20 of the Most Insane Film Premises Ever

20 of the Most Insane Film Premises Ever
Screenshot: Lamp/A24

The trailer for Lamb, the forthcoming freaky horror psychodrama from A24 and director Valdimar Jóhannsson, dropped yesterday, and if you’re on social media at all, there’s a good chance you’ve seen it, or at least encountered people’s horrified, if bemused, reactions to it. Which make a lot of sense once you’ve watched it:

A24 has a a bit of a reputation for strikingly atmospheric films that hit a particular sweet spot — movies that are generally a blend of art, entertainment, commentary, and holy-shit-what-did-I-just see?! Think The Lighthouse, The Witch, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Midsommar (as well as the forthcoming Green Knight). To whatever extent that’s your thing, they’re all entirely unforgettable. That’s the power of what we’ll call the Fucked-Up Film genre: Good or bad, they stick with you, maybe forever.

Sometimes a premise alone can haunt your dreams. There are certainly movies that I’ve never even seen that I’ve been deeply disturbed by. Even reading a plot description or catching a few moments from a trailer can be unsettling. Fucked-Up Films have this power, and run the gamut from art house award winners to exploitation trash. Here are 20 of our… favourites?

(It’s probably not surprising some notable films have not been included here, only because they’re not available anywhere to stream — think The Unknown, Faces of Death, Spanking the Monkey, Happiness, Salo, Visitor Q, and other infamously twisted classics. Feel free to supplement our choices with titles from your own slightly disreputable DVD collection.)

Mad Love (1935)

Just a typical boy-meets-girl kinda thing. Except that the boy is a surgeon played Peter Lorre, and the girl is a married actress with whom he’s obsessed. When her pianist husband’s hands are mutilated in a train accident, Lorre’s character gives him the hands of a murderer, and then proceeds to attempt to drive him mad by pretending to be the beheaded former owner of said hands. It’s gloriously demented, and has one of the best trailers of all time.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

It might be surprising to learn that one of the most messed-up movies in the history of Hollywood stars Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift. The top-level synopsis is, by itself disturbing: The mysterious death of Taylor’s cousin in Spain last summer was so disturbing, Hepburn’s character will do just about anything to keep it secret — including trying to get her niece lobotomized. Tennessee Williams’ bizarre psychodrama leads to some truly shocking revelations, especially for the era.

(Spoiler: revelations include homosexuality and cannibalism.)

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The modern body horror era begins. In director Georges Franju’s horror noir, a doctor attempts to reconstruct his daughter’s burned face by grafting on bits and pieces of skin from various women who enter his home. The premise itself isn’t so far beyond what earlier films had hinted at, but the film manages to be far more disturbing, because it takes said premise dead seriously. Pedro Almodóvar would be inspired by it decades later in making The Skin I Live In.

Spider Baby (1967)

The late, very occasionally great Lon Chaney Jr. had one of his last go-arounds in this exploitation comedy as the protector of a family of inbred recluses who suffer from a condition that causes them to devolve. Each night, they kiss the skeleton of their father goodnight and try to keep the brother, a young Sid Haig, from humping visitors. No one saw it when it came out, but it became a cult classic; unused, almost-accurate alternate titles like Attack of the Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy might give you an idea why.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

What’s most disturbing about Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is the moral ambiguity inherent in its premise: Malcolm McDowell and his Droogs prowl the streets of future Britain committing all manner of violence, sexual and otherwise. He eventually trades his violent impulses for freedom, but then himself becomes a victim — and the film asks us to feel for a protagonist who is thoroughly reprehensible.

Eraserhead (1977)

It’s the David Lynch-iest of all David Lynch films, and an early arthouse masterpiece, so it probably goes without saying that it’s going to be a little (a lot) fucked up. I’m not even sure the premise is condensable to a sentence or two, but it’s something like: Man reconnects with an old fling just in time for her to give birth to their child, a lizard creature, while woman who lives in a radiator looks on.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Though Last House on the Left got there first, I Spit on Your Grave is the true nadir of what nearly became its own genre of rape/revenge horror movies (the earlier Wes Craven film was based on an Ingmar Bergman film and so at least had a bit of a pedigree). This one is entirely about the brutal violence, with a graphic rape sequence that takes up a significant chunk of the film’s runtime, followed by the bloody retribution.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

An example of the found footage genre long before that was a thing, Cannibal Holocaust follows a documentary crew examining a tribe in the Amazon rainforest as-yet unspoiled by modernity (you can imagine what happens next). The director was arrested by Italian authorities… first for obscenity, and later for murder, when people came to believe that the film’s gruesome deaths were real.

