Like a list of the “funniest” or the “anything-est” movies, a list of the most disturbing films is going to be subjective. Everyone says Requiem for a Dream is super disturbing, but it played like a flashy “don’t do drugs” PSA to me. While I found shark attack thriller Open Water positively haunting, everyone else tells me it’s boring. So apologies in advance if you’re like, “That movie did nothing for me.”
I’ve attempted to cover a wide range of disturbing films, from explicit gore-soaked gutter-flicks, to documentaries, to movies that are mainly disturbing in their implications. If there’s a common trait to all of them (well, most of them anyway), it’s that they’re actually good. People think films are disturbing because they “push the envelope” of taste, but that isn’t usually shocking unless the movie also works as a movie. All these worked for me. Leave your own most disturbing movies in the comments so I have something messed up to watch this weekend.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The original Texas Chainsaw is the best horror film ever made. Despite the title, it’s not a gore-fest. Instead of blood and guts, director Tobe Hooper carefully builds a pervasive sense of wrongness, but conceals how he’s doing it behind a visual style that looks so casual, you feel like you’re watching something that really happened. Nearly 50 years later, and no one has done it better, or even come close.
Funny Games (2008)
The main character of director Michael Haneke Funny Games is You, the viewer. This sometimes-meta home-invasion film constantly asks, “Why are you watching this unpleasant movie? Why don’t you turn this off?”
If you’re like me, you’ll watch it to the end, partly because the question is so interesting, and partly because — I don’t know — maybe something is wrong with me? You might even watch the original version from 1997. I like the 2008 one better, though. Michael Haneke made them both, and they are basically the same movie.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
The genius of Gimme Shelter is that you know the Rolling Stones concert at its centre is going end in tragedy from the start. The dread builds and builds as you witness each terrible decision that led up to the disaster, in the fly-on-the-wall style of cinema verite. You know the awful result of each terrible decision, and you want to say, “Maybe don’t hire the Hell’s Angels to provide security and pay them in beer? Maybe don’t cram as many young people into a racetrack and encourage them to do drugs all day?” But they can’t hear you. You can’t stop what’s coming.
Don’t be fooled by the trailer above: Happiness is not a lighthearted romantic ensemble comedy. It uses comedic tropes to lure you in and then shatters your expectations by presenting one of the most emotionally wrenching films I’ve ever seen. It looks bright and cheery, but there is unspeakable darkness at its centre.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
By combining actual documentary footage and realistic-looking “found” footage, Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato set out to convince audiences they were witnessing actual murders. He was so successful he was charged with killing his actors in an Italian court, and had to prove they were still alive. Even all these years later, the thing still works. Scenes of the characters slaughtering animals (for real) are very disturbing, so be warned before you watch.
How many violent crimes have you seen depicted on film? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Gaspar Noe’s arthouse confrontation contains only two scenes of violence, but they’re shot with such precision, you’ll never forget them, and you’ll feel the nausea and dread you should feel every time you have see a depiction of someone being killed or traumatized on a screen.
This movie isn’t gory or violent, but it’s really creepy. It’s like a monster movie where you never see the monster, or a movie about getting sick where you never find out what the disease is. This one stayed with me for days after watching it, and I still think about it sometimes.
Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006)
The other films on this list are weird masterpieces that ostensibly have a greater purpose in mind than merely eliciting disgust in their audiences, but not Slaughtered Vomit Dolls. This movie is just terrible. Its arthouse pretensions are paper-thin. It’s not scary, or funny, or thoughtful, or anything else. It seems to only exist to be as vile as possible, but it does make you ask, “who would have made this, and why?”
Where to stream: No streaming service will carry it, but it’s online.
Maid in Manhattan (2002)
Do not watch this Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy on a full stomach!
The Innocents (1961)
The Innocents is shot in such a classy way, you don’t expect it to delve into such disturbing material, yet it goes to places very few films dare to. It features the creepiest screen kiss in movie history, and one of the creepiest ghosts too. (Skip The Haunting of Bly Manor, the recent Netflix mini-series remake; it’s unnecessarily longer and not as good.)
High Tension (2003)
Arguably the best film of the “New French Extremity” canon, High Tension does the seemingly impossible: It’s a slasher movie that doesn’t feel like a cliche. It was not well received by “mainstream” critics, but the horror community went nuts for it, and for good reason: It’s brutal, tense, uncompromising, packed with references to 1970s horror classics — and it’s French, so you can pretend it’s elevated. (It’s also deeply problematic by 2022 standards, so proceed with caution.)
I’ve seen a ton of horror movies, and while I love and appreciate many of them, it’s rare that a horror movie actually scares me anymore. Hereditary gave me honest-to-god nightmares! I didn’t even think it was possible for me to be frightened by a movie at my age. I realise horror is subjective, so you might be thinking, “It’s not as scary as Scream 4,” but you’re seriously wrong.
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s dreamlike assortment of often unnerving images is still shocking, even though it’s nearly 100 years old. Maybe because it’s nearly 100 years old — you just don’t expect a movie from the 1920s to open with a graphic shot of a woman’s eyeball being sliced open with straight razor.
Most any Lars Von Trier movie could be included on a “ most disturbing movies” list — Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark, even Von Trier’s early ‘90s TV series The Kingdom — but to me, none of the sad Dane’s cinematic provocations are quite as depressing and unsettling as Melancholia, in which a dysfunctional family deals with the imminent end of the world by largely ignoring it. It just seems familiar, you know?
A Serbian Film (2011)
A Serbian Film is known mainly/only for its shocking, brutal, and twisted imagery. I included it in this list because it’s one of those movies that everyone says is disturbing, but which eventually takes things so far it becomes comical. I figured it was either this or Hostel, and A Serbian Film is marginally more interesting than Hostel.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Released at the height of cheesed-out 1980s slasher horror era, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer proudly swims against the tide. Instead of stylised, wisecracking, larger-than-life screen killers like Freddy and Jason, Henry is played completely naturalistically and realistically. The film reminds you that seemingly normal, even boring, people actually do fucked up things, and when they do, it’s not even a little bit funny.
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo is an “art movie,” but if you’re expecting wry observations about life and images of butterflies, it’s not that kind of “art.” Instead, Salo details the horrendous physical, emotional, and sexual torture of 18 young people at the hands of upper-crusty cads in fascist Italy. It’s just unflinching and relentless, but it’s not empty of meaning.