Extreme horror may not be a highly popular genre, but it is a highly searched one. It seems that, while many viewers would opt to avoid films that dabble (and douse) in such depravity as necrophilia, dermatophagia, sadism, faeces, and other extremities, there is a high hit rate on searches for “most extreme films.” It is understandable that audiences, while not wanting to put themselves through such torturous viewing, are still curious of what all the fuss is about.
Within the horror community, extremity has had a difficult time finding its place and being seen as meritorious, and often the films included in the sub-genre are looking for nothing more than to push the boundaries of cinema as far as they’ll go.
While extreme horror is not for everyone, there is no denying that some of the most memorable and unsettling deaths in horror will be found within the frames of the following ten films. For the sake of curiosity, this list offers all the good gory details, so spoilers ahead.
10. Grotesque (2009)
A “doctor” kidnaps a young couple on a date and puts them through several tests of torture in order to elicit in the doctor the feelings of excitement he is missing in his life.
This Japanese exploitation horror film tests its viewer’s strong stomach. The doctor moves around his victims with a sadistic glee, taking pleasure in their pain, but never quite enough pleasure to sate his needs.
There are only two onscreen deaths in Grotesque, but the most heartbreaking one sees the young man, Kazuo, with his intestines attached to a hook, forced to walk to his companion, Aki, to cut the restraints that hold her, disemboweling himself in the process. The doctor labels this a test of love, and Kazuo moves toward Aki with every last ounce of his will, only to see in his last dying moments, that the game was rigged all along.
Throughout the pain and gore, the audience feels for this couple, feeling hopeful when the doctor promises them reprieve, and dread upon the realisation that his needs will never be met.
9. Climax (2018)
The first of two Gaspar Noé films on this list, Climax is a psychedelic descent into hell on the night of a dance troupe’s celebration. After an amazing dance sequence, characters break off into separate corners of the room they are partying in, speaking to one another and about one another in Noé’s distinct style of dialogue. Much of the extremity in Noé’s films come from the manner in which characters speak, drawing criticism from those who don’t appreciate the auteur’s modus operandi.
As the revellers begin to lose control of their senses, it is revealed that the sangria has been spiked, sparking the beginnings of a madness that is felt through shuddering camera work and psycho-techno sound waves.
Throughout the chaos, a woman locks her young son in an electrical room in a drugged-up attempt to protect him. His cries are heard throughout the film, both blending with and rising above the soundtrack, until finally the power shorts out in the building, providing a brief moment of silence, allowing the audience a second to process the implications of power-outage, before the shrieks of the boy’s mother confirms what we already know.
8. Thanatomorphose (2012)
This Canadian body horror offers less of a specific moment of death, but rather 100 minutes of death. In Thanatomorphose, a young woman’s body begins to bruise after a night of rough sex. She notices, but doesn’t worry, doesn’t feel pain as the bruising spreads, turning into fleshy wounds, fingernails cracking off, hair falling out – her body is disintegrating before our very eyes – and it takes its time doing so.
The decomposition of the woman’s body is in direct juxtaposition of her taking control of other aspects of her life. She is reclaiming her sexual power, realising how she is seen by others in her life, refusing to be just a body, just as her body breaks down.
It is a powerful and disgusting film; beautiful in its repellence. The death that is unsettling plays out over the course of the film, but in the end, the viewer can’t help but feel some catharsis for the woman as she takes her final breaths.
7. The Girl Next Door (2007)
Many of the films on this list are wildly fantastical. They are films that skirt reality, but a reality so dark that it is easy to dismiss it as impossible to ever really happen. The Girl Next Door offers no such relief.
Based on a true story – one that is somehow worse than what is portrayed in the film – The Girl Next Door tells the story through the eyes of a little boy who experienced the horrors over the course of the summer in 1958. He tells of teenage Meg and her younger sister who are sent to their aunt’s house after the death of their parents. Over the course of the summer, the aunt’s sadistic nature is revealed as she keeps Meg locked in the basement, encouraging local kids to come over and participate in the girl’s torture and sexual abuse.
Meg withstands unspeakable acts, surviving through all odds until her captivity is discovered by a police officer. As the audience thinks she may somehow come out of her terrifying situation, she dies quietly on the dirty old bed in the basement, her final breaths almost welcomed by the viewer, a sign that she has finally found peace.
While the film is graphic and extreme in nature, the true horror comes from the knowledge that some form of these events happened in real life, that real kids participated in these cruel acts, and that it all happened in a seemingly affluent neighbourhood, under the nose of everyone.
6. A Serbian Film (2010)
Perhaps the most notorious film on this list, A Serbian Film has likely been Googled far more times than it has been watched, and most likely for one particular scene involving a baby.
But that’s not the death highlighted on this list. Technically, every death in A Serbian Film is extreme and unsettling, the purpose of the film is to shock, to express Serdjan Spasojevic’s discontent with Serbia and the way in which the country treats its citizens. It is not meant to be a kind film, but a nasty one. Despite this, it manages to capture the heart of a family who loves one another, and the heartbreak as the family is literally torn apart.
