With all the standard blockbuster fare in theaters these days, it can be refreshing to find a film that’s not afraid to take risks. Films that push the boundaries of what is normally permissible, and what is taboo, can be a breath of fresh air.
Sometimes, a film that pushes those boundaries hard can take the breath right out of you.
Those are the kinds of scenes that you’re going to find on this list. These moments make us put our hands over our eyes while watching, still peeling back our fingers to see what happens anyway. There are many ways to unsettle an audience, whether it be through stark depictions of violence, sexuality, racism, or all of the above. These powerful, well-executed scenes make us shudder and revel in equal measure, and leave a lasting impression whether we like it or not.
You've been warned. Here are the 15 Most Deeply Upsetting Scenes in Movie History.
15 Hobbling Paul – Misery
Oh Paul, you dirdy birdy.
Misery is Rob Reiner’s horrific adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. It scored Kathy Bates a well-deserved Oscar for playing the psychotically delusional Annie, a woman who kidnaps her favorite author after a car crash, and then forces him to rewrite one of her favorite novellas while holding him prisoner.
The author, Paul, is played by James Caan, and while he’s tortured to no end during the course of the movie, the scene that makes us squint at the screen the most is when he is “hobbled.” After a botched escape attempt, Annie decides to keep Paul from ever breaking out again. Quietly and methodically, she takes out a sledge hammer and places a board in between Paul’s legs. The audience knows what’s coming but can’t look away as Annie takes her hammer and delivers a snapping blow to both of Paul’s kneecaps, leaving him permanently crippled in the process.
14 Rape Scene – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
For a movie that was released during the holiday season, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo certainly didn’t put us in the festive spirit. Based on the crime novel by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, the story is rather bleak and desolate, revolving around a gruesome murder and the unlikely pair trying to solve it.
One half of that pair is Lisbeth Slander, who is played by Rooney Mara in Fincher’s American remake and Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original, who in one graphic and disturbing scene, is raped by her lawyer Nils Bjurman. After being forced to perform oral sex, Bjurman slaps Lisbeth to the ground and then proceeds to handcuff her to a bed and have his way with her. Lisbeth eventually gets her revenge on this sadist lawyer, but this graphic scene is burned into our memories nonetheless.
13 Whipping Scene – 12 Years a Slave
Much of Steve McQueen’s biopic about Solomon Northrup is hard to watch, but then again it should be. 12 Years a Slave graphically highlights the horrors of slavery in vivid detail. While most of the action makes us disgusted that mankind could commit such despicable acts, the hardest scene to watch is Patsey’s whipping which just breaks the viewer’s heart in two.
Filmed in a continuous shot that builds thick layers of tension, Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey is tied to a tree by slave owner Edwin Epps. Hell-bent with making an example out of her, he gives the whip to Northrup, who comes violently ill with the thought of whipping the defenseless Patsey. He submits, and after he emotionally breaks down and can do no more, Epps picks up the whip and savagely hits Patsey over and over, leaving her limp and unconscious from the excruciating pain.
12 Taking Her Virginity - Nymphomaniac
One of the most talked about movies of the last decade, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac walks that thin line between arthouse wit, and arthouse smut. Simulating some of the most realistic fake sex scenes ever put to film, most of Trier’s four hour drama, split into 2 volumes, is a bit rough to sit through. This isn’t the type of movie to watch with your parents, and awkward doesn’t begin to describe some of the scenes in this movie.
One of the more uncomfortable sequences to sit through is Shia LaBeouf’s character getting it on with the younger version of the main character, Joe. Graphically realistic, the two’s sex scene goes on for a drastic length of time and appears strikingly realistic. In fact too realistic. Rumors spread after the release of the film that Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf actually did the nasty on this film. While the rumors have been since put to bed, it is still an uncomfortable scene to sit through to say the least.
11 Frank Booth Intro - Blue Velvet
No one creates the type of atmosphere that David Lynch does. Unnerving and unparalleled, Lynch is the master of distorting our reality into the bizarre and supernatural. Not the cartoon cutesy bizarre like Tim Burton, but dark. Puncturing people’s minds for decades with fare like Mudholland Drive and Twin Peaks, Lynch’s most infamous movie to date is Blue Velvet, which is either celebrated or condemned depending on who you ask.
At some times bright and campy, and others ghastly serious and depraved, most viewers don’t know how to fully describe the feelings that are conjured up when watching Blue Velvet. It arises certain uncomfortable emotions out of us the likes of which we aren’t accustomed to feeling, and one of the biggest scenes that evokes this distress is the introduction of Dennis Hopper’s character, Frank Booth.
