14. Martyrs (2008)
French director Pascal Laugier is known for his transgressive films, many of which are associated with The New French Extremity movement. It should come as no surprise then, that his 2008 horror film “Martyrs” is considered one of the most shocking pictures of all time. The plot concerns two women, Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), both of whom were abused as young girls.
In a mission to exact revenge, Lucie breaks into the home of a family and murders them via shotgun. She then calls Anna, insisting that she’s killed the people responsible for her childhood torment. Horrified, Anna arrives and finds that Lucie is haunted by an unseen entity—a psychological manifestation of her guilt for having left behind another girl imprisoned with her as a child. Unable to cope, Lucie slits her own throat. Little does Anna know, the cult group that tortured Lucie years ago is nearby, and she’s about to become their next victim.
Martyrs is an ultraviolent display of perversion and sadism. With scenes of religious brainwashing, mutilation, forced captivity and child abuse, the picture earns its sickening reputation and then some.
13. Begotten (1990)
Avant-Garde filmmaker E. Elias Merhige’s first film is an underground experimental horror, dealing with the Biblical story of Genesis. The film begins with God killing himself, thus birthing a woman—Mother Earth—from his disemboweled corpse. The scene is drawn out and thoroughly disgusting, including a lengthy sequence where God’s carcass empties its bowels.
Arising from the death of a deity, Mother Earth treks off into a lifeless, barren landscape. She eventually gives rise to the Son of Earth, who trembles before a group of faceless cannibal figures. They devour him, and the movie ends.
Begotten possesses a haunting, atmospherically visceral quality that has yet to be surpassed. The film is shot entirely in black and white. Throughout its 78 minute runtime, not a trace of dialogue is heard. Combine Merhige’s avant-garde film style with sequences of torture and unsettling imagery, and you get one of the most shocking experimental pictures of all time.
12. Funny Games (1997)
Written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, this psychological thriller has since been remade for English-speaking audiences. Despite the flashier look of the remake, the original picture boasts a grittier, more realistic tone and overall feel. The plot involves two psychotic Viennese men, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch) who kidnap a family and hold them hostage. Over the course of twelve hours, the mother, father and son are forced to play sadistic “games” with one another for their captors’ amusement.
Giering and Frisch do an excellent job as the psychopaths. Lead antagonist Paul is initially introduced as a neighbor’s friend, thus earning him the family’s trust. However, when boundaries are pushed, tension mounts and events turn ugly.
For all the film’s gore and sadistic violence, the real chills are found in the nonsensical banter between the two captors. Paul, for example, relates contradictory details of Peter’s past at different times. He also deliberately abuses Peter, ridiculing his weight and lack of intellect. Despite the brief insights provided, no concrete motives are given. One is made to feel that a good portion of their “insane” behavior is merely an act, designed to further terrorize the family.
11. A Serbian Film (2010)
This foreign film concerns an aging porn star named Miloš (Srdjan Todorovic), who wants to make a fresh start and break away from the industry. He’s soon offered a job as an actor in in an experimental art film. The director—an independent photographer named Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic)—claims he wants to cast Miloš for his “powerful erection.” Miloš is reluctant to accept, and does so only to secure his shaky finances. He’s instructed to meet the film crew at a secluded orphanage.
Once there, he’s sent in alone to find the other “actors,” keeping in contact with the director via earpiece. Inside, he discovers that Vukmir is a director of child pornography. Disgusted, Miloš tries to run away, but is restrained, drugged and sexually aroused by a chemical stimulant. Under Vukmir’s manipulation, he is forced to rape, mutilate and sodomize his way through each film shoot.
A Serbian Film is loaded with upsetting scenes. The most infamous sequence sees a young woman strapped down and gruesomely stripped of her teeth. The picture truly has no boundaries, going so far as to feature a scene of “newborn porn,” where, you guessed it—an infant is raped onscreen.
10. Irreversible (2002)
A dark, experimental thriller made in France, this film follows a non-linear narrative, unfolding in reverse-chronological order. Written and directed by Gaspar Noé, the film concerns a young woman named Alex (Monica Bellucci) who becomes pregnant. Her boyfriend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) is overjoyed, and the two end up going to a party to celebrate.
At the party, Marcus lets loose, abusing drugs and alcohol—much to Alex’s dismay. Upset, she leaves by herself. Walking home alone, Alex witnesses a pimp beating a transsexual prostitute in a pedestrian underpass. Terrified, she flees, but the attacker pursues her. She is cornered, threatened at knifepoint and anally raped. The remainder of the film sees Marcus and his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) looking to exact vengeance on Alex’s attacker.
Irreversible boasts a unique film style due to the way events are shot in reverse chronological order. Combine this with a visceral, blood-red color scheme, and you have a haunting film atmosphere, reminiscent of the greatest works of Kubrick and Coppola. The picture contains a plethora of upsetting scenes, including a quote where the lead antagonist brags about how he “once had sex” with his young daughter.
9. Eraserhead (1977)
Upon release in 1977, Eraserhead spawned a subgenre of its own: Body Horror. The film is surrealist, otherworldly, and deeply philosophical, forcing viewers to question their perception of the world around them. The plot concerns a man named Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) who lives in a post-apocalyptic industrial society, where machines spew smog and create endless commotion out in the streets.
Jack’s wife, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), is pregnant. She ends up giving birth to a mutant baby that cries incessantly. Unable to bear the noise, Mary leaves, forcing Jack to care for the child on his own. With time, he slowly goes mad, envisioning a fat-cheeked woman who sings him soothing lullabies. In the end, Jack murders his mutant child, stabbing it repeatedly. He then gives in to the mysterious woman, allowing madness to overtake him completely.
Despite its lack of torture scenes or realistic violence, Eraserhead manages to earn its reputation through surrealism, as well as a morbid, dream-like atmosphere. Jack’s insecurities encompass his fears of fatherhood, resulting in hallucinations induced by stress and anxiety. The film’s most disturbing quality is thus found in the blurring between reality and fantasy. Viewers are never sure which visions are meant to be entirely fantastical, and which contain glimpses of the real world.
8. Nekromantik (1988)
Directed by Jörg Buttgereit, this controversial German horror film examines themes of love, violence, sex and necrophilia. The two leads, Rob Schmadtke and girlfriend Betty (Bernd Lorenz and Beatrice Manowski), are a couple with a twisted obsession. Rob works for “Joe’s Cleaning Agency,” a company that cleans up messes resulting from traffic collisions. This gives him the perfect opportunity to explore his fetish.
At home, the couple enjoy playing sensually with their vast collection of preserved human remains. Eventually, Rob stumbles across a full, rotting corpse. He brings it home, and he and Betty pleasure themselves with the new toy. Thinking he’s finally found paradise, the sociopathic Rob is unprepared for what follows—his slow, increasingly nihilistic mental unravelling.
For all its violence and sexual perversion, Nekromantik is at its most disturbing during scenes that reveal Rob’s subconscious state of mind. He imagines rabbits being led to slaughter, as well as his own gravesite dug up by a woman in stockings and high-heeled shoes. These insights hint at the abusive nature of Rob’s past, while foreshadowing the fate his obsession has doomed him to. For the above reasons—and considering the film has been banned outright in multiple countries—Nekromantik takes spot #8 on our list.