The Criterion Collection

25 Incredibly Tough Movies for Extreme Viewers


We’ve been talking a lot about Lars von Trier lately, prompted by the release of his two-part sex epic Nymphomaniac, and now the fine folks over at the Criterion Collection have given us one more reason to think about his work: they’ve put out a new, fully loaded special edition of his 1996 masterpiece Breaking the Waves on DVD and Blu-ray (it’s available today). It’s a key entry in the von Trier filmography, its themes (and even some sequences) echoing throughout Nymphomaniac and Melancholia, but it takes something big like the Criterion release to warrant a revisit; Breaking the Waves is both a masterful movie and one that’s incredibly difficult to subject yourself to. We’ve looked previously at great books and important albums that are just plain hard to take; here’s a few movies that warrant the same kind of anxiety.

25. Breaking the Waves

There are other von Trier movies that are tougher sits (some on this list, some absent from it), dealing with more difficult subject matter in a more explicit fashion. But Breaking the Waves makes the cut simply because the picture’s emotional severity is so overwhelmingly wrecking — due in no small part to the raw intensity of Emily Watson’s work. Taking the leading role in her first theatrical film, Watson wears her emotions on her sleeve; in the opening scenes, as she marries the man she loves, she can’t stop smiling. But when he’s paralyzed in an accident, her sense of responsibility and utter faith (to him and the world around him) leads her to some very dark places. Moving, powerful, stuff, and Watson’s performance still has lost none of its power — it’s like a gaping, open wound on screen.

24. The Piano Teacher

Much like Breaking the Waves, Michael Haneke’s 2001 drama is troubling enough on its own, but its leading performer makes the picture even tougher to take. This time, it’s the great Isabelle Huppert, playing a sexually repressed 40-something piano teacher whose affair with a 17-year-old student unleashes her sadomasochistic tendencies. Huppert makes the character’s harrowing backstory and subsequent emotional wreckage all too real, fogging the movie with an all-consuming hopelessness that has become his trademark.

23. Seven

It’s rare — even in the comparatively adventurous mid-‘90s — to see a wide release, with this many major stars, that’s quite as dark and depraved as David Fincher’s 1995 breakthrough film. We all remember the twisty ending and a certain head consciously uncoupled from its body, but pause just a moment and recall the exact particulars of the “lust” murder. It’s described but not seen, and thank god for that; just the words are impossible to scrub from your mind.

22. A Clockwork Orange

The ‘70s were about the only other period when a big movie could be as dark and depraved as Seven, and with that, we point you to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which maintains a reputation as a “cult” film, even though it’s a filled with so many ghastly scenes and horrifying images that it’s difficult to imagine subjecting oneself to it on a regular basis. But then again, you know how those Kubrick fans are…

21. Blood Feast

No-budget Florida filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis had made a decent living churning out “nudie cuties” and “roughies” for the exploitation circuit, but as those markets dried up in the early ‘60s, he needed a new hook. He found it with 1963’s Blood Feast, which gave viewers the novelty of gross-out effects and gallons of blood, all in full (often tacky) color. It played drive-ins and grindhouses for something like 20 years, influencing the style of horror and the permissibility of movies in general. By any strict definition, it’s a terrible picture, the seams of its $24,500 showing at every turn, “one of those movies that’s more fun to talk about than actually watch,” as Joe Bob Briggs writes in his excellent book Profoundly Disturbing. But there’s something unshakable about its fakey effects and lurid photography; it almost plays like a documentary about the kind of people who would make a movie like this, and the kind of people who flocked to see it.

20. Oldboy

Spike Lee’s recent remake was, well, problematic — if for no other reason than that attempting to replicate (much less top) the queasy brutality and gasp-inducing twists of Park Chan-wook’s original is a fool’s errand. It’s a film filled with nightmarish imagery, from hammer attacks to amateur dentistry to octopus consumption, but nothing lodges itself in your head like the final narrative turn, which has made fools of countless viewers in the decade since the film’s release.

19. Pink Flamingos

The phrase “it takes a strong stomach” can be applied to several of these films, but this is the only one where said strong stomach will be asked to endure chicken-crushing, sphincter flexing, cannibalism, emasculation, and — in the final and most notorious scene — the consumption of fresh dog feces. In other words, it’s not exactly dinner-and-a-movie material.

18. Requiem for a Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s second feature (adapted from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel) is relentless from the opening frame, as Aronofsky’s aggressive style, Matthew Libatique’s spiky photography, and Clint Mansell’s overwhelming score conspire to throw the viewer into a state of perpetual unease. But the lead-up is positively sedate compared to the grim climax, in which Aronofsky’s four stories are simultaneously brought crashing to their horrifying, grim conclusions.