Depraved and homicidal, Booth is a madman which constantly tortures all those around him, especially Isabella Rossellini’s character who he constantly humiliates for his satisfaction. After he’s done indulging in his vile acts, he is left sitting alone, gasping on a gas mask for some kind of sustenance. The audience is left gasping as well, and also, sickeningly intrigued.
10 Ceiling Baby - Trainspotting
It’s hard to imagine anyone would contemplate doing heroin after watching Danny Boyle’s strikingly realistic portrait of the lifestyle. Trainspotting is humorous, but can be insanely dark at times, chronicling young Scottish characters that devote their whole life to the drug. Director Danny Boyle finds a good mix between the two, which leads to the audience cringing and laughing at different moments without skipping a beat.
One of those cringing moments comes when Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, takes too hard a dose, and proceeds to have a panic-inducing freak-out. Imagining himself jettisoning from a toilet, Renton tries kicking the drug shortly after. During his detox his body and mind starts deteriorating, and he imagines his friend’s now dead baby crawling up the ceiling and spinning his head in a complete 360 fashion. It’s the stuff that nightmares are made out of.
9 Murphy’s Death – Robocop
Death scenes rarely get more brutal than officer Murphy’s in Robocop. In fact, we would say that this is one of the most ruthless and graphic executions in movie history. Director Paul Verhoeven’s bleak look into future Detroit is one part shoot em’ up and one part dark comedy, but this death scene could only be described as twisted and borderline excessive.
On the hunt for some bad guys in a deserted factory, officer Murphy gets himself cornered by the entire gang of vicious thugs. They’re led by sociopath Clarence, who toys with Murphy like he’s playing with his food. The criminal isn’t joking around however, and proceeds to blow Murphy’s hand off with one blast of a shotgun. It just gets worse as our protagonist is lit up by a hail of gun fire by the remaining thugs. Retching in pain, his life is finally snuffed out by Clarence, who delivers the final blow. The scene has since become a staple in cinema history, and is leaps and bounds more potent than Murphy’s demise in the 2014 remake.
8 Playing Dentist - Oldboy
There’s so many scenes from director Chan-woo Park’s Oldboy that are uncomfortable to watch, we found it hard to pick a clear frontrunner. Eventually we landed on the infamous tooth torture scene, which is so hard to watch because it’s literally pulling teeth. Our hero, if you can call him that, is Oh Dae-su, a man who has been imprisoned for 15 years. Eager for some payback, he manages to subdue one of his captors, and really lets him have it.
After duck tapping him to a recliner, Dae-su has the man open his mouth wide, stating that he is going to pull a tooth for each year he was imprisoned. Using a hammer as his tool of extraction, Dae-su rips the first tooth out while the man agonizes with pain. It’s the kind of scene that makes you want to never make another visit to the dentist again. After he’s done Dae-su takes pity on the man, and asks if any of his thugs have the same blood type, as he’s going to need plenty of it.
7 They Know Not - Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s stark depiction of Christ’s final 12 hours are some of the most polarizing in the history of cinema. Not simply for its religious themes, but for its heavy use of violence. Some say that the ferocity is an accurate representation and necessary, while others argue that it is simply gratuitous. Whichever way you look at it, it sure is hard to watch.
A good chunk of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to the torture scenes of Christ, and the terrible pain he has to endure is almost unbearable to the viewer. When released in theaters Gibson’s movie was notorious for having such a large portion of the audience walk out because of the violence, and it’s not hard to see why. Jesus’ skin is torn apart as he’s whipped, beaten, and stabbed. Bloodied and broken, he is pulverized within an inch on his life again and again, making these some of the most brutal torture scenes in movie history, and some of the hardest to look at.
6 Dinner is Served – Hannibal
Hannibal the Cannibal has been in 5 feature films. In 3 of them, he was played by Anthony Hopkins, who is no doubt the actor most associated with the role. From his bone-chilling cool demeanor to his obsession with the human mind, Hannibal has strung together a series of cinematic moments which were disturbing to watch to say the least. While biting a security guard’s ear off, superimposing someone else’s face to his skin, and eating a liver with a nice chianti are all noteworthy, nothing comes close to the disturbing last meal he cooks up in Hannibal.
When FBI Agent Clarice Starling is forced to sit down to the dinner table with the sociopathic killer, nothing could have prepared her for the main the course. In a sickening display, Hannibal takes off the top half of a fellow FBI Agent’s skull to reveal his brains. Hannibal than proceeds to cut off a small portion, cook it in a frying pan, and then feed it to said Agent. It’s a last meal that no one could have seen coming, and we wish we hadn’t at all.
