Disturbing Cinema – A Genre on to Itself? (2022): A Film Essay

This article (quite appropriately) contains scenes of explicit violence and gore, nudity, sex and sexual violence. Viewer discretion is insisted upon. These are all from the respective films commented on for analysis below.

Disturbing cinema It's only a movie

Disturbing Cinema - A Genre Unto itself?

Existing on the Edges of Cinema - An Introduction

The search for films that disturb, unsettle, shake one to their core, feel pushed to the edge and their limits tested, seems to come out of a dark side of cinema. In some ways horror films and fans are fascinated by dark subject matter: things that scare, unsettle and push fears whilst also exploring death, pain and fear. But the acceptable nature of most horror films comes with the idea of the taboo as well as cinemas general falsehood. So death is a fact of life and is taboo as much as it’s generally only experienced as part of one’s life cycle. However, there are taboos that go darker: rape, serial killers, torture amongst others. These are generally considered to be darker and therefore more taboo and less acceptable subjects within horror film but they do still turn up. The general falsehood of cinema means that the fear experienced with horror films are lessened to the tune of ‘it’s only a movie’. Through searching the darker sides of cinema, the more taboo subjects and also that desire to feel a film so extreme that it can get under your skin: you reach the idea of the ‘Disturbing Movie’. 

 

Worthwhile mentioning that they’re not all horror movies, despite this set up. An easy connection can be made between the so-called ‘disturbing movie’ and the horror but quite often, effective ‘Disturbing Movies’ are not horrors. So, what makes a ‘disturbing movie’? This is, of course, subjective but there are some easy to spot commonalities between films generally believed to be ‘disturbing’. Whilst, it also seems to be easiest to define through what it is not. A ‘disturbing movie’, shouldn’t be confused with an effective horror film, it does go darker than the thrill of being scared. This was perhaps the easiest point to make. Common themes often include: torture, nudity, the body, rape, necrophilia, war crimes, human/animal experiments, animal cruelty, bestiality, degredation, decay, death, incest, racism and cannibalism. For some of these themes, it is the degree with which they depicted that matters. A film to feature nudity, torture or death would seldom qualify as ‘disturbing’. It is perhaps bold for a film to show actors nude in a movie, but this can easily be a part of the romantic tale, the comedy or even just the freedom/symbolism of nudism. Torture could easily feature as part of a James Bond film – in fact they often do, or even a horror like Red Dragon or Se7en. Whilst in many films, characters will die.It is therefore reliant on how these subjects are depicted.

An Offer of Vomit

It is also worth mentioning that films that are often confused with ‘disturbing movies’ include films that are disgusting or bleak. These are seldom actually disturbing movies. It is disgusting to watch someone vomit and it may be surprising to see an actor actually perform this but this cheap tactic seldom gets more from someone than the initial uneasiness of a dirty image. Food is often used in this manner as well. It’s actually quite a trope in film to depict villains eating in a way that is sloppy, it doesn’t make the film ‘Disturbing’ – The Return of the King had a sequence with Denethor () eating in this manner. Films like Pink Flamingos, A Sweet Movie, Taxidermia and Slaughtered Vomit Dolls would generally fall under this category. 

The problematic issue comes with the general disgust and/or revulsion that can be found with other subject matter as well. They are similar emotions: disgust and disturbed. One sits with you a lot more and generally violence is disturbing but not necessarily disgusting. The use of bodily functions is usually a big part of this. So, Divine eating dog mess in Pink Flamingos doesn’t really add to the film being disturbing but it is a disgusting surprise. The eating competition that forces many actors to (either real or acted) vomit in Taxidermia is a disgusting watch but it doesn’t play into the film being any more powerful. It may surprise you to see actors do these scenes, it may surprise you to learn that things like this do happen in the world but to say that these films are doing the same things as ‘disturbing movies’ seems to miss the point.

A World Going Up in Flames

One step harder is the bleak film. Happiness, Lilya 4Eva and Gummo are great examples of this. The atmosphere and themes can be dark and controversial and therefore a lot more in line from what we’d see from ‘disturbing movies’ but what the films (quite successfully!) build up is more than mean spirited, nihilistic theme that is so atmospheric. What we see and experience seldom is powerful enough to be considered disturbing, but what we have from these films is an utter sadness. Happiness is fascinated with the underlying sadness people feel, showing us characters who are struggling with themselves for various reasons. One such character is a peadophile. This is a dark subject matter, but the focus is different. There is a focus on the drama caused by this as relevant to the theme, what we actually see and experience is very little. Lilya 4Eva, similarly, we have rape and child prostitution, both are dark themes and we do experience this to some degree – for some this may be enough. But the films focus is the utter helplessness of these characters, again it is nihilistic and mean spirited that the characters who had their hopes and dreams would meet such characters but it is a part of this bleak worldview and the actual events are played quite lightly as a part of that dramatic purpose. But, it is a fine line.

