20 Of the Most Shocking Scenes in Modern Cinema

The Movie: Oldboy(2003)

Park Chan Wook’s genre classic, Oldboy, is a convoluted story about a man secretly imprisoned for 15 years only to be mysteriously released so that he can find and exact revenge upon his captor. As crazy and convoluted as this film is, it’s still a fantastic movie full of shocks and twists. The endurance if its popularity reside within man’s unending need for revenge disguised as justice. Like the ancient saying “holding onto a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die from it”, we reap what we sow. The cycle of violence is not a response to the violence within society, but the violence within ourselves. We would prefer to endure years of torture if it means our enemies also suffer. Oldboy is flat out insanity, and one hell of an experience.  

The Scene: The Tongue

By the time we get to this scene, we learn a lot – much more than you normally would in most movies. Dae-su was imprisoned for inadvertently exposing the incestual relationship between Woo-jin and his sister, causing his sister to kill herself. To exact his revenge Woo-jin imprisons Dae-su for 15 years only to let him and out and make him fall in love with his own daughter so Dae-su might know the pain he had caused long ago. Dae-su begs Woo-jin not to tell Mi-do, his daughter and lover. As an act of repentance, Dae-su cuts his own tongue out in order for Woo-jin to keep his secret. Woo-jin decides not to tell Mi-do, and instead blows his own brains out moments later. You know, normal movie stuff.

The Movie: Inside(2007)

Among the three notable films of the French Extremity movement, Inside’s title is a dead give-away. A grieving mother to be is terrorized in the night by a mysterious woman threatening to cut away and steal her unborn child. Inside is about loss and the insanity of trying to get back what is gone forever. It is also about the fear of trying to protect the ones you love from the dangers of the world. Though thoroughly extreme, this is a film that encapsulates the vulnerability of being alone in a world that seems threatening.

The Scene: The Excision

The stakes of this film are high, but also very simple. One woman wants what is inside another woman, and wants it now. If the pregnant woman (Sarah) survives, then she wins. If the mysterious woman (La Femme) wins, she kills the mother and cuts out the baby from inside of her. So, it can only really end two ways.

Most movies, given the two scenarios, you would naturally think there is no way this film will let a woman have her baby cut out of her stomach. It’s too distasteful. It’s too disturbing, disgusting. Well… As the title would suggest, we end up seeing what’s inside Sarah. Literally. We find out that Sarah accidentally killed the unborn child of La Femme in a fatal car accident months prior. After being seemingly mortally wounded, La Femme takes her scissors and plunges them inside Sarah. The film ends with La Femme cradling the bloody baby excised from Sarah. Yeah, this is actually a movie.

The Movie – High Tension(2003)

Alexandre Aja’s genre defining, uber violent High Tension is about best friends visiting family but are instead attacked by a sadistic serial killer. The film that put the infamous French Extremity movement of the early 2000’s on the map, really lives up to its extreme roots. It’s a simple story with a major twist at the end. Its enduring popularity within the subgenre is due not only its violence, but the notion that you never really know someone, even those closest to you. It also deals with the dark side of relationships and the damage that jealousy can cause.

The Scene: Roadside Pleasure

Most of the scenes on this list happen toward the end of their films, but not High Tension. Aja is bold enough to shock his audience early on to let them know what to expect, and in this case, what to expect from its antagonist. After establishing the peaceful world of the two best friends and Alex’s family, we are shown an insidious looking car parked on a dirt road. Inside is what appears to be a woman orally servicing the driver. When we cut back outside the vehicle, the window is rolled down and a severed head is tossed out. Yeah, so the antagonist was using a severed head to pleasure himself. Aja lets us know this is the guy we’ll be spending some time with, and the fun times they will all have.

The Movie: Martyrs(2008)

Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film is a lot to take in. The crème de la crème of the French Extremity movement, Martyrs is about a woman attempting to emotionally support her best friend who just murdered a seemingly innocent family, only to find out this family’s home is hiding unspeakable horror. Most films of the French Extremity movement are close to unwatchable. While Martyrs is very likely the best film to come out of the movement, it is also quite possibly the most extreme. This is a film about the trauma of being an orphan, as well as the lifelong suffering of severe childhood abuse. The trauma stays with most people until it consumes and ruins their lives as adults, unable to heal from their own abuse of self. It is also about the ones who profit from the abuse and their disassociation from their evil deeds.

