13 of the Most Disturbing — and Critically Acclaimed — Movies to Ever Hit Theaters
The Fly, Eyes Without a Face and 11 other controversial but critically adored films
Raw, a movie about a teen girl’s descent into cannibalism, hits theaters March 10. The film is receiving excellent advance reviews, and another fun fact about it is that it’s supposedly so messed up that EMTs were summoned to one of its festival screenings when someone fainted. So, a whimsical family romp! Raw isn’t alone, though — it joins a lengthy list of movies that horrified people, even while winning critical plaudits. Below, a partial list of the best-reviewed ones.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Come for the actual, literal, spinning drill penis, stay for the hallucinatory melding of flesh and metal! Shinya Tsukamoto’s cult horror film both gave him his international break and broke the psyches of many a viewer. It remains a deeply harrowing viewing experience.
Forty years later, it’s still not quite clear what kind of film Eraserhead is. But the film’s mix of claustrophobic sound design, nightmarish visuals and whatever the hell that baby-monster-thing is remains a potent rush of nauseous dread.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ruggero Deodato’s found-footage horror movie not only went to elaborate lengths to conceal its true nature — forcing its leads to stay out of public life for a year after filming — but it was so effectively mortifying to moviegoers that it landed the filmmakers in court, forcing them to prove once and for all that what they’d created was in fact, fake. It’s hardly the most critically beloved film on the list, but given that the entire “found footage” genre of horror stems from it, it’s an important one.
The Last House on the Left (1979)
Wes Craven’s traumatic revenge-horror film bears the distinction of having a much better critical reputation than its spiritual successor, 1980’s I Spit on Your Grave, another candidate for this list. Roger Ebert, for example, called House “about four times as good as you’d expect,” while calling Grave “one of the most depressing experiences of my life.” Your mileage may vary.
Salò, or the 120 Days Of Sodom (1975)
Where to begin? Based on a book by the Marquis de Sade, Salò‘s transgressive sex and violence belies its higher yearnings: It’s inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, references Nietzsche, Proust, and Ezra Pound and has been name-checked by Gaspar Noé, John Waters, and others as artful in its obscenity. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered shortly before the film’s release, a crime that remains swathed in mystery.
Almost immediately hailed as a horror classic upon its release, Takashi Miike’s film is essentially one, long, slow build to a nightmarish climax of a torture scene, complete with its own fake-out. Whether it’s feminist or misogynist remains up for debate, but its influence and power aren’t.
Unsurprisingly, given director Gaspar Noé’s aforementioned admiration of Salò, Irréversible is a tough sell: It’s more or less Memento, but it starts with a brutal rape scene. Still, with Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel among the cast members, it’s not without its merits: It won the Stockholm International Film Festival’s award for best best film the year it was released. Also the score was composed by one-half of Daft Punk, so … there’s that?
Funny Games (1997)
Director Michael Haneke has also name-checked Salò (are you sensing a theme here?) and Funny Games‘ frequent fourth-wall breaks (before it became de rigueur to have every character mug for the camera like Jim in The Office) help it subvert the torture-horror trappings it superficially seems to be mired in.
It’s kind of like if Alejandro Jodorowsky told the story of creation filtered through the lens of Eraserhead. It’s also much more disturbing and violent, but also starkly beautiful at times. Susan Sontag called it “one of the 10 most important films of modern times.”
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Besting Scream‘s meta-horror thrills by several years, Man Bites Dog is a pitch-black comedy that follows a documentary crew filming a serial killer. Made on a tiny budget, it’s become a hugely influential cult classic, but it didn’t take long to develop a reputation in its own time: the Belgian Film Critics Association gave it the André Cavens Award for Best Film on its release.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Although Eyes Without a Face would be considered tame by today’s standards, it was scandalous during its time, a surreally dreamlike horror film whose languid pace is interrupted by Grand Guignol gore and a very French sense of camp (mostly via Maurice Jarre’s contradictory score). And one of the main character’s creepily impassive mask predated Michael Myers’ own blankly staring visage by about 20 years.
Whether Lars von Trier is genuinely talented provocateur or semi-obnoxious enfant terrible (albeit a middle-aged one at this point) remains up for debate. Critics lined up to alternately flog and exalt Antichrist immediately for its bombastic mix of sex and violence and artful, singular imagery.
The Fly (1986)
It’s unclear which part of Cronenberg’s Fly remake stays with you the longest. The horrific visuals — so potently explored in an episode of Rick & Morty where they use the director’s name as a verb to indicate unwarranted genetic meddling resulting in inhuman mutants — or the pathos — the blatantly romantic side of the film — Cronenberg’s allegory for the aging, sickening, and eventual death of one-half of a partnership.