This list was originally written for Taste of Cinema, here: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2019/the-10-most-disturbing-movies-of-the-2010s/
Whilst any horror film released in the past decade may seem quite pathetic compared to the horrors of the realities of the 2010s, it can prove satisfactory to find a truly disturbing and disgusting movie to revel in, even if for just a little while.
Whilst it has been a strange year for horror as a whole – from elevated horror making a comeback to a very mixed reception and horror becoming one of the largest box office draws next to comic book movies, of course the genre has experienced some radical changes, and as happens whenever anything becomes increasingly popular, plenty of directors (most often in this case, it was the veterans of the genre) come together to produce new films that take the genre in a new director (there are a couple of these in the list, too!).
So, without further ado, here is a mix of ten really disturbing, at the very least fascinating horror films to come out in the 2010s, a turbulent time that relied upon the harsh modern realities and new technological advancements to bring horror forward in not always great but often quite exciting ways! (Of course, being a list focused on horror and fear, you’re more than likely to find some choices that don’t align with yours… comment your favourites or the ones that you find to be the most frightening horror films from the 2010s too!)
10. Unfriended: Dark Web (Stephen Susco, 2018)
The first Unfriended was… okay-ish? It was watchable, sometimes laughable but the technical innovation was interesting enough to carry it past the metaphorical finishing line and make it (just about) worth watching. Understandably, many had baited breath when a second one was announced, and many outright skipped over it. However, this meant that they likely didn’t notice the all important switch from supernatural horror (one of the traits of the first that show the risky side of the technical feat – they had to restrict it completely with the story to make it fit in with current horror) to a more technological horror based on modern/contemporary digital fears of being watched through our digital devices.
By focusing in on a story that is unique to their new way of storytelling, Unfriended: Dark Web became so much more than its predecessor – it took the formal risks, doubled down on them, and then found a unique story to fit whilst also taking from slasher horror and updating it. The film is all about updating framework, and in doing so it becomes something frighteningly relevant and uncomfortable.
Sure, the acting isn’t very impressive most of the time and the barebones use of cinematography (not to say that the film is void of visual style), and these changes in form can be alienating, but the horror is so clear throughout and such a modern fear that it is almost impossible to ignore what the film is saying – what if someone is watching? Whilst the horror protagonists of time passed could (almost) always see and hear their psychopathic stalkers, Unfriended: Dark Web places the audience deeply into the fears of the modern world, a world where it is the unseen and unheard horrors that are the most dangerous and most frightening.
9. Unsane (Steven Soderbergh, 2018)
Whilst it may steer this list away from the typical horror features, it felt legitimately wrong to skim over the inclusion of Steven Soderbergh’s eerie 2018 masterwork, Unsane. Impressively shot on an iPhone (it sounds like a gimmick, admittedly, but it does give the film a certain amateurish look that contributes a great deal to the feelings of unease at certain points – it is not a choice made for the marketing team, but one that serves the film in various ways throughout.
Following a young woman who is thrown into a mental institution (supposedly wrongfully, though the lines soon become blurred) and containing some of the strongest visuals of any mainstream film of recent memory, particularly in one heavily edited sequence much too good to be ruined, Unsane stands out above the majority of contemporary mainstream thrillers by making bold steps in both form (with its choice to be shot on an iPhone) and in story (with its focal point on trauma and institutionalised control over people). It starts as a simple mystery thriller, and ends as one of the most uniquely tense works of recent memory – not the kind of film you want to miss!
8. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer is a strange director who makes strange films. Even in his earlier work, such as Sexy Beast (which is much more traditional than Under the Skin, but still baffling at times), Glazer didn’t just hide from cinematic norms, he ran from them as if they were an erupting volcano. Under the Skin follows this tradition, but takes it up a notch and follows Avengers star Scarlett Johansson (surely intentional casting, in terms of the central theme of the film and in terms of taking someone as well known as Johansson and contrasting their fame with the role in a smaller film which makes the performance seem… better, for some reason? Perhaps it is because Johansson is more familiar.) as she goes about her daily life which involves seducing men on the street and taking them back to…. her lair?
