The Most Disturbing Movies Of The Last Decade
Call them horror movies or thrillers or psychological dramas with socio-sexual undertones — the movies that have brought the madness and the menace over the past 10 years have done so with arguably unparalleled insight and artistry. As such, it hardly seems fair to even attempt to assemble a single list of the past decade’s best and bleakest, but that’s just what we’ve done here.
These are the films that will keep you awake long after the credits have rolled — perhaps because you’re deep in thought about the truly messed-up stuff you’ve just witnessed or perhaps because you’re too terrified to close your eyes and fall asleep. From wildly unconventional sci-fi creepers to twisted tales of demonic possession to experimental films that push the boundaries and then some, we’ve got a little something to unnerve even the savviest of shock-adoring cineastes. These are the most disturbing movies of the last decade.
Under the Skin (2014)
If you’ve entered the earth-shattering rabbit hole that is Jonathan Glazer’s music video oeuvre, you already know the director has a particular penchant for pushing boundaries with unsettling imagery and ominous tones. One might even say Glazer revels in the bewildering as few directors dare. It’s only natural, then, that he’d continue weaving challenging images and disturbing themes into his feature films.
Few would argue that Glazer hadn’t already tested some serious boundaries with 2000’s searing crime drama “Sexy Beast” and 2004’s psychosexual mystery “Birth,” but neither of those films could even begin to prepare us for how far Glazer would push things with 2013’s “Under the Skin.”
It’s a full-on assault on the senses from its opening moments to its last. It features a revelatory performance from Scarlett Johansson that’s about as far from the MCU as you can get. And that there’s a scene about halfway through this movie that’s so relentlessly unnerving you’ll struggle not to turn it off. Keep watching, though, because even if “Under the Skin” often feels like a movie you survive more than watch, crossing the finish line on this extraterrestrial odyssey is also one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences you’d ever hope to endure.
The Babadook (2014)
When the director of one of the greatest horror movies in cinematic history claims your film is the scariest movie they’ve ever seen, you know you’ve done something special. So it was that when the legendary William Friedkin — the man behind “The Exorcist” — started telling people that Jennifer Kent’s 2014 indie “The Babadook” “will scare the hell out of you.” Genre lovers, the world immediately took notice.
And Friedkin wasn’t lying. Possessed of a singular sense of eerie, “The Babadook” tells the story of a single mother struggling to raise a son with some serious emotional issues. Of course, given that the woman’s husband died en route to the child’s birth, it’s clear that both mother and son have some deep rooted issues to work through, issues that complicate their lives further when a horrifying children’s book called “Mister Babadook” appears in their home.
As Kent slowly begins to unwind her unholy creepfest, a surprising narrative begins to take shape — one that insightfully explores heavy emotional themes about surviving trauma and the struggles of being a single parent with a devastatingly unrelenting case of depression. As it happens, “The Babadook” is also a first-rate monster movie with more genuine scares than your average genre fare. Yes, “The Babadook” will “scare the hell out of you,” but it’ll leave your heart in your throat too.
According to writer-director Ari Aster, his brutalist 2018 shocker “Hereditary” is really just a little family drama at its core. But that’s sort of like calling “Jaws” a charming tale of fish out of water. So yes, while we really cannot argue that “Hereditary” isn’t a family drama, we also want to be crystal clear that “Hereditary” is not just a family drama.
Still, true to Aster’s statement, “Hereditary” initially presents itself as an atypical sort of indie drama about a family in grief. As the film unfolds, a deep, dark past begins to rise to the surface, and “Hereditary” spirals giddily into a pulse-pounding supernatural nightmare simply you have to see to believe. Just be warned that you’ll never be able to unsee “Hereditary.”
In case you haven’t experienced it for yourself, we’ll simply say you’ll know the precise moment when Aster flips the proverbial switch from family drama to full-blown family tragedy. You’ll know because the moment it happens is easily one of the most shocking in the history of cinema. Aster is just getting warmed up in that moment, and “Hereditary” is about to get darker and heavier in ways you simply cannot fathom. It’s a brutal, exhausting affair, but if you manage to stick with “Hereditary,” you’ll bear witness to not just one of the great horror movies of the decade, but of all time.
With Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” immediately raising the bar for genre filmmakers young and old, it seemed unlikely that anyone would top the film in terms of unadulterated, head-rolling shock value for the foreseeable future. Seems the only person capable of even coming close was Aster himself. While “Midsommar” may not quite match “Hereditary” in terms of shocks and scares, it may well be the better film in terms of soul-crushing emotional impact and mercilessly ominous energy.
