Plenty of movies are good, light-hearted fun. Maybe it’s a family-friendly animated flick, the newest superhero action extravaganza, or a romantic comedy worthy of a date night with your significant other. But not these movies. Not even close.
These movies all deal with the extremely dark and disturbing subject matter. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored completely. Indeed, some of these movies are celebrated pieces of cinematic art, while others are relegated to the status of “cult classic” in their particular genre. They don’t all make this list for the same reason, though. Some are graphically violent. Some display the absolute worst of humanity. Some are just twisted horror films that make you wonder if the writers and/or directors might secretly be serial killers in their free time.
Here are 20 movies that any cinephile should make time to watch — but probably only once.
20. Schindler’s List (1993)
We’ll kick things off with Schindler’s List, which is easily the best film on this entire list. It did win Best Picture (plus six other Oscars) at the 66th Academy Awards, after all. Steven Spielberg’s amazing film about the real-life Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of over 1,000 Polish Jews during the Holocaust by giving them jobs in his factories.
Originally only motivated by greed, Schindler is deeply affected after witnessing several Nazi atrocities. Despite being a wealthy and influential member of the Nazi Party, Schindler secretly makes plans to save as many lives as he can, blowing his entire fortune in the process. The movie is powerful and emotional, but also a stark reminder of the unspeakable evils that existed not even a century ago. In the end, Schindler is still left feeling incredibly ashamed of his actions, wishing he could have done more.
19. The Woman (2011)
The Woman is a deeply disturbing horror flick from 2011, that is a sequel to the little-known 2009 movie Offspring. It stars Pollyanna McIntosh as a feral woman who is the last of her tribe, a group of cannibalistic human who has secretly roamed the North-East coast area of the United States for decades. When she is found and captured by Chris, a local lawyer, whose intentions to civilize her are initially seen as noble, all hell breaks loose.
It turns out that the lawyer and his family have deep, dark secrets of their own, including a sadistic son (Brian) and a daughter (Peggy) who is deathly afraid of her father. Oh, and they keep an eyeless girl caged up in their barn. So, there’s that too. When Chris’s attempts to civilize the woman become more and more violent, including sexually assaulting her, she begins to fight back after Peggy takes a chance and releases her. The following scenes include a bunch of gory cannibalistic murders, including the Woman ripping out Chris’s heart and eating it. The film has been praised for examining the misogynistic habits of society, as well as what we all consider to be “normal.” Still, we’re not anxious to watch this one again.
18. The Human Centipede (2009)
Okay, this movie isn’t really good at all. But somehow, with its ridiculous plot of a crazy doctor performing gross experiments on kidnapped tourists, it became a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. It was even parodied on South Park and became popular enough to spawn two separate (and equally bad) sequels.
If you’re not aware of the plot, buckle up for this weirdness. Dr. Heiter surgically attaches three people, mouth-to-anus, to form one single digestive track aka the human centipede. He then tries to train it as his pet, even though all three humans are in terrible agony and on the verge of dying. It’s truly vile, and we only suggest you watch it if you truly want to be a master of all things pop culture, no matter how quirky or strange. If you do plan to watch it, just try not to vomit. Maybe have a garbage pail on hand, just in case.
17. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s religious project became the highest-grossing R rated movie of all-time when it was released in 2004, before finally being overtaken by 2016’s Deadpool. While you might not think a movie about Jesus Christ, the central figure in Christianity, could earn itself such a harsh rating from the MPAA, anyone watching the movie quickly saw why it was adults only.
The movie consists of watching Jesus (Jim Caviezel) get tortured to death for two hours, including a cringe-worthy whipping scene, a bloody crown of thorns, and well, bloody everything else. Some critics went as far as calling it a borderline snuff film. Whether you’re religious or not, this film is hard to watch.
16. The Last House on the Left (1972)
The late Wes Craven became known as a master of horror, creating both The Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream horror series. Long before that, though, he made his directorial debut in 1972 with The Last House on the Left (which was also given a modern reboot in 2009, but we’ll ignore that version for now). It was classified as an “exploitation horror film” and left many viewers feeling sick to their stomach.
