Why do we delight in watching acts of violence on screen? Let’s examine what happens when filmmakers turn this dial past the breaking point. There is a subset of cinema that is interested in exploring the extreme, the profane, the taboo, the disturbing. If a movie can make you squirm, scream, or threaten to throw up your lunch, then it’s done its job and so we present these 15 most disturbing movies! Viewer discretion is strongly, strongly, strongly advised. The terrifying movies on this list come with mental scarring and potential for years of nightmares, but trust me: there are people who love that kind of stuff.
Some of these movies are made merely to shock with empty provocation; some have something genuine to say at their core; all of them will disturb you. So, watch at your own risk!
Most Disturbing Movies: 15 Of The Baddest Of The Bad!
1. Cannibal Holocaust
A notorious 1980 horror film, in the found footage genre, Cannibal Holocaust straight up banned in several countries, and even resulted in the director Ruggero Deodato getting arrested. This director even had to prove in court the special effects were faked which helped kickstart a wave of cannibal exploitation cinema, and influenced filmmakers in its wake (perhaps most explicitly Eli Roth with The Green Inferno). Cannibal Holocaust tells, in mockumentary form, the story of a group of anthropologists who travel to an Amazonian village to try and rescue a group of filmmakers left there. When they arrive, they discover reels of footage with horrific actions perpetrated by the cannibalistic natives, resulting in a knotted, metatextual narrative that pokes aggressively at white saviorism, colonialism, the role of sensational television news in exacerbating violence, and even the role of the audience member watching this very film. Now, is Cannibal Holocaust only interested in making these points with unimpeachable, intellectual acumen? Certainly not. The images shown, in unsparing detail, are clearly designed to court controversy, and in some sequences of actual animal cruelty, may walk a line into purposeless text for some. But there’s no denying Cannibal Holocaust has a lot on its mind, and it’s willing to eat some minds to try and make its many points.
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Gianfranco Clerici
Cast: Robert Kerman, Carl Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Luca Barbareschi, Perry Pirkanen
2. A Serbian Film
A Serbian Film puts the entirety of Serbia in its crosshairs, its director Srđan Spasojević explicitly commenting not just on the broader implications of living in a war-torn, fascist-leaning society and government, but on the specific hypocrisies of this same government funding bourgeois, “safe” films that seek to whitewash their own atrocities.
Retired porn star Miloš (Srđan Todorović) is having trouble taking care of his family. So, despite his better instincts, he agrees to star in an artsy porn film from a provocative auteur (Sergej Trifunović). But the director’s methods and subjects involve tranquilizing Miloš into a state of catatonia and forcing him to do unspeakable things on camera. And when I say “unspeakable,” I am not being hyperbolic. The final shot and decision made are purely evil.
Director: Srđan Spasojević
Writers: Aleksandar Radivojević, Srđan Spasojević
Cast: Srđan Todorović, Sergej Trifunović, Jelena Gavrilović, Slobodan Beštić, Katarina Žutić
3. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is John McNaughton’s low budget 1986 horror film featuring a career-making lead performance from Michael Rooker in the title role. Rooker’s work here is astonishing, managing to find the crevasses of humanity in a person so wired to inflict nothing but nihilistic, meaningless damage upon those around him, especially those who dare show anything resembling human affection. As for the found footage of it all: Henry is not entirely rendered using in-text cameras.
But the film’s most startlingly brutal moments of murderous carnage — and, importantly, the dread leading up to said outbursts — are filmed within the text by Henry and his crew. The casualness of the carnage, the inevitability of such wanton destruction is what will linger in the mind long after viewing Henry. It’s a portrait of a serial killer, and the portrait of what can happen if we allow ourselves to be dehumanized and desensitized to a point where empathy is impossible.
