Alisha Adkins is an author, gamer, and zombie enthusiast. She is currently pursuing her dream of writing and quietly starving to death.
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 Watch
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!
© 2013 Alisha Adkins
Noel Penaflor from California on May 11, 2019:
Excellent list. Glad I've seen every one except Hell Hath no Fury. If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend Calvaire
Scath Beorh on June 27, 2018:
Once, though, that I've seen my share of disturbing films--and I have--what is the point to continue delving into the transgression of humanity unless, after all, I am perverted and can't live without seeing the next worse thing? In my own defense, I write and publish this sort of thing as well, and I do agree that to depict it is not the same as endorsing it. But I've found that enough is enough. Antichrist, A Serbian Film, Dead Girl, Caligula, etc. etc. I refuse to ever watch. Not because I can't stomach them, because I can--but because I don't need to know anymore about the Hell that surrounds us all, whether we see it or not. Oh, and I'm not drawing a line for anybody but myself here. By the way, the film KatyBird: Certifiable Crazy Person sits alongside of Audition for sheer unmitigated horror. (21 years and older. Seriously.)
Movie Whisperer from Moreton Bay, Queensland on April 28, 2018:
Feed is one of the only films that has stuck with me longer and I always recommend it.
Jenny Marks on February 21, 2017:
Dead Girl. Definitely. Why isn't this talked about more? I watched this, like, 7 years ago and it's stayed with me since then. It's extremely high on my gnarly, disturbing, and well played cast.
Bug: I just watched it yesterday and.... what the?! That movie left me, literally, speechless.
Tony on January 10, 2017:
El Topo (The Mole) and also The Holy Mountain,
both by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
I believe that El Topo
influenced Mad Max Fury Road.
Malay on December 26, 2016:
Thanks for this list, Now I have a bigger target to complete... BTW as mentioned in some comments, Martyrs, A Serbian Film, Must be here. Another ones which deserve to be in top 10 are Irreversible and Inside (A french horor movie)...
Heartbuzz on November 20, 2016:
my movie to watch would be The Dark Backward it even has a bit of star power
loki on November 20, 2016:
A Serbian Film, a must watch film of about genre
Alisha Adkins (author) from New Orleans on February 18, 2016:
That sounds wonderful! :)
Rae on February 18, 2016:
Meghan is missing.
You will be violently disturbed. Most of the movie is creepy but painfully slow... But the building of the characters is what will emotionally scar you.
If you make it through, the last 20 minutes will literally deeply disturb you for the rest of your life.
NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART!!!
FilmjunkieX on July 14, 2015:
A Serbian Film is probably the most disturbing movie in existence.
Krzysztof Willman from Parlin, New Jersey on June 19, 2015:
So many great and disturbing films that I need to check out soon. I've heard a lot about Audition, so that's one I want to see.
Amanda from Michigan, United States on June 13, 2015:
Excellent list! I sometimes go on a hunt for movies that are deemed "disturbing." It's separate from simply being scared, a fact many movie viewers don't understand. And unfortunately it seems a LARGE amount of movie critics (professional and amateur) don't understand this one perfect point: "...depicting reprehensible behavior is not the same as endorsing it."
I'm not sure of the psychology behind why I seek out movies like these. I don't *like* being disturbed. I get an adrenaline rush while watching the film and then later am left with a mental nausea, as I think of it. But there is also something satisfying in pushing myself to my limits within an entirely safe environment (sitting at my desk watching a movie).
So, as for this list! The only ones I've actually seen are A Clockwork Orange and The Woman, but I've heard of Audition and Feed. I definitely want to give the others a try! But the fact that I've never heard of them when I spend so much time in horror groups and trying to find movies like these is fantastic - for me, I mean. Since I now have new movies to watch! Unfortunately I'm reliant on what Netflix does or doesn't have. :(
I liked your brief thought on Human Centipede. I'm torn on that. It's most definitely gross-out, but the first one isn't actually all that graphic. It did stay with me, a classic sign of "disturbing" content. I find that the grossness is played (again, in the first movie, not the second) psychologically rather than "Ew!!!" It gets in your head as one of those "fates worse than death" scenarios.
To answer "But What About ---?" I highly recommend The Girl Next Door (the one based on Jack Ketchum's novel). It's graphic, but not gory. It's about the horrible abuse (torture, more correctly) of a teenage girl by her caretaker and even the neighborhood kids. It's definitely psychological, making you cringe for poor Meg and wonder what you would do in the protagonist boy's shoes.
I wonder if you've seen A Serbian Film? I keep hearing about it in my Facebook horror group as "the most disturbing movie ever." Some people call it gutsy and artistic, others say it was just blatantly trying to stir up controversy, and then some people even go so far as to say it should be banned despite the fact that horror fans are usually anti-censorship due to all the times in history when the genre has been subjected to harsh judgment. I have never watched it. I'm just curious if you might have thoughts on it since you clearly know your disturbing movies! :-)
Anyway, great hub!
Miran Shuleta on February 16, 2015:
A Clockwork Orange is the most f'd up movie I have ever seen, and is one of the best movies ever made. Audition is also very creepy,
moviesreviews on February 06, 2015:
oh wow, these are some really interesting picks. I enjoyed reading the article, thanks.
gaurav oberoi on February 05, 2015:
Nice list you got there....!!!
