The Anatomy of Disturbing Films

A brunette woman wearing a faded blue t-shirt lays down. She has blood on her face and looks at her hands, which are also covered in blood.
Martyrs (2008). Image courtesy of Wild Bunch

If you’re a fan of horror films, art house cinema, and/or online film criticism, you have probably seen this image of “The Disturbing Movie Iceberg,” and have perhaps watched Wendigoon or Nyx Fears’s recent breakdowns of the films on said list. While the list quickly descends into snuff territory, it got me thinking about the strange, specific genre of the disturbing narrative film that many cinema nerds have sought out over the years. Everyone, it seems, has one they remember — maybe it was in middle school, when you were dared to watch an old VHS copy of Faces of Death. Maybe it was during a movie date, where in your haste to pick something on Netflix and get down to the ‘chill’ part of the evening, you thoughtlessly threw on Melancholia. Or, if you’ve always been a bit Like This, maybe you picked and chose a few features as dares before you finally discovered your hard limit upon trying to watch A Serbian Film.

A blonde woman wearing a short white dress and heels, on her knees in front of a casually dressed man. Both individuals are on a checkered floor.
A Serbian Film (2010). Image courtesy of IMDb

Why do we watch and make films that make us feel bad? The concept itself seems antagonistic to the goal of entertainment. The easiest explanation would be that humans crave the rush of adrenaline that comes from being shocked or scared, but films in this genre often go beyond the conventions of horror. The intent of these films, it seems, is not to simply frighten you — although many do — but rather to fundamentally disturb you. Film has the unique ability to achieve this goal. Not only does it focus on an unpleasant narrative subject, but it also plays with the audiovisual techniques used to convey these stories, attacking the viewer through both content and form. And I, personally, am fascinated by the projects that manage to do this. How do these films get under our skin so effectively? Why would anyone watch — let alone make — a film that seeks to make you actively uncomfortable? In my research (and thanks to 15+ years of searching for “most messed up movies”), I have compiled a list of this weird little genre’s hallmarks.

Not Necessarily Horror

A middle-aged man wearing a white coat looks at a woman around the same age. A pane of glass separates them.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Image courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye

At first, these criteria may make you think that disturbing films are simply a subcategory of the horror genre, as they utilize many of the same techniques in order to upset or unsettle their audience. However, we often forget that horror as a genre is just part of the larger categories of drama and tragedy, and many of these films sit somewhere between the three. Sometimes they overlap — as is the case with 2008’s Martyrs — but for the most part, films in this weird subcategory do not seek to shock the audience in the same way a conventional horror film does. Rather than scare the viewer, these films seek to make the spectator uncomfortable, usually through unconventional editing and the transgression of both social norms and film technique. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò and the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)one of the more infamous disturbing films of the 20th century — is horrifying in its content, as it details the torture, sexual assault, and…er, unique diets of its antagonists’ victims. Yet, one would hardly categorize it as a horror film on par with Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Focus on Assault

A close-up shot of a man looking at the camera. Another man is out of focus in the background, in profile view.
Funny Games (1997). Image courtesy of IMDb

 Most — if not all — disturbing films feature a kind of assault as their main subject. This violence can be visceral (Martyrs, Antichrist), subtle (Gummo, Tideland), or even metaphorical (The Idiots, Dogtooth), but it is always at the center of the plot. It’s not hard to understand why —– violence as a subject makes many people uncomfortable, and it is usually this specific discomfort filmmakers want to explore. Critics Adela Abella and Nathalie Zilka, in their breakdown of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, examine how the unbearable violence committed against the protagonist, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is so upsetting and disturbing that by the end of the film, the audience is emotionally participating in Grace’s brutal revenge. This identification itself is perverse, as it suggests the same ugliness that prompted the villagers to abuse Grace — and the anger that causes her to retaliate tenfold — exists within the audience too.

Similarly, in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), after the psychotic home invaders inform the family they will be dead soon, Paul (Arno Frisch) turns to the camera and asks the audience, “You’re on their side, aren’t you? So, who will you bet with?” The question seems simple — of course the audience would be on the victims’ side, right? However, as the film later points out, we are actively and consensually watching a film that depicts the horrible torture and murder of innocents, and if it lacked violence and tragedy, we would be somewhat unsatisfied as an audience. In focusing on assault, these films raise questions about spectatorship and audience participation. Why are you watching them, and how do you feel knowing you can so easily be swept up into these same, violent impulses as the alleged antagonists?

Technical Unease

A blonde-haired person wearing a yellow t-shirt, baggy jeans, and sneakers. They walk down a school hallway, seen from behind at a distance.
Elephant (2003). Image courtesy of IMDb

Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant, largely inspired by the 1997 Columbine High School shootings, is a masterclass in creating a sense of unease through narrative pacing and visual tricks. Reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous suggestion that in order to create suspense, you show the audience a bomb under the table before cutting to the clueless patrons seated around it, Elephant tells you something bad is about to happen, but focuses on the blissfully ignorant teenagers continuing through another boring day at school. It utilizes long takes and jumps from one innocuous, dull conversation to the next, with no sign anyone is aware of the looming danger. The effect keeps you on your toes, unable to relax into the movie as you wait for the first sign of trouble you expect to happen…now! No,now! Maybe now? You become unable to simply watch the film, as you are on such high alert during the first act it almost feels as if you yourself are in danger.

