Oscar Wilde famously said that “art imitates life far more than life imitates art.” Of course, Oscar hasn’t been around for a while. If he were, odds are he’d be hoping that life has nothing at all to do with the sort of art we’re making these days. You see, Oscar Wilde made art that shocked people - plays about infidelity, dishonesty, and the odd undercurrent of (shock, horror) homosexuality. And he wanted people to realise these were honest-to-goodness societal realities. But the tide has turned and, frankly my dear, we just don’t give a damn about the sort of thing that would have ruffled our ancestors’ feathers. This is good. It’s good that we permit human error, that we generally embrace all consensual sexual preferences, that we don't censor language like we used to. But the fact is, we still want art to shock us. As Lee Siegel, New York critic and journalist, recently pointed out, “we want to feel shocked because it makes us feel innocent.” If this is true, it means art needs to be one step ahead of us, one step higher on the ladder of depravity than we are. So that, whatever depths we've sunk to, we know something worse is possible.
The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) reports an average of over 1400 million movie theatre tickets sold every year. That’s 1400 million movie viewers. Compared to the 200 million average annually sold books, the stats speak even louder. The visual arts have it. So it’s no surprise that some of the most shocking moments in art are movie moments. And judging by the prolificacy of must-watch-can’t-watch flick lists out there, Hollywood and its European counterparts are on a quest to create films designed to be watched through one eye.
The following iconic moments speak to some of our most primal fears, and as such the descriptions below are always shocking and sometimes graphic so to our sensitive readers - you have been warned. Read on if you dare.
This Adam Fields film is an odd masterpiece of B Movie horror / comedy. The film follows the cast and crew of an adult film. During filming, the famed (ahem) appendage of the ageing lead actor makes a break for independence and, leaving the rest of the actor’s body behind, embarks on a murderous rampage against those who had suggested that both appendage and owner were a bit past it. There are infinite moments of shock in this film, but since we have to pick just one, the honour is going to the ‘slicing’ moment. Jim, one of the cast members, flees into the snowy mountains to escape the ‘one eyed monster’, but is chased down. As he scrambles, the ‘monster’ approaches under the snow. There is a brief moment when we believe it has simply burrowed under Jim, but seconds later his body falls apart, having been sliced in two. Shocking.
9 Freaks (1932) - Chicken Woman
Freaks was a groundbreaker in terms of horror It included all the traditional elements of horror and pitted a glamorous young acrobat, Cleopatra, and her dashing ‘strong-man’ boyfriend against a mob of ‘freaks’. The film is set in a circus troupe, and one of the more controversial elements of the film was its casting of actors with genuine physical deformities as the ‘freaks’. But the real scares don’t come from the film’s freaks. No, the horrifying bit of this film is the depravity of the two ‘heroes’.
Our leading lady woos a ‘midget’ from the show with the intention of slaughtering him and getting her hands on his large inheritance, a plan hatched with strong-man looker Hercules. The wedding reception hosts one of film’s most idiomatic moments, when all the freaks accept Cleopatra by chanting ‘One of Us! One of Us! We accept her, one of Us.’
Cleo lets slip her affair with Hercules, however, and so ensues shocking moment number 9 on this list - the rage of the ‘freaks’ as they hunt down Cleopatra and Hercules. Herc is attacked while Cleopatra is tarred and feathered, her hands and feet melted into webs, so that she becomes the star freak attraction of the sideshow - the chicken woman.
8 The Passion of the Christ (2004) - Nails
We all know what happened to Jesus. The events of this film, then, were hardly a surprise. What was shocking, aside from Mel Gibson’s level of fervour, was the depiction of said events. The Catholic Church has, for centuries, been trying to find the ‘right’ way to represent the crucifixion of Christ. Early medieval Catholics favoured the blood and gore approach, even going so far as flogging themselves to try and emulate Jesus. But then the church moved toward a less…graphic… appreciation of the saving of humanity and cleaned up the whole image. Enter a whole slew of paintings and statues that make Jesus on the Cross look billboard pretty. So this film turned the tables, revisiting a type of Catholicism that had been long abandoned and confronting audiences with vivid and unrelenting images of the suffering of Jesus. Top on the list of moments you just can’t look at is the nailing of Christ to the cross.
7 127 Hours (2010) - Bloody Freedom
By now we’re all familiar with the story of Aron Ralston, the canyoneer who found himself trapped under a boulder at Blue John Canyon. After five days of pain, hallucinations, and urine drinking, Ralston (played by James Franco), realises his road to escape - he must break the bones in own arm and saw off the trapped limb. Which he does. On screen. Director Danny Boyle cuts the audience a bit of slack, allowing for some hazy editorial work and the odd blackout, but the scene is still pretty relentless. Of course, knowing that this actually happened in real life just amplifies the shock factor. Try watching this without squirming. Go on.