5 Drastic Measures – 127 Hours
What’s worse than being stuck between a rock and a hard place? Being stuck between an actual rock and an actual hard place. It’s the kind of conundrum Aron Ralston faced in real life, which was then graphically reimagined in Danny Boyle’s film 127 Hours. As a mountain climber that’s seen it all, it was only a matter of time before Ralston was presented with an obstacle he couldn’t easily overcome. That obstacle came in the form of a rock that landed on his arm while mountain climbing.
Based on the very true real life story, James Franco plays Aron Ralston who is forced to completely sever his arm in order to survive. After being trapped by a boulder in a remote crevice, Ralston has no choice but to cut his arm off if he wants to escape his fate. The audience watches in horror as the man removes the flesh of his arm piece by piece, eventually striking bone, just to keep living. It shows how persistent and resilient the human spirit is, which is both striking and sickening.
4 Oscar’s Death – Fruitvale Station
Ryan Coogler’s take on Oscar Grant’s last final hours are both hauntingly realistic and poignant. Fruitvale Station is the kind of movie that makes the viewer not only appreciate the filmmaking prowess, but to appreciate the ability to capture the kind of man Oscar Grant once was. Coogler does a fantastic job in painting a picture of Grant’s unfortunate fate, and Michael B. Jordan portrays him perfectly, displaying the kinds of pressures everyday life has on us.
Grant was cut down in the prime of his life, a fact that Coogler and Jordan find it hard to ignore. By incorporating actual footage of the shooting with a powerful dramatization, the film scores quite the hit home. The final 20 minutes are some of the most hair raising ever put to film, as Oscar is unlawfully detained and then accidentally shot in the back by a police officer. His tragic fate is shown in horrific detail that finds it hard to look away. Even though we know Oscar’s fate from the first few minutes of the movie, we find it all heartbreaking just the same.
3 Nightmare Baby - Eraserhead
It’s hard to imagine, but Blue Velvet, a movie which has already earned a spot on this list, is the more accessible of David Lynch’s films when compared to one of his earlier works: Eraserhead. Abstract, atmospheric, and just plain creepy, Eraserhead is a journey into the human psyche and the horrors it can conjure up. If you’re looking for a straightforward plot and character development, look somewhere else.
This movie is all about delivering one weird supernatural scene after another that makes the audience hope they won’t dream on the night they watch Eraserhead. While many moments leave us disheveled, the creepiest and most horrific is the scene which the main protagonist, Harry Spencer, takes care of his disfigured son. Disturbingly deformed and letting out terrible howls of pain, the nightmare baby is something that haunts the viewer on a primordial level. As Spencer struggles to care for the infant, the viewer can’t help but feel disturbed on a psychological level, and it’s something that’s left with us long after the long confusing credits start rolling.
2 Rock Bottom – Requiem for a Dream
Like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream is Darren Aronofsky’s look into the horrors that come along with heroin addiction and substance abuse. While Boyle’s production has elements of dark humor, Aronofsky’s film is a straight up drama which allows the viewer to feel the pain and anguish that comes along with terrible obsession. Told through the eyes of three different characters, each struggling with their horrible addictions, Requiem for a Dream is really a form of a cinematic nightmare.
The struggles and hardships all catch up to each character by the time the final act rolls around. We see each of the three characters hit the low point of their lives. Jared Leto’s character horrifically has his arm severed off after suffering a nasty infection from heroin injection. His mother is entered into a psychiatric ward after abusing prescription drugs. And his girlfriend is seen performing heinous sexual favors for just one more taste of smack. It is all at once heart breaking, sickening, and mind-blowing what the human spirit is willing to go through when we are that dependent on a certain crutch.
1 Curb Stomp - American History X
Tony Kaye’s American History X is a film that not only contains one of the most unsettling scenes, but may be one of the most uncomfortable feature length films to sit through, period. Depicting the harsh realities of racism and the damaging and rippling effect it has, the movie is a testament to the monsters we can become if we let hate get the better of us.
That hate is personified in Derek Vinyard, a troubled youth, who after the death of his father, transforms into a neo-nazi consumed by the rage towards minorities. While awakened during the night to find a group of African American attempting to steal his car, Derek goes off the deep end while exacting his own brand of vigilante justice.
Seducing one of the assailants during the crime, Derek forces the man to lay down on the pavement and put his teeth onto the curb of the road. The audience watches in horror, as does Derek’s brother, as he goes past the point of no return. While his mouth is rested on the curb, Derek literally puts his foot down and stomps the man into oblivion, crushing his skull in the process. The scene is just the most horrific of many that opens the viewer’s eyes to the revulsions we are capable of performing.
That's our list of the most upsetting films scenes of all time. Are there any we missed? Be sure to let us know in the comments!