyeuristic live audience. The Grand Guignol shocked and horrified a generation of Europeans in the heart of Paris, from 1897 until its closing in 1962. By then, the advent of cinema was in full swing. Live theater had taken a backseat to the incredible, booming popularity of the big screen.

It wouldn’t be long before underground films began surfacing in video collections. These films defied the conventions and boundaries set by such milestone pictures as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Foreign directors like Ruggero Deodato and Hideshi Hino would produce “senseless and depraved” motion pictures, a few of which would go on to become cult hits. In response, the movie-going public turned the other cheek, and Hollywood studios continued to play it safe. The market for cinema’s dark underbelly was still finding its feet.

By the early 1970s, the envelope was pushed much further. The enormous gap between Hollywood studios and underground filmmakers was bridged by the controversial works of directors like Stanley Kubrick. During this time, the public eye began to shift from disgust to marginal acceptance. Fearing the economic threat posed by taboo subject matter, the industry resisted. Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, would be withdrawn from release in response to accusations that the picture had inspired real life rape and murder. Mainstream censorship wasn’t going down without a fight.

It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that the slasher movement introduced audiences to gratuitous onscreen violence and gore. At this point in time, major studios like Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema were getting behind such gruesome flicks as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The legacy these iconic films carried with them would set the standard for things to come thereafter.

Given the context of its history, the world of disturbing film has come a long way. Throughout its evolution, a small handful of works have pushed boundaries to such an extent and in so unique a fashion that they occupy a class all their own. With this in mind, Taste of Cinema proudly presents a list of the Top Twenty Most Disturbing Films of All Time. Each picture has been selected based on culture impact, lasting appeal and shock factor, relative to the context of its time of release.

Let’s begin, shall we?

 

20. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

From start to finish, Apocalypse Now accurately depicts the sheer madness, bloodshed and depravity of war-torn Vietnam. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film manages to be as colorful as it is brutal and gritty. The grim atmosphere is held up by a stellar cast, including old favorites such as Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper, while introducing new faces that would go on to become huge, like Lawrence Fishburne.

Chock full of disturbing sequences and upsetting themes, Apocalypse Now extends its ambitions far beyond that of old war movie clichés. One scene sees an American squad recovering a puppy, shaken and traumatized by the horrors of battle. A soldier becomes attached to the pup, only to later lose his mind amidst a mass of brainwashed Vietnamese villagers, who are led by the elusive Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando)—an American special forces officer gone rogue.

The film captures the hopeless struggle of the Vietnam War to a tee. Lead character Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) embodies the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in a young soldier. This psychological element elevates the film beyond other war pictures, by depicting the brutal, life-altering consequences of war on the human psyche.

 

19. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange

Based on Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name, Kubrick’s scope and vision for A Clockwork Orange remain unmatched to this day. The story concerns a young man named Alex, played by the then-unknown Malcolm McDowell. Alex wanders the streets of a futuristic Great Britain with his gang of hoodlum friends. Each night, the gang pleasure themselves with “ultra-violence,” as well as “a bit of the ol’ in-out-in-out”—a perverse slang term for statutory rape.

Eventually, Alex is caught and arrested. He is sent from prison to a psychiatric hospital, where an experimental form of therapy leaves him dazed and vulnerable. The hospital deems his treatment a “successful rehabilitation,” and they promptly release him. Back on the streets, Alex is defenceless. Those he wronged and violated in the past are quick to turn the tables, exacting brutal revenge.

For the time of its release, A Clockwork Orange features a horrifically graphic rape scene, as well as ruthless violence. The story is told from the perspective of an irredeemably evil youth. This helps contribute to the film’s subversive nature and questionable moral message. Kubrick does an excellent job creating a distant dystopia, where politics are corrupt, and the law is rewritten each day in blood on the streets.

 

18. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

requiem_for_a_dream

This film explores the many horrifying facets of drug addiction. Four main characters living in Brooklyn are looking to free themselves from the shackles imposed by their substance abuse. All are tormented by visions of pain and torment, intermixed with flashes of utopic ecstasy.

As their addictions continue to spiral downward, their hallucinations become increasingly morbid, and the lives of each addict begin to unravel. By the end of the film, each character is wrestling with depression and hopelessness. The slow, heroin and coke-induced descent into madness is foreshadowed perfectly, and the consequences truly are horrendous.