Of course, to hear Aster tell it, “Midsommar” is a relatively straightforward “breakup movie.” Believe us when we say that “Midsommar” is a “breakup movie” in the same way that “Hereditary” is a “family drama.” Which means that it’s not really a breakup movie at all.
The relationship in question belongs to Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), and if ever there was a couple in need of a breakup, it’s them. But nothing is ever that easy in the worlds of Ari Aster, and from the torturous opening moments of “Midsommar,” the director is out to turn the screws of the pair’s doomed relationship in increasingly twisted ways. By the time the couple and their pals get to the titular Swedish festival, fates are effectively sealed — though nothing can even remotely prepare you for the gory, sun-drenched mayhem Aster has in store for the rest of the film.
Prior to helming 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” Scott Derrickson spent the decade prior making a name for himself among genre enthusiasts. He caught our attention with 2005’s possession drama “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” but it was 2012’s “Sinister” that proved Derrickson a horror purist of the first order. Though too many slept on “Sinister” upon release, it’s still one of the more genuinely effective thrillers you’ll ever see — even if it admittedly leans a little too often on classic horror tropes.
The film follows the story of a washed up true-crime author (the always great Ethan Hawke) who moves his family into a house where a grisly crime has taken place so he can research the events up close and personal. Unfortunately, when he finds an old box of Super 8 snuff films in his attic, well, the man and his family get a little closer to the truth than anyone would’ve wanted.
Be warned that those 8mm films are likely to cost you a few nights of sleep. But they’re only a small part of what makes “Sinister” such a black-hearted delight. The film is at its best when wallowing in ominous tones and gritty gothic imagery, and Derrickson makes the most of “Sinister’s” menacing aura, taking a perverse sort of pleasure in the film’s slow-burn approach and pulling the blood-stained rug out from viewers in a finale that’ll have you peeking through your sweaty palms in unfettered fear and dispiriting anticipation.
It can often be quite difficult to decipher exactly what it is about a movie that gets under your skin. In the case of Julia Ducournau’s astonishing first feature “Raw,” it’s a little easier to figure out, because Ducournau essentially spends the entirety of the film’s 100-minute runtime unleashing a near-constant deluge of sounds and images and scenarios that could potentially set one off.
That’s not to say “Raw” is a mile-a-minute, shock-for-the-sake-of-shock gorefest. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Ducournau takes a decidedly steady-handed approach to her film, doling out the shocks as they come while quietly delivering a vicious, unapologetically sexy college drama that legitimately turns the genre on its head.
We should tell you upfront that the film follows the trials of a young university student who unexpectedly finds herself with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. So even if “Raw” isn’t the all-out bloodletting you might expect from such a setup, much of the action is likely turn your stomach on its head as well. But instead of reveling in gory effects and schlocky scares, Ducourneau takes a humanistic approach to “Raw’s” shocking story, only using the gore to bolster a witty, insightful character study that becomes — against all obvious odds — a compelling (if frequently appalling) coming-of-age drama about cannibalism.
Upstream Color (2012)
There are filmmakers who rely on jump scares and fake blood to get under an audience’s skin, and those who believe austere imagery, ominous overtones, and the illusion of the sinister are just as effective. Shane Carruth is of the latter school, and “Upstream Color” more than proves this.
Now, we’re not going to bore you by trying to explain what “Upstream Color” is about, if only because entire thesis papers could be written on that particularly slippery subject. If we’re being completely honest, we’d offer that “Upstream Color” is a film less concerned with what it’s about than what it can make you feel — and there’s seemingly no end to what Carruth can achieve on that particular front.
To that point, we’ll simply say that the film follows a woman (the brilliant Amy Seimetz) who — after being parasitically hypnotized by a thief and having her entire life looted — is left with a ruined future and no memory of what happened. She meets a man (played by Carruth) with a similar story, and as they futilely try to piece together their individual miseries, they stumble upon a truth beyond imagination. What follows is nothing short of a deeply paranoid cinematic assault on the senses that simply has to be experienced to be believed. Just know “Upstream Color” is a decidedly unnerving experience that will have you scratching your head for days, months, even years after the credits roll.
