Top 10 – our ten best listings of… Barely Bearable: Top 10 Disturbing Movies by Jonathan McCalmont

Film is a remarkably complex medium.

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If you walk into any cinema in the country you’ll find films that make you laugh, films that make you cry, films that make you cheer and films that make you want to gouge out your eyes with rusty coat hangers rather than stand to watch another minute of them.

This list is devoted to the films that illicit a spectrum of reactions that not many people speak of, simply because mainstream films don’t seek to illicit them. Some films set out to generate negative reactions from their audience by stimulating the parts of the brain that deal with depression, dread, loss and general unhappiness. The most common example of this kind of film is the horror film that tries to illicit fear. However, as we shall see, film need not limit itself to fear, it can explore all the darkest corners of the mind. This is a list devoted to films that are genuinely disturbing; these ten films are all barely bearable.

Scrapbook Scrapbook (2000)
In many ways, this film is the most obviously unpleasant film on the list because it is a traditional exploitative horror film in the tradition of Last House On The LeftI Spit On Your Grave, or 2005’s wonderful Wolf Creek. Even cinema-goers who decide not to venture into the darker parts of the art house catalogue will have seen a film a bit like this. Scrapbook is about Leonard, a serial killer who kidnaps women and then rapes and tortures them. However, before killing them he gets them to write down their thoughts in a scrapbook. Despite being a quite traditional horror film, Scrapbook nonetheless manages to impress in two important ways that make it worthy of this list. Firstly, this film is almost peerlessly graphic and vicious in its scenes of rape and torture. Scrapbook is so shocking that in order to get an 18 certificate in the UK, the BBFC demanded 15 minutes be cut from the original version. Included in these 15 minutes are a particularly nasty scene featuring a woman being raped using a broken bottle. Secondly, despite using a handheld video camera that lends the film a bizarre and unintended home-movie quality, the film is beautifully atmospheric in that every image oozes grime and filth. Leonard’s farmhouse is full of rotting food, rubbish and decomposing corpses and his fingernails alone prove to be one of the film’s more memorable images.
Killing Zoe Killing Zoe (1994)
Released at the height of Tarantino-mania, this film was written by Roger Avary (who shared the writing credits for Pulp Fiction) and starred Eric Stoltz (who appeared in the same film as a friendly drug-dealer). The film involves a character making a choice between life in the form of a beautiful prostitute called Zoe or Zo (close to the Latin for life) and Eric a heroin addict and HIV+ sociopath. Where this film impresses is in its almost wilfully iconoclastic portrayal of criminality, whereas Tarantino romanticised criminals by making them honourable and witty, Avary managed to produce a film that was unrelentingly bleak by making the criminals and the lives they lead seem empty and horrible. Zed is dragged through a criminal underworld of drugs, filth and wretchedness as his fellow criminals aspire to nothing more from life than a permanent buzz. When he finally emerges at the bank it is only to see things go wrong very quickly as the bodies start to pile up, with neither the criminals nor the police caring how many hostages they kill. While the ending sees Zed choose life in the form of Zo even this is soured by the possibility of his blood having been mixed with the blood of Eric. Even if Zed did choose life, it won’t be long before death catches up with him again. The ruthlessness and cold-blooded nature of the criminals and Zed’s utterly listless lurching from death to life is black and almost heartless. Avary made this film immediately after Pulp Fiction and you simply couldn’t find two films with more different takes on criminality. Killing Zoe is utterly without pity.
Audition Audition (1999)
Arguably Takashi Miike’s breakthrough hit and definitely the closest he will ever get to the mainstream. The Japanese director’s incredible work-rate and range of abilities are overshadowed only by his skill at creating truly shocking imagery. However, while many of his films contain more horrific ideas than are present in Audition (the first 10 minutes of Dead Or Alive are worth the price of the DVD alone), Miike also has a habit of presenting his horrific ideas as ‘black comedy’ as in the likes of Visitor Q or The Happiness Of The KatakurisAudition is all the more shocking for its stark simplicity and Miike’s decision to play the film completely straight. The audition of the title refers to a widower’s decision to remarry. He has clear ideas what it is he wants from his future wife so a friend suggests he advertise the post and hold auditions. The widower quickly falls for a former ballet dancer and, from behind the mask of Japanese reserve and etiquette, he tries to find out more about her only to discover that all is not well and that in truth it was he who was being auditioned rather than her. The film climaxes with the sadistic torture and maiming of the widow. The girl’s playful cry of “ki ki ki ki ki” is utterly haunting. The film is disturbing for its stark simplicity and Miike’s ability to make a horror film that successfully ignores all of the genre’s conventions. This film doesn’t contain any jump-scares or major chords, it just slowly unfolds and builds to a final scene that is as chilling as it is memorable.
