Profoundly Disturbing FilmsHerein is a list of films that contain truly disturbing elements. While most of them were intended to be horror films, some exceptions are included (exploitation films, mondo films, etc.). The trouble with recommending disturbing films is that the more of these films I see, the less shocking they become. Being desensitized can take the fun out of some of these abhorrent movies.
Although I will try to avoid specific details, be advised that I may spoil the impact of these movies if you haven't seen them yet. Also, I am limiting my discussion to films I have actually seen myself.
Grand Prize Winner
Men Behind The SunChinese, 1988 - aka "Man Behind the Sun" and "Hei Tai Yang 731"
This infamous film deals with prison camp atrocities and biological warfare testing, based on historical atrocities conducted by the Japanese military (Unit 731, Manchukuo, now Northeast China) during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 - 1945). Reportedly, as many as ten thousand persons were submitted to the inhuman experimentation. The depictions of horrific events underscores the detached attitude of the military participants, creating a strange tension that adds to the intensity of the film. There is a sequel, but have not seen it, and I doubt it carries the intensity of the original.
What to ExpectAbout six scenes in the film provide truly ghastly highlights, including what happens to a person subjected to rapid decompression. Arguably the most shocking scene deals with the effects of excessive frostbite followed by rapid warming. Blech. Even children or (real) animals are not safe in this genocidal potpourri, adding to the horror.
First Runner Up
Salo: 120 Days of SodomItalian, 1975
Pier Paulo Passolini's last film deals a sadistic criticism of facism loosely framed by De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, dropped onto the last futile days of the failed state of Salo in 1944 Nazi-controlled Italy. This is not a horror film, but it is horrifying and explicit, with a methodical pacing (apparently inspired by the structure of Dante's Inferno) that pulls you lower and lower, from shock to shock. If you enjoy mysogeny, this film is for you. The Criterion Edition of this film is regarded as the rarest DVD on earth, as production was very limited and the film became infamous. Often going for up to $500 in auctions, I own a copy of the Criterion disk that was purchased at a suburban garage sale for $1.00 firm.
What to ExpectTorture, humiliation, debauchery, more torture and mutilation. Filmed artistically. Also, some storytelling, probably based on De Sade.
One-Point-Five-th Runner Up
A Serbian FilmSerbian, 2010
Possibly inspired by Salo in that it follows a man yielding control to a mysterious group of people, expressed through acts of perversion and worse. Serbia certainly has familiarity with conflict (since the Turkish incursions in the late 1400s, effectively turning much of the slavic country against itself; tensions visible even today). Overall, it is a skillfully done film that succeeds in making the viewer uncomfortable. You don't feel great about having watched this film, but it deserves to be watched. Certainly, it sets the bar high for breaking a few taboos that, until now, were only themes people would approach from the protective angle of 'sick jokes.' Nothing funny here, and the horrors are deep and universal.
What to ExpectI'd rather not say. Un-natural acts with incapacitated partners, violence through these un-natural acts, and worse. Enough said.
Second Runner Up
Jorge Utgerheit wrote and directed this wonderful film. This is the ultimate necrophilia fun film, but I find it quite artistic, complemented by fine acting and a solid industrial-influenced soundtrack. Even the most revolting scenes are shot artistically, although the climax of the movie is... well... memorable. Consider it an art house film among horror. Although generally low budget, nearly a month was taken in creating the corpse prop (the star of the film), as it was understood that it must be supremely believable for the film to work at all. It is, and it does. There is even a 'making of' documentary about this film (called "Corpse F___ing Art") that was reportedly produced to prove that no actual corpses were used. The sequel (Nekromantik 2, 1991 - see below) is clever, but lacks the directness of the original, as though Utgerheit blew his load on this film.
The DVD release is much better than the former bootlegs available, and includes behind the scenes footage that suggests the filmmakers were less 'brooding, messed-up and intense' than anyone would ever have imagined.
What to ExpectInnapropriate contact with corpses, improvisation of corpse 'appendages,' slippery decaying partner, explicit finale, etc.
Third Runner Up, Part 2
Despite the fact that Sage Stallone (yes, Sylvester's son) was pulled into this shamless rehashing of Last House on the Left (with a 'rave' party thrown in to keep it real), there are some deep shocks in this film. The ending is hurried and cheap, but the fate of two of the main female characters (both involving a really big knife) bring an immediacy to the screen that leaves an audience in stunned silence. I was able to preview this film at a horror event (yes, Sage was there), and that jaded audience was uncharacteristically unsettled.