Forgotten Film Entertainment
Set in an isolated, mountainous region of Europe circa the 15th century, Lukas Feigelfeld’s gothic nightmare “Hagazussa” propels itself forward at a sub-glacial clip that would certainly seem geared toward mimicking the pace of life in such a region. While the film wholly succeeds at capturing the slow pace of life in the hills, Feigelfeld also uses that pacing to cast a hypnotic sort of spell over viewers.
That won’t be broken until the film’s stomach-churning final moments. En route to that beyond brutal finale, Feigelfeld uncorks a pitch-black folk tale about a single woman with a pagan past trying to survive the wilderness and raise her infant daughter in relative peace. Of course, when your neighbors live in constant fear of magics and spirits and witchcraft, the natural world is far from your most dangerous foe.
Fueled by a relentlessly paranoid sense of calm and enough gothic imagery to spook Mary Shelley, “Hagazussa” proves itself a singularly sinister slice of genre cinema. While it’s certain to test the patience of those seeking to sate their bloodlust with schlocky scares, Feigelfeld brings the hammer down with such visceral force in “Hagazussa’s” final act that the film is certain to haunt the minds of any viewers who make it to the end for years to come.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that Hollywood loves a good story of rebellious, whip-smart youths generally running amok. While classics like “Rebel Without a Cause,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Spring Breakers” have kept the bar for such fare raised perpetually high over the years, Corey Finley’s “Thoroughbreds” proves there’s still room for one of cinema’s favorite subgenres to grow — even if it’s clearly destined to grow darker these days.
At the center of Finley’s pitch-black dramedy is a pair of upper-crust Connecticut teens who exist on opposing ends of the emotional spectrum. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) feels everything too strongly, while Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is incapable of feeling anything. When the estranged friends are reunited in Finley’s narrative, they find they’re each losing control of their lives, and are uniquely equipped to help each other out.
That help comes at a cost, as the girls’ one shot at liberation involves a deviously violent plan. While it propels the film’s narrative forward, it’s hardly the focal point of the film, with Finley instead using it to craft a penetrating character study about a pair of brilliant but tragically fractured young minds.
The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
Horror movies are essentially designed to take audiences into the dark corners of the world and show them the unspeakable things that tend to happen there. Sometimes that dark corner is a physical place (see “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”). Other times it’s a place in the mind (see “The Cell”). Nicholas Pesce’s grisly debut “The Eyes of My Mother” is the rare case where mind and place converge to explore one of the darkest corners ever captured on film.
“The Eyes of My Mother” doesn’t start out that way. In fact, the film’s opening moments are surprisingly serene, with a girl and her family living in relative peace on an isolated farm. But Pesce takes a sledgehammer to that idyllic life early in the action. When he does, “The Eyes of My Mother” goes dark in ways that words simply cannot convey — ways that ensure the film will stay burned into your brain for all eternity.
We’d wager you’ve heard whispers of the film’s vivid depictions of violence, torture, and gore. While the film (shot in stunning black and white) is unflinching in its depiction of such acts, the most gruesome deeds tend to occur offscreen — though that only heightens viewers’ reactions. Pesce further deepens the darkness by using the fragile, emotionless beauty of star Kika Magalhães against viewers in service of turning “The Eyes of My Mother” into a piercing character study about trauma, and soul-consuming loneliness.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
Speaking of soul-crushing loneliness, it’s the main culprit at work in Oz Perkins (son of “Psycho’s” Anthony Perkins) relentlessly bleak possession film “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.” That being said, there is a mysterious evil force running amok in the film that may or may not have claimed the soul of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” central character and forced her into performing unconscionable acts of violence.
Demons and possessions aside, loneliness and isolation really are the driving forces at play in “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.” The film unfolds largely on the grounds of an all-girls Catholic school somewhere in the far distant north. When two of the girls (Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton) are stranded there over winter break (one believing certain calamity has befallen her parents, the other facing a difficult choice of her own), things get weird very quickly with the younger girl apparently being possessed by some unseen demonic presence.
Meanwhile, a parallel narrative finds a grieving couple picking up a desperate young woman (Emma Roberts) at a bus stop, not knowing she’s an escaped mental patient. These narratives will eventually converge in wickedly clever fashion, and to utterly heartbreaking effect. Perkins controls the action every step of the way with a steady hand and singular vision, building a suffocating sense of atmospheric dread into every frame of the film. In doing so, he delivers a deeply humanistic supernatural tragedy, and one of the darkest possession films we’ve ever seen.