Horror movies are renowned for being filled with acts of bloody murder, gory special effects, and disturbing stories. But even within this genre is a subgenre that goes further than the average horror film. Loosely connected under the label “extreme horror,” these films are unbelievably violent and explicit, often teetering on – if not actually garnering – an NC-17 rating for content.
Many of these films have also been widely denounced by critics and government authorities who find their approach to horror far beyond shocking to near-pornographic. Many of these films have also been banned in various countries for what they depict, and few of them ever enter the mainstream. But for the horror fan that thinks they’ve seen it all before and that nothing can shock them, extreme horror films offer a rare chance to affect and disturb even the most hardened horrorphile. Here are fifteen of the most extreme horror films of all time, but a warning: if you choose to seek out any of these films, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
A young girl escapes from being physically abused for a long period of time, running injured and barefoot into the streets. The scene abruptly cuts to a family arguing over breakfast in their domesticity until a knock at their door interrupts. Then with an eruption of gunfire, the family is gruesomely picked off one by one by a young woman, who believes the parents were responsible for her imprisonment and torture long ago.
When she and her accomplice discover bizarre secrets that all but confirm their conclusions. But they’re not alone, and soon these young women are subjected to extremely graphic torture in the name of heaven.
Martyrs is a gritty, incredibly violent film that came from the New French Extremity movement of the 2000s. Polarizing critics and audiences alike upon release for its unrelentingly bleak story and visceral violence on display, some hailed it a new benchmark for the level of brutality a horror film can depict on-screen while others dismissed this as a cover for a less-than-engaging story. But as far as extreme films goes, Martyrs is consistently included on lists like this for good reason.
Men Behind The Sun (1988)
Is there anything more horrifying than reality? The true crime genre has a wide audience because many people cannot find in fiction stories that top the extreme unpleasantness that their fellow humans have enacted in real life.
History is one long horror story in many aspects, and even as recently as the 20th century some of the more horrifying acts that have ever been perpetrated to entire groups of people occurred in excruciating, methodical torture and slaughter. Although The Holocaust is often the prime example of man’s inhumanity to man, the less-discussed atrocities the Imperial Japanese Army – specifically Unit 731 – committed against captured Chinese and Soviet prisoners during the war are similarly haunting.
Men Behind The Sun belongs to the rarified “historical horror” genre: one that depicts historical events that are nearly indistinguishable from horror fiction in their visceral extremity except for their veracity. This film depicts the various medical, biological, and chemical weapon experiments Unit 731 carried out on its prisoners, and it’s often difficult to watch for both its brutality and that it is rooted in historical fact from less than a hundred years ago.
Unit 731 was the Japanese analog to Dr. Mengele’s human experimentation program. Said experiments depicted in Men Behind The Sun include: a woman having her arms first frozen and then dipped into scalding water so that her flesh strips away; a man being imploded inside of a pressure chamber; a man having his arms flash frozen and his fingers beaten off with a pipe; and other atrocities that are made all the worse with the fact that this actually happened to people in this world not too long ago by other people.
This film has been censored all around the world since its release for various reasons, some involving having actual cats and rats being killed on-screen and others due to the sheer brutality of the film, which made censors uncomfortable in allowing release of the film. It’s a horror show to watch, made all the more unnerving by its roots in history.
Maybe no other film has brought attention to New French Extremity than 2007’s Inside. An out-and-out horror film, Inside begins with unpleasantness and builds a creeping terror throughout that is punctuated by extremely graphic scenes of violence until concluding on one of the more shocking endings to a horror film in recent memory.
Following a depressed pregnant woman who had lost her husband in a car accident earlier that year and may go into labor at any moment, once home she realizes she is being stalked by an unknown woman who reveals she knows about the accident.
This soon escalates to a fight to the death between the stranger and the pregnant woman, with the stranger intent on taking her still-unborn baby away from her by force and involving a pair of scissors.
Inside made waves when it was released, becoming critically acclaimed and garnering the reputation of being one of the best horror films of the decade. Even 15 years since its release, Inside retains its reputation of one of the best, and most extreme, horror films ever made. Expectant mothers should not watch this film.