Popular Disturbing Movies?

So where do we start with disturbing movies? Well let’s talk about some of the most talked about movies. A Serbian Film, Frontier(s), Ichi the Killer  and Atroz would be a part of our beginning. A Serbian Film is a well made film with graphic content. It works well at being that almost mainstream or ‘hollywoodised’ version of what disturbing movies are. With the use of gore and blood it manages to stay dark continually but ultimately becomes that moment of that disturbing pub question: would you rather do this fucked up thing if you were put at gunpoint? In this manner it does manage to have a shock ending, whilst keeping enough blood to please horror fans, making it continually having that edge for a good entry point into disturbing cinema.

Similarly Frontier(s) and many other french extremity films like Martyrs tend to have that punishing attitude towards the body but ultimately feels like a horror film that is both relentless and graphic. Imagine a horror film that is unflinching in its graphic death scenes and keeps many in there for many to feel that characters by the end are deservingly bathed in blood. This is how these films can take a horror film taking it from the more edgy content and pushing it into something that is quite persistent. Again, through the good horror themes and graphic content they serve as a good entry way into disturbing movies.

No Holds Barred - Takashi Miike

Ichi the Killer functions as a film that feels like it’s more bloody than it is. The moments of torture are actually quite fleeting in the film, which serves to play more of a critique of the consumption of violence: as entertainment as actually affecting its victims. As it is more about the drama surrounding characters who tip toe on this edge, this again serves as a good entry point into the ‘genre’. Takashi Miike is well known for films that do not hold back on us and he tends to have small moments that will surprise you to see on the screen, but they don’t tend to be too frequent to keep this emotional edge. Audition and Imprint are talked about a lot as well but there are a lot more going on in these films than the one or two moments that give them that reputation and Ichi the Killer has more of these. However, Visitor Q, as I’ll touch upon soon, would be the next step. 

“I’ve Killed and I’ll Kill Again”

Atroz is a film that is a good start on taking the ‘rape-revenge’ movies of the 70s (many of which are video nasties), and the serial killer movies and starting to dial their intencity up. A little like films like I Saw the Devil, an intense horror, Atroz manages to show moments that intensify the graphic violent and sexually violent content. Presenting us moments that are well made and offer a little more than you’d see as a standard of movies about serial killers. Another film to mention would be Angst, which is more ‘in-the-mind-of-a-serial-killer’, as the violent content depicted in this film has its edge but for the relenting intensity of being in his mind and seeing it from his perspective, it is unflinching in a psychological darkness usually avoided by films about serial killers. Something that Atroz lacks. Therefore, for different reasons, graphic content or psychologically dark, both are good entry points into the genre. They both manage to intensify horror films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and I Saw the Devil into something quite challenging.

The Dead, the Nude and the Sex

Films also worth mentioning as we begin into disturbing cinema are Aftermath, Singapore Sling and Antichrist. These films manage something that could be described as an entry-point but can also be confused with other themes and genres. Antichrist is Lars Von Trier’s beautiful psychological critique on psychological healing. Nature and spiritualism comes out of how nasty grief can be to endure and this manages to manifest itself in a number of ways that makes for a dark and tense watch, but the moment that people will often talk about is just one moment. This unfortunately overshadows the rest of the film, which deserves a look and is powerful in its own right. This moment, does, however, start us down a discussion of graphic content: the depiction of genitalia, particularly female. If this wasn’t such a taboo, then this moment wouldn’t be as impactful but Antichrist does not shy away from such a moment (a moment that is also important for the film’s theme). However, The House that Jack Built, also by Lars Von Trier, is perhaps darker.

Singapore Sling would perhaps be the next step from Antichrist’s moment. Though this is perhaps a film that feels like it is a bit more surreal to some, it can just be understood as a critique on the fetishisation evident in most film noir. Women in film noir films are often simply objects both sexualised or vilified. Singapore Sling therefore takes this as a critical point and graphically exposes it. It is this graphic depiction of sex and nudity and taking it as a thematic weapon that challenges our perceptions of films and exactly what women are capable of. We unfortunately expect men to be violent, Singapore Sling challenges this by taking the femme fatale and the trap of sex and giving it a graphic form. Singapore Sling is quite an intelligent film for this, but it’s actual disturbing nature isn’t as dark as many others within this genre.