It’s a difficult film to dig your teeth into without explicitly ruining the greatest (and most bewildering) parts for everybody else, but the great parts of this film aren’t solely in the narrative – Johansson gives one of the best performances of her career (next to Lost in Translation and the recently released Marriage Story), the score is one of the best of the 2010s (it is just flooring, so eerie and dissonant it is hard to believe – even someone who didn’t side with the film particularly is likely to bond with the score) and the cinematography didn’t earn Glazer direct comparisons to Kubrick for nothing.
It is extremely specific, pin-pointed direction of a terrific story with a phenomenal cast. It’s just great, even if it may have been overblown by some crowds. Oh, and it’s as frightening as all hell too! (and surprisingly sad when it isn’t being frightening)
7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
Ben Wheatley is perhaps best known for diversity in choice of stories. In the 2010s alone he went from a folk horror film masquerading as slick hitman movie (Kill List) to a comic action film with an all star cast (Free Fire) to a divisive dystopian dark comedy thriller (High Rise) and honestly, as much as the versatility means that only half of his films are great, it’s worthwhile just to see a director take so many risks so often… Wheatley is no Steven Soderbergh, but at least he’s trying to be! Anyway, tangents aside for a moment, let’s talk about Kill List.
Kill List is an odd film in that it can be explained in two entirely different ways, but sticking to the spoiler-free explanation as we so often do here, it tells the story of two hitmen who find themselves in *way* over their heads when taking on a new job, a job that will lead them to horrific realisations about themselves (morally, as hitmen) and even more horrific realisations about the world they’re living in.
Wheatley controls the tone beautifully, and the changes in tone with near perfection, making one of the real standouts from his filmography (it may be his finest film overall!) and scaring the majority of his audience on the process. It’s just brilliant, even if it does occasionally take the easy way out of certain conflicts.
6. Despite the Night (Philippe Grandrieux, 2015)
Grandrieux is maybe the least known director featured on this list, and so it makes sense to speak about his most commercial and most recent feature. Whilst some of his work is much less accessible (which is really saying something considering that this feels like a more subdued and eerie version of Cronenberg) than Despite the Night, any seasoned horror fan could enjoy all of his work, and it is more than worth seeking out, especially the likes of Sombre and The Lake, they’re petrifying masterworks.
But focusing back on our chosen film, Despite the Night is a winding tale of sexual pleasure, twisted eroticism and horror. It is one of the most distinctly animalistic films of all time, framing people in such a way that they bear next to no resemblance to anything remotely human. It’s incredibly tense, seriously depressing, shockingly scary and just about the best that horror cinema can offer to a patient audience member. There are so few films like it.
5. Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez, 2016)
Heading back to the mainstream Hollywood horror that we are all likely familiar with, Don’t Breathe was a pleasantly surprising example of a high-concept horror actually done right – something seen surprisingly infrequently at the moment in mainstream horror. The film is about a group of three people who decide to rob the house of an old and blind war veteran, but soon find themselves stuck in the house and in far more danger than they could have ever predicted.
Coming from Fede Alvarez, who also directed the generally-liked Evil Dead (2013) remake and who is surely set to make some more good horror, the film is surprisingly small scale and does a wonderful job of focusing in on truly terrifying concepts rather than following most modern horror and only focusing on supernatural horrors.
As with Unfriended: Dark Web, Don’t Breathe distances itself from the vast majority and finds another (not new, but different in comparison to the majority) way to scare. It isn’t perfect, and the ending is outright silly if we’re being completely honest, but it is still definitely disturbing and as entertaining as films really get! It’s a total breeze to watch, and will probably have you squirming at at least one scene – if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
4. 31 (Rob Zombie, 2016)
Rob Zombie is known for his contributions to horror cinema, and mostly known for his mixing of art cinema, modern American mumblecore and extreme horror. In 31, these themes come together and Zombie goes all out to make one of the most formally aggressive and outright exhausting horror films of recent memory. Whilst some dismiss the constantly moving camera, frequent blurring, vulgar dialogue and over-the-top characters as mistakes or flaws, some have clicked onto the fact that these are Zombie’s usual traits and that he is using them carefully to construct one of the most aggressive horror films available.
