The 25 Most Disturbing Movies: Part I

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Disturbing Night At The Movies:” The Ultimate List of Dangerous Films (or How I Misspent My Youth Watching Slashers, Sickos, and Psychos Instead of Reading Shakespeare)

By Simon Augustine

One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real. -Klaus Kinski 

Please Do Not Read This Article If You Are Under The Age of 25.

Introduction: Q: Are We Not Men? A: No, We Are Disturbed

There is a whole underground army of moviegoers out there, scouring the internet for undiscovered treasures, rifling through what is left of sketchy video stores, prying open dark vaults to find the dusty reels of forgotten anti-masterpieces. The cinematic warriors of whom I speak - constantly fighting normal moral conventions, the prodding of their own consciences, and the eternal “tsk-tsking” of the world at large - are the “Disturbists:” cinephiles devoted to the most disgusting, terrifying, upsetting, gory, profane, irreverent movies ever made: the Canon of Disturbing Cinema. Most often falling into the category of the horror genre, but also encompassing the more offensive variations of comedy, drama, historical period piece, documentary, Japanese anime, erotic cartoon, or instructional video, the Disturbing Film can be defined thusly:

dis·turb·ing film (n.) Pron. \di-_st_rb-bi_\ _film\ Etym. derived from the Latinate verb disturbare (to make slightly nauseous); Middle English variants incl. disturben; & contemporary American colloquialisms originating circa 1962 in the Times Square area of New York City: cf. “grindhouse,” “sleaze,” “gross-out,” “freaky stuff,” “sick flick,” “you're not gonna believe what I watched last night.”

  1. A motion picture that portrays all manner of inappropriate, untoward, and naughty behavior, aesthetically realized viz. a viz. graphic images of sexuality and/or violent crimes perpetrated by maniacs, escapees, mad scientists, ridiculed summer-camp attendees bent on revenge, and other suspicious and unsavory characters.
  2. A work of cinema that is transgressive for the express purpose of providing its viewers titillation and amusement; typically NOT primarily intended to educate or enrich its audience in any way whatsoever, in fact usually avoidant of any socially redeeming quality. There are exceptions, however.
  3. A filmed artistic manifesto that exploits its sensitive subject matter for the basest of reasons (money, infamy, and money) and indulges in human and supernatural depravity for its own sake.
  4. A cultural artifact emphasizing the unpleasant. Typically shared and disseminated among suburban teenagers, prison inmates, comic-book store owners, and middle-aged loners named Doug who hold puppet talk shows in the basement when no one else is around.

It should be noted that the Disturbing Film certainly may, and probably does, contain other ingredients of depravity [see extensive list at end of article*] that composes the mythic, elusive game hunted by perverted film fans: the truly Disturbing Film.

So open the curtain, grab the barf bag, and hang on tight, all you novices and apprentice Disturbists… What follows is an introductory guide to the Multiplex of the Deranged; that broken down, abandoned movie house on the top of the hill into which only the most intrepid kids (at heart) will venture.

The 25 Most Disturbing Movies Currently In Existence

Producing this list was not a task that could be left to human error or flimsy subjective judgment. It was primarily a scientific endeavor. Several weighted criteria were used, using an obscure logarithm, and fed into a huge macro-computer the size of a refrigerator, which shook, rattled, made a burping sound, and then produced a paper printout on which the following list of 25 films was printed. The criteria, in descending order of importance, were: does this movie make me want to throw up? Do I feel like a worse person having watched this drivel? Do I feel significantly less optimistic about human nature have been subjected to it? Also counted: level of feigned or sincere ignorance of good taste.

Also, all entries are followed by a scaled rating expressed in a ratio of Gross-out Factor to Artistic Merit (Gross-out/Artistic Merit Gauge-O-Meter®)

25. Cutting Moments (Short Film) (1997) Gross-out: 6/Artistic Merit: 8

This nasty bit of business is a good way to dip your feet in the water. It's short, only about 20 minutes, and can be found online, so you can take this entrance exam pretty conveniently. However, it's both an excruciating 20 minutes, and a wonderfully effective, darkly hilarious deadpan look at clinical depression as a modern way of life and the sorry state of modern familial relationships. In a series of bizarre, low-key scenes, we witness a husband bored with his life, afraid of his son's homosexuality (expressed via Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) a wife bored with her husband, and everyone bored with the universe.

In other words, a family so numb, so emotionally catatonic, that the woman of the house tries to reach her husband and break the psychological stagnation by voicing a very strange and painful cry of help. Her solution involves a pair of scissors, a bathroom mirror, and some daring-do… And the best part is hubby's unexpected reaction. During the finale, try not to close your eyes If you have to, you may need to stop right here and venture no further down the list.

