We’ve all watched some films we wish we hadn’t (normally because we read about them on some “most disturbing movies EVER!” list and wondered if we were tough enough). But anyone can make a film memorable by featuring a gruesome death or a shocking fetish; if this list was about films that promise to sicken you with disgusting people doing disgusting things, it would simply be a collection of horror flicks from South Korea, adaptations of Jack Ketchum novels, and a certain scene from Pink Flamingos thrown in for good measure.
This is about films that prey on your mind, get under your skin, have you lying awake at night thinking “What would I have done in that situation?” or wondering what happened to the characters next. Of course, what makes a film haunting is a personal thing; let us know your own obsessions in the comments…
25. Trust (2010)
If we were to rate all the movies about predators who catfish kids via the internet, David Schwimmer‘s Trust would get top ranking (Megan Is Missing – appalling both in production values and spirit – would be at the bottom of the list, covered in slime from the cesspool it crawled out of).
In 1995, Kids struck fear into the hearts of parents who realised they had no idea what their offspring got up to when they went out. By 2010, kids were permanently attached to phones and laptops which brought the danger into their own bedrooms. Trust isn’t a shock movie about sex crimes; it’s a slow burn showing how an entire family is affected. It dares to cover the awkward bits, like how you cope when your 14-year-old daughter doesn’t consider that any crime has taken place, and is devastated that she can’t see her ‘boyfriend’. Clive Owen is fantastic as the father who becomes revolted by the sexualized advertising industry he works for.
24. Network (1976)
The notion that madness sells has been demonstrated repeatedly by the likes of Simon Cowell; in this television satire, Howard Beale (Peter Finch ) is a news anchor who’s told he’s losing his job due to poor ratings. He responds by declaring live on air that he will commit suicide. His rant about the state of the nation sounds horribly familiar today: “…the air is unfit to breathe, and our food is unfit to eat… some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
His now famous diatribe – “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” – strikes a chord with viewers, and ratings soar. But popularity is a tightrope walk, and this deeply cynical story reaches a chilling conclusion.
23. Hostel (2005)
Effective horror films will pop into your head at the most inopportune moments. Mirrors wasn’t brilliant, but it was a stroke of genius to make you think twice every time you glimpse your reflection. Showering felt risky after Psycho, and driving at night has proven deadly in numerous movies. Hostel must have made many gap year kids and their parents nervous about that hedonistic trip abroad. After all, nobody knows exactly where you are when you’re backpacking (and losing track of your friends is par for the course).
A nosy through the comments page on IMDB shows that quite a few people believe that a real life ‘Hostel’ could totally exist – but only in the dark recesses of Europe, of course. Eli Roth has cleverly exploited our deep fear of the unknown (and love of xenophobic urban legends); when you don’t understand the language, how do you know those locals aren’t talking about you?
22. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Tim Robbins is Jacob, a Vietnam veteran who is now a postal worker in New York. We learn that one of his children died; he and his wife are divorced and he now lives with a young woman called Jezzie (short for Jezebel, naturally). He’s plagued with memories of his strange experiences in Vietnam, terrifying visions and, it seems, a loosening grip on reality. His old army friends are suffering from similarly eerie hallucinations; Jacob wants answers, but it’s impossible to know who he can trust.
As well as being an unnerving mind-bender of a movie, Jacob’s Ladder touches on a different side of the Vietnam war. American military history nerds will be interested to know that the story was partly inspired by a non-fiction book…
21. The Truman Show (1998)
Renowned for being rubber-faced Jim Carrey’s first serious role, The Truman Show is now largely considered the kind of light-hearted drama which is shown on bank holiday afternoons; we forget what a creepy concept is has. It raises the sort of questions that only small children and philosophy students regularly ask themselves: How do I know that the reality I live in is the same as the one others experience? What if everybody knows something I don’t? Can I really trust the people around me, or is it possible that they’re lying to me? (We’re assuming a certain amount of paranoia in said small child.)
The idea of a baby being adopted by a corporation and becoming the unwitting star of a reality show might be darkly humorous, but the results – a man whose friends have their most heartfelt lines fed to them through an earpiece – is fiendishly cynical. And will probably happen one day.
20. A Cry In The Dark (1988)
Not just a horrific miscarriage of justice, this true story is such a shockingly sad one that it beggars belief that 90s sitcoms were rife with ‘that dingo’s got your baby’ jokes. Meryl Streep (who else?) stars as Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian mother whose child is taken by a dingo while the family is camping at Uluru (Ayer’s rock). Every parent’s worst nightmare is exacerbated by a Kafkaesque aftermath: Lindy’s shock is misinterpreted as cold-heartedness by the public. For failing to show the emotions expected from a grieving mother, she undergoes a trial by media.