Mark Tulin from Ventura, California on October 30, 2014:
Interesting list. That Happiness movie gets my attention already. I did see Clockwork Orange, but that was the only one on the list that I saw. While reading the list I thought about Killer Clowns, the first Exorcist, and some of John Water's movies that disturbed me. Thanks for sharing your list and bringing up disturbing memories. :)
belleart from Ireland on August 17, 2014:
great list, I look forward to seeing some of them. One that I feel definitely should be on anyone's list of most disturbing films ha to be AntiChrist. I still can't get it out of my head. Amazing film making but hard to watch.
kotobukijake on July 06, 2014:
I have to admit, as adventurous as I am in my viewing, one sensation I do not enjoy is being made physically ill, and it sounds like a few of the films on your list would do that. I HAVE seen Secretary, which I found unsettling but interesting, and I actually loved A Clockwork Orange (though it is unsettling as well). I do like being creeped out though, and I like mindf*&#s, so I may have to try some of these eventually; I actually own Happiness, and it is therefore on my priority to-watch list, and I have to admit that though I am uneasy about it Audition is on my radar. As to other possibilities: some commentators have noted Lars von Trier's Antichrist; though I have not seen it, I would be tempted to put his film Dogville on here, as it is an excellent and highly divisive film that is deeply unsettling. Satoshi Kon's brilliant film Perfect Blue is a deeply disturbing film that will stick with you; as anime go, however, the brilliant short film Mermaid's Scar may well be the single most disturbing animated film I've ever seen, and it must be seen if you can track it down. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is probably the most viscerally affecting paranoid thriller I've ever seen, and his films pi and Requiem for a Dream might also warrant a mention. The dark thriller Hard Candy is straight up painful to watch during one particular scene near the end, but it is a thrilling mind game that will stick with you; a possibly even better film on a similar subject is David Schwimmer (yes, THAT David Schwimmer)'s remarkably straightforward drama Trust_, which is all the more impressive for being so straightforward. Finally, films that truly show the ugliness and horror of war could easily make this list, with Grave of the Fireflies, No Man's Land and Turtles Can Fly all being excellent choices for the viewer who wants to be both disturbed and deeply moved.
at on March 26, 2014:
The doom generation is another amazing and unsettling film that should be on this list, also the pig fucking movie.
I also vaguely remember watching a movie when I was around 11 or 12 twelve that really messed with my head, it was foreign and there was an older man that was keeping two young teens in a house in the Forrest. I can't remember the name but I was very young and up far past my bedtime the one scene when the man is raping the boy while the girl watched in horror is burned in my brain . I'm sure it psychologically damaged me but I wish I could remember the title.
Good ol' showcase, any Canadian's will know what I'm talking about.
James Horsham from Manchester, UK on March 03, 2014:
Thanks. I'll be checking some of these out.
Megan Carroll from Boynton Beach, FL on September 05, 2013:
I haven't seen most of these, but I really want to check them out! Thanks for the suggestions!
gsurvivor on July 23, 2013:
Clockwork Orange is just a classic, I'll make sure to check out at least some of the other films. You have me intrigued and that deserves a vote up! :)
Alisha Adkins (author) from New Orleans on June 22, 2013:
I'm terrible at remembering the names of movies. My husband just reminded me that we did watch Antichrist. It did have some really interesting and disturbing imagery.
I finally saw Martyrs tonight. Quite interesting, but achieving martyrdom just doesn't seem like a strong enough motivation to drive the film.
Alisha Adkins (author) from New Orleans on June 21, 2013:
Interesting observation about The Pillow Book. I haven't seen it since the 90's, so I guess it should watch it again sometime.
I haven't seen Antichrist at all, so it will have to go onto my "to watch" list.
Thanks for your comments!
amandajoyshapiro on June 21, 2013:
Citywolf's mention of The Pillow Book is an excellent example. The conclusion will make you think of eReaders and their weird cover materials. Audition was definitely disturbing. I still can't sit through A Clockwork Orange. Maybe someday. One suggestion is Antichrist with Charlotte Gainsberg. Utterly shocking from beginning to end.
Alisha Adkins (author) from New Orleans on June 20, 2013:
No worries! I'm sure it is also worthy of checking out. :)
Sarah Wolfe from Oregon on June 20, 2013:
Alisha Adkins (author) from New Orleans on June 19, 2013:
Thanks for your film suggestions! Just so nobody gets confused, The Dead Girl is, of course, a different movie than Deadgirl, the film I included in this list.
Sarah Wolfe from Oregon on June 19, 2013:
The title "The Dead Girl," was initially quite a put off, but I will sit through anything with Toni Collette, so I gave it a chance. I thought it quite refreshing to watch a serial killer film that focuses on everyone except the serial killer. It was complex and compelling, the title did not do it justice. Other disturbing films that I think are worth a watch: The Pillow Book, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Contagion.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on June 15, 2013:
I've seen Bug and A Clockwork Orange, the latter of which is, of course, a Stanley Kubrick classic. I will have to conduct Netflix searches on some of the rest of these. Every once in a while I feel the need to get creeped out. Thanks for these movie suggestions. Nice work!
Amanda from Maryland on June 15, 2013:
Make sure it is at the VERY top!! It is a movie that will have you thinking about life, AND the disturbing things you have just seen. It's great!
Alisha Adkins (author) from New Orleans on June 15, 2013:
Thanks, Woodmckinney! From everything I've read, I do suspect that Martyrs may deserve a place on this list as well. It's at the top of my "to watch" list.
Amanda from Maryland on June 15, 2013:
Great list! I've seen quite a few of these, another GREAT disturbing movie is Martyrs; a foreign film that stayed with me for weeks.
I loved Sinister as well- it WAS really predictable- but it gave me a few good frames to keep in mind!
Michelle Widmann on June 14, 2013:
This is an awesome list - I've only seen a couple of these films (Secretary is one of my favourites), but your recommendations really helped me. I love the disturbing films, so it's nice to have a to-watch list ready to go!
Elizabeth from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions on June 14, 2013:
Great list! For some reason, the movie sinister stayed with me long after watching it, even though the ending was campy and predictable. I don't know what it was about it exactly (although I've thought about it a great deal) but it did disturb me, and would certainly make my list.