Back to the Future (1985)

This is a movie about a kid who travels back in time and has to spend several days dodging the increasingly determined advances of his horny, horny mum. Enough said.

Nekromantik (1987)

A stirring social commentary and an attack on bourgeoisie values? Or a splatter film in which necrophilia scenes are shot using all the techniques of soft-core porn? Maybe it’s both!

(Mostly it’s the second thing.)

Flowers in the Attic (1987)

Is this the most popular movie, based on the most popular book, to foreground incest? Sure, it’s not entirely about incest, but the film’s entire premise is based around the Dollanganger children, products of a marriage between their mother and uncle, locked away in the titular attic by their cruel, if justifiably skeeved out, grandmother (played by Nurse Ratched herself, Louise Fletcher). The twists and turns are as relentless as they are juicy, but the initial set-up is more than enough to land it on the list.

Man Bites Dog (1992)

An indiscriminate serial killer named Ben is followed by a documentary crew who quickly become complicit in the crimes of their subject. What’s most fucked up about it is its dark reflection of and anticipation for our anything-for-the-likes modern culture. Actually, the premise doesn’t even seem terribly farfetched these days.

Audition (1999)

The pre-spoiler premise here is fairly disturbing by itself: a man, with the help of his film producer friend, decides to audition women to be his next wife… without revealing to them why they’re there. The woman who passes his test, though, is more than capable of getting back at him for his incredibly shady dating practices.

Ma Mère (2004)

If you see a title that means “My Mother” on a list of films with fucked-up premises, your sick brain is probably already clued in as to where this is going. A son, played by Louis Garrel, returns from boarding school just in time for his father to die, leaving him alone with his mother (the generally great Isabelle Huppert). She decides to come clean to him about her debauched lifestyle, and proceeds to initiate her son into her wild and sexually uninhibited circle of friends. Which only brings mother and son closer until… well, let’s just say the closing scene is wild. And perhaps unintentionally hilarious.

Dogtooth (2009)

Just a typical family: parents and teenaged children, living together in a fenced-in compound in which the children are given no knowledge and understanding of the outside world and may or may not have a secret brother just over the fence. Fortunately one of dad’s co-workers comes by to provide paid sexual services to the family… so it’s not all bad, I guess?

The Human Centipede (2009)

This is a movie (the beginning of a trilogy, actually) about people who get their mouths stitched to other people’s butts. Whether that sells you on it or encourages you to run the other direction, I’m not sure that there’s anything else you need to know.

The Skin I Live In (2011)

A critically acclaimed riff on the aforementioned Eyes Without a Face from Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In follows a doctor working to develop a substitute skin for burn victims following his wife’s tragic car accident. His methods are… not entirely on the up-and-up, including not just illegal experiments, but locking a young woman in the basement.

Tusk (2014)

A podcaster sets off into the Canadian wilderness to meet a man about a Walrus; said podcaster is then transformed into a walrus himself in the most graphic way possible. The premise is as dumb as it is disturbing, but give Kevin Smith credit for following it to its bloody, mutilating extreme.

Raw (2016)

A vegetarian veterinary student develops a taste for meat. A lot of meat. All the time. Much of it human. Human cannibalism is disturbing, but hardly unheard of. Raw takes it several graphic steps further, leaving even the most jaded audiences feeling rather queasy. Its director, Julia Ducournau, just won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Titane another movie with a premise (abused woman screws and is impregnated by a car) that seems destined to make it a Fucked-Up Films classic.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

The movie with the most demented premise to still pick up a ton of Oscar nominations? It’s this one. Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama is about a German boy who discovers that his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in the attic. Which is a tough revelation for both the proudly patriotic boy and his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler.

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