There are several reasons that a person would search for a list of the most disturbing movies of all time. 1) You’re looking to ruin your life. 2) You have a morbid curiosity that you may or may not decide to further by watching these movies. 3) You’re testing your own fortitude. OR 4) You meant to type ‘most distilled’ and you have clumsy fingers, plus you realized ‘most distilled movies’ makes absolutely no sense.
If you’re looking for a good night of fun film watching, you should probably find a different list. These are those movies that will burn themselves into your brain and leave you with images that cannot be unseen. It should be obvious, but not a single movie on this list is for the faint-hearted or easily-offended. These films are sure to ruin your day. According to some board of doctors that probably exists somewhere, a steady diet of these films may lead to anxiety, depression, self-loathing, and hemorrhaging of the eye (symptoms may vary). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Without a doubt there are other movies that could be added to this list. And, as with all of our ‘scariest’ lists here, ‘most disturbing’ will vary from person to person. This list definitely contains 13 of some of the most disturbing movies of all time, but your personal order may vary, or some of these may not have carried the same impact in your opinion. So by all means leave your comments and let everyone know how your list would vary!
The Top 13 Most Disturbing Movies of All Time
13. Sweet Movie (1974)
When you hear the title, you may think it’s some romantic drama. When you read that it’s partly about a woman on a boat filled with candy and sugar, you may think it’s something like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. If you make either of these mistakes, you’re in for the opposite of a treat. Sweet Movie tells the stories of two women: one about Miss Canada, who moves around through many of the sexual taboos that would fill a John Waters film, but with a much darker tone; and the second about a female communist revolutionary who drives a sugar-filled boat on a river, luring in men and boys. It’s weird, without a doubt, but also packed with sexual depravity and disgusting images that would make damn near anyone squirm. It may not be the most deeply disturbing film here, but it will certainly stick with the viewer for a long time to come.
12. Antichrist (2009)
Antichrist is a truly beautiful and brilliant, but highly unsettling film. After their child falls to his death, a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) head to a secluded cabin in the woods in an attempt to recover from their grief. The movie plays out in four chapters with a prologue and epilogue. As an art film, there is a strong focus on imagery, and in many cases that imagery is just as haunting as any of the events that occur. I can’t go into much detail without spoiling anything, but this is certainly one of those movies that is intense and disturbing, but at the same time is such an incredibly gorgeous film that it is highly re-watchable. To be honest, there are several films on this list that you may regret ever watching, but Antichrist is not one of them.
11. Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985)
This is actually the 2nd film in a snuff-style series of Japanese films and shorts called Guinea Pig. They’re all quite messed up, but Flower of Flesh and Blood is likely the most unsettling. There’s not much to the plot. A man dressed as a samurai captures a young woman, ties her down, and proceeds to cut her into pieces. It’s nothing more than a mock snuff film, and the effects are done well. There’s a strange dark humor behind the whole series, but it doesn’t exist quite as much in Flower of Flesh and Blood. It’s gory, unflinching, and raw, with very little narrative.
10. August Underground Trilogy
Continuing the mock snuff film trend is the August Underground trilogy. It includes August Underground (2001), August Underground’s Mordum (2003), and August Underground’s Penance (2007). All three are what appear to be home videos from serial killers doing all kinds of terrible things to all kinds of people. These may be the most infamous of the mock snuff franchises (right there with the Guinea Pig series), but strictly speaking are not great movies. Still, they’re effective in delivering graphic violent content in a low-fi manner that looks like a legitimate snuff film probably would, so they did what they set out to do. The realism is what is really disturbing about this trilogy, since the gratuitous violence has been done so many times before and after.
9. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Easily one of the most controversial movies of all time for actually slaughtering animals for the sake of the film, is Cannibal Holocaust. Although that very fact is unsettling in and of itself for anyone with any compassion for life, there is plenty more about this landmark cannibal film that can get under your skin. The first is the format. Although it’s a common misconception that The Blair Witch Project pioneered found-footage horror films, Cannibal Holocaust was actually one of the earliest (perhaps the pioneering found-footage horror film), and handles the concept better than most. There are quite a few unsettling images of both human and animal slaughter (one of which is found on many of the posters) that make this an undeniably disturbing movie.