Requiem’s central character, Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), makes the greatest impact because his of his behavioral and emotional dynamics. We observe his transition from casual user to desperate junkie within a time frame of only a few weeks. The effect this has on his close friends and family make the film especially hard to watch.

In one scene, Harry demands that his girlfriend, Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly), prostitute herself to her psychiatrist for drug money. Reluctantly, she does. It’s scenes like this that accentuate the helplessness and horrifying desperation associated with drug addiction.

 

17. The Last House on the Left (1972)

The Last House on the Left

The directorial debut of horror maestro Wes Craven remains one of his most shocking films to date. The plot involves two young girls, Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) and Lucy Grantham (Phyllis Stone), who are brutally abducted, raped, tortured and eventually murdered by a band of psychotic criminals. Ironically, the sociopaths later arrive at the Collingwood residence, masquerading as travelling salesmen.

Claiming to have nowhere to stay, the parents offer to let the group spend the night in the guest room. Later that evening, Estelle (Cynthia Carr), notices one of the “salesmen” wearing her daughter’s signature peace symbol necklace. Eavesdropping, the parents learn the location of their daughter’s corpse and recover it. They then begin working together to exact a horrible vengeance.

This film rests firmly in the category of exploitation-horror, and isn’t afraid to show it. Scenes of mutilation, emasculation, and rape are abundant throughout. Last House’s gruesome nature is made even stronger by the audience’s emotional investment in the parent characters. Viewers will empathize with the Collinwood’s need for revenge, thus driving the film to its thrilling conclusion.

 

16. The Human Centipede (2009)

the-human-centipede

Written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Tom Six, The Human Centipede tells the story of Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie)—two American tourists backpacking through Germany. Both are drugged and kidnapped by a psychotic surgeon named Dr. Josef Heiter (Dieter Laser).

They awake in a makeshift medical ward built underneath the doctor’s home. There, along with Japanese tourist Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), the women become unwilling participants in a three-way medical procedure. Dr. Heiter explains that the victims will be sewn together, mouth-to-anus, so that they share a continuous digestive system.

For many, the premise of The Human Centipede is disturbing enough on its own. Following the doctor’s surgical procedure, however, the tourists’ suffering, humiliation and anguish are dragged out endlessly. This elevates the film above its simplistic premise by putting each of the victims at the doctor’s mercy.

Tom Six includes a wide array of tests and activities for Heiter to impose upon his unwilling patients. One scene sees him training “the centipede” to fetch the newspaper like a dog. While sadistic, this scene pales in comparison to the sequence where Katsuro has to defecate, and does so in the mouth of the woman sewn to his rear. The doctor’s morbid cries of “Yes, feed her!” are enough to send chills down the spine of even the most jaded viewer.

 

15. Pink Flamingos (1972)

Pink Flamingos (1972)

This film involves two groups of people fighting over who is considered “The Filthiest Person Alive.” As ridiculous a concept as this may sound, Flamingos succeeds as both a black comedy and a disturbing exploitation flick. Cross-dressing lead “Divine” does an excellent job portraying a sleazy drag queen living with her hippie son Crackers (Danny Mills) and obese mother Edie (Edith Massey).

Divine prides herself in holding the tabloid-given title of “Filthiest Person Alive.” However, all of that changes when the family receive a package containing a piece of excrement and a card, declaring the anonymous writers to be the new holders of the title. Outraged, Divine and her family of misfits go on a crusade to exact revenge. Chaos and hilarity ensue.

Pink Flamingos contains numerous upsetting scenes. The ending sequence, where Divine eats a fresh dog turd off the sidewalk, is widely considered to be the most famous and iconic. Far more upsetting, however, is the clip where a live chicken is crushed to death between two lovers engaging in intercourse.

For all its sick and revolting displays, Pink Flamingos redeems itself through the use of darkly humorous camp. The film is an attack on the picture-perfect, lavish and expensive way of life portrayed by mainstream Hollywood. This makes the film artistic as well as exploitative, placing it head-and-shoulders above other cult pictures of the time.

 

 

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  • Dean Strohm

    Just my thoughts, but I never thought of Apocalypse Now (1979) as being disturbing. Personally I believe that The Girl Next Door (2007) should have been on this list!

    • Tom Blicq

      I’ve heard excellent things about The Girl Next Door. Many reliable sources claim the film is highly disturbing. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see it. I have read the novel by Jack Ketchum, however. Perhaps, if I ever write a list on “Famous Horror Novels That Became Films,” I’ll include it there.