Rob is just a meek, normal German that lives with his girlfriend and works as a cleaner. But he cleans bodies off the streets after car accidents, and he and his girlfriend are necrophiliacs, so after a long day at work he goes home and plays with preserved body parts while his girlfriend takes a bath in blood. You know, just #German things.
He comes across a lucky find one day and brings home a waterlogged corpse from work, with which he and his girlfriend have a threesome. But his life quickly takes a downward turn as he’s fired from his job and his girlfriend takes off with the corpse. Rob soon spirals into madness and murder, with quite grisly consequences.
Nekromantik has garnered controversy from the moment it was released in 1987 for its taboo-breaking content. Mixing several genres–splatter, exploitation, softcore pornography, and black comedy–Nekromantik is a film not for everybody but has become a must-see for extreme horror fans. It’s certainly unpleasant,and gross, but those looking for the most unpleasant grotesque horror will find it in this movie.
Sometimes the title of a film lets the audience know exactly what to expect, and 2009’s Grotesque is appropriately titled for what it’s about. Following the increasingly horrifying experience a young couple has after being kidnapped off the street during their first date, Grotesque depicts their brutal torture and abuse at the hands of a wealthy sadist, who does unspeakable things to their bodies for no other reason than it satisfies him.
Grotesque is not a film for audiences expecting a happy ending: there’s none to be found. It’s a series of sequences watching two innocent people being mercilessly tortured in horrifying detail. Think of a version of Hostel with almost no storyline and focusing exclusively on the visceral, monstrous torture scenes, and you have Grotesque.
It’s certainly not for most people, but those looking for extreme horror, this movie delivers on what it promises: a grotesque, unflinching look at human degradation.
Six dead women suddenly arise from the crawl space in which they’ve been interred and begin wandering the giant house for clues as to what’s become of them. After a while, they slowly realize that they are in a form of limbo and struggle to accept what’s become of them.
Made without any dialogue, instead the stories (which are presented in six separate vignettes) are carried by the actresses’ abilities to emote their experience as they confront one horrifying scenario after another about their own lives, and deaths, to find some sort of absolution.
Although this plot summary doesn’t reflect it, this is an extreme horror film that’s filled with disgusting (and impressive) practical effects and gore. It’s a surreal, experimental horror film that features both stellar performances and a surprisingly affecting story.
For the horror fan that enjoys a little artistry in their films and haven’t yet taken the plunge into the extreme horror genre, Flowers is a hidden gem that’s both incredibly disturbing and stands apart as a triumph of filmmaking on its own.
A dancing girl boogies into a bedroom and finds a couple, the woman dead, tied to some chairs. She acts surprised but lets that play-acting drop immediately, since she was the one who put them there.
It turns out she has killed this whole family, including their baby. After this, she kills an elderly woman and then a high school student before setting her sights on a young musician, who she captures and imprisons. This isn’t enough, however, so she captures his bandmates and his girlfriend, whom she tortures to death, as well. And then she continues her merry lark of murder, cheerful as always in her death-filled distraction.
Neighbor is an entry in the torture porn category of film that doesn’t mince words: it’s directly about a young homicidal maniac that simply murders everyone in her path, each one in their own unique, gruesome way. With an alternately dark and humorous performance by America Olivio as “The Girl” and featuring impressive practical effects that detail each sticky, disgusting death, Neighbor is an underseen horror film for gore fans that enjoy a touch of dark humor in their torture porn.
Body horror is a genre that has produced some of the more unnerving images ever put on film. While cinephiles may immediately think of David Cronenberg when they read body horror, other directors have worked within this genre and have adapted elements from it to great success.
Thanatomorphose – an ancient word that signals the visible signs of a body’s decomposition after death – is one, which details the deterioration, both mentally and physically, of a young woman whose body is seemingly decomposing even though she’s still living.
