By Bill Burns
The 13 Most Disturbing Films that aren’t Horror Movies
The horror film is often blamed for glorifying the dark side of humanity, reveling in our basest desires and fears in order to produce some cheap thrill of repulsion. This is a rather unfair judgment as many films outside the genre hold a terrifyingly lucid mirror up to our own worst thoughts and behaviors. Here are 13 of the most disturbing films that aren’t horror movies. But remember when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back.
13. To Be Twenty (1978)—Fernando Di Leo
This Age of Aquarius meets Deliverance Italian shocker chokes the life out of any hope for the Love Generation. Two women hitchhike across Italy exploring the sensual freedoms that come with youth, but find only misogyny and ignorance. Still they strive in the anticipation of finding a hippy Utopia of peace, love, and understanding, or at least find themselves and have a good time before giving into the harsh world of adulthood. Like most optimists, the world crushes them, but in this film that inevitability involves the characters being harasses, hunted down, and final violently assaulted. A group of rustic brutes beat the young women savagely, striping and humiliating them. One woman has her skull caved in, while the other is raped with a tree branch. The film ends with one of the assailants stepping on the girls’ cassette player causing it to turn on and play an insipid disco song, a requiem for the flower children.
12. White Lightnin’ (2009)—Dominic Murphy
A fire and brimstone bio pic about Jesco White, the so called “dancing outlaw.” If even half of the events of the film actually happened to poor Jesco, it’s astounding that he’s still alive, never mind dancing. Murphy’s film presents life in rural West Virginia as a Darwinian nightmare where only huffing ever chemical available, doing every drug available, and committing every crime imaginable makes existence bearable. Jesco’s youth is a lesson in brutality as he is victimized in reform school, addicted to lighter fluid and gasoline, and chained to his bed to prevent further delinquencies. His struggles to stay on the straight and narrow path to Jesus drive him to the brink of madness, only redeemed by his dancing and love for his common law wife. Although the early scenes are no cake walk, it is in the later parts of the film where Jesco’s apotheosis leaves the expected grim realities of Appalachian life and descends into an unimaginable realm of suffering, masochism, and self-mutilation as the only way to salvation. Edward Hogg is amazing as Jesco, but child actor Owen Campbell, playing Young Jesco, is a revelation.
11. Repulsion (1965)—Roman Polanski
No stranger to the horrors of life, Polanski’s first English language film is a nauseating indictment of how men drive women insane. The protagonist Carol is leered at, gawked at, evaluated, judged, and bullied into paralyzing neuroses. As she mentally decomposes (like the skinned rabbit left on a plate in her apartment), the walls crack, an unknown man molests her, and disembodied hands reach out to violate her. She lashes out against these hallucinations by killing her boyfriend and then slashing to death her lecherous landlord. But even these desperate acts of violent resistance can’t stop the gazes that haunt and penetrate her. Catherine Deneuve proves why she is one of the greatest actresses of all time by bringing a deep pathos to a psychotic, catatonic victim who has no hope of ever regaining her identity. The final scene in which Polanski hints at the true cause of Carol’s tragedy is particularly devastating.
10. Bug (2006)—William Friedkin
Based on Tracey Letts’s play, Bug is a paranoiac’s dream come true: conspiracy thinking that sucks in all those within the obsessive’s sphere of influence. Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a used up shell of a waitress that has been kicked around by life and her ex-husband. She meets Peter (Michael Shannon), a recently discharged solider, who responds in kind to her need to feel some sort of connection to another human being. That aching desperation blinds her to Peter’s psychosis, delusions that involve government experiments, mysterious phone calls, and the infestation of microscopic bugs meant to torment and spy on the couple. Peter’s insistence and earnestness draws Agnes deeper into madness as they isolate themselves through sealing up their room to keep the bugs out. Peter is convinced that the insects have now invaded his body, pulling out a tooth to “prove” the validity of his claims. As they become more and more erratic and paranoid, the couple loses all sense of self, culminating in a total annihilation of any semblance of reality. But was Peter crazy or just in a heightened state of total awareness? What makes this film so terrifying is the notion that loneliness and the need to be loved by anyone can so easily be used to manipulate and dominate another human being. No one is immune from Peter’s persuasive rhetoric; even the viewer can start to feel the itch. Skin crawling to say the least.