The film is a blunt reminder that sometimes people – whether they’re police officers, jurors or journalists – can decide on the most bizarre logic and then ignore all evidence to the contrary.
19. 1984 (1984)
George Orwell so brilliantly dissects hypocrisy and corruption that he very nearly had two entries on this list, but while Animal Farm (1954) is only likely to come to mind when you’re watching the news, 1984 has crept its way into our reality. Facebook sounds ridiculously Orwellian, although I don’t think even he would have guessed that we’d use it to ‘clock in’ photos of all our meals.
The film was cleverly released in 1984 itself (breakfast TV viewers must have been especially spooked to see the mandatory exercise session beamed into every house by a strident workout instructor). John Hurt stars as Winston Smith, the downtrodden everyman whose day job is rewriting history to fit into Big Brother’s doctrine. He rebels by taking a lover, and daring to insist that “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four. If that is granted all else will follow.”
18. Beautiful Boy (2010)
Maria Bello and Michael Sheen star as the parents of a teen who has gunned down his classmates and killed himself in Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy. Released a year before the equally stunning We Need To Talk About Kevin, it covers similar ground but slipped under the radar somewhat, perhaps because it didn’t come as the hotly anticipated adaptation of a superb book.
It’s a hard film to watch; not only are these parents grieving the loss of their son, they’re also having to deal with guilt and endless regrets. What did we do wrong? Could we have known? On top of this, they’re subject to public loathing, press intrusion and just plain embarrassment of having produced a killer. The only cheery note is the idea that no relationship is unsalvageable.
17. Watership Down (1978)
Whether a film can be considered ‘haunting’ is very much an individual choice. For instance, one man’s Antichrist is another man’s ‘Oh, look. Lars von Trier is being shocking again. Yawn.’ But the films you see in your formative years may have the greatest impact (as evidenced by many who saw Stephen King’s It as children and insist it’s a fantastic horror film).
So what can I say about Watership Down? Just like the parental deaths featured in Bambi and The Lion King, it left scars on our collective psyche. It explored the themes of apocalyptic visions, betrayal, death and destruction, which our parents happily allowed us to watch, because it was also a film about cartoon bunnies.
16. Capturing The Friedmans (2003)
In the 1980s, the USA was swept with a spate of sex abuse allegations that have since become known as day care hysteria; it’s suggested that most if not all of the children involved made their accusations after heavy prodding from psychologists armed with leading questions.
One of the cases was that of Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse, who were accused of abusing boys in their after-school computer club. As luck would have it, they documented the trial with home movies, which have been put together by Andrew Jarecki in this utterly fascinating documentary. The sides of the story are pretty evenly balanced, making the truth frustratingly difficult to pin down. Is it a damning indictment of a justice system which allows unprovable accusations to ruin people’s lives? Or a depressing reminder that pedophiles get away with their crimes because nobody suspects a seemingly happy family man?
15. The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
If you’ve ever tried to watch all of the Friday The 13th/Halloween movies in order, you’ll know that all that slashing gets a tad repetitive. The Final Destination franchise tried to keep things interesting by coming up with ever-more creative ways for people to die, but essentially, every set up is the same; you can count down the moments from the jump-scare to the actual killing.
After the horror movie became self-aware in the late 1990s with Scream, we might have wondered where else the genre could possibly go. And then along came The Cabin In The Woods, and not only was it smart, funny, and genuinely nail-biting, but it made us rethink every other horror movie we had ever seen. You’ll never again be able to watch a mindless band of teenagers staying in an unfortunate motel without thinking of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s creation, and if that isn’t haunting, I don’t know what is.
14. Iris (2001)
We’re all going to get old (The alternative is worse). But none of us really believes this; we think we’ll somehow dodge the inevitable decay of the body, and cross our fingers that we’ll avoid the slow decline of the brain.
Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent star as Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, with Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville portraying their youthful counterparts. They met at Oxford, John the shy young geek who falls head over heels for Iris’ vibrant and fearless personality. When she develops Alzheimer’s, she becomes a mere shadow of her former self, with no memory of the books she’s written or the life she once led. Her only constant is John, who’s forced to watch helplessly as his wife deteriorates. As Whoopi Goldberg pointed out, this is a movie that Ingmar Bergman would find depressing.