Finally, Aftermath, a film about necrophilia. This concept is a dark taboo that by its nature is disturbing. Because of this many films considered to be disturbing can and will explore this. Aftermath as a short film manages to dip into this lightly. It refuses to graphically depict its content and as it is short doesn’t manage to build up much of an atmosphere for a theme that disturbs as strongly as other films. It just has its well made moment and then it stops. And that’s where it stops, where others continue, like Nekromantik – discussed later.

Getting Under the Skin

So, how do these next lot of films go further? Visitor Q is a strange film to discuss for disturbing cinema and part of that could be the atmosphere but most of it might be its lack of graphic depictions despite including a lot of themes and ideas in one place. It is, essentially, an incredibly dark comedy. Including moments like having sex with a corpse and remarking “she’s actually wet, what a miracle!” only to then discover that it is actually excrement and not standard lubrication. This is the kind of humour to be found within a dysfunctional family challenged by someone who stays with them, he as we do, then witness a multitude of ridiculously dysfunctional elements: violence, destruction, sex and necrophilia.

Going back to the atmosphere created without graphic depictions, it is worth discussing films like Funny Games (1997 or 2007), Dogtooth and The Skin I live In. These are films that are relentless in their uncomfortable atmospheres. Funny Games enact a psychological torture on characters, pushing rudeness into something utterly tormenting in a film that will not stop to antagonise. It also impressively manages to do this to the audience as well as its victims, breaking the film’s diegesis to ensure that we know that we came for the violence and that is uncomfortable. Dogtooth takes the dehumanising control to such a level that it is unsettling. It is remarkable at keeping this uncomfortable atmosphere. Whilst The Skin I Live In is less punishing in its atmosphere, it is still uncomfortable and asks you to endure a concept that is both bleak and torturing in its very existing. 

Let’s Talk Cannibalism

In the late 70s, partially inspired by the Mondo movement inspired by the mockumentary Mondo Cane (which we’ll touch upon later), there was a big boom of Cannibal films. Though these were largely following a similar premise of a cannibal tribe deep in the jungle, they managed to mix with the exploitation films of the time quite nicely depicting nudity and violence in gratuitous fashion. The concept of eating each other is a rather dark and taboo theme appropriate for disturbing cinema but can be used in various degrees: We’re Going to Eat You is a horror comedy and a far cry from what these cannibal films are, whilst Silence of the Lambs barely touches upon this subject and instead opts for an effective thriller.

Focusing instead on this cannibal popularity, which largely took place in Italy, we see a cross over; not only in exploitation and Mondo cinema but also with one of the bigger landmarks of controversial film history: the video nasty. If disturbing movies are a genre then the video nasty was its precursor. In the UK after the introduction of VHS video stores and the relaxing of censorship after the Hays Code died out, there was a phenomenon when the government created a list as a backlash against the newly accessible and more extreme sides of cinema. Whether the films on this list were appropriate or not seemed not to matter, but they focused on films that were ‘too extreme’ for public consumption. Most couldn’t live up to their notorious reputation and were badly made and have since become incredibly dated. Whilst some are now well respected films, others deserved their reputation. These films touched upon slashers, sexploitation, rape-revenge, nazisploitation, cannibals and more. 

Focusing then on the cannibal genre we can see many that showed graphic depictions of violence, gore and nudity but were poorly made such as Cannibal Ferox, Eaten Alive! and Last Cannibal World. These films have perhaps either become dated or used effects that leave them difficult to be considered disturbing, especially now. But their dark subject matter also brought in a disturbing side of the mockumentary film genre: Mondo films, the use of animal cruelty. Mondo films tended to include actual footage with a lot of fake footage and delved into the killing of animals quite frequently, something these cannibal films would borrow from for their authenticity – whether this worked or not. It’s for these reasons and for the dark portrayals of humanity that Mondo Cane and the similar in style film Faces of Death are similarly disturbing – though they sometimes use poor effects, complicating how disturbing they could be (more on this later when discussing disturbing movies and criticism).

It is from these forms of Italian cinema and these genres that Cannibal Holocaust came out. This being the first found footage film that strived for absolute realism and Mondo Cane tactics, whilst picking up on exploitation themes like violence and nudity. However, this film manages to be disturbing in its accurate critique of media consumption (and the consumption of violence). Cannibal films lend themselves to grotesquely eating flesh and tribes who do not share western ideas of nudity and therefore depict more graphic examples of both. There is a large similarity with zombie films as well in the violence and gore and how sometimes it can cross over into rotting flesh. However, the violence depicted could also be sexual and the use of actual animal cruelty deepened the controversy. This tended to be a much cheaper tactic than the use of nudity for nudity’s sake a la the exploitation films, unfortunately. Cannibal Holocaust’s more effective effects work paired with these themes and sophisticated critique of the media managed to deepen its impact and all while taking a rather basic theme from many other cannibal films and making it deeply unsettling: we the civilised western society and the so called ‘savages’, have we actually got this the right way around? The cannibals doing what only needs to be done to survive is deep and potentially disturbing but we, the people that exploit and knowingly inflict violence on others, are we much better?