8. Eraserhead (1977)
David Lynch’s first film takes this list back to the unsettling use of imagery. Eraserhead is the surrealist story of Henry Spencer as he deals with the birth of a very unusual child, his relationship with his girlfriend and her parents, and a stifling environment. One of the most brilliant aspects of this movie is the sound and music, which in some instances can be as upsetting as any of the images. There is so much dissonance throughout the film that it can often leave viewers in an anxious and irritated state. This has polarized audiences and critics alike, and the movie has been called genius, but also has been called bullshit. I for one think it is a near perfect film (read more here). Either way, it’s a movie that will stick with you.
7. Martyrs (2008)
There is still a huge amount of hype around French horror film Martyrs, and for good reason. It is one of the most bizarre, brutal, and intense horror movies in recent history. Lucie was neglected and abused as a child, and many years later, with the help of her friend Anna, sets out to find her tormentors. What they find is much larger, and much more horrific, than they could have imagined. At times this movie can be disorienting, but that only adds to the effect. Martyrs has some of the most unusual and outright brutal visuals in modern horror, and when it is all pieced together, proves to be a deeply unsettling film.
6. Aftermath (1994)
Aftermath is a short film running at just around 30 minutes, but packs just as much of a punch as any of these full-length films. It brings to the screen one of the most unpleasant and pervasive social taboos: necrophilia. It takes place in a morgue, where a mortician stays behind while everyone else goes home for the night. When he notices the corpse of a young woman, he mutilates and rapes it. The effects are highly realistic, which makes it all the more uncomfortable. To put it simply, watching Aftermath is a very unpleasant way to spend a half hour.
5. Nekromantik (1987)
Nekromantik is a German horror film addressing, once again, necrophilia. Director Jörg Buttgereit also created a sequel, as well as other infamous horror movies like Schramm (1994) and Der Todesking (1990). Rob works for a company that cleans dead bodies and remains out of public areas. Him and his girlfriend are seen entertaining necrophiliac tendencies early on, and it only gets more graphic when Rob brings home a full corpse. There’s nothing subtle about this movie, and it’s gained a great deal of cult status for its controversiality. Nekromantik remains banned in several countries to this day.
4. Begotten (1990)
You know that type of movie that, if you don’t like it, people will just say “well, you just didn’t get it”? Begotten is that type of film, and not in a bad way. It’s a truly innovative work, but isn’t entirely accessible. In other words, it’s not for everyone. But regardless of whether or not you enjoy it, this silent film from 1990 is packed with unnerving and out-right disturbing imagery. The movie opens on God, already bleeding, who then continues to disembowel himself. Once he is dead, Mother Earth emerges and gives birth to the Son of Earth. The Son of Earth ventures through a desolate landscape, and is captured by faceless wanderers. The whole film is one long string of haunting images, and even just the first scene can leave you feeling unsettled.
3. Irreversible (2002)
Irreversible presents an unusual version of the standard rape and revenge film, by portraying all the events in reverse order. Rather than a climax somewhere near the middle or end of the movie, with a resolution to follow, this one starts in the chaos of the aftermath and then follows up with the events that proceeded. That format is crucial to the effect that Irreversible has on viewers. Instead of being solaced (as much as you can) by the revenge portion, this movie instead chooses to torture you with the vision of what might have been. Their is no comfort in revenge, just loss. It’s a truly brilliant format, and such a deeply disturbing film. Rape and revenge movies are upsetting by the very nature of their content, but not since Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) has there been one this effective.
2. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Salò is high up on this list for its sheer mean-spirited cruelty. It is an unflinching look at a group of fascist libertines that round up some eighteen boys and girls and submit them to humiliation, torture, and both physical and sexual violence. That very premise should make your stomach turn. There’s really no holding back either, and considering the victims are children (assumed to be under the age of 18), it’s a hard movie to watch. It’s highly controversial, without a doubt, but many have called it a masterpiece and it is currently part of the Criterion Collection. Either way you approach it, this is one hell of a disturbing film.
1. A Serbian Film (2010)
Milos is a retired porn star who is now married happily and has a young son. When the family is under some financial stress, Milos takes up an offer to participate in an art film that promises a huge monetary return. However, it’s only after he has signed his contract that he realizes just how depraved the films that he has been hired for are meant to be. The director isn’t going to let Milos out of it though, and forces his cooperation with drugs and the threat of harming his family. There are no boundaries with A Serbian Film. It’s really indescribable just how much brutality, cruelty, and depravity exists within the 104 minute runtime. It’s one of those that leaves the viewer speechless, without even the ability to pick one’s jaw up off the floor. Without a doubt, this is the most disturbing movie of all time (or at least that I have ever come across). Don’t even consider this one until you know you can stomach the rest of the films on this list.