9. Gummo (1997)—Harmony Korine
If any film makes a case for the destructive power of a tornado, this is it. Gummo provides a sickening laundry list of things to do in a go-nowhere, poverty stricken mid-western town: drugs, pimp out handicapped family members, torture animals, sell dead cats to a Chinese restaurant, wrestle chairs, put duct tape on your nipples to make them puffy, assault children, gay bash, burglarize homes, tape bacon to bathroom walls, euthanize old people. The film basically rapes the American Dream. Following a bunch of degenerate characters around an almost post-apocalyptic landscape (I wonder if these people would even know that the Apocalypse happened), Gummo’s aesthetic is a slurred collage of 8mm, 16 mm, 35mm, VHS, Polaroid, and digital film that captures real people and real environs, some so cockroach infested that the film crew demanded hazmat suits. These characters don’t live; they barely exist, and you are left wondering why they even bother to go on. You know a film is horrific when suicide seems like a viable option. Korine’s directorial debut is a one of the most devastating portraits of America that you can ever bare to watch. No wonder Jean Luc Godard loved it.
8. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)—Sam Peckinpaugh
None of Peckinpaugh’s movies are a walk in the park, but this 1974 downer has to be his most nihilistic, a film that offers viewers not a single character with a redeeming quality unless you count the decapitated head. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a down on his luck piano player, rotting away in Mexico. Lured by the bounty on Alfredo Garcia’s head, Bennie founds out that Garcia has died in a car accident and all he has to do is dig up the body and behead the corpse to get his money. As in all Peckinpaugh’s films, things go from bad to holocaust pretty quickly, as Bennie must fend off the mob and Garcia’s family in order to claim his prize. Oates is incredible in his role (basically imitating Peckinpaugh), as he has crazed conversations with Garcia’s head, confessing his feelings of guilt and self-loathing to the decomposing, fly encrusted cabaza. In the end, Bennie finishes his ghastly quest but all that is left for all involved in this tale of revenge is disgrace. Violence doesn’t bring honor in this film, only tragedy and meaninglessness.
7. Titticut Follies (1967)—Frederick Wiseman
Documentaries, by their “realistic” nature, have the potential to be the most disturbing films because of the expectation that they will offer unflinching veracity. Not that all documentaries live up to this ideal, but some really shove our faces into the filth of human existence. Wiseman’s documentary reveals conditions inside the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. Incredibly, the correctional superintendent verbally agreed to let Wiseman shoot there and what he filmed caused the governor of Massachusetts to get an injunction banning the showing of the film, a court case that lasted until 1991. This showcase of horrors seems never ending: patients abused, humiliated, tortured, and neglected. The forced feeding of inmates is particularly grueling to witness, especially as you see cigarette ashes dropping into the food tube. To see people treated as disposable things, arbitrarily punished and degraded, is not only shocking but indicts all of humanity in the crimes of these supposed “guardians” of the weak and infirm. The “follies” of the title refers to a talent show that the inmates are forced to participate in, but it could also represent that absurdity of power and the idiocy of human progress.
6. Caterpillar (2010)—Koji Wakamatsu
Movies about war can often be the most brutal depictions of human behavior. Yet it is the films about the aftermath and consequences of war that seem even more disturbing than the battlefield itself. Based on a banned short story by Edogawa Rampo, Wakamatsu’s film eviscerates militancy and nationalism as the viewer is confronted by a soldier reduced to existing like a “caterpillar,” without arms and legs. Horribly wounded in World War 2, Lieutenant Kurokawa returns to his village as a “god warrior,” deified by the Emperor himself as a symbol of Japan’s determination and sacrifice. Although, this living (barely) god is venerated and worshipped by his fellow countrymen, his wife’s life becomes a hell on earth, made unbearable by her husband’s total reliance on her to provide him with all his basic needs, including constant demands for sex. As both husband and wife try to co-habit, feelings of anger, disgust, guilt, and resentment build to a revolting and suffocating height. The film incorporates archival news reels and propaganda films into the narrative to highlight the true causalities of war are often human dignity, compassion, and reason.
5. Irreversible (2002)—Gaspar Noe
Lumped in with the New French Extremity movement, Irreversible is much more than the blasé inhumaneness of so many contemporary “extreme” movies. Told in reverse chronological order, Noe makes the motives and justifications for revenge illogical, irrational, and even more selfish than the usually are. Looking to avenge the inhuman sexual assault of his girlfriend (Monica Belluci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel) becomes the very horror he hopes to destroy as he rampages across Paris searching for the perpetrator. Infamous for its head bashed in by a fire extinguisher scene (Nicolas Winding Refn paid tribute to this attack in Drive) and the seemingly endless rape scene, Noe’s film never glorifies violence but portrays it as a sickening cancer that spreads and eats away at victim and perpetrator alike. The long takes prolong the action unmercifully until one has to look away. Proving that some deeds are irreversible, the film acts as a terrible warning to those who would fight monsters not to become monsters themselves.