Zombie continues to push in the same way that he has for the majority of his career, and instead of giving in to making elevated horror as so many horror directors do in trying to make formally innovative works, Zombie goes the other way and stands up for horror as a genre by diving into the extremes to make his point. It’s a stunning film with a strong point about modern horror, and one of the many great films Zombie has made! And it is really… really disgusting and disturbing… only Zombie could do it to this level, really.
3. Darling (Mickey Keating, 2015)
Sure, amateurish black and white horrors aren’t often great… but this one is. Despite the fact that this film is quite basic in approach, the choices throughout in terms of fear factor are very impressive. Lifting its plot template from a number of films including Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) among others, Mickey Keating’s Darling is a basic but seriously disturbing horror film that, similar to the next entry, is much about loneliness as well as the fears of modern young women.
It isn’t a perfect film (far from it), but at such a short runtime (78 mins) and considering that it is riffing on Tobe Hopper (his Toolbox Murders) and Polanski (the aforementioned Repulsion), it’s still worth watching, and some of the jarring edits really are soul-shaking. Perhaps the least disturbing of all the films featured, but it is certainly memorable even if it does hinge on the editing more than most for the scares.
2. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Oz Perkins, 2015)
Ending the list with a film far less focused on outright scaring the audience but rather creeping them out slowly and making them feel terrible before a grand finale so good that this is solidified as one of the most overlooked horror films of the century so far, Oz Perkins’ 2015 film The Blackcoat’s Daughter (also known as February) seems just about right. Not only is the film seriously frightening, but the use of form and of subtext makes for one of the most piercing portrayals of the pain that comes with loneliness and the effect that loneliness can have on an individual and the focus on such a topic makes this one twice as strong, giving it a staying power that a lot of other horror lacks.
Of course, this staying power also means that the film leaves a mark, and it isn’t the kind of mark that you want to forget. It’s a shame that Perkins hasn’t yet made another film that truly stands out (to me, anyway), but it is always great to know that gothic horror like this still has a place in the world, even if it is only a small one.
1. A Serbian Film (Srdan Spasojevic, 2010)
Is there even anything new to even say about A Serbian Film by now? Maybe not, but to say that it is a film that truly toes the line between high brow and low brow, in a way that few other films manage to do. It is interesting to see a film about grabbing attention through violence and sex turn to doing… exactly that, proving its own point at the same time as making itself look hypocritical – the film is either one of the true works of genius of recent memory or it is the complete opposite, true buffoonery.
It’s not so easy to tell, either, but A Serbian Film is likely more well known for the discourse about film censorship and when film is or isn’t an art form among others then for the content of the film itself, mainly because it is so difficult to get your hands on an uncut version of the film, especially now. Whilst the uncut version is definitely disturbing, this doesn’t necessarily make it good – a film that makes a direct choice to have a man unknowingly have sex with his son’s dead body is definitely… going for something – whether that something is a philosophical piece on what it takes to become financially successful as a horror film in the modern film industry (especially as a foreign film, which have to resort more on violence/gore/taboos in general) or if it is more just going for taking shock value to the extreme, I guess we’ll never really know.
It’s not too likely that the director would come out and say that he was aiming to shock and disturb without contributing any kind of meaning, but it is also very easy to add in meanings and mould them to fit the content of whatever project. It’s a hard film to talk about, mainly because the discourse around it is so divided, but for what it’s worth, for those of you who are looking for something disturbing and somehow haven’t seen this, then this will do the trick whether you like the film or not. At the very least, you’ll be succinctly disturbed and at worst you’ll feel morally violated – a gamble that fans os disturbing horror are forced to face more often than the vast majority of film fans.