After a night of rough sex, depressed Laura finds bruises all over her body. While she initially attributes this to the events of the night before, the bruises turn into wounds and soon fester into rotting flesh. Laura isolates herself in her apartment and experiences bizarre visions as her body decays. Try as she might to fend off the inevitable (which includes using tape and glue to keep body parts on), Laura seems doomed to melt away into nothing.
A highly unique horror film, Thanatomorphose seems to be suggesting several things at once: the relationship between mental and physical decay, potentially the effects of a sexually transmitted disease, or as a metaphor for not taking care of one’s self.
The actress who plays Laura, Kayden Rose, gives an incredibly brave performance that features her frequently nude and in various unflattering states of decay throughout the film, and this is an extreme horror movie whose practical effects may revolt some but fascinate others. For those looking for extreme body horror, Thanatomorphose is one of the best out there. Just don’t feel a little sick or be treating a wound while watching it.
The Butcher (2007)
South Korea has produced some of the best horror films of the past 15 years, but few films from this country have gathered such underground notoriety as 2007’s The Butcher.
Ostensibly “about” the trials a group of victims go through as they are tortured to death by snuff film producers, what gives this film its originality is that much of the film is shot from the perspective of those being tortured, as they have cameras strapped to their heads to capture their demise.
This approach makes The Butcher an incredibly unique extreme horror film, where the audience feels like they are the ones being tortured – and of which horrifying, bizarre tortures are being dished out by a chainsaw-wielding man in a pig’s head.
It’s incredibly gruesome and a little too intimate for many horror movie fans to stand. But for those with the stomach to endure being subjected in the first-person such an onslaught, The Butcher is a unique and disturbing extreme horror film to watch.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The granddaddy of the extreme horror genre is 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. Shot cinema verité, it was light-years ahead of the genre in its presentation as a “documentary.”
An anthropologist travels to the Amazon rainforest in an attempt to rescue a film crew that has disappeared during filming in the jungle. After gaining the trust of the local tribe, he is horrified to find that the crew had been sacrificed but negotiates with the tribe to give him their film reels.
What he finds on the reels is the horrifying actions of the film crew against the native tribe, which includes massacring a group of them for footage and gang-raping one of the young members of their tribe. The rest of the footage shows the fate of the film crew after the tribe enacts their revenge.
Cannibal Holocaust has been a controversial film since its release, with the film being confiscated in its own country and banned throughout the world. However, it was also a humongous box-office success, being the second-highest grossing film of all time in Japan after ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and eventually collecting $200 million in box office receipts around the world.
Critics remain divided on the film. While a pioneer in the “found footage” genre of horror films, the wildly racist depictions of the Amazon natives and overall disgusting acts that are depicted in the film have found many detractors over the years. But Cannibal Holocaust is potentially patient zero of the “extreme horror” movement and one that’s gained a strong cult following since its release over 40 years ago.
Although tame by comparison to most of the films on his list, 1999’s Audition has been a highly influential film on the extreme horror genre. Released in 1999, this Japanese horror film essentially kicked off the “J-Horror” craze of the early 2000s and cleared the way for future of torture porn and other extreme horror films to enter the mainstream.
A lonely widower is encouraged by his friends and son to begin dating. Since he is awkward with women, they arrange for mock “auditions” for the position, with the goal that he will marry the most beautiful one.
After the first round of interviews, he finds himself falling for a former ballerina who had to quit after an injury. But after he begins dating her, she turns out to be very possessive of his attentions, which leads to one of the most infamous torture scenes in modern film history.
Directed by Takashi Miike, who is no stranger to depicting extreme acts in his films, Audition was a crossover hit to Western audiences who previously were unfamiliar with J-Horror. Its slow burn that leads to an explosive ending may seem a little old-fashioned at this point, but when it gets to the point where needles are being stuck in people’s eyes and a foot is amputated with piano wire, extreme horror fans will see just why this film has retained its notoriety to this day.
Let’s talk about Lars von Trier for a moment. This Danish filmmaker has produced some of the darker, more cerebral, and usually unpleasant films of recent memory. Seemingly obsessed with depression and existentialism, his work is not what you could consider light fare.
But with Antichrist, von Trier’s emotional health could be called into question.