         This ability to create unease is a hallmark of disturbing films, as they work against many of the conventions of filmmaking — crisp edits, fluid pacing, conventional framing — in order to upset the audience’s senses. These tricks can be subtle, such as mixing in the sounds of killer bees into The Exorcist, or overt, such as the stilted, awkward line deliveries in Killing of a Sacred Deer. Sometimes these technical offences even bleed into the narrative itself, such as when one of the killers breaks the fourth wall at the end of Funny Games and rewinds the film in order to achieve his desired outcome. The result is not just disturbing because of what it conveys, but in how it disrupts our expectations for how films are made. 

Strives for Transgression

A room with a curved archway of white brick in an intricate pattern. A crucifix with a figure on it is visible from a distance, and a nun's habit is shown in the corner.
The Devils (1971). Image courtesy of IMDb

Some of the more memorable elements of disturbing films are found not in the acts of violence or the editing style, but in the values and norms the film’s subject matter transgresses. For instance, a physical, unedited cut of Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils is very hard to find, due largely in part to its anti-Catholic imagery (if you’re a lucky collector, for instance, you may be able to find a copy with the full sexual assault of a statue of Christ by an army of horny nuns), and it is only recently that some of the censored scenes have been reinstated. In a similar vein, 1995’s Kids is largely upsetting due to its graphic depiction of adolescent sexuality, and upon its release was threatened with charges of child obscenity and accusations of pornography. Ruggero Deodato, the director of Cannibal Holocaust, was even arrested for committing actual murder on camera before the alleged victims appeared in court. The animal deaths in the film, however, are unfortunately very real.

These transgressions are not without purpose. Their inclusion makes the audience confront long held social and individual beliefs about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and why. These films test the boundaries of a society’s conventions within the realm of (mostly) fiction, allowing for a relatively safe space wherein creator and viewer explore how far one can push against these widely held boundaries, and question why they are still upheld.

Disappointing Endings

A woman with strawberry blonde hair wearing a button up sweater and collared shirt. Her eyes are closed while viewed from above, laying on a wooden floor with apples next to her.
Dogville (2003). Image courtesy of IMDb

In his book The Feel Bad Film, Nikolaj Lübecker points out that these films rarely conclude with a conventional ending. Not only do they heavily borrow from the arthouse tendency of open endings, but they often make a point to end on a deeply unsatisfying note that deadlocks any hope of catharsis. At the end of A Serbian Film, for example, after Milos (Srdjan ‘Zika’ Todorovic) kills his family and himself in order to escape the shame of their abuse, their bodies are recovered and utilized as props in a snuff film, disallowing them an escape even in death. Tideland ends with its child protagonist, Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland) mindlessly celebrating the mass murder of a train full of people, as her neglect-fueled naivety prohibits her from understanding the permanence of death. The result is a lingering feeling of disappointment, believing that however many hours you invested in watching these films would somehow reward you with a just ending to make up for all the unpleasantness you subjected yourself to.

Even in the case of films with a somewhat definitive ending, such as Dogville or Martyrs, the conclusion lacks a sense of finality, having either involved the viewer in its depravity or produced an ending that doesn’t quite justify the horrible things they’ve been subjected to. This of course is the point — if these films ended satisfyingly, or provided a sense of catharsis, they wouldn’t fulfil their purpose of disturbing the viewer into reflection. They would, in a sense, be excusing the act of watching these films and all the violence and transgressions therein by providing a reassuring pat on the back, a reward for having stomached it all in the form of an ending that tells you — despite everything to the contrary that you just watched — things will work out in the end. 

Final Thoughts 

A young girl with wild blonde hair glancing up at a doll's head on a stick. Her reflection is partially visible in a mirror.
Tideland (2005). Image courtesy of IMDb

So, if these films are so unpleasant, why do we seek them out? The best I can answer is this: the point of art, in any form, is to make you think or feel something specific, whether that be good, bad, or something in the middle. It is a conversation between the creator and the audience, and the content of that conversation has no real limits. We are driven to explore the darker sides of existence in the same way we are compelled to celebrate the light, and film provides a unique medium for both of these impulses. Disturbing films have been with us since the beginning of cinema (Un Chien Andalou, anyone?) and will likely remain part of it until a solar flare comes and closes our theatres for good. So maybe the question isn’t why do we seek them out, but rather how do these films so effectively make us confront the boundaries of our comfort zones, both in the fiction we consume and in the way we live our lives? I’m still working on that answer, but for all our sakes, I hope it has nothing to do with Pasolini’s “junk food”