17. Audition

Takashi Miike, making his first (of three!) appearances on this list, helmed this uncommonly disturbing 1999 story of a widower whose somewhat deceptive search for a new lady love turns out very, very, very badly for him. The picture is, in many ways, a tribute to Miike’s precision and control; its reputation is so severe that even if you go in braced, the straightforward drama and enigmatic nature of the first half may well cause you to let down your guard. And then, well… Let’s all sing my nightmare fuel together: “Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!”

16. Martyrs

French director Pascal Laugier’s extreme horror film follows two young women into various abattoirs, torture chambers, underground lairs, home invasions, and (most terrifyingly) their own psyches as they attempt to disrupt childhood traumas with new ones. This list is full of sights you can’t un-see; the scarred woman in the underground chamber is right near the top of that countdown.

15. Funny Games

Mr. Haneke again, with a lighthearted romp about a pair of sadists who invade a wealthy family’s home, take them hostage, and engage in a series of bets and titular games as they maim, torture, and kill them. Few filmmakers do dread as effectively as this one, and that feeling — coupled with the hopelessness that is equally embedded in his DNA — makes this a particularly uncomfortable viewing experience. (But if you’re into that sort of thing, go with the original, rather than his slicker remake.)

14. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS

One of the most decadent and depraved films of the already skeezy “golden age” of exploitation (from about ’72 to ’83), a film that — back to Joe Bob Briggs — is “considered beyond the pale of even the most daring late-night cable network and may never be seen on any form of satellite or broadcast television.” It was the first installment of a long-running series concerning the Kommandant of a Nazi prison camp sternly torturing female prisoners in the name of science. The later films played up the camp element, but this initial outing takes its kink (and its gore) seriously, and is all the more disturbing for it. (The title is metaphorical, but Rob Zombie imagined it literally when he made an Ilsa tribute/send-up fake trailer for Grindhouse.)

13. Man Bites Dog

Comedy doesn’t get much blacker than this 1992 Belgian mockumentary, in which a crew of filmmakers tag along with a serial killer and find themselves drawn into his grisly world. The graphic shootings, stabbings, beatings, and rapes are tough enough to take; the film’s real power is in the way it shifts from indicting the documentary crew as first implicit and then explicit accomplices. It’s got a lot to chew on, but the point-blank, stone-faced, black-and-white style and the matter-of-fact leading performance by Benoit Poelvoorde renders the convincing crimes all the more horrific.

12. Flower of Flesh and Blood

Speaking of convincing, here’s a film where the violence is graphic and believable enough to prompt investigations around the world. The second film of Japan’s notorious late-‘80s “Guinea Pig” series, this 1985 effort by Hideshi Hino — the story of a samurai who kidnaps, drugs, and dismembers a random woman — was so horrifying that when a VHS copy fell into the hands of Charlie Sheen, he passed it on to the FBI, certain that it was a genuine snuff film. (And yes, Charlie Sheen, but still.) The FBI investigated, as Japanese police had before them, and only backed off when the distributors turned over an official making-of movie, showing how the ghastly special effects were achieved.

11. The Last House on the Left

Wes Craven’s directorial debut (aside from some mostly unknown porn movies the director says he made under a pseudonym) was this surprise hit from 1972. Craven shot the film on 16mm for a song, and its low budget is certainly felt in the clunky production value, as well as the stilted quality of many performances. But the no-frills, documentary-style aesthetic is also highly effective — in places, it’s like we’re watching the Manson family home movies. Craven has since said he intended the film to have the same quality as the news footage from Vietnam he was seeing on television every night; it certainly makes for some discomforting viewing, with every assault and act of violence seeming all the more unnervingly real.

10. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Chicago director John McNaughton was originally hired to churn out a cheapo exploitation horror movie — which there was no shortage of in the mid-1980s, when Henry was originally made. But McNaughton employed a bleak, unforgiving style, as well as a cast of honest-to-God actors (including the great Michael Rooker in the title role), and landed about about as far as possible from the cartoon villains typical of ‘80s horror. Its producers didn’t know what the hell to do with the genuinely terrifying and unnerving picture, and their marketing confusion, coupled with the film’s trouble with the MPAA (the organization gave the film an X, and indicated no possible cuts could get it down to R), kept it from being released until 1990. It’s grim, unnerving stuff, made all the more frightening by McNaughton’s slice-of-life approach.