What to ExpectOverly explicit penetration with a large knife, overly explicit removal of sensitive body parts.
American, hard to find.
Third Runner Up
Violent Sh*t Part 2 - Mother Hold My HandGerman, 1992
This is basically an low budget video, letterboxed to make it feel like a film. This sequel explores the multifaceted character of Karl the Butcher Jr, who continues his father's legacy of mutilating anyone who comes into the woods near his house. Although the acting is pitiful, the low-budget effects and innovative shockers are truly memorable. Please excuse the 10 minute ninja fight at the beginning of the film, which has nothing to do with the story, but the film delivers some very creative effects shots. Less recommended is a third installment from 1999. German, subtitled - I don't really think you will ever find a copy of this film, nor should you seek it out. Really. However, I was shocked to find it referenced in a horror film 'book of lists,' so I guess someone else has seen this!
What to ExpectLow budget gore and mutilation of sensitive parts, an awkward 'mother' scene, gore galore.
An American Runner Up
Sleepaway CampAmerican, 1983
All right, all right. This is a cheesy 1970's early slasher film, as you would expect. However, it is refreshing not to have 30-year olds portraying teen agers, and it actually not a bad movie. What gets this film onto this list is the film's climax. It is worth the wait, and has made this film legendary within the genre. The star, Felicity Rose, is still making a career out of her work in this film, which spawned two weak sequels, and they (Felicity Rose and director Robert Hiltzik, anyway) were talking about a fourth in 2007, which was apparently realized in 2009. But nothing compares to the last ten minutes of the original - sometimes, lightening strikes only once.
What to ExpectA remarkable visual resolution to a story back when screenwriters wrote stories instead of shopping lists of effects shots.
Fifth Runner Up
Lucio Fulci made this as a sequel to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was released overseas in 1978 as Zombi. This film is able to make the whole zombie thing even more depressing. Fulci had been involved in the production of Romero's film, so this kept things in the family while allowing Fulchi to assert himself in the genre. More intense and less wry than Romero's work. Some of the impact has been dulled by the years, but it is still an entertaining experience. Italian, dubbed like a bad 80's movie.
What to ExpectAmid circa 1980 special effects lies a very memorable scene featuring a large splinter and someone's eyeball. And other gore.
Second Runner Up, Part 2
Nekromantik 2German, 1991
Utgerheit's followup to Nekromantik picks up where the first film left off (right down to re-using the end of the first movie as an intro, which is a little cheap). Although it has some memorable scenes, the real impact was all spent in the original film. However, after the alarming climax of the original film, he makes a good attempt at finishing this movie with something memorable.
What to ExpectLess style than the original, but some unsettling acts of intimacy.
Second Runner Up, Part 3
Nacho Cerda's short film graphically shows that loneliness doesn't have to be a part of the autopsy room. With no dialog, and a dark eyed surgical-mask-wearing protagonist (antagonist? I guess that depends on you), there is a very effective silent movie quality to this film - I am reminded of Buster Keaton's heavily lidded eyes and their ability to express pathos. Not so much pathos in this film.
What to ExpectA fairly blunt depiction of a universally unacceptable act.
Spanish. This film used to be impossible to find, but thankfully it became available on DVD in 2007.
An Honorable Mention
Murder Set Pieces2004
Relentless and unflinching with a German accent. This film may drag from time to time, and the antagonist's apartment looks like something from the 1980s, but this film shows more shocking acts of misanthropic gore-churning than any film in recent memory. Working as a fashion photographer keeps the victims headed his way, and it takes a nosy little kid to get things to unravel.
What to ExpectWell done gore effects covering a number of acts that continue to escalate through the movie - murders by the cruelest means possible.
American - an edited version even available on some cable 'on demand' lists.
Honorable Mention, Too
When you discuss infamous, hard-to-find films, this one is always in the list. Also released as Lucker - The Necrophagous, this is a surprisingly boring movie until the pay-off. However, points must be awarded because this was the earliest film to deal directly with necrophelia and necrophagia. Although the content's impact has been eclipsed by later films (like Necromantic, above), it still deserves notice. Having been univerally condemned for a while, complete prints became very rare. A recent DVD release includes the best of what was avaialble, so some scenes are granier than others. Still, what I remember most from this film is a confused protagonist (Lucker) wandering around an empty apartment for 20 minutes. Or something like that.
What to ExpectOh, yeah, he did the necro thing, too. Hard to make this kind of film without a nod to that.
Belgian. This film actually was impossible to find, existing mostly in legend, but now available on DVD around 2008.