24. Men Behind The Sun (1987) 5/9

This unflinching chronicle of the notorious Japanese WWII biological weapons experimentation camp (never fun places) Unit 731 usually finds its way into many a Disturbist's Top Ten. I don't rank it quite that high, but understand why some would. Like Mengele did for the Nazis, the “doctors” and biological inventors at 731 used inmates to conduct the kind of pointless and creatively disgusting experiments only insane concentration camp docs seem capable of; among the sights you'll gain admission to with this one are: a male test subject put into some kind of pressurized air chamber, in which his entire gastrointestinal track is forced out; and a poor old woman's hands made completely frostbitten in the camp's wintry surroundings until they are frozen like a popsicle, whereupon she is forced to dip them in boiling hot water with really unfortunate results.

But the worst is a really morally dubious scene of a mortified cat dropped into a cage of starving rats, which, although no one knows for sure, is probably authentic and rightfully brought the filmmaker condemnation from animal rights activists and legal problems (whoa, is it hard to sit through). There is an autopsy of a young boy that feels real too. In any case, the innovative torture methods depicted make this an instant unsavory classic. And most of it really happened.

Director Mou Tun Fei initially began working on an earnest attempt to convey the tragedies of 731, but soon descended into rank exploitation. As a result, he became vilified and investigated in his home country of China; he also received death threats. Anything for art.

23. Possession (1981) 10/6

Well, if you survived our first two items, it's time to earn a few more stripes. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani star as an estranged couple living in Berlin in this rare and hard-to-find film (sometimes having to track down these buried treasures is half the fun). Possession goes into uncharted, genre-bending territory. Part intense and excruciating family melodrama, part psychological nightmare, and part monster movie, it is exceptional -- and exceptionally bizarre.

In a story of emotional intensity worthy of Bergman, Mark (Neill) and Anna (Adjani) are suffering perhaps the worst, most raw form of alienation - that within a disintegrating marriage. In their case, though, the turmoil is elevated to acute hysteria, and then morphs in surreal ways that David Lynch would be proud of. Mark suspects the unbalanced Anna of having an affair, and when she moves out, he starts poking around. I won't give away what he discovers - but let's just say Anna's “lover” is the last thing Mark could have imagined… and it will freak you out. Is it a physical embodiment of her tortured psyche (a la David Cronenberg)? Is it human?

Possession, like Rosemary's Baby or Silence of the Lambs, applies first-class performances, cinematography, screenwriting, and direction to a genre unfortunately too often known for its legions of B-movie schlock. It represents a rare breed - the art-house horror film - and operates on enough metaphorical and psychological levels to keep you deep in discussion and thought long after viewing.

22. Maniac (1981) 6/9

Pretty much everything Joe Spinell graces with his mug instantly ups its sleaze quotient by fifty percent. An actor who has been around from the early seventies, and has had small parts in big films (including The Godfather and Rocky), Spinell possesses greasy hair, sweaty pockmarked face, and the glare of a psychopath (in basically every role he plays) that makes you think, “hey, this guy should star in a movie called 'Maniac!'” Well, a dream came true: this is Spinell's moment in the spotlight. He plays a New York loner with a mother complex who spends most of his time barricaded in his shabby apartment, creeping us out by looking into a fish eye lens and playing with mannequins. When he does manage to get out for an evening, it's usually to stalk and scalp women in the empty subways and dark corners of The Big Apple.

The special effects by Tom Savini, a master before CGI was a gleam in George Lucas's eye, supply a cavalcade of memorable images, including a shotgun ambush of two lovers in a car and an exploding head that in its ferocity still holds up today. By the end of the film, when Spinell is locked in his apartment, suffering a paranoid breakdown, hearing voices, and skinning his victims, we've traveled about as far down the rabbit hole of urban dementia and alienation anyone would care to go. Compared to this, Taxi Driver is like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

It captures a foreboding and decaying NY, just before it began the long journey from graffitied wasteland to the current Disneyland paradise. Although Joe would go on to helm The Last Horror Film (with Golden Voyage of Sinbad's Caroline Munro as a lesbian fashion photographer - I can practically hear it being added to your GreenCine queues now) and other low budget schlock, he never again reached this pinnacle; the titular character of Maniac is to Spinell what Hamlet was to Laurence Olivier - the role he was born to play. Bonus: It has one of the best posters in horror movie history. Just seeing it on plastered on subway walls of when I was a kid gave me the chills, especially the tag line rendered in psycho scrawl underneath a man wearing jeans and holding a knife in one hand and a blonde woman's head in the other: “I warned you not to go out tonight..” You'll need a long shower after this one.