The story involves four escaped convicts brutally torturing, raping, and finally killing a pair of teenage girls. The attackers then coincidentally end up the house of one of the girl’s parents, who find out what they did. At this point, the movie turns into a twisted revenge tale, as the mild-mannered parents use sadistic and violent tactics to murder the convicts. The film was heavily censored by theaters and even banned in the U.K. for many years. Since digital technology wasn’t available at the time, many different versions of the film ended up existing as different cinemas literally cut out (as in, cut the film reel with scissors and taped it back together) the scenes they refused to show. Some of the most degrading and disturbing scenes have been almost lost forever as a result.
15. Maniac (2012)
Elijah Wood will probably forever be best known for playing hobbit Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but he has chosen some dark and disturbing roles ever since successfully destroying the one ring to rule them all. In 2005, he had a small part in Frank Miller’s Sin City as a cannibalistic serial killer named Kevin. In 2012, he took it to a whole other level starring in the slasher film Maniac.
Wood plays Frank, a mentally ill man who is traumatized by years of watching his mother work as a prostitute. After his mother dies, his already-broken perception of women, relationships, and sexual desire take a violent turn for the worse. He begins murdering women by scalping them and attaching their hair to mannequins. If that weren’t hard enough to watch, the entire movie is shot in first-person-view through the eyes of Wood’s character. You only see his face in mirrors and other reflective surfaces, making the viewer feel like they are part of the violence in a unique (and unsettling) way.
14. Hostel (2005)
Director Eli Roth rose to fame after releasing Hostel in 2005. It’s a gritty horror film that helped to truly popularize the term “torture porn” among movie fans. The plot follows a pair of tourists in Europe who are convinced (seduced) by a pair of women to come to stay in a Slovakian hostel. Once there, they realize that it’s actually a front for kidnapping tourists and then selling them off to be tortured and killed by rich businessman, who use the violence as an outlet for their stress.
While the entire concept is already disturbing enough, Roth goes to great lengths to ensure viewers watch gory torture scenes, including one victim having her face disfigured by a blowtorch. It seems the entire purpose of the film is just to see how far Roth could push the brutality of these scenes. It spawned a couple of sequels, despite being heavily criticized by the Slovakian government for the way it portrayed their country.
13. I Spit On Your Grave (2010)
This movie isn’t particularly good, but it did have a big impact on the industry as a whole. The storyline is very basic, as Jennifer, a New York City writer, rents a rural cabin to work on her debut novel, only to be brutally gang-raped by four local men, who thought they left her for dead. Jennifer survives, though, and embarks on a violent journey of revenge, sometimes using sex as bait before she kills her attackers in a variety of horrible ways.
It’s an exploitation film in the worst of ways, but it started a broader conversation about censorship when it was banned in some areas. Others have likened Jennifer’s story to the rise of feminism (it was released in 1978) since she ended up being the powerful hero of the story after spending the first part of the film being torn down and destroyed. I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, and that reboot spawned several sequels, but none of them are as disturbing at the original.
12. Audition (1999)
Audition is a Japanese horror film about a middle-aged widower who is finally convinced to begin dating again. His friend, a movie producer, devises a cute gimmick where women can “audition” for the part of his new girlfriend/wife. The first half of the movie is almost a reality show-like comedy until a character by the name of Asami wins the role.
Asami turns out to be an obsessed and sadistic serial killer. The movie quickly shifts from light-hearted romantic comedy to a brutal torture flick, involving needles and piano wire. Despite the hard-to-watch scenes, the movie is generally well-rated by fans and critics, who praise its beautiful cinematography and well-acted roles. Critics, however, merely label the 1999 movie as “torture porn,” which is fitting since Eli Roth cites Audition as one of his influences in making the grisly horror movie Hostel.
11. The Orphanage (2007)
The Orphanage is a Spanish horror film that might more accurately be described as depressing, rather than disturbing. Regardless, it features plenty of jumps scares and an ending so emotionally draining that you’ll never want to go through it again.
The plot involves a couple named Laura and Carlos opening a facility for disabled children in an abandoned orphanage, along with their adopted son Simon. When a nosy social worker named Benigna starts poking around, things get weird. Simon goes missing and the tragic history of the building and those inside it slowly gets revealed. And then, ghost children. Yes, ghost children. Without giving it all away, the ending doesn’t go well for anyone, and viewers are left swallowing hard trying to make sense of it all.