Starting off with the abrupt death of a young boy and ending with a woman cutting off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors, Antichrist is difficult, upsetting material to watch.
Ostensibly following the mental breakdown of a woman who’s racked with guilt and grief over the death of her son, the sinister overtones of Antichrist and stark black-and-white isolation of its characters in the foreboding woods makes this a haunting, disturbing horror film that addresses – in no uncertain terms – grief, sexual dysfunction, mental and physical abuse, and self-harm. Von Trier may be one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, but Antichrist will leave viewers (well, those that make it to the end) wonder if there isn’t something deeply wrong with the man.
The August Underground trilogy (2001-2003)
More of a collection than just one film, The August Underground trilogy (2001-2007) is recommended as a whole due to the continuity of the entire series. Starting with August Underground (2001) and continuing with August Underground’s Mordum (2003) and August Underground’s Penance (2007), the series is written by, directed, and starring Fred Vogel, an independent filmmaker who has certainly made his mark on the extreme horror genre.
Part of what gives the August Underground trilogy its air of authenticity is that the films were made with a VHS camcorder, which gives the films a lo-fi feel and the horrifying acts depicted their realism. Following the increasingly brutal acts of Peter (Vogel), who kidnaps and tortures people in his basement, murders random people, and in general abuses anybody that crosses his path.
Subsequent films include Peter having a relationship with a young woman who has a sexual relationship with her mentally challenged brother, more brutal murder, rape, child sexual abuse, cutting a baby out of a woman’s stomach, and suicide.
To say the August Underground trilogy is disturbing is an understatement: these are films made far outside of the mainstream by someone wholly committed to creating films that push numerous boundaries of what’s allowed on film.
Its documentary-like presentation is unsettling, as is Vogel (writer/producer/star), who plays a homicidal maniac with an unnerving authenticity. As close to a snuff film as any film gets, the August Underground trilogy may even make fans of extreme horror a little squeamish.
A Serbian Film (2010)
No list about extreme films is complete without 2010’s A Serbian Film. And for good reason: it’s one of the most upsetting films ever made. Featuring rape, necrophilia, child sexual abuse, and violent murder, A Serbian Film is an unbelievably hard film to watch.
Following the increasingly diminishing circumstances of Milos, a former Serbian soldier and porn star who needs to make money to support his family, he’s approached by an independent filmmaker who’s making some sort of arthouse porn film that he wants to cast.
At first the shoot goes as usual, with regular porn setups and him performing. But the scenarios become darker and darker until eventually Milos is exposed to the producer’s monstrous aims, which includes a nightmarish new genre he calls “newborn porn.”
But that’s not the worst of what Milos experiences, as he is drugged and – under heavy sedation – engages in one of the most horrifying acts ever committed to film.
A Serbian Film is a horror movie that takes place in a normal world. A disturbed world, but one that the viewer recognizes. Explained as a metaphor for the horrors Serbia experienced during their long, ugly civil war, it has been banned in eight countries (for relatively good reason, considering its content) and remains one of the most extreme movies ever made. Watch at your own risk.
Funny Games (1997)
Maybe the most influential film on the extreme horror genre is ironically not particularly gory. Instead, 1997’s Funny Games is intimately disturbing asit involves the audience into its antagonists’ cruel machinations, as two young men – ironically named Peter and Paul – intrude upon a family and begin to psychologically torment them during one long night.
Although there are disturbing events in the film, much of the horror of the film comes from how the character Paul frequently breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience and involving them as co-conspirators in the cruelty he’s enacting upon this innocent family.
Directed by Michael Haneke, Funny Games has been influential on both the horror genre and extreme horror in particular: with unrelenting antagonists that seem devoid of human emotion, the cruel psychological and physical abuse they unleash on the family, and the unnerving feeling that the viewer is somehow complicit in this act, Funny Games is a horror film that doesn’t need gallons of blood and disgusting practical effects to disturb its audience: it’s in its presentation, performances, and how the audience is involved in this disturbed duo’s awful acts–whether they want to be or not.
The original version of this article was published on Taste of Cinema October 26, 2017.