      As for Apocalypse Now, I decided to include it because I felt it to be a very psychologically disturbing film, one that shows the post-traumatic
      effects of war, as well as the depravity and chaos bred by military
      leaders gone rogue. The film has all of its disturbing elements grounded in reality, and thus, I feel people can easily relate to these
      elements (i.e.: war, violence, insanity, ruthlessness, cultist ritualism, etc).

      That said, I fully understand why some viewers don’t find the film as disturbing as it was upon initial release in 1979. To each their own.

    • I Am Tyler Durden

      I came to the comments to suggest Girl Next Door which personally I find the most disturbing film I ever saw (I’ve seen all on this list except Salo) and now see others are in concurrence. For me it’s always about context and reality. GND is based on a true story and starts with a sentimental Stephen King style nostalgia that left me unprepared for what was about to happen. There is a distinction between sickening onscreen gore and what is psychologically disturbing. I put Schindler’s List as the 2nd most disturbing film because of the cold offhand nature of the violence.

  • SAW????

    • Joshua ‘Squire’ Mcdowell

      yawn

  • Stephus

    Nice list!! However the idea of “disturbed” has changed with time and things that were disturbing are not anymore, for this reason I’d add to your list “The Arrival Of A Train” Lumiere Brothers’ movie that made people scared, and ran away from the cinema because they thought the train would come out the screen ran over them. I’d also add “An Andalusian Dog” Bunuel’s surreal short that are still disturbing somehow.

    • HLLH

      Un Chien Andalou is so cool!

    • Ricardo Filipe Matos

      Good point, Stephus, the concept of disturbed changes, not only from an historical and social view, but in a cultural way too. Yes you could add Un Chien Andalou, or even a Tetsuo, or even Franju’s less known short documentary Le Sang des Bêtes that shows you ultra-realistic gory images but you can’t psycologically separate from the memory of war. In the end, is kind of subjective, the idea of a distrubed film as a kind of “genre” can only be plausible when most of us accepted as so. Nevertheless, this is a great list, really loved it Tom, thanks!

    • thegoddamnbatman

      Bunuel’s Chien Andalou was one of the sources of inspiration for Guinea pig.

    • Jack Napier

      Un Chien Andalou perhaps deserves an honourable mention but the story of people running from the screen when The Arrival Of A Train was played is more or less an urban legend. Many film scholars believe this to be false including Martin Loiperdinger, who makes a pretty convincing case.

  • debcee

    After seeing the first films on the list, I was hopeful that this wouldn’t be another predictable rundown of Cannibal Holocaust, Salo, A Serbian Film, etc. There are so many ways to consider the term “disturbing;” I wish the author had picked a more precise definition and stuck with it. Because, honestly, any list that includes both Apocalypse Now and Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood is disturbing in itself. (Also, it would have been worth noting that both versions of Funny Games were made by Michael Haneke.)

  • Aggelo Gjeorgi

    compliance (2012)

  • Grace Skerp

    Freaks (1932) should be on this list.

  • George Romerofan

    Martyrs ( 2008 )

    • Tom Blicq

      Martyrs (2008) is on the list. Spot #14.

  • Ryan

    In Eraserhead, he cuts open the bandage wrapped around the “child” and it turns out it was part of it’s body. Different and way more disturbing than the article makes it seem.

    • I Am Tyler Durden

      Yep, that’s a moment I will never forget.

  • Mike White

    You need to watch more movies.

  • At this point I would suggest that the Act of Killing belongs somewhere on that list. Not so gruesome, but knowing the actors are really murderers enacting their own crimes? That’s damned disturbing.

  • M Britton

    How can we forget “A Serbian Film”? This movie is the most vile and disturbing (but you cannot stop watching) film I have ever seen. Look it up and see if you are brave enough to watch it.

    • Steve B

      You mean number 11?