The Idiots The Idiots (aka: Idioterne, 1998)
Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots was the second ‘Dogme’ film and, despite scenes of a graphic sexual nature (Von Trier has since gone on to a career as a porn director), it caused tabloid consternation by seeming to make fun of mentally handicapped people. Eight years on, it is still not completely clear where the film’s moral centre truly lies (indeed, upon seeing it for the first time at Cannes, film critic Mark Kermode stood up during the film and shouted “It’s shit!” at the screen). The first half of the film seems to happily toe the art house line by being about characters mocking society’s attitudes to handicapped people and generates a number of decent laughs and embarrassing comedy scenes. However, halfway through, the film shifts gears to something much darker as the focus shifts from what the characters do to why they do it. The lead character turns out to have decidedly un-PC views about handicapped people and many of the others turn out to be merely self-absorbed or hiding crippling emotional pain. The film climaxes with a decadent scene of group sex carried out ‘in character’. These final scenes are difficult to watch because it is clear that Von Trier is playing head games with his audience (like Haneke in the wonderfully twisted Funny Games). During the first half he makes a number of ‘spastic jokes’ but in the second half he rounds on his audience and challenges their laughter by revealing the characters to be largely hateful. The combination of head-games, wonderfully devised comedy of embarrassment and unconventionally graphic sexual content make this a difficult film to watch for reasons completely different to those of the other films on this list.
Seul Contre Tous Seul Contre Tous (aka: I Stand Alone, 1998)
Garpar Noe’s first full-length film begins with footage of a horse having its throat cut but it still manages to get bleaker and more unpleasant from that point forward. Nahon plays a character known only as the Butcher, a horse butcher who went to prison for beating up the man who tried to seduce his mentally retarded daughter. He finds himself trapped in a relationship with a woman and her mother and his misery soon drives him down a path of violence and self-indulgent misery that ends with him trying to bed his own daughter. Despite using shocking images of sex and violence, the film’s disturbing character is not ultimately because of such easy shock tactics. The Butcher wanders a France that seems little more than a load of abandoned warehouses, endlessly hectoring us with his opinions about France and life in general. By the end of the film we almost feel empathy for the Butcher. His world is entirely composed of the tiny injustices and unfairness of others that grow and congeal in his mind and threaten to imprison us all. Such injustice would require immediate vengeance but against whom can we exact it? Who do we blame? If we wanted to kill those responsible for why life is so utterly shit we’d never be done with the killing. We forge our own shackles and we are all guilty of keeping ourselves imprisoned. Intriguingly, the film ends on an unexpected upbeat ending but Noe’s skill at showing the bleakness of life reveals this positive ending to be identical to every positive moment in our lives; a blip in an otherwise downward slope. Within a few weeks of the end of this film the upbeat ending will have been forgotten (contrast this with Gallo’s Buffalo 66 that walks in similar territory but whose upbeat ending ultimately defines the film) but the Butcher’s rants will stay with you. Compelling and utterly bleak; like life itself…
In My Skin Dans ma Peau (aka: In My Skin, 2002)
This film begins with a girl attending a party with friends only to discover that she had a huge cut on her leg that she hadn’t really noticed. The following day she starts to pick at the wound and discovers something lacking in her life, something that only self-mutilation can fill. Soon, her cutting comes to take over her life as it moves from a guilty pleasure to an addiction to an all-consuming obsession. Apart from being shocking to see, this film is also darkly satirical. It is common for French dramas to focus on a mid-life crisis or existential angst but frequently this manifests itself as an affair. Dans ma Peau subverts this convention by making the affair between a woman and herself. The relationship the lead character has with her tendency to self-mutilate is similar to that of an affair or a secret romance. The character makes excuses and lies to her friends to keep it all a secret but when she gives in to her urges and desires it is endlessly pleasurable. The scenes where the character literally rips at her own flesh with her teeth are shot so as to make them seem almost erotic, sucking the viewer into the character’s mixed up world. Meanwhile the graphic and savage nature of the self-mutilation makes the film difficult to watch, leaving even hardened gore-hounds with sweaty palms. Clever, shocking and utterly agonising to watch…
Salo Salò: Le 120 Giornate di Sodoma (1976)
Based on a book by the Marquis de Sade, Salò tells the tale of four fascist dignitaries who retire to a mansion along with a host of prostitutes, guards and teenagers and engage in acts of depravity that become more and more obscene, and more and more convoluted. It would be easy to lump this film in with the nazisploitation genre of 1970s’ Italy (it gave us dreadful films with wonderful titles like Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The S.S. and The Last Orgy Of The Third Reich – Caligula Re-incarnated As Hitler) but Pasolini’s reputation remains unblemished simply because the film is not actually all that graphic and it picks its targets quite well. This film is partly an examination of the depths of human depravity but also a criticism of government. While the rulers of the Republic of Salo might well defile and torture their citizens, is it really qualitatively different to what any government does by putting its citizens to some displeasure simply because it has the power and the desire to do so? The film also takes a nice shot at the nature of art house cinema by adapting a book that has little value apart from its ability to shock. If art is not porn then what of art based on porn?