6 American History X (1998) - Introducing the Curb
Even if you are one of the very very few living creatures that hasn’t seen this movie gem, you have probably still heard of this moment. THE moment. Once again, the real shocks from this film come from elsewhere than the gruesome bits and the reality of neo-nazi racism makes this film a hard hitter all round. But film history will never forget the moment when Ed Norton assaults a black gang member who is attempting to steal his truck, and has him bite the pavement curb, before stomping on his head. This is a moment of contact-violence that reminds us of everything wrong in society. Maybe thankfully it still shocks us today. Nobody wants to get used to this level of agression.
5 Martyrs (2008) - Flayed Alive
If you don’t know what flaying is, you don’t want to. But if morbid fascination gets the better of you, this French film from Pascal Laugier will be all the dictionary you need. The film’s premise is that putting the body of an innocent through hideous ordeals will inspire her to see God, or whatever it is that the afterlife has to offer. Systematic torture, all of which is truly shocking, culminates in the final act of torture - the flaying. This is so shocking, your ears will be ringing after you watch it. If you can actually bring yourself to watch it, that is.
4 Audition (1999) - Deeper, Deeper
This Japanese film from Director Takashi Miike is notorious among the horror fans and there are a dozen moments that could make it on to this list - the vomit eating of Asami’s first victim, the discovery of surplus body parts at a crime scene….the list goes on. But in this tale of a widower looking for love and finding sociopathy instead, the most shocking moment award has to go to the climactic torture of said widower. As he lies, paralysed but (as Asami, the beautiful but psychotic love interest hastens to tell him) with his nerve endings unaffected, she goes at him with needles and piano wire. More shocking than all of the torture is Asami herself, a childlike, attractive and fragile looking woman, she giggles like a schoolgirl as she drives needles into her victim’s eyes and laughs, “deeper, deeper”. Chilling.
3 Irreversible (2002) - Fire!
Another contribution from the French market, Irreversible is a cinematic tour de force. Director Gaspar Noe opens the film with the narrative conclusion, and the rest of the film works backwards to reveal how that ending came about. Its almost a shame that Noe’s shock-tastic directorial work has overshadowed the film’s philosophical bent, because this film has an awful lot to say about social ills. Still, the shocking moments are brave and challenging and worthy of a mention on this list.
A couple of moments stand out. Most often cited is Noe’s sexual assault scene. At a solid 9 minutes, with an unchanging frame for all of those 9 minutes, even knowing nothing about the characters this scene would shock. The attacker is gay. And the victim is female: Needless to say, Noe has been dogged by accusations of homophobia. Another scene which goes on for far too long is a brutal attack with a fire extinguisher. But the most shocking thing here? How transfixed you will be by the various car crashes of humanity in this film.
2 Seed (2007) - Somebody call PETA
Uwe Boll directed this atrocity of a film. This is a director you might have heard of before. He has long courted controversy and is so maligned in Hollywood that there have been actual petitions signed to have him banned from the film industry. Lack of support doesn’t bother Boll though. He funds his own projects, one of which is Seed.
This is a horror film with the most skeletal of plots - horrible criminal survives the electric chair and goes on murderous rampage. Having set up a very loose premise for the gore that follows, Boll embarks on a gratuitous odyssey of violence. One scene shows a women bound to a chair in the centre of the room. Seed, the electric chair survivor, taps her head with a hammer, working up to a more vicious pounding. The camera shot is unchanging for this whole scene, there is no sound, and the scene ends only when the woman is beheaded. Amazingly, though, this is not the most shocking moment in the film. The most appallingly shocking moment comes right at the opening of the film in which we see Seed enjoying images of animals being tortured. What you might not realise is that this is reality TV. Boll retrieved this footage from PETA. What Seed is watching, what WE are watching, is the actual torture of actual animals. Truly horrific.
1 Antichrist (2009) - Scissors
Lars Von Trier is right in the middle of the media spotlight right now, with his most recent film Nymphomaniac, which has shocked plenty of us in its own way, featuring footage of ‘real’ sex in mainstream cinema (though didn’t we all see Nine Songs? And Brown Bunny?). Antichrist, though, was arguably the more shocking of Von Trier’s many shockers. The lead female in this film suffers a nervous breakdown after her toddler falls to his death while she’s distracted between the sheets with her husband. On a trip to a cabin in the woods, to deal with the trauma, she loses it and attacks her husband’s sexuality, and her own. Long story short, she attacks her own private parts with a pair of scissors. Watch this and you will probably never, ever, be the same.