  • Timothy Bruce Moriarty Hole

    I would swap out Apocalypse Now, and replace it with ‘Come and See’, which is such an insanely harrowing but brilliantly executed film about war. It’s a must see…

    I suppose one of the reasons the plot of Men Behind The Sun seems so plausible is because it is based around Unit-731 which was one of many research facilities during WW2. You should read about the horrific things that went on there. Nothing in modern history compares to it in my mind. The systematic killing by the Nazis is one thing, Mengele’s experiments were terrible also…but what the Japanese did is beyond comprehension. This is something that the Chinese in particular have never forgiven them for. To make matters worse at the end of the war, the scientists were given a pardon by the Americans in exchange for their research. Shiro Ishii who ran the camp died an old man and a hero back in his country, whilst others went to America to work. I should add that this is not conspiracy, it’s historical fact, but one that is not actively discussed and few people know about.

    Nice list…

    • John W. Thackery

      I agree, Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece but I wasn’t really disturbed by it. Come and See on the other hand…

  • David Goodall

    Eden Lake (2008)

  • Pavel Dumitrescu

    I’d replace “Apocalypse Now” with “Come and See”, far more disturbing imo

  • Mariam MH

    Under The Skin maybe?

  • Maximo Cunillera

    ” a chien andalu”.
    “Ichi the killer”
    Freaks
    Lumieres bros. The train arrival
    Audition
    The exorcist
    Tetsuo the iron man

  • Spiderpigmom

    Max mon Amour. Made me want to take a shower. Or three.

  • Rita Elena Lopez Diaz

    What about Antichrist directed by Lars Von Trier!!

  • Daxton Norton

    You mentioned several films I haven’t either seen or heard of. Thanks. I’d say any film that has rape or torture is disturbing, and many of these do. Audition could be added to the list.

  • Medusa

    I like the list and most of all – the reasoning behind each entry. Of course, “disturbing” is a subjective concept which depends not only on your own upbringing, personality, moral stance, but also film-watching experience. In this regard, I believe that the list was comprised very well. And yes, of course “the predictable” Salo, Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig would be in this list – they obviously fit the category. I would have personally included some more examples of Asian cinema, and would have moved Begotten way higher.

  • Jesus

    Enter The Void should be right next to Irreversible on the disturbing scale. Honestly, you question your very own existence. Super existential and creepy like no other.

  • Greta list. FLower sof FLesh and Blood was kind of lame to me, due to the poor realism. MORDUM… Mordum was a fantastically disturbing ride…. The rest of August Underground is too full of cheese and wanna-be realism to qualify. Effects are great, but unbelievable. MORDUM was INSANE. Men Behind the Sun and SALO rank up there. I have sought out the worst of the worst, and outside of realistic murder videos, Mordum takes it followed by Men Behind The Sun, and SALO. And that’s for fiction. ISIS doesn’t have shit on the Dnepropetrovsk maniacs….. Seriously, disturbing, disgusting, real…. I’m a tough son of a bitch. I’ll carry you, your blood, and your guts for miles before I’ll let you die. But watching the senseless murder of innocent people…. That’s my line, brother. I’m drunk, sorry for the rant.

  • Grzegorz Główny

    Nice list. What about Nekromantik (1987)?

    • Lio Mustoni

      um… it’s on the list

  • Appa Tha Mayor West

    i Find none of these movies disturbing I really wanted to see something more crazy

  • Anthony Nadeau

    Deliverance for the rape scene , The Accused also for the rape scene
    Not sure why those scenes are even in a film for the act itself is a horrible violation of another human being. I t may be a shocking way to add to the film but for me it makes me sick.

  • Rich G

    Great list

  • Vagner Mesquita

    human centipede is nothing disturbing. The concept for sure
    is but the movie not really.

  • Le Blanc

    Any ‘rom-com’ with Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Aniston. Terrifying stuff

  • Nejc Kovač

    come and see!!!

  • Kita Ratysheva

    This all is fairytales in comparison with The green elephant 1999 , Russian one. Also I would put to the list Naked lunch and Twentynine palms 2003

  • Dave Anderson

    Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one I found equally disturbing.

  • Unkle Amon

    I find any film with Adam Sandler or Will Smith far more disturbing than any of this list.

  • OnlyOneO

    Came here for movie reference and found the comment section as more informative than the list itself lol

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  • Satisha King

    Forgot to mention antichrist and dumplings those are also fucked up movies, I refuse to watch Siberian film.

  • lauramoreaux

    In a way ”Venus Noire” by Kechiche

  • Steve

    Apocalypse Now was not “accurate”.

  • ArumBouyed

    Omg Apocalypse Now is the most overrated piece of crap in cinema history. The only thing disturbing about it is Marlon Brando’s “acting”.