The internet is hardly lacking in movie lists: there are the scariest scenes (or moments), the weirdest (sex scenes), the most OTT (action films of the last decade) -- and of course there are the disturbing lists - movie or scene - a veritable avalanche of lists in fact, running the gamut from horror flick to mondo movie - occasionally with some small originality but sadly, all too frequently, the same two dozen or so video nasties show up over and over and over and over: Salo (1975), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), I Spit On Your Grave (1978), maybe Nekromantik (1987), maybe one of those faux snuff movies.
In the last decade, you can add Audition (1999) and Irreversible (2002) to most of these lists (and with good reason) - indeed, the 'art house shocker' is alive and well and starting to push out the older horror flicks that just don't seem that disturbing anymore.
It's a subject that holds a lot of interest for me as a viewer, but I knew that simply compiling yet another list of disturbing flicks would interest no one. Obviously some kind of spin on the same-old was needed and, as you can see by the title of the post, I went with a look at disturbing scenes in not-really-very-disturbing-otherwise-type films; I readily confess this is pretty subjective and you may well disagree with my choices here or feel there are obvious exclusions (if you do, I'd love to read your comment).
Another problem with such a concept is how to determine when an not-very-disturbing film crosses over to being disturbing? Irreversible, as I've said, is on a lot of these disturbing films lists - but there's really only a couple of scenes in the whole film that put it there. In the case of Deliverance (1972), the fate of poor Bobby was so anathema to many viewers that a single scene - perhaps ten minutes or so in all - was enough to elevate the whole film to most-disturbing status. Suffice it to say, I've tried to be fastidious in my view that a movie was otherwise mostly light in tone, although in a few cases it's largely down to genre expectations that something comes across as particularly shocking.
And therein lies the key to this, the context of what is going on both in the scene and in the film as a whole. When most of us pop a slasher movie into the machine, our expectations of what we are about to see are radically different than when we watch a children's film or a standard courtroom drama; the point at which such films might shock us changes accordingly.
So why include a shocking or disturbing scene in an otherwise undisturbing film? Not surprisingly, it's usually to add a note of menace, to code a character as evil or off somehow (one example that stands out in my mind is 1998's The Mask of Zorro; it's not enough that the villain kills Zorro's brother, he has to keep his severed head in a jar to taunt Zorro with later).
It may also be to relate an incident from a character's past, perhaps in order to create sympathy. In the case of Deliverance (and Irreversible, for that matter), scenes portraying transgressions not only horrify but push the plot forwards, give characters something to avenge, a motive for further action. In the case of Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977), the shock ending alters the rest of the film, punctuating freedom with punishment, recasting what we've seen as a morality tale.
Another reason for such scenes is to convey visually that This Is Serious Business, a well-worn device in war films (increasingly frank in their depiction of war crimes and atrocities) and depictions of other manly-man occupations (1991's Backdraft, for example). We're increasingly seeing this sort of shock/disturbing scene in stories of abuse as well nowadays - usually one scene to try and convey the seriousness of the abuse, a beating or rape making evident what a black eye or timidity might have only suggested in years past.
As we shall see, the cases I'm highlighting are noteable for the fact that they seemed (again, in my opinion) to have struck a wrong chord, to have overshot the mark and stuck out. They are noteable in short because they draw attention to themselves.
A perfect example of this is Nurse Betty (2000), a 'comedy' in which our protagonist has a psychic break and begins to believe that she is the fictional titular character. Someone believing that they are someone else has comedic potential of course, but when you reveal early on that this break was caused by witnessing the torture, scalping, and ultimately murder of her husband, well... it's hard to get folks in a light-hearted mood again. This scene is available on Youtube, for the moment at least, and so I present it here; of course you are best served watching the whole film to get the context within which it appears.
I recently saw the thriller Law Abiding Citizen (2009) and here is a good example of genre expectations being played with; the film has to begin with our protagonist having some great harm done to him, such that he will seek a sympathetic revenge: doorbell rings and he answers, getting smacked in the face with a baseball bat. He and his wife are bound and gagged by two thugs - OK, I thought, par for the course.
But at this point, one of the thugs takes turns lying over husband and wife, getting in close to taunt them and then tenderly sticking his knife deep in their sides, in what I can only describe as a passionate fashion. He is obviously turned on, the conflation of violence and sex is indeed shocking in this context. The man then begins raping the wife and, just when you're thinking this can't get any worse, the couple's very young daughter walks in on the scene and attracts his attention. "Kids love me", he quips, walking off to take her hand. Close-up of our protagonist's eyes, his helplessness horrible to witness.
I was expecting a simple crime drama - which the film, let's be honest, is advertised as. Something about the details of this 'home invasion' sequence made it far more believable, and hence disturbing, than similar scenes in countless other films of its type. Is it just that I'm getting older? Maybe. It really does seem to me however that the portrayal of violence to the body, the willingness to show bodies being hurt onscreen, has dramatically increased in mainstream Hollywood film in the last decade or so (an attempt to come to terms with Abu Ghraib?).
Finally, I'd like to end with an example that relies on words alone, a monologue in a children's film whose disturbing shock still resonates with me twenty-five years after I first saw it in the theatre (there was a little kid in front of me who asked his mother after the speech whether this was true. "No, no", she assured him, "it's just a movie").
The film is Gremlins (1984) -
Kate: The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn't home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That's when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He'd been climbing down the chimney... his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.