Because this is a big, long list, we’ve had to do the tremendously irritating thing where we split it over two pages to keep it manageable. As ever, apologies for this. We’re not trying to blag clicks off you – we only split our articles up like this when they’re long ones…
On with the list…
13. Prisoners (2013)
Not only a damn fine thriller with heart-pounding twists, this mesmerising film is beautifully shot and will linger long after the credits roll. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, whose daughter has been abducted. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal)is on the case, but his methods aren’t getting results fast enough for Keller, who takes matters into his own hands.
Can vigilante justice ever be acceptable? Keller may be from the Jack Bauer school of interrogation, but at heart he’s an old fashioned, God-fearin’, proud-to-be-American kinda guy. Choking out the Lord’s prayer, he’s unable to get any further than “forgive our trespasses as we forgive…”, raising the question of how much our spiritual beliefs count when faced with the ugly side of human nature.
12. When The Wind Blows (1986)
This innocent-looking cartoon started life as a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (of The Snowman fame) but it’s not one to put on for the kids on Boxing day. Melancholy and bleak, it’s the story of an elderly couple who build a shelter when the government warns of nuclear attacks. Upon coming out a few days after the bombs, the story follows their slow descent into full-on radiation sickness and the loneliness of wondering what’s happened to everyone else in the world.
The very familiarity and cosiness of Raymond Briggs’ animation creates a shocking juxtaposition with the horrific realities of war.
11. Buried (2010)
Have you ever had one of those telephone conversations where you just can’t quite convey to the listener how urgent your predicament is? Paul (Ryan Reynolds) is having this experience in its most extreme form. Taken as a terrorist hostage, he wakes up to find himself buried in a coffin with few tools for survival. It can be frustrating to watch; you may find yourself saying ‘But why doesn’t he…’ more than once, and it’s best avoided if you’re claustrophobic.
But Ryan Reynolds does a great job of being the only person on screen for 95 minutes; it’s rare to find a movie that raises your heart rate while you’re watching it and then affects your mood for a good 24 hours afterwards.
10. M (1931)
Banned by the Nazis, this film was hidden in a vault for decades, but it’s lost none of its power today. 70-odd years before Dexter and his ‘dark passenger’ came Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a child-murderer who pleads that he can’t resist the urge to kill – and it’s making his life a living hell. Fritz Lang’s quite astonishing film is not graphic in any way, but it dares to entice viewers into perhaps the ultimate taboo – feeling empathy towards a monster.
What’s it like to be tormented by temptations that wouldn’t even cross most people’s minds? Hans makes a heartrending and unforgettable speech to those who believe his death is the only solution.
9. United 93 (2006)
The tragic events of 9/11 have been covered by numerous documentaries and endless hours of news footage; it’s also become a poignant subject for movies. United 93 was the first and it’s difficult to top; the simplicity of the storytelling packs an emotional punch in this portrayal of heroic passengers who did their bit to avert an even greater disaster.
102 Minutes That Changed America is equally moving; a real-time documentary patched together largely from civilian footage taken with phones and handheld cameras. What it lacks in technical expertise, it makes up for by cutting right to the bones of the people of New York on that day, exposing the raw fear of seeing the world as you know it fall apart.
8. The Elephant Man (1980)
Currently enjoying a stage revival starring Bradley Cooper, the story of Joseph Merrick (referred to as John in the film) is unforgettable. Cursed with deformities, Merrick’s lot in life is being paraded in a Victorian freak show. When a kindly doctor (played by Anthony Hopkins) takes him under his wing, John Hurt’s elephant man seems to have a change in luck. However, the cruelty of other human beings and nature itself makes this an unbearably sad weepie drama.
David Lynch may have seemed an odd choice for director (and executive producer Mel Brooks kept his name off the credits altogether to avoid viewer preconceptions) but it works. John Hurt’s performance is incredible and the achievement of the makeup team pushed the Academy to create an Oscar for the category.
7. Lord Of The Flies (1990)
We all know the story, right? A bunch of school boys get stranded on an island and descend into savagery. Most unnerving is the sense of helplessness from the ‘good’ ones as their numbers shrink, either through smart kids making a calculated decision to survive by defecting to the other side, or *gulp* murder. It features some truly shocking moments (I’m still traumatised from what happened to poor Piggy).
People will tell you that the 1963 adaptation of William Golding’s story is better, but personally I prefer the 1990 version; the original black and white film depicted the schoolboys as well-spoken BBC kids, while the American production feels more realistic and relatable. Just as things are getting interesting, the movie ends and we’re left with the million-dollar question: ‘What happens next?’
6. Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Forget A Serbian Film. Move over, Martyrs. The most gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, soul-destroying moment captured on celluloid is contained in a 1982 drama starring Meryl Streep.