21. Entrails Come Out At Night (1980) 6/8**

Independent off-off-off Broadway icon and sleaze-meister Marty Farnezy helmed this extremely rare Canadian slasher. With a flair for the surreal and impressive insight into the dark perils of childhood few camper-gone-wrong movies can claim, this lost treasure is all the more attractive because it is nearly impossible to find on VHS (no DVD as of yet) and has been “scrubbed” from the internet by its producer Al Borchstein because of a tangle of rights and distribution disputes. Everybody remembers those 'Outward Bound' type obstacle courses and 'everybody-work-together” trust games we were all subjected to as children. Farnezy turns this nostalgia-laden rite of passage into a traumatic event that gives unholy birth to a monster.

Tormented by bullies all summer at Camp Wanadouitt, scrawny camper Jody Dupree really begins to lose it when he endures the humiliation of being purposely dropped by another camper in the “trust test' exercise of “fall back and I'll catch you.” When he can't pass the ropes course, inciting vicious “they're all gonna laugh at you” Carrie-type derision from the whole camp (including the counselors) and a chant of “Don't slip, drip!” he is provoked into taking the first step of an inescapable journey toward madness.

The rest is obscure Disturbing Movie history: Jody, now a local butcher in the town of his former campground, bizarrely obsessed with intestinal tracks due to his traumatic associations with failed rope courses, returns ten years hence to wreak havoc on a new generation of campers. The climactic scene in which Jody strangles the camp director (played by Farnezy himself) with his own colon is a true show-stopper. I caught this one at a revival house in Toronto, and the audience went berserk. Plus, another great grindhouse poster tag-line: “When Jody The Butcher comes out at night, so do the entrails!”

[**Boo! This film is entirely a figment of the author's deranged imagination.--ed]

20. Blue Velvet (1986) 6/10

Ever since his midnight-circuit cult hit Eraserhead, David Lynch has singlehandedly become a minor cottage industry of disturbance. He broke new ground for independent film and made inroads of Disturbism toward the radar of mainstream America with this, his best film (soon after it was released, the artsy, challenging, and unprecedented Twin Peaks made its network channel TV land debut). With the arrival of Lynch to center stage, closeted Disturbists in every corner of the USA could breathe a little easier, loosen their collars, and hold their heads a bit higher. One of our own had hit the big time.

Lynch's aesthetic invasion on behalf of the dark side into daylight America is mirrored in the themes of the film itself: beginning with an amazing shot circling out of the depths of a severed ear laying on a suburban lawn and being devoured by ants, Blue Velvet draws back the curtain on an astounding underbelly of society lying just beyond the surface, just around a street corner, or inches behind a wall. Basically the message is: pass the façade of any “leafy, dappled bedroom community,” and you'll find a thriving house of horrors. Of course, this observation had been explored in films before Blue Velvet, but Lynch blew the doors open like no one had dared. Secret sludge moves in obscured channels in our sewers and in our minds, and everyone is implicated in one manner or another. Once the door is ajar, it reveals both a portal to a foreign dimension and a glance into the house of a next door neighbor, and Lynch believes, and made us believe, that these two things are one and the same.

Who walks through the door? Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth: a beer-drinkin,' foul-mouthed, nitrous-gas sucking personification of the male sex drive in its most untamed, ferocious, sadistic, compulsive and violently distilled form. Accompanying Frank is his gang, including premo-weirdo Dean Stockwell, Cuckoo's Nest alum Brad Dourif, and a bunch of others who are part Ghost World/Robert Crumb-type outcast geeks, part despicable criminals, and part Manson family. Not a good combo. It's like “The Little Rascals” grew up to have serious and unresolved psychosexual, drug, and violence issues (which, come to think of it, the actors who played them actually did). Kyle MacLachlan plays a nosy innocent who stumbles onto Our Demented Gang when he becomes intrigued with lounge chanteuse Isabella Rossellini.

“The Scene,” as far as Disturbists are concerned, happens when - with goody-goody Kyle watching from a closet - Hopper assaults Rossellini physically and verbally, and in his mania becomes more a preternatural force of macho lust and sociopathic desire than a human being. Hopper chews up the scenery with vehemence and total dedication, and it is one of the most frightening scenes of abuse and anger in history. It singlehandedly revived Hopper's career, (the film provided a brief renaissance for Stockwell, too) who returned to the forefront of vanguard moviemaking, after disappearing for most of the 70s into a haze of self-destruction. Lynch's increasingly surreal, discomfiting, and brilliant subsequent films form a veritable mini-library of horrifying, mind-schtupping puzzles of the Unconscious as cinema.

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    Men Behind the Sun was possibly even more disturbing than that

    I was shown a copy of that movie some time back, and I think that "autopsy" of a boy was actually a vivisection; I seem to remember him being put to sleep, and then they started cutting. Certainly something I wish I could unsee (and unthink, as most of it was thankfully only implied).

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