Director: John McNaughton
Writers: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Cast: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold
Takashi Miike is a beyond-prolific director, whose most notorious films like Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q regularly make psychologically punishing taboos. Why does Audition make the cut over his many other films? In part, because of its borderline-cruel bait-and-switch. Audition starts with a premise and tone of a light romantic drama — Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a lonely widower who’s newly looking for a new love. Under the advice of his film producer friend (Jun Kunimura), Aoyama starts literally “auditioning” women to potentially be his love, and immediately falls for Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). And then… shit gets weird. Miike’s switch-flip smacks you in the face, forcing you to confront the inherently problematic premise of the film, and the inherent sexism baked into dating, romantic pursuals, and even the film industry. When Asami Yamazaki finally starts acting with her own agency, hoo boy, look out. Images of needle-based torture, dismemberment, and eating a bodily fluid that definitely should not be eaten collide with intense psychosexual obsession in a way that sledgehammers the viewer into submission. Which is, precisely, Yamazaki and Miike’s goal.
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Daisuke Tengan
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina
5. August Underground’s Mordum
Fred Vogel’s Toetag Pictures is an indie horror film production company and studio known for low-budget, boundary-pushing works of extreme cinema. Their defining statement comes in the form of the found-footage trilogy of mayhem known as August Underground. All three films are shot in jagged, low-fi quality, resulting in an aesthetic that feels as close to a literal snuff film as anyone has produced in a narrative feature film. But the second chapter, August Underground’s Mordum, might be the most abjectly disturbing of the lot. Bodies are nothing more than anonymous opportunities for morbid dissections and corruptions, and the Toetag team is more than willing to shove it all in our face, with each scene managing to top the previous one in its horrific cruelty. Is there a point beyond the chaos of the content on its face value?
Directors/Writers/Cast: Killjoy, Fred Vogel, Cristie Whiles, Jerami Cruise, Michael Todd Schneider
The debut feature of notorious nightmare-stirrer/meteorologist David Lynch, Eraserhead is likely the closest you will ever feel to living in the casual, gnawing surrealism of a real-life nightmare in cinematic form. Using stark black and white photography and inexplicably terrifying sound design, the creative director tells the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a feeble and sensitive man who lives in a bizarre, post-industrialized apocalyptic society.
Lynch presents these challenges both with a searingly skin-crawling style and no style at all; while the production design on this film is peerless in its atmosphere, so many of the film’s haunting images occur almost inadvertently, with no comment on its bleak oddness.
Director/Writer: David Lynch
Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates
7. The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)
Tom Six’s The Human Centipede, released in 2009, had a raucous premise that instantly became notorious not just among extreme cinephiles, but through the general filmscape. But its sequel, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), takes any sense of accessibility and runs it over with a car, crushing its skull (unfortunately that is a hint at something that happens in the film).
This audacious meta-choice is heightened to its most obvious extreme as Harvey, who’s gotten a taste for macabre blood after dispatching with his abusive mother graphically, decides to create his own human centipede out of his own very, very amateurish “medical supplies.”
Brace yourself — Ashlynn Yennie, playing “Ashlynn Yennie, star of The Human Centipede.” While there is something undeniably engaging and unexpectedly self-critical with Six folding in his mythology on itself, he mostly uses this as a launching pad for depictions of unspeakable cruelty in sickeningly greasy black-and-white. The aforementioned “skull-crushing” sequence happens to a person you do not want to see it happen to; barbed wire is used in a sexually violent way; and a scene involving the human centipede, um, “eating” is beyond vile.
Director/Writer: Tom Six
Cast: Ashlynn Yennie, Laurence R. Harvey
8. In a Glass Cage
Of all the various subgenres of exploitation cinema, Nazisploitation might be the most eager to break and shove taboos in your face. In a Glass Cage threads the Nazisploitation needle between “empty shock value” and “something to say” queasily but effectively, using uncommonly atmospheric filmmaking to boot.
