Not for the Faint of Heart: Hard-to-Watch Horror

 Last Week, I gave some suggestions for horror movies that are a little lighter on the violence and brutality than is normally part-and-parcel with the genre. These are movies that still deliver on the scares, but don’t necessarily make you want to avert your eyes in disgust.

But some of you sickos don’t need the soft stuff. You guys are the veterans, the iron stomachs. A little blood never bothered you. Gore? Fine. Torture? No problem. Cruelty, anguish, and sheer, ruthless agony? Bring it on.

And I don’t just mean the obvious, visual bloodshed. I’m talking real messed up stuff. The movies that casual horror fans would quit before the end of act one. The types of movies that stick with you, long after the credits have rolled. These are the movies that linger, that make you question your own morality as a viewer. The stuff that makes you say “It feels like I wasn’t supposed to see this.”

A lot of people would consider something like The Evil Dead as a 10 on the scale of “Messed-Up.” Here, that’s our baseline. It’s all uphill from there.

These movies are for you, you twisted bastards. Enjoy.

Eden Lake

The basic summary of Eden Lake is this: Kids are monsters. Never has such a simple, truthful premise been expanded upon in such a gut-wrenchingly realistic and harrowing manner. Helmed by future Woman in Black director James Watkins, the film follows a young couple (one of whom is played by an as-of-then lesser-known Michael Fassbender) as they embark on what’s supposed to be a peaceful, romantic weekend getaway in a small lakeside town. When they arrive, they find the once-serene vacation spot is now overrun with unruly, violent gangs of roaming teenagers and children, whom the couple soon find themselves at odds with. The resulting few days for our protagonists is one of the darkest, most ruthless bits of cinema I’ve ever been subjected to. Meant to be a frank, candid depiction of the growing media phenomenon at the time known as “Broken Britain,” Eden Lake is a positively brutal take on perceived English social decay and the resulting lack of structure and moral fidelity in the nation’s youth. This is whatever the opposite of a “feel-good” movie is. If you hate kids, this film will justify all your worst assumptions about the little goblins. And if you don’t, well, it may just change your mind.


Coming off of Eden Lake’s more grounded, visceral social horror comes something a little more fantastical, but still just as disturbing. Terrifier is a full-length adaptation of a character that was previously featured in the equally violent anthology collection All Hallows’ Eve, known by fans as Art the Clown. Art is a disgusting, merciless monster who stalks, captures, and tortures his victims in sickeningly gruesome and revolting displays of over-the-top, almost comically gory displays of violence. But what sets Terrifier apart from a lot of similar films is the grimy, gritty, unabashedly gratuitous manner in which it flaunts its killer and his gleefully viciously proclivities, giving the whole affair an air of bizarrely authentic, voyeuristic queasiness. You feel dirty for watching this film, which I suspect is entirely the point. Art himself has become something of a cult horror icon, taking his place among other mascots of the depraved and the malicious for a devoted following of fanatics. The film was a critical and commercial success, spawning a sequel that was delayed by COVID-19, and an entire empire of merchandise feature the image of the film’s killer clown. If you like your horror villains equal parts silly and sadistic, Terrorizer is the film for you.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

I find it sort of darkly hilarious that Michael Rooker is now more well-known playing the goofy, redneck space alien Yondu in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise than the thing that I most know him for, which is this film. I love Marvel, and I’ve seen quite a bit of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Rooker where he seems to be a perfectly friendly, normal guy. But man, Henry made me absolutely terrified of him for years, to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to watch anything he was in. The only thing I could see on his face is this role. It’s that effectively disturbing. Henry follows the titular character as he aimlessly wanders around urban America, killing random and innocent people for seemingly no reason. The whole film has a sleazy, low-budget style, shot on 16 mm film, and feels like a snuff film that somehow managed to secure a mainstream release. The violence portrayed in the film is presented in such a profoundly uncinematic manner, completely eschewing the typical horror movie tendency to glorify the kills in order to up the entertainment value. This is a movie that will make you despise its protagonist with everything in you, and yet keep you utterly, perversely captivated, unable to look away. This one will stay with you for a while.


SCREAMS HEARD AROUND THE WORLD] The Grotesque Beauty of MARTYRS (2008) -  Nightmare on Film Street

(Note: the 2008 French film, not the god-awful American remake from 2015) Martyrs is a film that I often struggle to classify as a horror film by any real definition, yet it’s so profoundly horrifying in every sense of the word that I hesitate to label it as anything else. It’s torture-porn that makes Saw look like a Disney film in comparison, featuring what is likely some of the most brutal, ruthless, sickening acts of violence and torture that have ever been shown on screen. But what makes it so distinct from other similar films like Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects that exist solely to revel in carnage and mayhem, Martyrs somehow manages to still be a profoundly engaging film on an emotional level as well. Granted, those emotions mostly consist of rage, shame, and depression, but still. The emotional response elicited by this film, which follows two young women seek revenge on the people that previously abused and tortured them, is overshadowed only by the frank, stylistic audacity in its depictions of its revenge-fantasy subject matter. This is a film that you’ll only ever watch once, but be very glad you did.


America likes to think that it’s got the market cornered on grizzly horror, but as several entries on this list prove, the rest of the world has given us a decent run for our money. But perhaps no culture on Earth is capable of cranking out deplorable on-screen nightmares quite like the Japanese. In the late 90s and early 2000s, a wave of fantastically sick, unbelievably disturbed new-age horror films began pouring out of the far east, with bloodshed and brutality that would make even the most hardened horror audiences flinch. Among this new class of Asian filmmakers so adept at bringing trauma to the big screen is the now cult-favorite director Takashi Miike, who would later go on to make such export classics as Ichi the Killer and the original Japanese version of One Missed Call. But it’s his first big international hit within the horror scene that really cements his legacy as one twisted creative genius. Audition, like a lot of films on this list, is a relatively simple concept on the surface: Wanting to look for a suitable wife, a young man has his friend, a film producer, set up several mock auditions as a way for him to scout potential love interests. He becomes particularly enamored with one young lady, who seems to be a perfect match. But as usual, all is not as it seems, and the woman of his dreams quickly becomes one made of pure, hellish nightmares. Audition’s strengths as a horror film lie in its fascinating, complex characters, as well as the grisly, yet artistic havoc that they wreak. Wonderfully paradoxical, at times seeming like it’s contrastingly and contradictorily championing both feministic and misogynistic themes, Audition is simultaneously primally revolting and intellectually stimulating. A real thinking man(or woman)’s freakshow. If this is your first taste of Japanese horror, be prepared to go straight into the deep end. (I also find it hilarious that this film inspired the music video for Olivia Rodrigo’s music video for “good 4 u,” considering how upbeat and poppy that song is.)

There are so, so many other choices out there for you bravest of horror lovers. The old standbys like The Hills Have Eyes and I Spit on Your Grave are always solid choices, while a lot of slick, new-school productions like Midsommar and Antichrist are sure to get your blood pumping and your stomach churning. Just make sure you have a proper palate cleanser afterwards. A little bit of G-rated whimsy wouldn’t go amiss after two hours with any of these films. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Happy Halloween!

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