If you consider The Human Centipede an exemplar of disturbing horror cinema, just turn back now; that vilified one-trick-pony is a lightweight compared to the movies on this list. Since the turn of the century, demented filmmakers have been pushing the envelope to brutal extremes, putting that silly ass-to-mouth routine to shame. I’ve got 15 harrowing examples for you below, and I’m leaving out the obvious ones like A Serbian Film, Antichrist, and Irreversible; I went deep into the vault for these glorious abominations. If you’re looking to test your stamina (or your gag reflex!), give any one of them a whirl—at your own risk, of course.
Hidden in the Woods (2012)
There’s a moment of cathartic relief at the very end of Hidden in the Woods that almost makes the entire experience bearable—almost. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late to make this movie anything but an absolutely grueling experience. Fleeting moments of joy can’t undo 90 minutes of abuse, rape, incest, and murder. And American remake staring horror icon Michael Biehn premiered in Japan last January, but no word yet on when it’ll land stateside.
Megan is Missing (2011)
Sure, the first half of Megan is Missing plays out like an MTV reality show, but if the last ten minutes don’t push you’re limits, you’re definitely inhumane! The entire movie has very few cuts and no music whatsoever, adding volumes of realism. What the “final girl” endures is soul shattering: Rape and the threat of live burial have never been portrayed with such devastating effect.
Contracted (2013) hasn’t got a thing on this Canadian body horror; Thanatomorphose literally wallows in sheer grotesquery. A female artist gives up on life, at which point she begins decomposing to the point of liquefaction. She remains primitively sexual as she rots, creating truly nauseating juxtapositions. If you’re looking for an abundance of putrid viscera, Thanatomorphose delivers. Just keep a puke bucket close.
Nothing Bad Can Happen aka Tore tanzt (2013)
If you think a film that’s lite on violence and gore can’t still be utterly disturbing, Nothing Bad Can Happen will change your tune. The story of a spiritual idealist crossing paths with an unusually cruel sadist delivers emotional devastation of the highest caliber. The fact that it’s based on a true story pushes the torment up few more notches. You’ll probably feel gutted for hours, if not days, after viewing this German export.
A Darker Reality (2008)
At one point, without any context, the Jigsaw-esque villain “Ghost” (played by Daniel Baldwin) proclaims: “I am the stinky cheese man!” This left-field declaration is the only hint of humor (albeit unintentional) in an otherwise constant onslaught of torture and degradation. Not only is the torment extreme, heartless, and extensive, the female victims are hideous to each other; they could work together and escape, but instead they rip each other down, making them exceptionally pathetic prey.
Where the Dead Go To Die (2012)
Think a cartoon can’t push disturbing storytelling to new extremes? Think again! Where the Dead Go to Die is unlike anything you have ever experienced, but imagine what might happen if The Sims had a baby with the cursed video tape from The Ring franchise! The fact that it’s a cartoon is the only thing that keeps the ghastly violence from completely overwhelming. The inclusion of baby murder, bestiality, and even incest makes Where the Dead Go to Die a true test of endurance. It’s like a bad trip, man.
Based on Clive Barker’s short story of the same name, Dread is firmly grounded in reality without any of the author’s supernatural hallmarks. College students engaged in a “Fear Study” get more than they bargained for when one goes rouge, forcing participants and collaborators to face whatever it is they dread the most—with frightening and stomach-churning results. The ending differs from Barker’s story, which might disappoint purists, but fans of intensely disturbing psychological horror should consider Dread a must-see.
A spin-off of 2012’s Found (directed by Scott Schirmer), Headless bills itself as a “lost” exploitation film from the 1970’s. It’s little more than a series of ultra-violent vignettes punctuated by emotionally devastating flashbacks that offer insight into the killer’s psychosis. With 2 decapitations in the opening credits, and more eyeball gouging and skull-fucking than I could keep track of, Headless may only appeal to coinsurers of horror’s most extreme. The gore is so omnipresent and over the top, however, that it almost becomes comical by the film’s conclusion.
The writer/director known simply as Elias is an obvious devotee of David Cronenberg; his feature film Gut oozes slow-burn, psychological body horror, reminiscent of films like Crash and Dead Ringers. In broad strokes: Gut explores the possible existence of underground purveyors of snuff films, but thematically, it’s a deeply nuanced study of male friendships and the crushing realities of adulthood. Gut is the kind of film you feel guilty watching—even though it’s nearly impossible to turn away from.
Calvaire aka The Ordeal (2004)
The most disturbing aspect of the Belgium export Calvaire is the feeling of absolute helplessness it induces. Reminiscent of American “hillbilly horror”, it’s an exercise in maddening depravity and unapologetic nihilism. Calvaire is a “wrong turn” scenario like no other with shades of David Lynch and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
If the idea of teenagers keeping a zombie sex-slave hidden in an abandoned building doesn’t give you pause, imagine a resulting venereal disease that will literally make you shit your guts out. Brilliant practical FX make for some truly gut-twisting moments, but it’s the idea that male teens are little more than oblivious rape-machines that really devastates.
Red White & Blue (2010)
Of the same ilk as 2013’s Blue Ruin, Red White & Blue offers a particularly non-glamorous brand of violence that’s gritty and impactful. Billed as a “slacker revenge movie”, it focuses on a young HIV positive prostitute and the unhinged ex-military interrogator who falls madly in love with her. Noah Taylor will blow your mind as a character whose depth of emotion is only exceeded by his propensities towards brutality. Consider Red White & Blue an anti-date movie.
Lovely Molly (2011)
Lovely Molly completely upends both Southern Gothic and possession horror tropes; is titular Molly (Gretchen Lodge) haunted, insane—or something altogether more terrifying? Her mental deterioration parallels a basement full of rotting animal carcasses, a punishing and nauseating metaphor. You might feel like taking a shower after experiencing this one.
The Snowtown Murders aka Snowtown (2011)
The Snowtown Murders has a crippling scene where manipulative sociopath John (Daniel Henshall) forces his protégé Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) to shoot a dog as a show of loyalty—and that’s not even the worst punch the film delivers. The butchered kangaroos aren’t the low point of The Snowtown Murders either. It’s the utter tragedy of the entire situation (poverty steeped in violence and exploitation) that makes the film almost unbearable. PS: It’s a true story, so go rub that salt in that wound too.
For better or worse, Elijah Wood had become synonymous with Frodo Baggins in mainstream consciousness, but his portrayal of Frank in Maniac may change your view of the diminutive actor forever. The screenplay written by “Extreme” French filmmaker Alexandre Aja absolutely crackles as it devastates. Incredible bloody practical FX and relentless pacing helps make Maniac disturbing in the best possible ways.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is presented as an assemblage of VHS tapes detailing a serial killer torturing and murdering a revolving door of hapless victims. What really sells the film is its authenticity; absolutely nothing feels fake or staged. Since it never received an American release, The Poughkeepsie Tapes has been denied recognition as one of the best and most disturbing “found footage” offerings in cinematic history. Catch it if you can!
Know of another 21st Century horror film that belongs on this list? Sound off in the Comments section!