The story follows Miloš, an ageing porn star who agrees to do one last film to support his family, as he is conned into participating in an abhorrent project by a sadistic and psychotic filmmaker. After filming a few scenes that make Miloš increasingly uncomfortable, he quits the film, only to be drugged, waking up after three days with no knowledge of what happened.
He uncovers the events of those three days through video tape and retracing steps. It is revealed the sort of snuff film (and worse) that he was forced to perform in, before the final traumatic end scene, and the discovery of a betrayal by his brother and horrific sexual violence toward his wife and child. In the final few moments of the film, Miloš places his wife and son in bed with him before pointing a gun at his wife’s back, and shooting the three of them at once. It seems to Miloš like the only ending – and the audience can’t help but agree.
5. Violation (2021)
A newer entry on the list, Violation is the new release from filmmaking team Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. The first official rape-revenge film on this list, it is no surprise that the unsettling death is one of a rapist. But unlike other rape-revenge films, Violation doesn’t provide the audience simple catharsis. With a lead character who is complicated and often infuriating, this film explores the complexities of consent and the effects of assault.
The death sequence is unlike any other. It is precise, yet messy. The lead knows exactly what she is doing, but the viewer can’t help but ask, “how?!” She cries, vomits, second guesses her decisions, but ultimately is unwavering in her vengeance. At times this death is so unsettling because it looks so real, particularly a moment when she is sawing off the man’s leg. You may find yourself wondering if it’s really just special effects, before smiling and shaking your head – of course it is.
4. Funny Games (1997)
Michael Haneke is nothing if not transgressive. Funny Games is undoubtedly a love it or hate it film. An affluent family, Georg, Anna, and their son Georgie, arrives at their lake home for vacation and quickly spots their neighbour accompanied by two young men, Peter and Paul. The men are charming and friendly, unassumingly fitting right in with the wealthy residents of the neighbourhood.
After a few unnerving visits from Peter and Paul, Anna grows impatient and insists that the men leave the family alone. This quickly escalates the situation as the men drop their initially innocent facade and their more sinister plans are revealed.
With violence and sadistic glee, Peter and Paul play with the family, breaking Georg’s leg and killing their dog. The entire film is an exercise in tension, but the truly unsettling scene in Funny Games comes after Anna manages to secure a shotgun and kill Peter. It is in this moment that Haneke separates this film from other similar works. With Peter dead, Paul picks up a remote control and rewinds the scene, altering the outcome and breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, exposing our complicity in watching these events take place.
3. Irréversible (2002)
The second Gaspar Noé film on this list, and definitely the most notorious from the New French Extremity movement, a collection of boundary-breaking films by French directors at the turn of the 21st Century. Irréversible is a tragic tale of revenge told in reverse. The death in question involves Pierre (Albert Dupontel) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) storming into a gay bar called The Rectum searching for a man named Le Tenia.
The audience doesn’t know why Marcus is filled with such rage, they are not given any context as the two men shove their way through the writhing bodies in the club to reach the man pointed out to them as Le Tenia. As Marcus is overtaken by the man he thought to be La Tenia, Pierre pulls a fire extinguisher off the wall and, with the camera tracking the extinguisher, an extension of the weapon, repeatedly crushing his skull in.
It’s the proximity to this death that is so unsettling. Like many extreme horror deaths, it is easy to feel like you are watching something you shouldn’t be, something that you should want to stop, but can’t.
2. Martyrs (2008)
The remainder of this list contains deaths from the New French Extremity. These films are bleak, often nihilistic, and rarely end well for the “heroes” of the story. Martyrs, film from director Pascal Laugier, is a troubling story about Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), a woman haunted by her traumatic childhood after being held hostage and tortured by an unseen presence.
The film is at times a beautiful love story between two friends, but mostly it is a vicious tale of martyrdom and religious extremity. Luie enlists her childhood friend Anna after murdering the family that Lucie believes held her hostage. The events that unfold over the course of the film are appalling, as Anna finds out exactly who was responsible for Lucie’s torturous past the hard way.
In a gorgeous final scene, Anna is flayed alive, all skin on her body removed save the skin on her face, and is displayed to an audience of wealthy believers. This image will be ingrained in the viewer’s brain, impossible to forget for days after watching, if ever.
1. Inside (2007)
Inside is a terrifying story about pregnancy, grief, and envy. The film introduces its protagonist Sarah (Alysson Paradis), a heavily pregnant woman whose husband died in a car crash at the opening. She is lonely and isolated from her friends and family on Christmas Eve while riots occupy the attention of police in the streets of the city.
Late at night a woman knocks on the door, imploring Sarah to let her inside. This sets into motion a game of cat and mouse as the woman, known only as La Femme (Beatrice Dalle), stalks her prey. The night is filled with murder and chaos, with Sarah eventually fighting back and seemingly conquering La Femme with fire, before a forgotten victim pops back up and critically injures Sarah.
In a final scene of blood-soaked brutality, La Femme performs an impromptu Caesarean section leaving Sarah split open and dead on the staircase, leaving La Femme, now monstrous in appearance after being set on fire, to care for the baby, getting what she wanted all along.
Words: Jerry J Sampson