The Ten Most Disturbing Movies of All Time

So, almost two years ago to the day, I did a, “The Ten Most Controversial and Disturbing Films Ever,” list where I gave a top ten, plus one, of the most fucked up, controversial and disturbing films I had ever seen up to that point.

Now, some of you may be wondering, “Why do you see these movies? They’re just trying to be fucked up for the sake of it and there’s no pleasure in watching these types of movies.” That is a fair and understandable criticism. I don’t fault anyone for not seeing these types of movies. And it is true, some of the movies that will be featured on my list are fucked up only because they are vying for the title (and perverted honor) of being known as the most fucked up movie ever done. And I’m cool with that! Because then when a movie like that starts getting a lot of hype as the “most fucked up movie ever,” it makes me want to see it to see what all the hype is about.

There’s two further reasons I purposely seek out these movies — and why another list was necessary since it’s been two years; I need to update — that I would like to explain. Some of the films on this list and the prior list, like 2007’s new French extremity movie, Inside, have gratuitous violence or sex or depravity, but it serves the narrative and the story the film-makers are trying to convey. I argued for the aforementioned’s explicit violence in a horror film class here, “Arguing the Merits of the Violence in the Film Inside.

But there’s a further consideration that’s a bit meta and harder to pin down. What does it say about the viewer that they purposefully seek out and enjoy (relative term) watching these types of movies? I’m not really sure what it says about me or other viewers like me. That an audience exists for these boundary-pushing, depraved movies is utterly fascinating to me, especially because I am in that audience. That’s a paper thesis for its own day.

Also, before I begin this list, I have a small gripe: Naturally, I researched a few days before this list to make sure I hadn’t forgotten a movie I wanted to include or if there was a movie I should see before making this list. And in a lot of other lists, I see the inclusion of 1955’s French short-documentary, Night and Fog. And yes, that’s a disturbing film; one that’s been seared in my mind ever since I saw it. But it doesn’t belong on a list of “fictional” films! It’s reality. And reality will always out-disturb fiction. One day I’ll make a list of the most fucked up true stories, nonfictional documentaries and then Night and Fog will have its day.

I have 15 films on my list this time, as opposed to the 11 I did last time. My criteria for order may not necessarily be by film quality, i.e., some films ranked lower are better “films” than the higher-ranked ones, but they’re not as disturbing. My criteria for ranking is like the title says, “most disturbing.” And think of this list in isolation of the previous one, as if I had to rank all 26, then, well.

Two final notes: Much to your surprise, many of the films on here are actually well-received by critics, even some of the higher ranked ones. And I also think fans of horror/thrillers and fucked up movies will appreciate this list. As I said, I did a lot of research by looking at other lists and I think my list will feature some unconventional films that you won’t see on those lists.

Here we go!

15. The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

poster art

This is one of the more modern films given the label of “most fucked up.” I actually just watched it for the first time last night after almost six years of built up hype. It’s certainly fucked up, otherwise it wouldn’t be on this list. But it’s also only at #15. The concept is that a mad German scientist wants to, well, create a human centipede out of two Americans and a Japanese man. And he does. And it’s disgusting. But it’s more fucked up for the visual of the centipede and the concept behind it. Otherwise, it’s not that gross or disturbing. Or shocking, even. This is one of those films vying for the “most fucked up”  honor and it falls a bit short in my view.

14. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)


This was a last-minute addition to my list. One of the few films on this list that I actually haven’t seen in quite some time, but it obviously left an imprint on my fucked up brain. If you saw this movie without knowing the year it was made, you would guess the 1970s because of how gritty it is like that decade of horror. That this came on the back end of the somewhat cheesy, you-can-tell-its-an-’80s-film style of film-making in that decade, is impressive to me. And Michael Rooker as Henry plays the part to perfection, which is creepy.

13. House on the Edge of the Park (1980)


This Italian film was clearly modeled after Wes Craven’s 1972 film, The Last House on the Left, which the main bad guy in that film, David Hess, is also the main bad guy in this one, playing a very similar character. In fact, throughout that time period, Hess was in a slew of films playing essentially a psychopathic sexual deviant. And he plays it quite well actually and in this one, believably so. Some of the moments are a bit outdated, but there’s enough good gore and fucked up scenes to deserve placement on this list.

12. Eden Park (2008)


In my view, the most fucked up and quality horror in the modern era comes from those damn French, but the British aren’t far behind with films like the above one here. For one, this movie is anchored by one of the best modern actors today, Michael Fassbender. Michael’s character and his girlfriend are trying to enjoy a vacation at Eden Lake when a bunch of fucked up teenagers start messing with them, in gradually more deranged ways. It’s an intense, scary film that is among the best featured on this list.

11. Frontier(s) (2007)


I mean, look at the poster: it’s fucked up. This is another crazy French horror film. It’s somewhat similar in set up to 2005’s Hostel, but it makes Hostel looks pretty damn tame. Like, for instance, the MPAA gave this an NC-17 rating. That’s alluring enough, ain’t it?