Requiem for a Dream Requiem For A Dream (2000)
From the director of the brilliant and sadly overlooked Pi, this tells the story of four people whose lives fall apart because of their drug addictions. While no film about drugs is ever particularly positive (even Easy Rider has a downbeat ending), Aaronofsky managed to create a film that is astoundingly depressing. What is remarkable is that the film’s essence is not due to the almost stereotypical images of grime and decay that always come with cinematic portrayals drug-addiction (think of Tommy’s bedsit in Trainspotting), but instead from Aaronofsky’s mastery of cinematography as surreal images, zooms, close-ups and fast editing drag you through what it feels like to be high or to feel that high go sour. As the film goes on, the pacing gets faster and faster, as if the characters are accelerating towards their inevitable ends. This is a beautifully made film with wonderful performances and wonderful direction but all of these combine to make this an extremely negative cinematic experience.
Ken Park Ken Park (2002)
This is very much the companion piece to Larry Clark’s first film Kids. However, where Clark’s first film focussed on the unpleasantness of the lives of children, Ken Park looks at the relationships between children and their parents, and how parents use their children to selfishly satisfy their own emotional needs. The film centres on three mixed-up kids growing up in America. One is mentally unstable and living with his grandparents, another is alone with her religiously unhinged father and another contents himself with shagging his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s mother. The film is difficult to watch as, much like life, it has no real narrative structure to it. The film begins with someone committing suicide and it ends with group sex and in-between those two points are two monstrous scenes of child-abuse and a gruesome and senseless murder of a lovely old couple. The message of the film can ultimately be seen as a bleak one, it argues that your parents aren’t saints and that the only person who can ultimately be responsible for your happiness is yourself. So take your pleasure where you can find it regardless of what your parents say. Because of its graphic sex scenes, the film has yet to be released in the UK but, as with most of the films on this list, it is available uncut either from the US or from continental Europe (check IMDb for the different running times before ordering though).
Irreversible Irreversible (2002)
From French director Gaspar Noe (who also made Seul Contre Tous), this is a film that ultimately has it all; Irreversible manages to disturb on almost every level. Structured so that the scenes are in reverse chronological order, the film is about the unavoidable destruction of a truly beautiful thing. The film begins with Vincent Cassell and Albert Dupontel (himself a gifted writer and director of films such as Bernie and Le Createur, here reduced to the status of an actor) being carted off for killing someone in a gay club called the Rectum during their failed attempt to avenge the rape and beating of the woman they love by a man known as ‘the Tapeworm’. Noe reveals himself to be a stunningly gifted cinematographer as he uses camerawork and sound to take us from the depths of hellish depravity and sadness to a single moment of beauty and love and yet leaves us saddened by the knowledge that ultimately love and beauty must end in death, destruction and ugly oozing smells and bodily fluids. Utterly stunning and utterly disturbing this film became famous for its nine-minute long rape scene with no cuts or edits but it is so much more. The film also explores the relationship between two men and the character played by Monica Bellucci. At the end of the film we see the love between the characters of Cassel and Bellucci but as time passes this relationship unfolds revealing Cassel’s character’s infidelities and Dupontel’s character’s obsession. As the two men seek out the Tapeworm, it is interesting to note who it is that drives the investigation forward and who it is that ultimately damns them both by killing an innocent man. Irreversible is quite possibly the most powerful film ever made. While cosmetically shocking and difficult to watch its truly depressing subtext only occurs to one later and the subtleties are only revealed to those willing to put themselves through the experience of watching it more than once. As with Seul Contre Tous, Noe’s ability to disturb does not truly reveal itself on the screen, but when you’re lying in bed at night thinking about what the film was really all about.