There are so many violent films out there that it’s often difficult to discern which of them use violence, and particularly scenes of torture, for artistic merit integral to the plot, and which are merely employing violence and torture as an exploitative method. Of the ten films on this list there is a mix of both; some scenes of torture legitimately advance an already compelling story in a necessary way, while others are added for mere shock value, nothing more. Whichever category these scenes fall under, these ten films all contain one thing in common; vicious scenes of torture, all filmed in their own unique style, that are gruesome enough to land them a spot on this list. Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen these films.
10 Reservoir Dogs
Though the ear cutting in Reservoir Dogs was highly stylized due to first-time filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s innate ability to make violence look cool, hip soundtrack and all, when Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde character in the film cuts off a chair-bound police officer's ear and then douses him in gasoline, we are witnessing a pretty gruesome act of torture. Though it all seems fun, the Steelers Wheel song playing in the background and Madsen’s brilliant dance accompanying the violence, it is a sick, albeit iconic scene in cinema history, the type of scene that Tarantino has become known for.
9 Saw III
"This game will take place in a room not much bigger than the room you spent most of your life in: a prison cell. Despite all of the advantages and privileges that you were given at birth, you have returned to prison again and again. More comfortable in chains than you are in freedom?"
So begins one of the most gruesome scenes of torture from a film franchise known solely for its depravity. The Saw films, part of the wildly popular 'torture porn' genre of horror flicks, have produced so many cringe worthy efforts that it's probably not fair, and entirely subjective to decide which is the first, but the scene where Troy the convict is found sitting in a chair with heavy chains attached to his arms, hands, shoulders and most hideously, his heels and lower jaw. During the scene, Troy is given 60 seconds to remove all of the chains or he will be blown up. While he succeeds in removing most of the chains, including the one in his heel in a cringe worthy scene of torture, the chain in his jaw proves too much and he is blown apart by a nail bomb.
8 Only God Forgives
After Ryan Gosling teamed up with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn to film the critically acclaimed Drive, many were extremely excited when it was announced that the two were going to work together on 2013's Only God Forgives. While Drive was a violent, dark look at crime and relationships and loyalty that may not have exactly followed Hollywood convention, it was accessible enough to become a cult classic; one of those films that was edgy enough, but also linear enough to appeal to multiple types of viewers. Only God Forgives, however, was not. While some consider it a masterpiece (this writer included), many were polarized by its lack of true narrative, disjointed plot and extreme violence. And it's the violence, which is plentiful, that we're here for. In an extremely vicious scene of torture, the main antagonist hunts down an associate of Gosling's character and proceeds to pin him to a chair by shoving giant needles into his thighs and forearms and then cuts out his eyes. It's grisly.
Hellraiser is a 1987 horror film that author Clive Barker adapted and directed based upon his twisted novella “The Hellbound Heart.” While the film has countless scenes of torture, gore and S&M clad, hideously disfigured former human creatures known as the Cenobites, the film is best known for two things. First, introducing the world to the infamous leader of the Cenobites, the cruel and sadistic Pinhead, who serves as the horror franchise's main antagonist, and also, the torture scene at the end of the film. When Frank Cotton, the man who originally drew the Cenobites to the human world in the first place, escapes them, he’s on borrowed time. Eventually, Pinhead and his brood catch up with Frank. As per Pinhead’s specialty, he binds Frank in chains by inserting hooks into his flesh. As his niece watches on, Frank first makes a lewd gesture at her with his tongue then utters one of the greatest lines in horror history “Jesus wept” before the chains pull him apart limb from limb and skin from skin, turning Frank into nothing more than a torrent of gore.