10. Prisoners (2013)


This is definitely the most mainstream film I’ll have on this list by a wide margin since it had a wide-release and stars two of my favorite actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman. But, don’t let that mainstream gloss mislead you: it’s one of the most fucked up movies I’ve seen and that’s somewhat perpetuated by it being mainstream. It’s similar to the set up of the #5 movie on my previous list, 7 Days, where girls go missing and their fathers capture who they think is the man that did it. And then do fucked up stuff to him. It’s a great meditation on, “What would you do for your family? How far would you go?” Jackman in particular gives a standout performance.

9. Compliance (2012)


Now, don’t get me wrong, this film has scenes that are disturbing in their own right, but it’s not on this list for explicit violence or sex or any of that  as some of the other ones are. This film is on here because not only is the story itself a fucked up meditation on human behavior and well, compliance, but that it’s actually based on a true story. This actually has happened…multiple times! It’s mind-blowing to me. And it’s also another film that, compared to some of the others, was met with critical praise. The Rottentomatoes consensus said, “Anchored by smart, sensitive direction and strong performances, Compliance is a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that’s equal parts gripping and disturbing.”

8. An American Crime (2007)

An American Crime

Similar to the above, this film is based upon true events and my list is going to be interesting because you’ll see those true events represented in this film and a later film on the list. The reason I rank this one lower than the other one is because this is the more mainstream version. And like Prisoners, it’s pretty fucked up for a mainstream outing starring Ellen Page and James Franco. The story is about is based on the true story of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by Indianapolis housewife, Gertrude Baniszekski in the 1960s. Anything dealing with the violation of children is fucked up in its own right and to a distinctive level above other films.

7. Lilja 4-Ever (2002)


This Swedish film was another one met with critical praise. The film is set in the backdrop of the former Soviet Union and the issue of human trafficking and sex slavery. Right off the bat, then, you know it’s going to be hard to watch and dealing with some heavy issues. Oksana Akinshina gives an incredible performance that conveys her downward spiral after her mother abandons her. That type of character examination always makes for an interesting film.

6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)


The British are at it again with this highly praised film starring the brilliant Tilda Swinton. I’ve never seen a film better depict not just the hardships of motherhood, but the development of a psychopath. It’s a great character study in both regards and the tension is palpable throughout. It’s one of those films that is hard to watch because it’s so realistic on one hand and so mind-blowing on the other that a kid can be so psychopathic — that psychopathy can present itself at such a young age.

5. The Girl Next Door (2007)

Girl Next Door

Oddly enough, this one came out in 2007, the same time as An American Crime, but this is the grittier, more fucked up version, hence its placement. However, it’s an unfortunate title since it gets confused for the title of the same name from 2004, a teen film starring Elisha Cuthbert. And this one, while still based on those true events, is also based on Jack Ketchum’s version of those events in the 1989 book by the same name. It’s just a fucked up display of our human capacity to dehumanize someone else and no longer see them as worthy of respect and life.

4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

This is my type of film. I saw it years ago, but I was too young to appreciate it, so I only recently gave it a second chance and it delivered. It’s a psychological drama by the always introspective and a little out there, Darren Aronofsky. It stars standouts, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and especially Ellen Burstyn (she was robbed for the Oscar by Julia freaking Roberts). I have never, ever seen addiction, depression and obsession better depicted on film. For that reason alone, it deserves placement, but then seeing what the characters go through, especially Leto’s, it’s even more disturbing. I say, Leto because his arm due to heroin injections is fucking nasty. Plus, it features one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time by Clint Mansell. And the way Aronofsky shoots the film with quick edits and sometimes a montage type feel, it’s almost meta in making the viewer feel addicted to the film style itself.

3. The War Zone (1999)

War Zone

Damn Brits. If you watched this film not knowing who the director was and then found out, I’m sure you’d be surprised to know someone as well known as Tim Roth directed it, given its subject matter. This one also features Tilda Swinton and basically deals with incest and sexual violence in a brutally honest way. It’s well-made, but hard to watch and full of intense tension. We’re in the top three here, so you know this is some rough shit.

2. Begotten (1990)


Believe it or not, experimental film directed by E. Elias Merhige, was met with generally critical praise, mostly for the way Merhige painstakingly shot the film. It’s shot with no dialogue and just an odd, disturbing aesthetic. And the subject matter has religious overtones, which further adds to its controversy. It’s often cited as the most disturbing, so it makes you wonder what I have at number one that could top it. I think it deserves #2, however, because even without dialogue, it makes you squeamish and uncomfortable.

1. A Serbian Film (2010)

A Serbian Film

Unfortunately, I have to conform to some of the many lists I’ve seen that have this relatively new Serbian horror film as their number one most disturbing. And it’s for damn good reason: it graphically depicts rape, necrophilia and child abuse in ways I’ve never seen from another film. This movie had instant hype when it was released and I put off seeing it forever and I thought, “Nah, it can’t be as bad as they’re saying.” Well, it’s worse. I mean, it was investigated by the Serbian government for potential crimes and then subsequently banned in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, among other countries. You know you have a fucked up film once its reaching that level of banishment. So, naturally, I had to see it. And you should, too, if you’re into that sorta thing.

Whelp, thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed my list and have some viewing to do. If you think I missed something on this or the previous list that deserves a mention, then let me know!

2 thoughts

  1. We Need to Talk about Kevin was based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, if you weren’t aware. One of my favorite teachers in high school lent it to me and it remains one of the most incredibly powerful books I’ve ever read.


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