9. Ichi the Killer

Warmhearted goofball Takashi Miike again, who adapted Hideo Yamamoto’s manga into this notorious 2001 film, which crosses the yakuza movie and the serial-killer thriller, while throwing in something to offend and repulse just about everybody. When Ichi the Killer premiered as a midnight screening at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, viewers were given vomit bags (just in case!); home viewers might want to consider similar safeguards.

8. Visitor Q

Miike was on quite a roll in 2001. Earlier that year, the famously prolific filmmaker released this pitch-black horror comedy, shot in a dirty digital style that highlights the disturbing voyeurism of the story — a theme that pops up alongside incidents of rape, incest, abuse, murder, dismemberment… and there’s more. Oh, there’s so much more.

7. NEKRomantik 2

You see, the title is a combination of “necrophilia” and “romantic,” and that tells you about all you need to know about this 1991 splatter picture from Germany (of course), included here since it’s even more horrifying than its predecessor, which ain’t exactly Disney itself. Its graphic depictions of, y’know, sex with the dead (and suicide and vomiting and so on and so on) actually got it confiscated by German authorities less than two weeks after its release, rendering copies of the film and subsequent videotapes into must-have collector’s items for fans of extreme cinema.

6. Antichrist

Look, we’ve all seen it. Things are done to sexual organs with scissors, and now you have those images in your head again. Let’s move on.

5. Cannibal Holocaust

Ruggero Deodato’s notorious 1980 geek show/horror flick was years ahead of its time narratively, utilizing the “found footage” format that would return for Blair Witch and all but take over modern horror. But form was the last thing anyone who saw Cannibal Holocaust was talking about — it was the wince-inducing graphic violence. So horrifying was the picture that (shades of NEKRomantic 2) it was confiscated by Italian authorities mere days after its release, and (shades of Flowers of Flesh and Blood), director Deodato was accused of murder, and was forced to produce his four actors — whose contracts included instructions to steer clear of any media or other projects for a year after the film’s release, to help further the “found footage” angle — and demonstrate how the special effects were achieved. So it’s not a snuff film, but its violence, sexual assaults, and (unstaged) animal cruelty make it an awfully tough sit anyway, and it was banned (and remains so) in several countries.

4. Goodbye Uncle Tom

In the 1960s, a series of exploitation documentary films became underground sensations, dubbed “Mondo movies” after the 1962 film Mondo Cane that started it all. These globe-trotting gawkers included both real and staged (but presented as rare) footage of taboo subject matter and shocking local rituals, and they were a bit of a cottage industry in the ‘60s. But as timed passed, they had to get more extreme to keep viewers’ attention, which brings us to Goodbye Uncle Tom, in which directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi travel to Haiti to restage, in graphic detail, the conditions of slavery in antebellum America. Critics at the time were rightfully horrified (Roger Ebert called it “the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary”), but aficionados of extreme cinema have since championed it.

3. Irréversible

The sheer power of the filmmaking in Gaspar Noé’s 2002 film is astonishing — his compositions, command of mood, and movement of camera are (as per usual) first-rate, and he assembles his story in a reverse chronology that renders its events doubly powerful. But it is a story of a brutal rape/murder and its shocking aftermath, and that rape and beating is seen in its entirety, in a long, unblinking, unbroken shot. It is, to put it mildly, hard to take, and most viewers can’t. “It is so violent, it shows such cruelty, that it is a test most people will not want to endure,” Ebert wrote, after its premiere at Cannes prompted mass walkouts. “But it is unflinchingly honest about the crime of rape.”

2. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

One of the most notorious endurance tests in all of cinema, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film adapts the work of the Marquis de Sade, with all that entails: sexual perversion, torture, sadism, prostitution, rape, abuse, suicide, and graphic murder. But it’s not just a freak show — Pasolini was a genuine artist, and he engages with this extreme behavior in order to better understand that capabilities of humans for depravity. (It’s one of Michael Haneke’s favorite films, of course.)

1. A Serbian Film

Information about Srđan Spasojević’s debut film began trickling out after its midnight premiere at SXSW 2010, and as it played the festival circuit that year, it seemed impossible that the film was as sick and horrifying as we’d heard; it almost became a dare to cinephiles. Your film editor took the dare, picking up an import Blu-ray some time later, and I failed the test: by the time the, um, childbirth sequence began, a darkness had settled into the pit of my stomach, and I realized this was going nowhere good. So if A Serbian Film’s place atop this list is a personal thing, forgive me; Spasojević is without question a gifted filmmaker with a slick and visceral style, but good God, if you can make it through this one, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.