The person in the titular glass cage is Klaus (Günter Meisner), a former Nazi doctor who tortured, experimented on, and committed horrific acts of sexual violence to children both within the Holocaust and after, where he has exiled himself in Spain. In an episode of his demons catching up to him, Klaus attempts suicide and fails, resulting in his being incubated in an iron lung. A nurse by the name of Angelo (David Sust) offers to take care of him, but he’s no ordinary nurse. He is a victim of Klaus’, grown up and eager not just to get his revenge on the Nazi doctor, but to inhabit the identity of the Nazi doctor as literally as possible. The resulting narrative is punishing, disquieting, and psychologically fascinating, an effective dissection of the lingering traumas and effects that occur for both abusers and the abused.
Director/Writer: Agustí Villaronga
Cast: Günter Meisner, Marisa Paredes, David Sust
Directors: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo
Writer: Alexandre Bustillo
Cast: Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis
Of the many violating film experiences produced during the 2000s cinematic movement known as New French Extremity (Martyrs, Trouble Every Day, High Tension, and more French pieces of cinema that brutally render all things transgressive), none stick to my bones as horrifically as Inside (known in France as À l’intérieur). The plot is beyond simple: Sarah (Béatrice Dalle), a recent widow, is pregnant and alone. And then a woman named, simply, “La Femme” (Alysson Paradis), invades her home, obsessed with the idea that Sarah’s baby belongs to her. And she’s gonna get it by any method she can. What results is a viciously nasty, physical, visceral experience of abject brutality and self-defense, swirled up aggressively with psychological provocations of trauma, entitlement, and motherhood — all involving an incredibly pregnant woman.
Director/Writer: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel
Keeping up with New French Extremity, enfant terrible Gaspar Noé, the auteur behind other disturbing works like I Stand Alone and Climax, left his mark on both that contemporary movement and the more pervasive exploitation subgenre of “rape and revenge” with 2002’s disgustingly thorough Irréversible. In traditional exploitation works in that mold, like The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, or Thriller – A Cruel Picture, we get to know a female protagonist, are horrified by the vile sexual abuse she goes through, and are vindicated when she gets her violent revenge on her male abusers.
The film starts with a free-wheeling cacophony of sound, color, swirling camerawork, and abject carnage, as the piece of “revenge” is instilled on someone we have no context about (notably committed not by a woman re-finding empowerment, but by a rage-filled man).
Again, Noé is presenting us with the typical beats of a rape-and-revenge thriller, but by reversing their order, he is either forcing us to examine the arbitrary nature of violence and emptiness of revenge, or being a fuckin’ asshole who made a worthless film, depending on your take. The rest of Irréversible does “mercifully” show moments of love, character development, and humanity regarding Bellucci, but it all has a glum, sickening pallor, a subconscious reminder that acts of evil are indeed irreversible, no matter the reason.
11. Man Bites Dog
One of the most disturbing movies of all, Man Bites Dog will make you want to fast forward as much as possible.
Man Bites Dog is known in its native country of Belgian as C’est arrivé près de chez vous (a take on the phrase “It could happen to you”). From its title on down, the black-and-white mockumentary (another foundational found-footage horror film) has its sights on how we consume and deify acts of violence and their “fun” sense of fear, especially in the news media. A group of journalists follow a man named Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde, disquietingly brilliant). He’s charming, funny, and happens to be a prolific, sadistic serial killer. The journalists aim to film him and his increasingly violent crimes with a sense of objective remove. But quietly, sneakily, queasily, the journalists can’t help but actively participate in his crimes, indicting not just news media outlets around the world.
This all culminates with a midpoint scene of carnage and its aftermath that is shown so casually, so graphically, and so without remorse, that I wish I could fast-forward it in my brain.
Directors: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde
Writers: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, Vincent Tavier
Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, Jenny Drye, Jacqueline Poelvoorde-Pappaert, Malou Madou, André Bonzel
If titles could speak volumes, you know what this movie is about – yes, it is truly, sincerely, and unabashedly about having sex with a corpse. The film follows a couple, Rob and Betty (Daktari Lorenz and Beatrice Manowski), who are eagerly and morbidly interested between the intersections of love, sex, and death. Rob works for a company that cleans up corpses from accident sites, and, well, he likes to keep souvenirs and trophies for he and his girlfriend to play with. Eventually, this heightens into the full-on stealing of a full-on corpse, which heightens into a curious thruple situation involving the ickiest use of a steel pipe you’llever seen in cinema. Nekromantik, for those with a dark humor and ready to take the plunge, actually mines a decent amount of black comedy, romantic love and maddening jealousy with wry commitment and outsider appeal. But it doesn’t stop the film from mucking in the vilest depictions of human flesh, and its ending moments are both astonishing and oddly poetic.