10. Hard Candy (2005)
Ellen Page burst into pop culture relevance when Juno was released in 2007. However, the movie she starred in two years earlier was not a quirky coming of age story. In Hard Candy, Page plays a 14-year-old girl (she was just 18 at the time) who lures a sexual predator (played by Patrick Wilson) back to his house to torment him, both physically and psychologically.
After restraining him, she threatens to amateurishly castrate him. She stays one step ahead of the furious deviant, eventually forcing him to make a Saw-like decision: commit suicide or she will reveal all the dirty little secrets to his family, friends, and girlfriend. In the film’s climax, the audience learns that she’s already done this at least once before. It’s dark and horrifying in all the right ways.
9. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Cannibal Holocaust is a particularly notorious film since its director Ruggero Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity when it was first released in 1980. The movie, a horror film about a group of cannibalistic natives in the Amazon rainforest, was so realistic that it was rumored to be a legit snuff film and Deodato had murder charges added to his name. He was forced to produce the actors who had “died” in the film in a courtroom to prove they were still alive.
This was one of the first “found footage” films, shot to look like an American film crew had stumbled across something awful while making a documentary. The movie contains graphic rape scenes and brutal violence, which looked shockingly real considering the special effects technology available at the time. Deodato also filmed the (real-life) killing of several animals for scenes in the film, sparking further outrage. The marketing for the film suggested that the footage was legit (much like The Blair Witch Project would do decades later), adding to the controversy.
8. Teeth (2007)
This sounds like every man’s worst nightmare. Teeth is a 2007 black comedy/horror film starring Jess Weixler. It features a sheltered and virginal character named Dawn, who discovers that her body has a strange defensive mechanism when she is date-raped. If you hadn’t guessed from the name of the movie, she realizes that she has an extra set of teeth in a very unusual spot. Yeah, down there.
It’s a mostly silly film and is very funny in parts. It’s also very cringe-inducing to watch a bunch of guys have their packages sliced off by a killer vajayjay (even if they deserve it). The film premiered at Sundance in 2007 and Weixler even won an award for her role. It’s definitely worth a watch, just for the sheer absurdity of it all. But once is probably enough.
7. Requiem For a Dream (2000)
Requiem For a Dream is like a 90-minute PSA against the dangers of drugs and addictions, except that it’s way more intense than anything you ever saw in high school health class. This Darren Aronofsky film, based on the Hubert Selby, Jr. novel by the same name, involves four main characters who become more and more desperate as they travel a downward spiral into addiction and chaos.
We won’t give away their fates, but suffice to say that all four characters end up in dark, desolate places — both mentally and physically. Aronofsky uniquely shot the film, using extremely short close-ups which help the viewer buy into the panic that the characters start to experience. Particularly hard-to-watch scenes include Harry (Jared Leto) attempting to inject heroin into his infected arm and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) resorting to prostitution to feed her growing addiction.
6. The Machinist (2004)
Christian Bale has had many great roles over the years and might be best known as playing musclebound Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. Right before he donned the cape and the cowl of DC Comics’ most famous hero, he starred in a much smaller and much more disturbing film.
Made for just $5 million, The Machinist stars Bale as Trevor Reznik, a man who suffers from severe insomnia and other psychological problems. Bale starved himself to look the part, and the result is gruesome. He looks like a skeleton wearing a Christian Bale skin suit. The plot of the movie adds to the eeriness, as Reznik’s paranoia and hallucinations continue to build in weird scenes that eventually conclude with the revelation of a major tragedy. It’s a compelling flick, but also depressing. One watches it more than enough.
5. 8mm (1999)
Unlike a lot of the movies on this list, 8mm is not a horror movie or a psychological thriller. It’s a pretty basic crime drama, starring Nicolas Cage as Tom Welles, a private investigator given an especially gnarly assignment. A wealthy widow finds a disturbing porn video in her deceased husband’s safe, that appears to depict a real-life murder. Cage’s character is charged with figuring out whether it’s an elaborate fake or the real thing.