With ‘Sophie’s choice’ now an Urban Dictionary entry describing an impossible dilemma, it’s hardly a spoiler to mention that Sophie has to part ways with one of her children in the most torturous scenario imaginable. But the rest of the film is also memorable; Streep proves why she’s one of the most respected actors ever, but she’s matched by an electric performance from Kevin Kline as the mercurial Nathan. Peter MacNicol has a somewhat thankless task as Stingo, the young and innocent narrator, but he keeps all the strands of the story together; it’s a film about friendship and loyalty as well as the darkest parts of humanity.
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
It might pale in comparison to some of the more graphic violence we now consider mainstream, but Edward Woodward as the unfortunate Sergeant Howie, the late great Christopher Lee and some nude dancing from Britt Ekland all combine to make what’s known as “the Citizen Kane of horror films.” It taps into some basic human fears – being an outsider, feeling isolated at the point of danger, and being the only sane person in a crazy mob (It’s also the reason I’m reluctant to holiday in any villages where they still dance around maypoles).
Even the most hardened horror watchers will still feel a chill as the villagers’ plan becomes clear. Afterwards, give yourself a bit of a giggle and feel better about life in general by watching the hilarious remake starring Nicolas Cage.
4. Mississippi Burning (1988)
It’s 1964, and FBI agents Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Ward (Willem Dafoe) are investigating the disappearance of three civil rights activists who were working on a project to register black citizens to vote. They learn that the missing men have been murdered, and the town is full of Ku Klux Klan members. While Ward is the agent in charge and wants to do everything by the book, Anderson takes a more casual approach to the rules – and all bets are off when his interest in the case gets personal.
The film is (fairly loosely) based on real-life events, but perhaps the most shocking part is the fact that stories about black men being killed by the police are still a regular feature of newspapers today…
3. Irreversible (2002)
While a film like Salò might create nauseatingly memorable visuals, Irreversible is more subtle. Yes, there is face-destroying violence and a harrowingly lengthy rape scene, but the everydayness of the setting makes this a cut above your average horror flick. Are you likely to be sewn to your friends, creating a digestively-challenged human centipede? No. Are you likely to have to walk home alone at three in the morning at some point in your life? Probably. And the chances are, you’re going to think of this movie when you do it.
The poignancy of the story comes from the backwards chronology; we know that Alex (Monica Bellucci) will end the night brutalised and comatose, but we still have to see the unbearable reverse-unfolding of the scenes, watching her return to her previously happy and innocent life.
A crew member accidentally walked into shot during the subway scene, unwittingly creating one of the most shocking moments; a pedestrian who starts walking down the underpass, sees a rape in progress, and walks away.
2. Earthlings (2005)
Everybody knows the first rule of screenwriting: cute animals must survive. Break it and you risk alienating viewers; Cannibal Holocaust is notorious not just for its gruesome depravity, but because several animals were actually killed onscreen (they were later eaten, so the scenes were less offensively wasteful than, say, an actor eating a hotdog and throwing away the half-eaten ones after each take).
Some people will happily watch the most bloodthirsty violence imaginable, but mention that the same movie also contains the simulated death of a fictional puppy and they’ll say ‘Ooh, no, I couldn’t watch that. I can’t bear cruelty to animals.’ I have news for these people: a) They need to rethink their logic, and b) They probably shouldn’t watch Earthlings.
With secret footage taken over six years, this horrifically graphic and unforgettable documentary touches upon all the different uses we have for animals, whether as pets, food, or entertainment. The result is a film which may well give you nightmares, and will almost certainly ruin bacon for you forever.
1. Life Is Beautiful (1997)
It’s almost impossible to rank films about the Holocaust; from Schindler’s List to The Grey Zone, each is devastating in its own unique way. Life Is Beautiful begins with deceptive lightness; the irrepressible Guido (Robert Benigni) is a wise-cracking waiter whose goals in life are to own a book shop and to win the love of the seemingly unattainable Dora (Nicoletta Braschi); not necessarily in that order. Five years later they’re happily married with an child, but trouble is stirring in Italy, and it’s not long before Jewish Guido and his son are boarding the train to a concentration camp; Dora voluntarily joins them.
It’s rare to find humor in the horrors of World War II; but this movie manages it, with startling laugh-out-loud moments as Guido offers to translate the guard’s German to his cellmates. Billed as a tragicomedy, it follows the example of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, empowering the oppressed by poking irresistible fun at the Nazis.
Guido is determined to shield his young son from the reality of their plight, and convinces the little boy it’s all a game and he must obey the rules to win first prize. Be prepared to blub like a baby, and be haunted by this story forever more.