Director: Jörg Buttgereit
Writers: Jörg Buttgereit, Franz Rodenkirchen
Cast: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice Manowski, Harald Lundt
13. 1Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Reining as the grandfather of the most disturbing fims of all time, 120 Days of Sodom is a shocking piece of horror that has, despite (because of?) its extreme content, earned that rare piece of prestige cinema canonization.
That’s right, friends: You can buy Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom in a fancy Criterion Collection blu-ray package, with its aggressively graphic depictions of corrupt fascism and animal impulse run amok in exacting, infuriating detail. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film before his murder, Salò is inspired in equal measure by Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, an influential work on the limits and breaking points of human degradation and sexuality (it’s where the word “sadism” comes from!), and the real-life horrors inflicted by a fascist Italian government during World War II.
This movie is brutal and not something people “recommend,” as it strips the thin edge between humanity and evil under the auspices of hierarchical power structures, a film that shows how deep cruelty can run. It is not ideal to watch while eating.
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Writers: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Citti
Cast: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Hélène Surgère, Sonia Saviange, Inès Pellegrini
14. The Snowtown Murders
For those of you who like movies based on real life murders, The Snowtown Murders is about the killings in Adelaide, Australia.
The excruciating slow burn is a ferocious debut feature for director Justin Kurzel. Determined to rid his community of the explicit threat of pedophiles and homosexuals, the murderer is more than willing to toxically conflate, John Bunting (a terrifying Daniel Henshall) recruits a group of lower-class folks, including victim of sexual violence Jamie Vlassakis (a heartbreaking Lucas Pittaway), to find, torture, and murder those who deserve it. Kurzel’s frame is both unsparing with disturbing flair, using both the power of explicit carnage and implicit terror to constantly shove a metaphorical screwdriver into the viewer’s guts.
It’s grim, grim, grim stuff, a movie that explores the most base and vile of human nature in ways that will make you empathize, and then make you need a shower.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Shaun Grant, Justin Kurzel
Cast: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris
15. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Ever watched Black Mirror and found it disturbing? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is one of the most disturbing movies that come to life in an experimental, black and white nightmare. The dialogues are similar to cult classics like Eraserhead.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is less interested in a palatable sci-fi narrative than it is in an unsparing exploration of mood. And the “mood,” courtesy of notorious Japanese cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, is “bleak”.
Tetsuo is also a cyberpunk film where fiction is interested in the blending of human beings with cybernetic enhancements. And Tetsuo: The Iron Man takes that impulse and catapults it to disturbing extremes, stripping away all other parts for the sheer purpose of “man plus metal.” The “man” of this equation, played with hypnotic obsession by the film’s director, views hunks of metal as violent fetish objects that deserve as full of our praise and fusion as possible — his very first action in the film is to cut open his own leg and shove a piece of metal into it. But when a salaryman (the Japanese word for “white-collar worker”) played by Tomorowo Taguchi starts literally sprouting metal as the culmination of his violent dreams and reality-blurring fantasies, the two face off in relentlessly nihilistic fashion.
This movie is loaded with upsetting imagery, particularly when the titular Iron Man and his fully human girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) attempt to copulate even though he’s, y’know, an Iron Man. But it’s not shock for shock’s sake — Tsukamoto has a lot on his mind, and every facet of his fever dream, from the grimly handmade makeup effects to the smeary 16mm camera, speaks in service of his ultimate thesis statement: The fusion of technology and the human race will totally destroy us all.
Director/Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto
Cast: Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Shinya Tsukamoto