One of the great things about horror films is that they can explore themes that other genre films simply can’t. One of hallmarks of horror is that it confronts us with horrible things. That said, this list isn’t necessarily made up of the horrible things horror films have shown us, but also scenes that were so disturbing that they crossed into horror—some come from films that stray across genre lines. Also, many thanks go out to my best friend, Autumn, and my parents for helping me compile this list. Presenting my Top 13 Favorite Memorable Movie Scenes:
This list contains spoilers!
(not in ranking order)
Hostel has some pretty disgusting and disturbing stuff in it. But that’s bound to happen when you’re dealing with torture and torturing for the pleasure of it. The most disturbing scene in Hostel earns its title because it’s one of the only scenes that doesn’t take place inside a dark, dingy dungeon: it takes place in a bright, white locker room. Of course, I’m talking about the scene with the American businessman (played brilliantly by Rick Hoffman). This scene is, I think, the heart of the movie; it deals with the emotional core of the film, which isn’t just the terror of the hostel but also the proverbial pleasure of pain. The businessman tells us that he’s excited to be there.
He wants to torture someone—not just kill them—and his enthusiasm is unbridled. He’s unashamed, which is more horrific than any tendon slicing or eye-burning with a flamethrower.
Hard Candy (2005)
I really liked Hard Candy until the last ten minutes or so. That ending was incredibly lame. But maybe that’s because the film had made me so uncomfortable up to that point. The worst of all that was the castration scene. Let me set it up for you: Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) goes to meet a photographer, Geoff (played by Patrick Wilson, who also played Raul in the remake of The Phantom of the Opera with Gerard Butler). Hayley convinces Geoff to take her back to his place and they bond a little before Hayley drugs his screwdriver. He wakes up tied to a computer chair, where Hayley confronts him with the fact that she knows he’s a pedophile. Of course, Geoff denies this, but then Hayley finds a picture of a local missing girl inside a rock safe he had hidden in his garden. Then she makes him pass out by tying a plastic bag around his head. (No, I haven’t gotten to the bad stuff yet.) Geoff once again wakes, but this time he’s tied to a steel table with a bag of ice on his genitals. Hayley once again confronts him about the missing girl, and tells him that she is going to castrate him. Despite Geoff’s attempts to dissuade her through threats, negotiation, and pleas for sympathy, she proceeds with the operation. The scene is so tense, because man, Geoff is totally helpless and this girl—quite the predator herself—cannot be deterred. This scene makes the list because it plays out every guy’s worst nightmare (and it makes girls squirm too).
I’m sure no one’s surprised to see this on the list. After all, Takashi Miike has made some of the most disturbing films ever (his episode of Masters of Horror, “Imprint,” is pretty terrible too, you should check it out; it was banned from actually being played on the series and is only available on DVD). Audition is one of those films where the entire movie is a build-up to the last 15 minutes. Most of the time I hate that, but Audition is the exception because it’s so brilliant. I know I should have seen it coming. I should have known that Asami was insane, but I really, really wanted Aoyama to find a new wife. The man in the bag, who’s missing his ear, tongue, and both feet, eating out of the bowl (I won’t mention its contents) was pretty terrible, but the torture scene… Whoa. Just thinking the phrase “piano wire” makes my legs hurt. And I will never, ever get acupuncture after seeing this movie. It’s hard to describe what makes this scene so disturbing other than Asami’s girlish glee at torturing Aoyama and the actual torture. You’ll just have to watch it yourself.
I like to call this shocking scene “the big reveal.” Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is one of those movies that you either love or hate—if you can make it through. The first time I tried to watch it, my viewing companion made me turn it off (too many subtitles!). So I had to go rent it from the video store a second time; I am so glad I did. Oldboy is fantastic. The ending, however, not so much… in an “I think I’m going to puke” sort of way. This film surrounds Oh Dae-Su, who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years without any explanation as to why. Then they just let him go. So he goes on a mission to figure out what happened. Over the course of the rest of the movie, Oh Dae-Su finds himself getting more and more entangled in a web of violence, corruption, and conspiracy, as well as finding himself in love with Mi-do, a local sushi chef. As it turns out, Mi-do is also his long-lost daughter, who he’s been having an affair with. (Incest. Ick.) Why has he been doing this? Because Woo-jin, his kidnapper, wants revenge. Woo-jin was in love with his sister, and the two were having an incestuous affair as well (although it really was “love,” Woo-jin states. Yeah, right.). His sister later killed herself because rumor got around that she was pregnant with her brother’s child. She wasn’t. Oh Dae-Su pleads for forgiveness, and cuts out his own tongue in exchange for keeping their relation secret from Mi-do. This scene is uber-intense because you feel so bad for Dae-Su; you share his horror at finding out he’s been sleeping with his daughter. It almost makes you want to cut out your own tongue. But not quite.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
This is one of the few Stephen King adaptations that are actually good. But maybe that’s because Tobe Hooper directed it. Originally aired as a miniseries, you can get this on DVD pretty much anywhere (I found my copy at Schnucks for $5!). This movie, about a small town in Maine getting overrun by vampires, has quite a few disturbing scenes. The one that seems to freak most people out is the scene where Ralphie Glick, newly not-so-deceased, shows up at his brother’s window. A little kid floating in midair surrounded by fog, scratching at a window, begging to be let in is really, really scary.