Welles dives headfirst into the world of unconventional adult videos and eventually realizes the horrible truth. The video is real and the young girl was murdered on camera for the meager price tag of $1 million, just for the amusement of some ultrarich sicko. As Welles tracks down those responsible (which include a great performance from the late James Gandolfini as a sleazy porn producer), he begins to learn the true depth of evil that even the most average of humans can succumb to. Even with the perpetrators all ending up dead by the end of the movie, it doesn’t feel like justice was served. There’s no happy ending here, just that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach.
4. Funny Games (2007)
Funny Games a quirky psychological thriller that is just violence for the sake of violence. Writer and director Michael Haneke have admitted as much, saying he set out to make an incredibly violent but otherwise pointless film. Mission accomplished!
The movie about a pair of men who take a family hostage and torture them with a series of sadistic games. It uniquely features one of the men (Paul) routinely breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience about his actions. He winks at the camera before committing atrocious acts, and even explains their brief disappearance from the movie as nothing more than a plot device to build drama. Unlike most horror movies, Funny Games doesn’t feature a sole survivor or a lone hero. The two men eventually kill the family of three (and their dog), then it’s revealed that they had previously done the same at a neighboring house, and the movie ends with them knocking on the door of yet another family, continuing their murder spree. The audience is left with that skin-crawling feeling of hopelessness as the credits roll.
3. Irreversible (2002)
No less a movie expert than Roger Ebert had this to say about Irreversible: “[It’s] a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.” And yet, it won the Best Film award at the 2002 Stockholm International Film Festival. On the other hand, it also outraged viewers at the Cannes Film Festival, causing many of them to leave the theater in disgust.
The movie itself consists of 13 scenes, shown in reverse chronological order. That means that nothing you see makes sense until you watch the next scene, and so on until the movie ends with the beginning of the story. The movie features a prolonged, intense rape scene of actress Monica Belluci and some brutal violence towards the end of the story (which is shown at the beginning of the movie, remember). As if that wasn’t controversial enough, the film was criticized for its offensive portrayal of gay men. It’s an interesting film, especially the way it’s presented in reverse order, but still, one that you won’t likely want to watch a second time.
2. Straw Dogs (1971)
Straw Dogs is a classic 1971 psychological thriller by director Sam Peckinpah, starring Dustin Hoffman as David Summer, an American mathematician who moves to a remote town in the U.K. to live with his new wife, Amy. Unfortunately, the town locals aren’t very impressed that this “outsider” has married one of their own. A group of men, including Amy’s ex-boyfriend, harass and intimidate the couple until things escalate into a graphic rape scene.
The trauma suffered by Amy creates obvious tension in the marriage. It continues to break down up until the climax of the film, where an angry mob storms the Summer household in an attempt to get to Henry Niles, a mentally handicapped man who is believed to have committed a brutal crime. At this point, the formally nerdy and non-confrontational David goes full Rambo, defending his house with a bunch of make-shift weapons, resulting in multiple brutal deaths. Then he abandons his wife and drives off with a smile, apparently content with his violent outburst.
1. A Serbian Film
If you couldn’t make it through the previously mentioned 8mm without wanting to throw up a little, don’t even bother with A Serbian Film. It’s another film about the dark world of underground and violent porn, but on steroids and dialed up to 11. Here’s the short version: A retired male porn star is convinced to come back for a big-money final film, only to discover that the director is making a snuff film filled with incestuous, pedophilic, and necrophilic scenes.
This thing is very hard to watch, and it includes gory and graphic shots of rape, murder, and child abuse. The film was banned in eight different countries and the director was investigated by the Serbian government for a crime against sexual morals and crime related to the protection of minors. Despite the controversy, the film has received praise for it’s acting and writing. American film critic Scott Weinberg possibly said it best in his review:
“I think the film is tragic, sickening, disturbing, twisted, absurd, infuriated, and actually quite intelligent. There are those who will be unable (or unwilling) to decipher even the most basic of ‘messages’ buried within A Serbian Film, but I believe it’s one of the most legitimately fascinating films I’ve ever seen. I admire and detest it at the same time. And I will never watch it again. Ever.”