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From Yorgos Lanthimos to Pier Paolo Pasolini: The 10 most disturbing films of all time

Nothing remains but to hope the end will come to extinguish the unrelenting pain of waiting for it.
– Pier Paolo Pasolini

Cinema is a visual medium, one that has its own rules and expectations of what is aesthetically pleasing to a voyeur. Over the years, some of the finest cinematic masterpieces have systematically subverted these expectations while exploring the possibilities of what films can offer. As a feature for our ‘Far Out Fear Club‘ segment, we have noted down ten of the most disturbing films that do not subvert but destroy any such preconceived notions.

This is an especially difficult task to undertake because there can be many interpretations of what “disturbing” means to the audience. Films such as David Lynch’s 1977 effort Eraserhead or Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) have been referred to as unsettling but, at their core, they are beautiful and their unique artistic visions have something greater to offer despite their brutal methods. However, it is hard to extract this kind of beauty from the films listed below. They are visceral, violent and make us question the purpose of cinema itself.

While talking about making his infamous 1975 film 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini said, “My need to make this film also came from the fact I particularly hate the leaders of the day. Each one of us hates with particular vehemence the powers to which he is forced to submit. So, I hate the powers of today. It is a power that manipulates people just as it did at the time of Himmler or Hitler. I don’t think the young people of today will understand this film. I have no illusions about my ability to influence young people.”

He added, “It is impossible to create a cultural relationship with them, because they are living with totally new values, with which the old values cannot be compared. I don’t believe we shall ever again have any form of society in which men will be free. One should not hope for it. One should not hope for anything. Hope is invented by politicians to keep the electorate happy.”

Here, including the likes of Pasolini, Yorgos Lanthimos, Takashi Miike and more, is a list of Ten of the most disturbing films ever made.

The 10 most disturbing films of all time:

10. The Human Centipede (Tom Six – 2009)

Lacking in narrative sophistication, the film relies on its unsettling visual elements to be its redeeming quality. The Human Centipede is a contentious work that follows a German surgeon who forces three unwilling victims to participate in his sick obsession with connecting humans together via their gastric systems. The result is a nightmarish allegory about consumerism where humans eat each other’s shit.

The filmmaker commented, “When I was writing the first pede [sic] I already knew I had something ‘special.’ But when I was shooting the first pede’s ‘feed her!’ scene, lightning struck, and I knew I had something ‘spectacular.’ And what I thought would happen thankfully happened: people loved it or hated it. There was nothing in between. Like all art should be.”

9. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton – 1986)

John McNaughton’s brilliant 1986 film is an investigation of the psychology of a serial killer Henry (played by Michael Rooker), a man who has murdered many people including his mother. McNaughton assaults us with disturbing images, like that of a naked woman in a bathroom, covered in blood with a crushed bottle stuck in the right side of her face, but also manages to paint a compelling picture of human depravity.

“If the idea of a horror film is to horrify you, how could we best do that?” McNaughton reflected. “Our conclusion was we could best do that by removing the fantasy. No ooga-booga, no monsters from outer space, no Freddy, no supernatural element. Pure realism. The greatest horror of all is, you know, human beings.”

8. A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon – 2003)

Inspired by a 14th-century Korean folktale, Kim Jee-won’s A Tale of Two Sisters is a visceral interpretation of the psychological thriller genre. It follows a patient who returns home with her sister after being released from a mental institution, only to be greeted by dark events involving her stepmother and supernatural elements.

Kim Jee-woon said: “I don’t know yet which genre I’m best at so I have to try lots of different ones! I don’t want to repeat a genre that I’ve already done because working with a variety of styles inspires me and gives me more cinematic energy. The genre I choose for each film is directly related to the theme. For example, when I chose horror, the theme of the film was the fear of things that you can and cannot see.”

7. Nekromantik (Jörg Buttgereit – 1987)

A gritty ode to necrophilia, Nekromantik is a transgressive film that laughs at the pornographic obsession that is often associated with cinematic voyeurism. The most memorable scene from the film is one where a street sweeper brings home a corpse for a threesome with his wife but gets upset when the wife prefers the corpse over him.

“I think maybe where we were ahead of ourselves was in the fact that the movie pretends that everything you see is normal,” the filmmaker reflected. “There is no justification, there is no chain-smoking police guy divorced from his wife who is uninteresting, but is there to put law and order into place. The fact that the corpse-loving scene is depicted in a way every normal love scene would have been, with piano music, with slow motion, all the clichés, I think that’s the trick, and that’s what gets people worried.”

6. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos – 2009)

Probably the most disturbing work by the director of films like The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Dogtooth features strict, manipulative parents who do not let their children leave the house until their dogtooth falls out. A bizarre take on sexual repression and psychological torture, Lanthimos’ film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

“We didn’t do any research at all, because I thought it was such a surreal story we were working on,” Lanthimos revealed. “It was only afterwards, when we were already rehearsing, that this Austrian story came out about the father who kept his daughter in the basement, where she grew up like an animal, and he had children with her. But still, this felt very different from what we were trying to do since it had a very different tone to it, way too dark and dreadful.”

5. Audition (Takashi Miike – 1999)

Prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike 1999 modern classic is a slow burn about a serial killer who becomes extremely possessive about the men who come into her life and cannot tolerate it when they don’t pay attention to her even for a brief moment. The gruesome film has scenes of torture where she terrorises them with needles (piercing an eyeball with one) and even dismembers them. Audition has also been included on our list of the greatest horror films of all time.

While talking about the antagonist, Miike said, “She was a very important character for me. In the original novel, I think she’s there but being played by that actress, she realised… a lot more scary than the original novel. She really completely personified that fear and it’s somebody that.

“It’s a fear that every man would probably see in her and somebody that wouldn’t want to meet in real life. She was really scary as the actress playing the act. She obviously lives on like in your card and yes I think she was quite an important role.”

4. A Serbian Film (Srdjan Spasojevic – 2010)

Another entry that can be categorised as disturbing for the sake of being disturbing, A Serbian Film oscillates between coming across as an effective visual exploration of the psychologically grotesque and just being a glorified snuff film. Having said that, it is still pretty disturbing and follows an ageing porn star who gets tricked into making a film involving paedophilia and necrophilia.

The director said, “We just wanted to express our deepest and honest feelings towards our region and also the world in general — a world that is sugar-coated in political correctness, but also very rotten under that façade — with a movie style we like.”

Adding, “Of course, there is a kind of political and social level to the film, but I didn’t want to make any kind of political statement. I’m not running for president. I didn’t want to express my political choices.”

3. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier – 2008)

Violence cannot terminate violence but that’s what it comes down to in Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film. Often associated with the New French Extremity movement, Martyrs is about a young woman named Lucie who seeks revenge on a society that oppressed her and made her a victim of child abuse. The graphic horror can be written off as “torture-porn” but it tries to critique the genre by pushing the limits of visual narrative to the extreme.

Laugier explained, “Martyrs is almost a work of prospective fiction that shows a dying world, almost like a pre-apocalypse. It’s a world where evil triumphed a long time ago, where consciences have died out under the reign of money and where people spend their time hurting one another. It’s a metaphor, of course, but the film describes things that are not that far from what we’re experiencing today.”

2. Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato – 1980)

Influenced by the documentaries of Mondo director Gualtiero Jacopetti and Italian media coverage of Red Brigades terrorism, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most harrowing depictions of cinematic violence to ever exist. Set in the Amazon rainforests, it features a rescue mission for a documentary crew who had gone missing while filming local cannibal tribes. The only thing that was found was the footage that the crew shot, a stream of unfiltered and senseless violence.

In an interview, Deodato claimed, “People call me a horror director but actually I have only directed a couple of horror films, and I’m not referring to the usual titles of mine I’m associated with. Cannibal Holocaust is not a horror film, it’s just a depiction of reality. It’s not my fault the world we live in is so violent and dark.”

1. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini – 1975)

Writing about Salò is as challenging as watching the film itself because it goes against everything that conventional definitions of cinema prescribe. Pasolini conducts one of the impactful investigations of power relations through depraved sexual activities. Often touted as “the most disgusting movie ever made”, it features a group of young teenagers who are taken by powerful men to a remote mansion where they are tortured and exploited repeatedly until they forget what it means to be human.

Pasolini said, “Being based on De Sade, this film revolves around the representation of sex. But this aspect has changed in relation to my last three films that I call ‘the trilogy of life’: The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. In this new film, sex is nothing but an allegory of the commodification of bodies at the hands of power.

“I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did. My film represents this sinister coincidence between Nazism and consumerism. Well, I don’t know if audiences will grasp this since the film presents itself in rather enigmatic way, almost like a miracle play, where the sacred word retains its Latin meaning of ‘cursed.’”