Fictionalized violence can be as stomach-churning and horrifying as its real-life counterpart. Lord knows prop blood and gore have come a long way. But it doesn’t always exist for the sake of shock and titillation. In fact, a realistic portrayal of violence may very well help improve a movie’s emotional effect or better convey its themes—Clint Eastwood’s revisionist Western Unforgiven is just one such film. But a few others have taken it to unprecedented extremes without clear purpose or merit, and in those moments it’s not uncommon to want to pull the director to the side and say, “Hey, man… hey. Everything alright?”
These movies fall into the latter category. Pretty much everything that follows is absolutely horrifying. You have been warned.
6. I Spit on Your Grave, 1978
One of the ’70s most controversial exploitation flicks, I Spit on Your Grave (originally titled Day of the Woman) is the story of a battered woman extracting violent vengeance against the men who sexually abused her at her cottage retreat. The scenes of sexual assault constitute roughly the first hour of the movie, according to Roger Ebert, and the young writer’s retribution takes the form of hanging, genital removal, and disembowelment by outboard motor propeller.
Though a cult classic in some circles, I Spit on Your Grave has been mostly panned by critics, often in a scathing fashion. Ebert gave it one star out of four and disagreed that it had a feminist message. Luke Y. Thompson of New Times L.A. criticized its supposed pro-woman slant, as to him it was “sort of like saying that cockfights are pro-rooster because there’s always one left standing.”
5. Cannibal Holocaust, 1980
Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust was one of the very first “found footage” movies, using pseudo-documentary footage and presenting itself as a factual record in a style that The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series would emulate. Its main narrative is depicted through reels of footage acquired by an anthropologist that depicts an ill-fated film crew’s attempt to film cannibalistic tribes in the Amazon. The documentarians’ exploits quickly turn criminal as they stage footage by corralling, harming and even killing some of the villagers, only to be attacked and killed by the tribesmen in gory retribution.
Deodato was so committed to the supposed realism of his film, he had some of the actors lay low and effectively play dead for a year after the film’s release. This backfired when their absence, coupled with Cannibal Holocaust’s explicit, realistic violence—which included violating and impaling villagers—led to the director being arrested and charged with making a snuff film. The charges were only dropped when the supposedly “missing” actors showed up in court. Cannibal Holocaust did, however, contain actual footage of animals being killed and mutilated, mostly notably a scene where a turtle is slaughtered, dissected and eaten by the crew. For this, and its depiction of fictionalized violence, Cannibal Holocaust has been extremely polarizing, receiving both praise for its realism and anti-exploitation message, and harsh criticism for engaging in the same exploitation Deodato supposedly intended to attack.
4. Men Behind the Sun, 1988
A Hong Kong-Chinese docudrama directed by T.F. Mous, Men Behind the Sun sought to dramatize the deplorable acts of Unit 731, a Japanese Army bioweapons division that experimented on Chinese and Soviet prisoners during World War II. Such “experiments” included vivisection while patients were alive and unanesthetized, deliberate subjection to venereal diseases and even the bubonic plague, testing the effects of different weapons, and various other mutilations for the purpose of “science.”
Most of these atrocities were depicted, unflinchingly and without any self-censorship, in Mous’ Men Behind the Sun, earning it the Hong Kong equivalent of the dreaded NC-17 rating—quite justifiably, in this case—and the ire of many Japanese individuals. Mous revealed in an interview that he even received death threats after the film was screened for the first and only time in Japan. While the film has been called exploitative by many of its critics, it remains one of the most well-known depictions of the events—events which claimed an estimated 3,000 to 12,000 lives, according to varying sources, and which the Japanese government has yet to officially apologize for.
3. Saw III, 2006
As a tent pole franchise in the “torture porn” subgenre of horror, Saw has been pushing buttons since the first movie in the series came out in 2004. Initially focused on the crimes of Jigsaw, a serial killer who forces his victims to choose between death and survival at any means (including mutilating themselves or killing others), the movies have depicted removal of limbs and vital body parts, wounds inflicted by a literal pit of hypodermic needles, and no shortage of gruesome deaths, most of these depicted in a lingering and explicit fashion.
Saw III, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, was the most extreme in the series at the time of its release and arguably even today. Its opening scene depicts a man forced to rip chains out of his skin before a bomb in the room goes off. A major character is forced to perform grotesque brain surgery on Jigsaw while wearing a collar made of shotgun shells (seen above) primed to blow if the serial killer’s heart rate flatlines. A detective has to retrieve a key from a beaker full of acid to remove herself from a device set to rip her chest open. It was a smashing success at the box office, but received largely negative reviews, with critic Randy Cordova calling it “an exercise in gore.”
2. Antichrist, 2009
Known primarily for his low-budget, realistically-lit movies made as part of the Denmark-based Dogme 95 initiative, Danish director Lars von Trier decided to apply his naturalistic style to the horror genre with Antichrist. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe as an unnamed couple who embark on a retreat to their woodland cabin, ominously called “Eden,” in the aftermath of their infant son’s death. The pair is soon plagued by visions of talking mutilated animals, bizarre meteorological phenomena (if “raining acorns” counts as meteorological) and growing animosity toward one another.
Reviews of the film were divisive—it holds a 48% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes—and many critics argued that while it was well-made and well-acted (Gainsbourg received Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival that year for her performance) its quality was impacted by the extreme violence that the female character enacted on her male partner, as well as herself. These acts included crushing the man’s testicles with a rock, forcibly masturbating him until he ejaculated blood, and the woman’s self-inflicted genital mutilation using a pair of scissors. More than a few critics felt Antichrist and, by extension, von Trier himself were misogynistic for these reasons, though the writer-director claimed he felt he identified more with Gainsbourg’s character while writing the script. Nevertheless, Cannes judges gave Antichrist an “anti-award” for its perceived misogyny.
1. Evil Dead, 2013
After spending a few years in development hell and passing on various scripts and actors, the remake of Sam Raimi’s famous low-budget horror film The Evil Dead finally hit theatres last spring. Directed and co-written by Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez, it emulated the setting and basic plot of the original movie—college kids go to cabin in the woods, find ancient tome and accidentally awaken evil spirits, get possessed and mutilate one another, etc.—but with an interesting twist: rather than going there to party, four of the friends have come along to support the fifth, Mia, as she goes cold turkey on her long-time drug habit. Consequently, it’s not difficult to draw parallels between the bodily horrors the characters experience and the effects of a serious heroin or methamphetamine addiction.
Of course, this being an Evil Dead movie, the violence goes above and beyond what a simple metaphorical parallel would call for. One character uses a shard of glass to slice off part of her lower face; another tries to sever her possessed arm with the help of an electric steak knife. Mia herself endures more damage than any other character, infamously splitting her tongue with a box cutter among other (mostly self-inflicted) injuries. Even when she temporarily dies and is resurrected, the director sees this merely as a clean slate to inflict more violence, and Mia ends up partially pinned beneath a jeep, forcing her to tear off one of her forearms. In his review, Richard Roeper criticized the film for “torturing nearly every major character.”