Disturbing Movies: How can they be Criticised? Part 1: Video Nasties and Birth

Video Nasties would offer a few other films that could be considered disturbing but tend not to be as their effects, from low budgets, tend to frequently lose their punch. Last House on the Left is a home invasion movie with a gritty nihilistic feel but the effects and rape in the film is evidently quite low budget. I Spit on Your Grave is perhaps the best example of an effective 70s rape-revenge film but other than a drawn out rape sequence tends to feel quite like many other 70s horror films. As mentioned Mondo Cane and Faces of Death have the advantage of actual stock footage being used for their themes which tended to just depict lots of brutality in Mondo Cane and lots of death in Faces of Death. Again, they tend to struggle to hold up.

Disturbing Movies like any other genre can be understood by the same techniques that hold other films up to their standards. Though, through their challenging nature, the temptation is to criticise them for their use of graphic content or the over use of such content, this does tend to miss the point quite frequently and not allow such films to be considered for what they’re actually looking to do. Likewise just because disturbing movies depict taboo subjects, doesn’t mean that they are always successful with this as we shall explore.

Part 2: Failings

In discussing video nasties, we have looked at how these films tended to lack the effective budgets and effects work to deliver on the concepts that they’re looking to explore and, because of this, can’t really be considered disturbing. This does expose the idea that disturbing movies are looking for an effectively felt emotion: disturbance, which can be measured. How much does the film affect you, can some affect you more than others? But, this isn’t to say that they are all, automatically, good pieces of cinema. Nekromantik more recently than the video nasties is a great example of how this darker side of cinema can be seen and criticised effectively. Nekromantik a film about a grave digger and his wife taking corpses home to have sex with, only for the wife to prefer necrophilia to her husband, is in concept a terribly disturbing idea. It is also something that is built up in the mood of the film: dark, solitary and desolate. However, the film’s effects are sub par, the film also relies heavily on over exaggerated sound effects (something which can be all too common in disturbing cinema by weaker directors) and the film forgets to be entertaining or interesting for most of its running time.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Men Behind the Sun through its graphic depictions of serial killings and war crimes, respectively, also happen to suffer from their poor film-making techniques: effects, acting and characters to be effective pieces of disturbing cinema. Pig and Calvaire also happen to explore this, they are effective in tone and effects but forget to engage their audiences in their story. Pig depicts a lot of not a lot happening between graphic and better done violence, whilst Calvaire forgets to keep the audience involved in what’s on screen for spectators to care for the characters and events being shown. Schram, much like Nekromantik, also suffers its characters, pacing and effects, but is instead a serial killer film but perhaps not coincidentally is also by the same director. 

 

A Hole in My Heart is a lot more confusing in this manner as the filmmaker wanted to make something that is completely abrasive and used disturbing content like graphic violence, close up surgeries and nudity alongside poor use of effects, characters and cinematography. It is, somehow, both poorly done and effective in its aims, making for a hard film to assess these themes. 

So where do we go from here?

From the ineffective try-hards to those that manage to effectively disturb. The serial killer films go from ‘in-the-mind-of-a-serial-killer’ to the unrelentingly violence with graphic content and blood like Murder-Set-Pieces to the films that feel unflinching in their nihilistic portrayals of humanity like in Scrapbook. Whilst the step beyond this is to forget about many conventional ideas of filmmaking for something that can only be called ‘actual torture porn’. As ‘torture porn’ was a critique raised in review of films like Hostel and Saw as a not so serious reduction of what you see. I.e. these films aren’t films but merely torture played to an almost pornographic nature and nothing else; ‘actual torture porn’ would be the films that are quite literally this. 

 

Grotesque is an exercise in what can be achieved through visual effects and is the literal film’s running time going through different depictions of violence on a body and nothing else. Disturbing and powerful, these films run characters into a very literal good and evil, victim and attacker dichotomy which pushes the spectator into an uncomfortable endurance alongside the victims on screen.The most disturbing of these films, likely being Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood. But others in this series can also be quite challenging, if not always sticking to the theme and with the same budget behind it. 

