From explicit gore to the sexually perverse, cinema has always dabbled in the provocative and the disturbed. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, once said, “if I wasn’t a director, I might have become a serial killer”. His words reveal so much about the craft and the kind of minds that champion it.
Filmmakers have sought to shock and provoke audiences since the turn of the century. German Expression stands as an early sign of cinema’s intention to explore, simultaneously, our most sinister nightmares and our darkest desires.
However, it wasn’t until censorship laws loosened towards the later half of the 20th Century that the ethical limits of what could and should be depicted were really tested. In this time, films emerged that sought to explore the darker recesses of our imaginations. Since then, increasingly more disturbing features have been released that have tested the limits of what audience could endure.
This polarising brand of filmmaking can be read in many ways. It can be a means to addressing our own fears or our violent urges; it can also serve as a critique of society and as an evaluation of humanity’s capacity for, and consumption of, violence. Many filmmakers who operate in disturbing imagery have garnered a controversial reputation – their tonal tendencies overshadowing their filmmaking ability – but this reputation, in many cases, has been the foundation their careers have been built off.
Below we have listed the 10 most disturbing directors in film history.
10. Ruggero Deodato
Affectionately nicknamed “Monsieur Cannibal”, Ruggero Deodato is the Italian filmmaker famous for re-popularising the cannibal film in Italy in the late 1970s. In 1977, the director released Last Cannibal World, and stated his intent to rejuvenate a genre designed to disgust and terrify. His films were markedly violent with explicit gore and gallons of blood a regular feature.
Deodato’s most disturbing feature, and most recognised, is Cannibal Holocaust. The film depicts a rescue mission to find a team of filmmakers who have been captured by a cannibalistic tribe. The filmmakers turn up dead but it is only when the footage they had filmed surfaces that the film takes a truly disturbing turn. The footage depicts the crewmembers exploitation of the tribe – including capturing and raping a young tribeswoman – and the subsequent revenge the tribe takes on them.
The film is one of the first instances of found-footage horror and its documentary style only elevates its overall brutality. We witness multiple rapes, amputations, beheadings and torture amongst other troubling sights. The revelation that the film crew are the true savages makes the film all the more horrific, as the real monsters aren’t a remote tribe but someone who could easily be your neighbor.
9. Eli Roth
Eli Roth began his career as an actor before stepping behind the camera to make the nauseatingly grotesque Cabin Fever. A horror fan from an early age, Roth was exposed to the violence, gore and disturbing imagery of horror’s past and it would shape his career. His films are known for their gore but it is how he shoots this gore, with meditated attention to detail, and how he applies it to our biggest nightmares that make him such a disturbing director.
Cabin Fever works as a fever dream materialising our biggest anxieties about disease. The increasingly gruesome way the bodies of the protagonists decay in the remote cabin, with no prospect of hope and vile reality suffocating them, intensifies the film’s overall perturbed affect.
Roth would go on to make Hostel and Hostel: Part II, where he would perfect his unsettling knack for depicting realistic torture. The way he tortures and abuses his characters, with increasingly sinister innovation, would seal his place as one of the most disturbed minds working in film. In 2013, Roth released his homage to Deodato with his own cannibal exploitation flick, The Green Inferno, which gave him an opportunity to honour his predecessors whilst also allowing himself to delve deeper into truly horrific brand of cinema.
8. Fred Vogel
Fred Vogel is the indie director behind the twisted August Underground series. Known for his eerily realistic make-up design, Vogel has conjured some truly disturbing imagery since bursting onto the scene in 2001.
His August Underground series candidly focused on the lives of serial killers and the gruesome acts they commit. Vogel’s exploration into the world of the psychopath is the kind of sinister pondering usually reserved for the FBI’s criminal profilers. He utilizes his training in make-up effects to create realistic and nauseating violence and torture that gives a, sometimes unwanted, glimpse into the viewpoint of the deranged.
Vogel often uses techniques such as found-footage and documentary style shooting practices to place his disturbed narratives in a real world aesthetic. It is through this visual choice that his terrifyingly accurate portrayal of ultra-violence shines and his disturbed mind is fully imagined.
7. Wes Craven
Wes Craven is of course the horror-maestro best known for the Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street films, and whilst these films are disturbing, his most horrific work came early in his career. Craven was not one to shy away from extreme gore and realistic nightmare scenarios. He felt that real-world violence could often be more terrifying than fantasy violence.
His debut film, The Last House on the Left, still stands as one of his most twisted motion pictures ever made. The film subverts the convention of “the final girl” which often depicted a young woman going through a horrific ordeal but surviving (usually the lone survivor) in the end. In The Last House on the Left, we painstakingly watch as two girls are horrifically tortured and raped only for their fate to end in a gruesome death.
The only ray of hope Craven offers us is the revenge one of the girls’ parents inflict upon the perpetrators. The gory extent to which the parents are willing to go to only elevates the disturbing nature of the film.
Craven would follow this with the first of his The Hills Have Eyes films, which depicted a group of cannibals terrorising a vacationing family in the Nevada desert. The film contains Craven’s signature use of perverse violence as well as the depiction of rape and cannibalism. The remote location of the dessert setting and the deranged behaviour of the cannibal family make the film an intense and unsettling watch.
6. David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg has long been called “The Baron of Blood” because of his infamous use of groundbreaking and revolting visual effects. He is a master of abusing the flesh on screen and creating vile imagery that is meant to both disgust us and prompt us to address our own relationship with are body. He takes disease, corruption and scientific experimentation and plasters them on the screen in the form of decaying, mutated and wounded bodies.
Cronenberg’s films are concerned with how the internal can affect the external. Think Dr. Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) hideous deformed figure at the climax of The Fly and how it symbolises the ugly nature of commercial science and all the dangers it risks. Think Max Renn (James Woods) pulling a gun from his stomach as his obsession with violent media begins to take a hold of his flesh in Videodrome. Think the blurring of machine and biology in Crash and eXistenZ as a critique of societies dependence on technology.
In his later work, Cronenberg shifted to the psychological and real-world violence. Gone are the surreal worlds of deformed bodies and in its place the very real world of deformed minds. Recently, the Canadian director has turned his sights to Hollywood and the disturbing people who operate within it. A legend of horror cinema and the grotesque, Cronenberg possesses one of the most disturbed yet ponderous minds out there.