The Hitcher (1986)
My Dad loves Rutger Hauer. A lot. So I saw this movie a long, long time ago but I always remembered the scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character got drawn and quartered because C. Thomas Howell was too big of a wuss to kill Hauer. Medieval torture is always interesting (did you know there’s a torture museum in Rome?), and seeing those torture methods updated into our current culture is even more interesting. You can hear the revving of the engine, see the car exhaust spilling, and Leigh’s arms and legs severing. Heavy stuff. This scene is also notable because it makes you wonder, “What would I do if I was in this situation?” I’d have killed Rutger without hesitation. Sorry, Dad.
I have an unhealthy fascination with serial killers, real or fictional. So it’s not really surprising that I adore the movie Se7en. A killer choosing his victims based on the seven deadly sins is brilliant, and David Fincher is an amazing director. How do you make a movie this promising even better than you could imagine? Cast Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and, above all, Kevin Spacey. Without Spacey this movie doesn’t work. Now, all of the kills in this movie are pretty disgusting (gluttony is particularly gross), but the scene everyone always talks about is sloth. I thought that guy was dead too, and man, when he started writhing I freaked out. But even more disturbing than that was the ending. Everyone talks about sloth but then leaves out the climax of the film. Imagine UPS coming to your door and delivering you a box with your wife’s head in it. Then imagine that it’s not delivered to your house, but comes to you in the middle of the desert, where you’ve been taken by a “madman.” Intense, right?
When Kathy Bates put that piece of wood between James Caan’s legs, I knew the film was going to go downhill fast. I was right. This scene is just terrible. But I recommend the book more than the movie; it’s one of only two horror novels I’ve ever had to stop reading because it was too intense.
The first fifteen minutes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria are disturbing because they’re just so beautiful. Any time a woman gets stabbed in the heart, falls through a stained-glass ceiling, and then gets hanged by a wire is scary. Making it beautiful takes skill, and making it visually arresting makes it even scarier because you want to watch it.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Not strictly a horror movie, but disturbing nonetheless. (It does star Christopher Walken, a horror staple—and a good one—so does that make it count?) Of course, I’m talking about the Russian roulette scene. Which one? Take your pick; both are scary as hell. Russian roulette is scary. Your life is at stake. Add that to the terror of a Vietnam P.O.W. camp, where your life is already on the line, makes it doubly frightening. The other scene is no less terrifying, where Robert DeNiro’s character is trying to reconnect with Walken’s character, who, after the roulette game at the camp, went a little insane and has become the premiere roulette player of Vietnam (a popular gambling “sport”). The emotional terror DeNiro portrays in this scene is heartbreaking. You really want Walken to remember his life in the States and come home. This movie is one of the best of all time, and Walken deserved getting a nod from the Academy. Not bad for a not-strictly-horror film.
The Brood (1979)
Just mentioning this movie to my mother makes her get really upset. That’s probably because she watched it while nearly nine months pregnant, but hey, David Cronenberg films have that kind of effect on people. The Brood is one of Cronenberg’s best because, like The Fly, it draws upon the very human fear of decay of the flesh. In this movie a woman named Nola gives birth to deformed children that are the physical manifestation of the rage she feels toward her ex-husband. A pretty good idea for a movie, to be sure, but what makes it really scary (besides the kids killing people), is that it contains one nasty scene that shows how animalistic a mother’s love for her child can be. Nola gives birth to another baby, and, while her ex watches, she takes the baby and cleans it with her tongue. Naaasty. And disturbing.
Funny Games (2007)
I’m not sure you can pick just one scene from Funny Games to classify as “the most disturbing.” This entire movie is disturbing. Michael Pitt is a much underrated actor, and this movie may host his finest performance to date. In this movie, two teenage kids come around the house of a family at a sort of country club estate. At first they seem nice, just asking to borrow a couple of eggs. But then, before you know it, they’ve taken a golf club to Tim Roth’s knee and taken the family hostage. Notable because Pitt’s character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, this movie also sports a very nasty scene where Naomi Watt’s character is forced to strip and then pray for her family’s life—saying it backward. And the son gets killed. There are so many scenes to choose from; this film, even though it’s a shot-for-shot remake (directed by the same man), is chilling.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Malcolm McDowell is one of the best actors ever. Plus, he has a really great voice (he narrates one of those Discovery Channel “life as we know it” documentaries, and it’s actually cool to watch because his voice is so hypnotic). He even made Rob Zombie’s Halloween good, which is no easy task. A Clockwork Orange, however, tends to be his most well-known film, and for good reason. Directed by Stanley Kubrick from an equally disturbing novel by Anthony Burgess, this film focuses on Alex and his Droogs, who wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting English countryside. I think the scenes where Alex is brainwashed into becoming a model citizen are pretty scary, but the rape scene, scored by McDowell’s roaring rendition of “Singing in the Rain,” will go down in history as one of the most disturbing scenes of all time.
Good post. The Salem’s Lot scene will rank as one of the most terrifying from my youth – a true classic. Others I would add are the hanging scene in The Omen, the head-turn in The Exorcist and ‘here’s Jonny!’ from The Shining…or are they too obvious?