Similar, but more akin to the ‘in-the-mind-of-a-serial-killer’ subgenre previously mentioned, August Underground manages a disturbingly realistic nihilistic tone as the serial killers force you and their victims through various graphic torture. However, it is again the second installment: August Underground Mordum that really achieves a much more disturbing tone, which feels like it’s the characters and performances given. They just appear to throw themselves more unforgivingly into the role of torturers, having fun with it and ultimately challenging us to what we are willing to see.

Bathed in Depravity

Melancholie Der Engel offers a group of people who are quite willing to violently fight, kill, play with the dead and offer many graphic sex scenes as well as the use of animal cruelty. As such, this manages to challenge but it suffers its pacing, whilst also tends to cross into disgusting rather than managing to be an effective film. The Life and Death of a Porno Gang manages something similar a lot more effectively. The group have character, largely sympathetic at times, while the rapes and violence depicted keep a rather bleak tone through the film as the main group are desperate to survive and met by a rather cruel world. The way that it gets more disturbing however, is by the exploration of the dark themes of snuff films. Despite not actually being a snuff film (where a death of a character isn’t fake but a real set up by the filmmakers), the bleak and unforgiving way that it depicts the killing of people is what makes this dark film quite effective in its aims. 

It is from these that we start to break into what truly disturbing movies are. Effective pieces of cinema, keeping us engaged with dark and terrible subject matter. Come and See is a film based upon true events. In the second world war, there was a regiment who fought for germany, who were made up of serial killers and rapists and were responsible for a shocking amount of war crimes: inhumane massacres of innocents and rapes. Come and See is an intense look at the life of an underage soldier in bellaruse and frequently accompanies such violent and graphic imagery with the utter dehumanising destress of the main characters, unflinchingly desperately watching you the viewer as you stand idly by as it all happens. It happened and through the effective filmmaking techniques, Come and See lets you know that it is disturbing.

In some ways Irréversible is a rape-revenge film but to say that is to miss so much from it. Gaspar Noé had previously made films as part of the ‘in-the-mind-of-a-serial-killer’ sub-genre, much in the same vein as Angst in I Stand Alone, bleak and depressing, it is similarly quite powerful. But where he went from here is an intense and powerful look at violence. It should not be condoned or fetishised and Irréversible does everything it can to make the violence depicted to be disturbing and powerful. Graphic, realistic depictions accompanied by chaotic or even powerfully imobile long takes, all whilst sounds and scores continually barrage you in an unsettling manner. Ambitious but powerful, again the techniques of cinema take this look at violence on the screen to a whole new level.

Before these movies, Saló or the 120 Days of Sodom was Pier Poalo Pasolini’s love letter to the dehumanising aspects of the second world war in Italy and how power and control of weak victims could be utterly exploited by sick fantasies born out of the sheer enjoyment of that complete control. People, no longer as people but as objects for harassment, torture, sexual abuse, rape and through force feeding feces. Effective and graphic, somehow the young actors nude and exposed to the rigorous exploits of the film’s content never feels like exploitation but disturbing. Nihilistic and unforgiving the darker sides of cinema takes us to disturbing realisations about what people do enact upon people.

A Note on Documentaries

Unsurprisingly documentaries are quite different to narrative films and the rest of cinema as talked about previously. Although Mondo Cane and mockumentary films like Faces of Death, Man Bites Dog and perhaps Cannibal Holocaust touch upon the real as part of their power to disturb, they will function differently to documentary films do. Informing and through that information, sometimes very much looking to shock you out of your ignorance, documentaries attack the pre-established ideas held by those interested viewers. As such they are perhaps more subjective than the rest of disturbing cinema: where graphic content and realistic portrayals of violence can be powerful. These documentaries will help you to realise something that is happening in the world that you will find uncomfortable and disturbing. As such, something simple that exposes a lie from those you trust may do it, or it could be something like the treatment of animals that humanity will practice every second of every day like in Earthlings. As a subjective area of film, these are more disturbing and more frequent but also incredibly different and perhaps: rare. They’re just not the same.

A conclusion

What are disturbing movies? Despite the assertion that atmosphere counts over cheap graphic content, it is a combination that works. A rape, for example, implied off screen doesn’t have the disturbing staying power of forcing the viewer to sit through it, unable to help, for 10 minutes or more. What these films reveal about humanity and you, is achieved through effective filmmaking techniques as well as being able to explore dark topics with such relentless and unflinching intensity. The real, though not always, can be a big part of this. Tricking you into thinking that it is authentic is part of that graphic content that so deeply challenges, but it is what this reveals that is the important question. This is why documentaries function differently here but can be just as effective, whilst the fictional taboo is also that challenging watch. 

 

Ultimately disturbing cinema is about movies that challenge you. It says: ‘I want to be challenged by the film. It tells me my morals, my limits and my strengths.’ 



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