Primarily, horror films are escapism. They’re meant to be entertainment. For the most part, they do that. We’re sucked into a worst-case scenario, but one that’s heightened and stylized so that we’re never too terrified. We’re taken on a roller coaster ride, then the film ends and we step back into our everyday lives. That’s part of the wonderful experience of watching horror.
That’s not always the way it goes, though. Sometimes the film takes us on a much darker road, hopefully to make a point to examine a topic that’s worth examining in a less friendly, exciting way than the usual horror experience. While this kind of storytelling has always been a key part of the genre, it was popularized in the mid-2000s in what people affectionately call the “torture porn” era.
Sometimes a horror film can leave you feeling like you just got punched in the gut. It can be devastating, but no less cathartic. We’ve compiled a list of horror features that, while they might be great, will leave you feeling terrible.
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left is a blunt, excruciating take on revenge. These types of thrillers were popularized in the 1970s as action vehicles that didn’t really paint a picture of the cost of revenge. In Last House we witness the brutal rape and murder of a girl and her best friend. The parents take equally vicious revenge on the attackers, but nothing is made better by their actions. Their daughter is still dead. It’s such a powerful, uncomfortable film.
One of most unnoticed movies, but also one of his very best, Martin is the story of a young man who believes he’s a vampire and seeks the blood of women based on these beliefs. His uncle only enforces this mentality in the worst possible way. It feels almost like a documentary. The industrial, working-class Pittsburgh locations only help it in this regard. It’s a sad story because you want to root for Martin to better himself, to seek help, but it becomes clearer and clearer that that’s not an option.
The Mist is a fairly straightforward monster movie up until the end, where the implied doom hits a fever pitch and the inability to see what’s going on in their surroundings gets the better of our main characters. It’s up to the father to put them out of their misery before the monsters close in. They can hear them coming. So Tom Jane’s character shoots his fellow survivors and his young son—only for the mist to be lifted. They weren’t hearing the monsters closing in, they were hearing them being beaten back. It’s a gut punch that turned this into a very, very divisive feature among horror fans.
Another big Stephen King project, Pet Sematary is a film that was fondly remembered for a time, though it doesn’t have as many fans now. It’s still a deeply emotional story, King’s darkest novel in terms of the sense of dread and emotional horror that hangs over the whole thing. This is a bleak exploration of what happens when you can’t accept loss, when you refuse the grieving process. It’s explored through every character in really fascinating ways. I still think it’s one of the best adaptations of the author’s horror work.
Obviously, Cannibal Holocaust would have to be on this list. It’s the furthest thing from a feel-good movie. It’s designed to be the most unsettling thing you’ve ever watched. But it doesn’t go so far as to simply induce nervous laughter, like A Serbian Film. No, this one subjects the viewer to inexcusable animal cruelty, while also creating death scenes that look and feel real. Ultimately, though the filmmaking methods are not being defended, the film does have a haunting point about the nature of human violence. It forces you to think about it long after it’s over.
The New French Extremity movies were some of the bleakest horrors to emerge during the 2000s. These were extremely, realistically violent and often completely nihilistic films. With Martyrs all of this went one step further. It’s about killing young women to study what they see as they die in order to prove the existence of an afterlife. It’s brutal, but exceptionally well-made. The ending manages to be incredibly bleak while still being open-ended, which is hard to do.
You could put either version of Funny Games on this list, but I’m going with the American one as it feels that much meaner. It’s a cruel film. It takes a lot for me to actually think a movie wants to hurt its audience, but this one does. It’s not even about the violence, necessarily. There really isn’t that much of it. This is about the tone, which is exhaustingly hopeless. But even then, there’s something perversely intriguing about the experience of watching it. You have to endure it, just to see if you can. It’s not as explicit as Cannibal Holocaust, but the message is much more nihilistic.