August 18, 2010


The lovely nerds over at Total Film posted a list of what they consider to be the most disturbing movies ever - and based on the synopses alone, it's hard to argue. The link is here, but it's that annoying thing where you can only see one at a time - plus, the accompanying photos may be more than you asked for. For impatient types, a cheat sheet of the list is below:

25) Antichrist
24) Blue Velvet
23) Shivers
22) Martyrs
21) Man Bites Dog
20) Begotten
19) Aftermath
18) The Human Centipede
17) A Clockwork Orange
16) Flower of Flesh and Blood (aka Slow Death: The Dismemberment)
15) The Last House on the Left
14) Irreversible
13) Nekromantik
12) Men Behind the Sun
11) I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman)
10) Happiness
9) Funny Games
8 ) Visitor Q
7) Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
6) Cannibal Holocaust
5) In a Glass Cage
4) Eraserhead
3) Audition
2) Threads
1) The Exorcist

I haven't seen very many of these films, and the ones I have seen are the more conservative or "commercial" of the bunch (you know, relatively speaking). In trying to establish my own limits on the freaky, gross, or upsetting, I realized that there's no firm line. An act of violence that's extremely disturbing in one film may be deliciously vengeful, perhaps even comical in another. The fact that I have an overactive imagination that fixates on the frightening means I have to stay away from horror for the most part. It's really just to protect my sanity and mental health - like a pregnant woman who would otherwise enjoy drinking alcohol avoiding it for the sake of the baby. I do like myself some dread and suspense, but most of the films on this list have provocations of the more visceral variety.

But in pondering this topic further, I realized that I can tolerate a fair amount of disturbing content in two situations. The first is if the tone is anywhere from silly/funny (Shaun of the Dead) to pulpy/entertaining (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). The second is if it has a point. I'm fine with a realistic war film, for instance, but few people would take issue with that (or they'd make themselves sit through it because it has historical importance). But taking it a step further, it just needs to have a point within the narrative. The violence in A Clockwork Orange works because you see Alex both as an aggressor and a victim, and the film uses that to paint a picture of moral ambiguity. In Happiness, where all of the horrors are spoken or implied (I think the worst thing you actually see is a guy masturbating), the characters are all three-dimensional and have both good and bad qualities (yes, even the child molester). Blue Velvet weaves a nice-guy-gets-in-over-his-head tale that seeks to unmask the hypocrisy of the suburbs. Even the infamous Audition has only two or so upsetting scenes, which underscore and enhance what is really a dramatic satire of gender roles in Japan.

Compare these to something like Salo or Antichrist, which from my understanding through the reading of detailed synopses consist primarily of psychosexual torture scenes, leaving you without much to compare against or build on. Who are these people other than that they do sick things? What does it mean? What purpose does it serve? Personally, I don't have much interest in watching disturbing content for its own sake. Obviously these films are trying to shock and provoke you, but I feel that goal is undermined when it's a 2-hour barrage of horror as opposed to some of the lines quietly uttered by characters you sympathize with in Happiness. There are plenty of cinephiles that would defend the examples I just listed, but what about #19, Aftermath, which is a documentary-style short film depicting nothing except a man doing horrible things to a female corpse? Would it make me close-minded to say that I'm not really sure what the merit of that film is?

Ultimately, I think that messed-up stuff in movies should serve the same purpose as cinematic technology - it should enhance the film, not be the film. Just as "I can shoot it in 3-D!" is not and should not be a movie pitch, neither should "There is so much necrophilia!" even if it's a movie about necrophilia (Almodovar's film Matador is about necrophilia, but in a balanced sort of way that explored what it meant to various characters and their relationships). A movie overloaded with viscerally provocative material can often come off looking like it has nothing to say.

What do you think? Do you enjoy or loathe disturbing films? Furthermore, how do you even define "disturbing" in terms of cinema?


Scott Nye said...

Well, first...critiquing a film you haven't seen? Tsk-tsk.

And it is possible that a film would use disturbing imagery primarily for its own purpose, and that can be a good thing too. That's been done in all forms of art for pretty much as long as we've had it, and even if the purpose IS purely to shock, there is value in that if you are willing and able to receive it. Because some artists push things way past the extreme that we ever see progress in what's acceptable in mainstream art (and A Clockwork Orange is a prime example of how that has played out).

It also pushes the audience to glimpse into a real portrait of evil, and not simply a cackling madman behind a desk.

Alex said...

Even if disturbing content has a point, sometimes that point might not be worth sitting through the disturbing content.

Take Man Bites Dog, for example. I really dislike that film because, as far as I could tell, it was saying only that we are implicit in what killers do because our culture puts such people on pedestals (which isn't new now but in 1992, it was to a degree). Only the film does it in such a smug, dishonest way.

There's a scene where the killer being profiled in the "documentary" goes into a house to rape and kill a woman, graphically depicting it and getting the camera crew involved as well. I think it crossed a line at this point.

I'm sure that the intent was to provoke that reaction by "giving us what we want to see" but that was where the film completely lost me. In performing a sort of entrapment on their audience, the filmmakers undermine the point of their own film. They revel in catching us catching ourselves enjoying a movie about a serial killer only when he does something we don't enjoy... but they never seem to acknowledge their own role in creating such a scene. That's when intent still isn't enough to justify the content. Funny Games does it much better without contempt for its audience or lack of self-awareness.

And as for Antichrist, most of the film is Dafoe and Gainsbourg trying to sort out who the other one is after the tragic event at the beginning. Definitely disturbing (and inflammatory) but not for its own sake. Lars von Trier is a occasionally self-indulgent but always with a purpose.

moviesandsongs365 said...

Eraserhead, seriously? I don't really think it's disturbing. Depends what the criteria is.

I agree with Alex's comment. That Antichrist is not merely trying to provoke shocks,I'd put it in the same category as Blue Velvet and Clockwork orange, a deeper film. Lars von trier is not a shallow filmmaker, I have seen most of his work.

I think "Eden lake" deserves a mention in this controversial debate, to me 10 times more shocking than Antichrist or Clockwork orange. Eden lake is a terrible terrible influence on young people in my opinion. That film should never have been made. I wish I could erase those awful scenes from my memory, but I can't.