Throughout his staggering filmography, the influential Stanley Kubrick hasn’t shied away from life’s scariest existential questions and most disturbing possibilities. Though he has only once delved into the horror genre, there are several moments of deeply distressing content throughout each and every one of his films, with such moments forcing the viewer to face up to complicated concepts they had not before considered.
Whilst on the surface, his 1980 horror The Shining remains his most narratively disturbing film, with eerie atmospheric film suggesting something deeper to be running through the haunted floorboards of the Overlook hotel, it is his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange that probes the most challenging topics. Looking into concepts of free will, state control and carnal desires, the ‘70s classic remains a tough work of cinema.
Similarly challenging concepts are imbued throughout many of Kubrick’s film’s, however, with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut and Full Metal Jacket each seeking to answer complicated questions that other filmmakers wouldn’t dare ask. Delving into Kubrick’s celebrated filmography, we’ve picked out his most disturbing moments to keep you up late at night either frightened by its striking imagery or stuck in existential thought about their complex meaning.
10 most disturbing Stanley Kubrick scenes:
10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – The party
Like a dream half-remembered, there’s an ethereal terror to Kubrick’s final movie, Eyes Wide Shut that stays with the viewer long after they’ve finished watching the film. The films most disturbing moment comes, however, when Tom Cruise’s protagonist walks into a strange sexual ritual at a exclusive party featuring masked guests in elaborate gowns or stark birthday suits.
Feeling as if you’ve been transported into a nightmare, the scene plays out with a truly eerie, detached feel that humiliates the lead character and the audience as a result, it’s truly uncomfortable stuff.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – “Open the pod bay doors, HAL”
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL” astronaut Dave Bowman tells the HAL supercomputer, toward the epic climax of Kubrick’s sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eerily responding in robotic monotone, HAL replies, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that…this mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it”.
Speaking in an interview with Joseph Gelmis, Kubrick spoke of his intentions to take on human consciousness in this scene. The filmmaker explained, “we wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures,” wishing to reflect what the director saw as an “inevitable” reality. Creepy.
8. Paths of Glory (1957) – Execution
A vocal anti-war movie, Kubrick’s 1957 film follows a French Colonel (Kirk Douglas) in WWI who refuses to go over the top of the trenches due to heavy bombardment. Having to choose three soldiers to take the wrap and receive a court-martial, Kubrick explores the morally corrupt nature of war and the toll it brings those who must serve under its brutal circumstances. The execution scene in question occurs at the end of the film, with the moment having arrived as an inevitable fate for the soldiers who long-challenged their sentence.
Speaking to the immorality of war and the warped morality and cowardice of those who lead such soldiers to their death, Kubrick creates his finest war movie and one of his most disturbing moments.
7. The Shining (1980) – The bear
One of the strangest moments in Kubrick’s terrifying Stephen King adaptation The Shining comes when a man in a bear costume, giving oral sex to another man, appears in front of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy as she is desperately escaping Jack’s grasp. Whilst it may seem as though this moment simply adds to the mystery of the unusual movie, the film’s subtext speaks to a darker truth.
Several clues in the movie point to the likelihood that this bear reflects the truth that the protagonist sexually abused his son, making sense of the child’s fragile mental state where he frequently has terrifying visions about the vast hotel.
6. Lolita (1962) – Toenail painting
“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” the promotional material for Kubrick’s 1962 film read, with the marketing pointing to this surprising fact for good reason. Telling the disturbing tale of a middle-aged college professor who becomes infatuated with a fourteen-year-old girl, Kubrick’s film based on the Vladimir Nabokov book of the same name was controversial in the ‘60s and remains so today.
Whilst much of the film is disturbing for its creepy subject matter, there is one moment when James Mason’s Prof. Humbert Humbert is painting Lolita’s toenails which reeks of emotional manipulation and purely sexist ideals. It’s truly eerie.
5. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Eye drops
There’s a reason the disturbing ‘eye drop’ scene in A Clockwork Orange remains one of Kubrick’s most infamous moments, shocking audiences across the world when the film was released in 1971.
As Alex, the protagonist of the film sits braced to a cinema seat, eyes forced open watching scenes of ‘ultraviolence’, his torturous screams reach unprecedented octaves way beyond the realms of normal reason. It’s an iconic scene and one which manages to allocate the film’s central focus of the relationship between pleasure and violence, the conscious and the unconscious.
4. The Shining (1980) – Room 237
Recognised as one of the most iconic aspects of the 1980 horror movie, Room 237 is a hotel apartment in the Overlook that possesses an evil spirit. The room in question houses many disturbing moments, with fans of the Stephen King book knowing that the haunted space formerly belonged to a guest of the hotel, Lorraine Massey, who took her own life out of guilt after luring young bellhop boys for sex in her room. Slitting her wrists in the bathtub, many years later she now haunts the fateful room.
This particular room features several times throughout the film, with each scene producing a moment more terrifying than the last, such as when Jack enters the suite and sees a woman lying in the bathtub. The dramatic soundtrack certainly heightens the disturbing moment.
3. Dr. Strangelove (1964) – “We’ll meet again”
For a filmmaker who is in full control of each and every word and widget of his films, the finale of his 1964 anti-war satire feels like the perfect ending to a film about nuclear war. With pertinent terror that remains as terrifying today as it did in 1964, the bumbling characters of the story mistakenly drop a nuclear bomb on the Soviet Union and trigger atomic warfare in the process.
Cue Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’, and one of cinema’s most haunting final sequences as Kubrick uses archival footage of nuclear tests to provide a disturbing and timeless warning to humanity.
2. Full Metal Jacket (1987) – Pvt. Pyle’s suicide
Taking a significant amount of time to research the project, starting four years before the release of the film itself, Stanley Kubrick wished to provide comprehensive insight into the lives of soldiers dehumanised by their profession. In the first half of the film, we follow the steady mental decline of Pvt. Pyle, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, a soldier who starts the film with effortless charm and departs it in tragedy.
Taken to his limits by the systemic abuse and bullying of military training, Pvt. Pyle takes his own life after killing Gny. Sgt. Hartman in a moment of insanity. Whilst the suicide itself is graphic and deeply disturbing, his emotional toture throughout the first act is equally tough to take.
1. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – ‘Singin’ in the Rain’
Highly controversial when it was released in the 1970s, the meaning behind the film’s graphic violence and erratic lead characters has been a source of debate for many years of cinematic and literary study. This violence comes to a head in the scene when the protagonist Alex and his gang of ‘Droogs’ raid the house of writer Frank Alexander, tricking his wife into letting them inside.
Beating the man to the point where he is disabled, Alex then sexually abuses and rapes his wife whilst singing ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in what is undountedly Kubrick’s most disturbing sequence, forcing you to question the psychology of the complicated protagonist.