4. Star of David: Beauty Hunting (1979)—Norifumi Suzuki
Probably the most disreputable film in the already morally objectionable Roman Porno series, Star of David: Beauty Hunting suggests that violent perversity is inherited and inescapable so just embrace it and give in to the natural impulses of biology. Tatsuya is a respectable young gentleman from a good home who seduces woman and then tortures, humiliates, and rapes them in his basement. The reason for his sadism is that his mother was assaulted and impregnated by a serial rapist, thus dooming the unborn child to a life of cruelty, carnage, and crime. This son of a rapist feels no compunctions or guilt about what he does; in fact, he thrives on his heredity and uses it to philosophically justify his lusts and atrocities. Coming off like a Japanese De Sade or Peter Sotos, Tatsuya sees sexual violence as his right as a dominant being to impose his will on lesser sub humans (alluded to in the title through the rationalization of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany). When one of his victims escapes and finds help in a random person on the street, we think Tatsuya’s days of carefree torture are over, and yet in one of the worst examples of movie serendipity ever, the poor woman happens to run into Tatsuya’s deranged natural father. The father and son reunion soon escalates the viciousness and depravity of their crimes to a sickening low. Truly a film in which there is no hope for humanity.
3. Eraserhead (1977)—David Lynch
The problem of teen pregnancy is a national concern, and the proposed strategies for addressing it, whether through education or abstinence, have been ineffectual. I propose that we show all teenagers Eraserhead. Not only would it stop them from having pre-marital sex, but it would also result in teenagers mutilating their sexual organs to prevent even the potential for sex. David Lynch’s anxieties over fatherhood resulted in his first full length film, a grotesque meditation on the body, sexual desire, and all the revulsion that comes from it. Poor Henry (Jack Nance) is forced into a loveless marriage because his girlfriend is pregnant. As with any relationship, meeting your significant other’s parents is nerve-racking and demeaning, but Henry has to deal with epileptic seizures, a bleeding chicken dinner, and sexual come-ons from his future mother-in-law. Once the baby is born it is a repulsive monstrosity, resembling a crying, screaming, puking penis. His wife leaves him to take care of Junior and his only escape is with the Lady in the Radiator (whose ovaries are on her cheeks and not in her body, who steps on sperm rather than taking them in) and the alluring next door neighbor. Eraserhead’s industrial environment is as bleak as its message, suggesting that our instinctive urge to procreate is a ticking time bomb ready to blow up in our crotches and leave us chained to the horrors of family forever.
2. The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971)—Stan Brakhage
Forget Faces of Death or any of those mondo sleazoid shockumentaries, this is the real thing. Filmed in a Pittsburgh morgue, Brakhage documents actual autopsy procedures with no commentary or special effects (the title of the film is a translation of the ancient Greek word autopsia). This is the real deal with no morbid philosophizing or grim humor attempting to rationalize or sensationalize. It is a direct encounter with our own mortality. The scalpel cuts through skin, fat, and tissue with no hesitation. Scalps are pulled back to expose the skull and brain in a matter of fact, businesslike manner. Brakhage demystifies the body through the static depiction of organ removal and embalming. If cinema contains the potential to show us things that are hidden or obscured in everyday life, then The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is one of the purest examples of movie-making ever. Although disgusting, the theme of the film is quite liberating and asks its viewers to confront their own existential condition. Plus you get to see a face peeled off.
1. Salo (1975)—Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pasolini’s ruthlessly honest depiction of the devastating exercise of power is inspired by De Sade, structured like The Inferno, and hits like a barbed wire fist. The film focuses on four fascist power brokers in the final days of Mussolini’s Italy. The wealthy sadists abduct teenage boys and girls and use their bodies to satisfy every carnal perversity imaginable. The depravity sinks both predator and prey through the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. Human beings are turned into mere receptacles for any violent fantasy or sexual whim. The victims are totally debased: savagely raped, viciously branded, horribly mutilated, and made to consume feces. Power is revealed as the ultimate dehumanizing corruption that informs not only politics but human relationships as well. The victims have no savior or recompense; they are merely used, abused, and thrown away in the most efficient manner. Even worse, they start to turn on each other and implicitly justify the control and domination of their cruel masters. The film is banded in Iran, Vietnam, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates. A video store owner in Cincinnati was arrested on obscenity charges for renting it. Pasolini, always a controversial character, avoided having to defend his film by being murdered by a male prostitute shortly before Salo was unleashed on the world. God rest his sick soul.