As much as I absolutely adore the horror genre (I might even go so far as to say it’s my favorite), in all honesty I don’t remember the last time a scary movie actually scared me. Most likely, the years of seeking out the “scariest” or “most disturbing” films has resulted in my becoming a very jaded horror fan. However, that is not to say that there aren’t films that don’t utterly shock and disturb me—they just aren’t technically a part of the genre. So if you’re jaded like me, try giving some of these a shot for a different, and truly disturbing experience.
1) Dogtooth (2009) Dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos
In this extremely dysfunctional family portrait, the parents have raised their three teens in complete isolation from the world. They only know each other, and have never been allowed to leave their home. They are even given a completely different understanding of words (sea, for example, means armchair to them). This film has its funny parts and its absurd parts, but is filled with unnerving visuals and circumstances that will likely haunt you for a while.
2) Night and Fog (1955) Dir. by Alain Resnais
With a runtime of only thirty minutes, Night and Fog remains one of the most chilling holocaust documentaries in film history. Resnais avoids desensitizing his viewers by using present footage and not relying solely on archival images and videos. While the visuals of dead bodies and emaciated prisoners holds true emotional heaviness, it’s really in the languid shots through the empty present-day concentration camp where the horror comes out, and we are forced to dwell on the hellish experiences of the holocaust and how something like that could potentially (and realistically) happen again.
3) Funny Games (1997, 2007) Dir. by Michael Haneke
I decided to include both versions of the film, because I firmly believe they should be thought of as companion pieces. Haneke is certainly one of the most enigmatic (and brilliant) working directors today. Ten years after making Funny Games, he remade his own film practically shot-for-shot, but in English instead of German. What makes these films so disturbing is not so much the basic home invasion plot but the Brechtian execution. Though both films set me on edge while I was actually watching them, it was really the days and weeks that followed when I realized how much they got to me when I could not stop thinking about them.
4) Mulholland Dr. (2001) Dir. by David Lynch
After I saw Mulholland for the first time, everything felt off for about a week. I felt supremely unsettled and even the sight of a dumpster made me feel uncomfortable. As with anything Lynch is involved in, this film has you laughing one second and feeling so creeped out the next. Mulholland Dr. is without question one the most visceral, all-consuming film viewing experiences.
5) Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) Dir. by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Well, this one really takes the cake. Pasolini’s final film before his murder presents its shocking content in such a straightforward, simple way that you are forced to sit in discomfort the whole time. The static shots and slow pacing are just a part of what makes this notoriously controversial film so unapologetically horrifying.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.