Most people hate going to the dentist; this writer once bit down on a hygienist's hand while she worked away. Sure, the dentist is necessary, but it is invasive, awkward and sometimes painful; it truly feels like torture. In South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece, Oldboy, ‘dentistry’ is taken to an entirely new level. A mysterious captor has imprisoned the character Oh Dae-su for 15 years, until one day he is inexplicably released, fuelled by sheer revenge and bloodlust to find his captors and understand their motives. Starting first with the warden of the prison he was captive in, he attempts to gain information on who his captors are. When the warden refuses to divulge such information, Oh Dae-su tapes the warden up and proceeds to remove his teeth one by one, with a hammer. Haven’t been to the dentist since…
5 Ichi the Killer
Another classic of Asian cinema, cult Japanese director Takashi Miike’s first instalment on this list covers every base of torture and cruelty ever committed to film. Ichi the Killer has it all; violence, gore, extreme violence against women, extreme sexual violence, full-scale massacres with scenes of littered body parts, and an antagonist with the sides of his mouth slit Glasgow smile style and sewn together with wire. No wonder it was heavily censored or outright banned across the globe. Essentially a Yakuza flick set on 1,000,000 MPH, the most brutal scene of torture in Ichi the Killer is when Kakihara, the aforementioned antagonist, suspends a rival Yakuza member from a ceiling with hooks implanted in his skin. He proceeds to interrogate his victim all the while repeatedly piercing his face with needles. Finally, Kakihara boils the man alive by pouring scalding hot water over his flesh.
If Ichi the Killer is Takashi Miike’s mediation on violence on speed and adrenaline, hoping to beat viewers senseless with gratuity, than his 1999 masterpiece of psychological horror Audition was his attempt at a creeping slow burn of dread. The better of the two films, Audition tells the tale of a widower, Shigeharu Aoyama, searching for a girlfriend in an unorthodox manner, pretending the women are auditioning for a film, and not his affections. Eventually the demure Asami wins the affection of the widower. Unfortunately, for fake filmmaker Shigeharu Aoyama, Asami is anything but what she appears and one of the most disturbing scenes of torture ever, she first paralyzes him with a chemical that leaves his nerves still able to feel, and then begins sticking needles into his body. The ‘piece de resistance’ however, is when Asami uses piano wire to saw through one of Shigeharu Aoyama ankles. Horrific, and breathtaking filmmaking all at once.
3 Cannibal Holocaust
Perhaps Cannibal Holocaust should top this list. For animal lovers it certainly may. While the film itself depicts gruesome scenes of torture and violence, so much so that upon release, the film’s director was arrested on charges of murder and Cannibal Holocaust was investigated on allegations of being a snuff film. Once the charges of legitimate violence against the actors were proven false, it has been the actual killing of animals on screen that has kept the film controversial to this day. Seven animals were killed during filming, with six appearing on the screen, the wholesale torture via decapitation and mutilation of a large turtle perhaps being the most infamous. The decapitated monkey, the pig that was shot in the head and the rest of the animal deaths involving machetes further brought charges of animal cruelty against the filmmakers, and immortalized Cannibal Holocaust as one of the most controversial films of all time.
Martyrs may well be the greatest French horror film of all time; it’s also one of the most gruelling and nihilistic pieces of cinema ever made. And the violence... where to start? There are scenes of a chained up child being beaten, brutal murders, self mutilation, and a woman so malnourished she looks like walking bones pulling a metal helmet screwed into her head off herself, taking chunks of skin, blood and bone with it, and that’s not even the worst part. The actual scene of torture that puts Martyrs at number two on this list is when the main character is chained in a dark room, subject to severe psychological torture, starved, beaten nearly to death numerous times and then, finally, skinned alive.
1 The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s liberal retelling of the Jesus’s crucifixion and the Gospels really can’t be defined as anything but an overt torture film after the first quarter. Indeed once Jesus is lead by Roman soldiers from the Garden of Gethsemane there are very few scenes in The Passion of the Christ that wouldn’t constitute torture on some level. Easily one of the most violent, vicious and horrific films of all time, regardless of your religious affiliation, The Passion of the Christ takes number one spot on this list for films with gruesome scenes of torture.