If I hear about something terribly gruesome, my imagination of the events is usually more horrific than what actually happened. I understand that's not case for everyone, but it is for me. Because of this, I've long steered clear of movies I've read about on various roundups of the most disturbing films ever made. Until this month, I've never been able to bring myself to watch films like A Serbian Film or Saló. I've tried, but I've chickened out. Something in my brain can't seem to fathom the fantasy aspect of such violence and degradation. Like, someone thought of these respective film's events and executed them with compliant people? That's insane to me. I'm no prude, but I've been too afraid to indulge.
And yet, my itch to watch these films has been growing intolerable, so I challenged myself to watch as many as I could, compiling a list from a variety of lists around the internet and film friend suggestions, which usually aligned with what the internet critics have said. By film eight, I was exhausted. My sleep was impacted, and my nihilism was out of this world. But I guess that's what art should do, right? Not all art is meant to please; art has every right to enrage and upset those who view it. I'm not here to devalue the following films or question their artistry, for they all are well-made movies. I'm simply here to report back on the (sometimes literal) shit I've seen.
Fair warning: Some of the content ahead may be triggering. Proceed with caution.
A Serbian Film (2010)
I've been wanting to watch A Serbian Film since I realized it's at the top of every most disturbing film list. I just could never actually bring myself to do so because every synopsis I read, spoiling the movie for myself, left me feeling angry and upset. But, as with most things I'll watch, what I imagine is usually worse than what happens on screen. That is not the case for A Serbian Film. Nothing can prepare you for its nihilism, torture, and pornography. Talking in depth about the film can be triggering, but know that reading its Wikipedia page does not compare to watching it unfold before your eyes. I am never going to look at a newborn baby the same way again. I get that it's supposed to be a commentary on the ruthless Serbian political climate, but I don't think the "any hole is a hole" mentality was the right way to go about making that statement. Plus, the movie is beautifully shot and executed in a way which really messed with my brain. No such act or snuff-adjacent material should be presented in such a visually pleasing package.
Funny Games (1997)
My film buff friends told me that I should watch the 1997 original Funny Games over the director's 2007 remake. After viewing this home invasion story once, I don't think I can bring myself to sit through the Americanized version, even if Michael Pitt is in it. The Strangers really did a number on my anxiety, but Funny Games did more. The whole motivation of "we love to torture innocent people" thing scares the crap out of me. Plus, I don't appreciate seeing golf clubs being used as weapons, nor do I like seeing dogs being slain. Some people just want to watch the world burn, and Funny Games' Peter and Paul are those people. I'm never answering the door to a stranger again.
I have to confess, I did not watch this movie this month. I watched it on Super Bowl Sunday two years ago. (I do NOT know what that says about me.) To this day, I can't bring myself to watch it again. Gaspar Noé's Irréversible is the first movie that actually made me seriously consider pressing stop—and I hadn't even gotten to its infamously long rape scene. For those that don't know, Irréversible is a revenge story told in reverse chronological order. This means we begin the movie with the story's final, head-bashing ending and then go back another chapter and another until we end at the beginning, where a very attractive couple decides to attend a party. Noé's camera does not leave anything to the imagination. By the time the story gets to the aforementioned scene, Noé has exhausted its audience with gruesome violence and sadistic club scenes. On top of it all, it's a gorgeously shot film which makes it all the more "ugh" worthy. I recommend this movie, but with many, many trigger warnings.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
I first learned about Cannibal Holocaust during my freshman year at art school. Rumor had it the film showed real humans dying. Turns out, it just shows the real murder of animals which is still incredibly problematic. Anyway, it's a fake found footage film about a fictional documentary crew getting swept up in the Amazonian cannibal culture. Director Ruggero Deodato leaves no brutality outside of the camera's frame. As a faux found footage film, though, it's one of the best in its genre. As something worth watching twice? It's going to be a no from me. I can't stop thinking about that one poor turtle. Okay, that's enough. Maybe this film is best left for the art school years, anyway.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Well, I have never seen a serial killer movie quite like Henry. That's probably because no other serial killer shows as much brutality as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer does. This is a gory psychological horror film that those interested in bloodfests will enjoy. I will give it this: Henry does a fabulous job bringing audiences into the mind of a serial killer—so much so that there's a brief moment where I empathized with the guy. That feeling, of course, was soon squashed by the violent turn.
For a movie that came out of 1990, E. Elias Merhige's Begotten could easily be from three decades earlier. It is essentially a retelling of the Book of Genesis, if that narrative involved disembowelment and necromancy. It's compelling, I'll give Begotten that. I appreciated how it challenges the Bible and, in a way, mocks it by exploiting the violence that goes into the act of creation. Would I watch it again? Definitely, but give me a few years. It's going to be a hot minute before I can handle another God-like being inseminating themselves with a dead God's semen. (Yeah, you read that right.)
Ah, yes. Martyrs, the infamous skin-flaying movie. What is meant to be an exploration of the human attempt to understand the afterlife turns into a violent, blood-spattered spree replete with vengeance and the things one will do to save a friend. This nihilistic film deserves all the accolades its awarded, but it is not a movie I will be watching a second time. There are only so many human sacrifices I can handle.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Well, I thought A Serbian Film was it for me, but Pier Paolo Pasolini really put me through the ringer with Salò, a nihilistic film to trump them all. Where A Serbian Film left off on a very deserving morose note, Salò revels in its perversions. What does this film depict? What doesn't this film depict is a better question. This film makes the orgy of Eyes Wide Shut look tame, and Divine's feces-eating in Pink Flamingos seem like a cakewalk. For whatever reason, skin branding really triggers the flight in my fight-or-flight response and this movie has plenty of that. My biggest takeaway? Wealthy men with power complexes are the worst and can get away with anything. I would like my two hours back.