8 Disturbing Movies You Must See
What Classifies a Film as Disturbing?
There are many different camps of viewpoint on what makes a film disturbing. For the purpose of this article, "disturbing" can be interpreted to mean simply upsetting or disquieting. It does not necessarily mean that these films are graphically violent or overtly sexual (although many of them are very much so). For instance, Aftermath did not make this list. It is a thirty-odd minute short film depicting the rape and mutilation of a corpse. While certainly a visually upsetting piece, I feel that it lacks the depth to really linger with the viewer.
The following eight films do have that extra depth to really get under the viewer's skin. You need to watch the films on this list. You may hate them, but even if you do, you should still see them. Why? Because they are guaranteed to produce a visceral reaction, and any art that is capable of provoking thought and eliciting strong emotions is a significant accomplishment.
1. May: She Might Just Take Your Heart
Angela Bettis gives a superb performance as May, a tragic misfit who is unable to connect with other human beings. When this socially awkward young woman is spurned by the people around her, she decides to make her own friend from their best parts.
This is a creepy little horror movie directed by Lucky McKee that should not be missed.
May Movie Trailer
What would you do if you found a naked, apparently undead woman in an abandoned mental hospital? If you were a sadistic teenage boy, you might just make her a sex slave. This brave film makes a powerful statement about the dark side of human nature.
Many people are deeply offended by this movie. However, depicting reprehensible behavior is not the same as endorsing it. White-washing over societal ugliness will not cure it. Through the vehicle of a graphic zombie film, directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel have begun a serious dialogue about the objectification of women.
Which leads us to our next film...
Hell Hath No Fury...
3. The Woman
This controversial film is not for the faint of heart. When Chris Creek (played by Sean Bridges) captures a savage woman in the woods, he first seems to have well-meaning but misguided intentions. Despite his wife's misgivings, he chains the woman in his cellar in order to civilize her.
However, as the story unfolds, we learn that this man has appalling secrets. He is an omnipotent god within his home, and his wife and children are essentially as powerless as the woman he is keeping chained.
Be warned, this movie breaks almost every taboo, including cannibalism, rape, and incest. When The Woman (also directed by Lucky McKee) showed at Sundance, some outraged viewers walked out of the screening.
Once again, it is important to remember that depicting reprehensible behavior is not the same as endorsing it. There is a powerful message imbedded within the gruesome viscera of this movie, if you have the cast-iron stomach to look.
Audition Movie Trailer
This Japanese film directed by Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q) is about Aoyama, a middle-aged widower who holds auditions under the pretense of casting a leading lady in order to find his perfect match. Aoyama begins to date a beautiful young woman named Asami, but she turns out not to be what she seems.
Asami, severely damaged by childhood traumas, has an obsessive need to be the sole recipient of a man's love. In one chilling scene, she sits silently by the phone, as still as a statue, waiting indefinitely for Aoyama to call. Only when the phone rings does she suddenly come to life.
When the threat of having to share Aoyama with anyone else, even his son, presents itself, Asami, with terrifying calm, becomes homicidal. What ensues are some of the most excruciating scenes involving piano wire that have ever been filmed.
This is a deeply disturbing film that will get under your skin. Although based upon the book, Audition by Ryu Murakami, this is one of those rare cases where the movie actually outshines its print counterpart.
Incidentally, continuing on a theme, this film also hints at an underlying statement about the way men view women, and it seems that it is a universal misconception that depicting sexism makes a film sexist. When I was living in Japan, a Japanese co-worker asked me what some of my favorite films were. I mentioned this movie. Shocked, he asked, "That sexist movie?"
Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and based upon the play of the same name, Bug is a psychological journey into paranoia.
Agnes (played by Ashley Judd) is a lonely, emotionally damaged waitress who initially seems to have found potential solace in the arms of Peter, an ex-military drifter. However, Peter soon reveals that he is infested with bugs that are living beneath his skin... From there, the couple quickly descends into madness together.
This is a compelling film capable of making the viewer physically uncomfortable, and Agnes' willingness to believe in Peter's invisible bugs makes an interesting statement about the nature of love and relationships.
Jude Law Orders the Special
eXistenZ received poor reviews, but I'm convinced that people just didn't understand it.
Fundamentally, eXistenZ is about the nature of reality. A test group tries out a new virtual reality game. Within that game, Allegra Geller (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is game designer who has created a game called eXistenZ. However, someone is trying to kill her and sabotage her game. She and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) must play eXistenZ (yes, that's a game within a game within a game) in order to find out why.
The film's plot is convoluted but mentally engaging, and its imagery is disturbing in signature Cronenberg style. For example, every gamer has a bio-port, an anus-shaped hole surgically installed along the spine into which a gaming console can be plugged via an umbilical-like cord. Yeah.
Every gamer should see this film.
Happiness, written and directed by Todd Solondz, is a darkly funny and deeply disturbing film that follows the lives of three sisters and their parents. Externally, this family appears normal, but each of them is concealing deep sadness and/or troubling secrets.
Expect to mull this film over long after it has ended. But be forewarned: compared to Happiness, most of the other films on this list appear optimistic.
A Clockwork Orange: Ultraviolence
8. A Clockwork Orange
When I first saw this, I was seventeen, and I just thought it was vulgar and upsetting. I knew I'd finally reached adulthood when I watched it again years later and was instead struck by its brilliance.
If you have never seen A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick's seminal film, don't read the next paragraph (spoilers!). Just go watch the movie now.
A Clockwork Orange is set in a dystopian future in which violent gangs of youths roam the streets wreaking havoc. When gang leader Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) is caught for a crime and imprisoned, he cops a deal, agreeing to undergo aversion therapy. If he successfully completes the treatment, Alex will be set free. Once rehabilitated, Alex is indeed released from prison. However, he finds that the effects of aversion therapy, which render him physically sickened by violence, have stripped him of the ability to cope with the world around him.
More Films to WatchClick thumbnail to view full-size
Secretary is a delightful film about self-mutilation, sado-masochism, and falling in love. Initially, this movie was going to be included in this article's list of eight but, although it is certainly unconventional, and may even disturb some viewers, ultimately it was such a sweet (albeit odd) love story that I decided it was too uplifting to make the cut.
You should still go watch it.
Feed is an Australian film that explores body fetishism focused upon morbid obesity, specifically the dichotomous relationship between feeders and gainers. Although by no means a masterpiece of cinema, it will make you squirm, and the film's examinations of Internet fetish subcultures and the nature of dependency make it a rather interesting movie.
Clone, starring Matt Smith (the former star of Dr. Who), is a boy meets girl story. In fact, boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated, years later, boy and girl are reunited. Alas, boy gets hit by a truck and dies. Girl then impregnates herself with boy's clone, raises him as her son, and lusts after him as he matures into adulthood. This very European movie certainly has an unusual plot, but in execution, the film just has too many holes to recommend as more than an oddity.
The Human Centipede movies do also deserve a mention when discussing disturbing movies, but they were excluded from this list on the grounds that they are probably just more gross than psychologically disturbing.
But What About ______________?
Did I overlook a film that is deserving of mention?
I'm sure that I probably have. While doing background research for this article, I ran across a number of reputedly disturbing films that I have not yet seen. I am working my way through that viewing list right now, so a follow-up article may be looming in the future.
Please comment if there is a film that you feel I may have overlooked. I look forward to hearing your picks!
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Alisha Adkins