The following movies have long been infamous for their gore, unflinching brutality, and in the case of the last entry, religious offensiveness. That said, they aren’t entirely exploitative and tasteless. Watch them with an objective eye and you might even discover larger truths about life.
1. 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Also known as Salò, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s periodic “masterpiece” about sadism and immorality is a regular on listicles featuring nasty movies. Indeed, one could even say no such list is respectable without a mention of this controversial Italian feature.
This widespread condemnation is not unwarranted, with the movie’s two-hour run chocked full of nudity, rape, Coprophilia, sadism, and even torturous murder. Should you be able to stomach the unflinching depictions, though, you might conclude the movie is possibly the most unapologetic cinematic critique of Social Darwinism and related philosophies ever made. At the same time, the frank “examinations” of human sexual fetishes hints at the nature of political corruption, social depravity, and Fascism too. Incidentally, Salò was set in the Fascist years of modern Italy. One of the four villains i.e. the Duke was an outspoken fan of Fascism.
Themes aside, Pasolini’s choice of storytelling style is undoubtedly meritorious. Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, the movie was split into four chapters, each segment increasingly disturbing and unreal. The presence of amoral narrators within the middle chapters further delivered an unsettling sensation of documentary-like observation and analysis. In the final chapter, this style cumulates into the question of: As the viewer of such a nasty film, are you as repugnant as the collaborators of the villains? Are you yourself a gleeful, immoral spectator and conspirator of vileness?
The short of it, this “sickest film of all time” is a tome of questions few people would ever be comfortable with answering. If you have the tenacity for such examinations, though, you might find a life-changing experience. 120 Days of Sodom
2. Hostel (2005)
Eli Roth’s gory tale about clueless tourists abducted for commercialized torture created quite a stir when released. Apart from the extended, horrifically realistic torture scenes, the movie exploited an urban myth i.e. that of tourists being kidnapped for heinous purposes while traveling in less-developed countries. Notably, Slovakia and the Czech Republic both condemned the movie upon its release. (The story was set in Slovakia)
In all honesty, the hatred for this notorious “torture-porn” movie is not unjustified. The gore aside, the story does encourage a dire impression of former Eastern-Bloc nations. An impression that affects real-life people dependent on tourism for a living.
That said, were you to read deeper into the story, you will realize that the nasty tale is very much Roth’s grim take on capitalistic exploitation and the Holocaust. Before their captures, the male tourists were obsessed with getting laid during their European holiday. Metaphorically, they treated European women and nations no differently from how their captors viewed them i.e. as objects for entertainment.
It was also no coincidence that the torturer of the protagonist is German, with the movie noted for its Holocaust imageries too. The summary of it, the Elite Hunting Club of the movie was Roth’s metaphor for human exploitation of all natures. It undoubtedly ventures into visual overkill in many areas, but the story is not without thought or intelligence.
3. Saw (2004)
The Saw franchise has a very mixed reputation. The first movie in 2004 was director James Wan’s launchpad into international fame, and flawed as it was, was also for its ambitious plot and horrific set-pieces. On the other hand, and not unlike the slasher movies of the 1980s, the sequels quickly descended into the formulaic and the inane. Of note, the entire franchise is representative of the torture-porn exploitative genre too. Just watch any of the sequels, and you will immediately agree.
Coming back to the first movie, it is worth noting that the premise was full of food for philosophical consideration. Unlike the above-mentioned slashers, the primary villain i.e. John Kramer didn’t kill or torture for kicks; instead, everything he did was to encourage the appreciation for life. As farfetched as it sounds, a viewer cannot avoid reflecting on this during any Saw movie. It could even be said the entire franchise was about the sanctity of life.
Additionally, the twisted morality of John Kramer and his accomplices is also a tutorial in character crafting. Film aficionados might not consider the Jigsaw Killer as the most legendary horror movie villains ever. However, he is certainly one of the most unique. One of the most brutally determined too.
4. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
One of the most notorious exploitation films of the 1970s, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes is also infamous for being one of the most violent backwoods horror films ever made.
Supposedly inspired by the myth of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean, this ghastly story of a suburban family resorting to murder and violence to survive a cannibalistic gang seemed to serve no other purpose than dishing out appalling cinematic atrocities. This is despite Craven’s comments about his film being an expression of the class struggles between minorities, the downtrodden, and the American middle class.
Viewed as a well-made example of a backwoods horror film, though, The Hills Have Eyes forces viewers to consider the questions of, is violent vengeance ever justifiable? Should victims descend to the level of their tormentors to attain justice, or to survive, when no other avenues of redress are available?
Film critic and producer Steven Jay Schneider have also noted the overt Judeo-Christianity symbolism of one of the movie’s most distressing kills. What exactly was being implied? It is up to you to consider this likening as a challenge of traditional Judeo-Christian morality/ethics. Or as no more than the symbolic commencement of the victims’ descent into survivalist immorality.
5. The Exorcist (1973)
Near half a century after the cinematic release of The Exorcist, and the movie remains controversial. A staple in discussions about nasty and notorious movies too.
The legendary pea soup spewing scenes, and profanity, continue to disgust. The religious will also for a long time, be offended by the many sacrilegious scenes.
Vice versa, the movie is celebrated as a glowing milestone in the horror filmmaking. Among its many accomplishments, The Exorcist was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It was also ranked by movie magazines such as Empire as one of the greatest American movies ever made.
Given such controversy, it is thus easy to forget that the story is in actuality, an intimate examination of the nature of evil and its relationship to the concept of God. The spiritual crisis experienced by one of the protagonists, Father Damien Karras, also humanizes the daily question that confounds the religious. Just how could there be a benevolent creator when the world is so full of evil and injustice?
The events leading to the terrifying climax additionally brought in other questions concerning religious faith. For example, the role of science in religion and the expectation of divine preference after self-sacrifice. Beneath all the repugnance, The Exorcist is truly a profound albeit theatrical discussion about the Catholic faith, with the ending strongly supportive of the belief that good and evil must be symbiotic. You would need to watch this legendary masterpiece with an objective mind in order to grasp its message. But take the effort to do so, and the movie could permanently transform your religious worldview.