The Scene: The Bathroom

Truthfully, this entire film is full of effective shocks, and this scene might not even be the most extreme of the film. For reference, the protagonist (Anna) is eventually skinned alive. However, what makes Martyrs a superior film to its brethren, is the inventive and genre pushing aspects of the film’s many parts. After we watch a happy family be blown to bits by a shotgun wielding maniac (Lucie), it would seems as though this is a realistic horror film about someone detached from reality. But then this scene happens.

When Lucie goes to the bathroom to clean up, we are introduced to her imaginary assailant, and she is truly awful. This is such a dramatic tonal change because this was not expected. It wasn’t supposed to be this type of film, and that is why it works so well. The makeup and the actress do a superb job as Lucie is attacked and victimized with a scalpel by what appears to be a maimed and naked witch. The direction and editing were also utilized beautifully to represent Lucie’s warped view of the situation. Truly a shocking scene in a movie full of them. If you do decide to give this one a watch, do it on an empty stomach.

The Movie: Irreversible(2002)

Gaspar Noe’s deeply unsettling Irreversible is a film told in reverse about two men trying to track down the man who brutally beat and raped a women they both love. If the premise sounds disturbing then it doesn’t do the film justice. This film actually has two very shocking scenes, but only one of them is infamous. The repulsion to this film centers around our deepest fears about the people we love being severely violated and damaged. It is also about how we perceive justice and the gray area it shares with revenge. We claim to be a civilized species, but most of us have an “eye for an eye” mentality of the world.

The Scene: The Subway Tunnel

There are quite a few films on this list that I do not recommend to most people, and because of this particular scene this movie is at the top of my DO NOT WATCH list. However, the film was crafted and performed wonderfully and aside from the terror depicted, is incredibly realized as is the case with most of Noe’s filmography.

In this scene, Alex, our likable and beautiful co protagonist is severely beaten and raped in a tunnel leading to the subway. The content is bad enough, but it is the style which makes it far worse. Noe chooses to show us the scene in one long, continuous, mostly objective take. This means we, the audience must sit through every grueling moment of the attack without any break in the action. This particular shot is nine minutes long. That means the audience is subject to a brutal rape unedited for nearly ten minutes. It is as shocking as it is disgusting. This is one of those films that make you question the line between art and smut. I would not recommend this film.

The Movie: Happiness(1998)

Todd Solondz’s pitch black comedy follows the dysfunctional lives of three sisters and the people caught within their orbit. This is a seriously challenging film. On the one hand, Solondz directs this film as if it were some benign 90’s comedy like Home Alone or Beethoven(the one about the dog, not the composer); maybe even something you might have seen on TV on a Friday night during that same era. On the other hand it includes some of the most heavy themes imaginable in our culture, namely, pedophilia. While it is funny, it ends up being a seriously disturbing watch for some people, myself included. Basically, it is a film about the lies we tell ourselves to convince us we are good people who are happy. It is about the secrets we keep from our loved ones – the darkest desires that we fear would chase everyone away.

The Scene: Bill’s Confession

So, here’s the thing; Bill is a successful psychiatrist with a wife and three kids. He is also a pedophile who likes little boys. It is revealed, yet thankfully not shown, that Bill molests two boys in the span of a short time. Soon, the cops come knocking at Bill’s door where it is then implied that Bill will be going to prison for his crimes. Then there is the scene where Billy, Bill’s eldest son, asks Bill if it is true that he raped the two boys. This is where it gets shocking.

The entire film is shot as if it were another movie about a vanilla white family and their happy, curated lives. However, it’s really about screwed up people with serious problems. While this style brings comedy to other parts of the film, this particular scene is shocking and painful. It’s a simple A/B pattern – close up of Bill, cut to close up of Billy and back and forth. When Billy asks his dad if it is true he is a pedophile, Bill is painfully honest and says things you would never hear in Home Alone. Like other films on this list, it’s not for everyone and not highly recommendable.

The Movie: Cabin in the Woods(2011)

Drew Goddard’s directorial debut, Cabin in the Woods, is a genre mash-up about a group of college students who visit a cabin in the woods and are subject to a mysterious ritual remotely ran by lab technicians. Equal parts funny, bizarre and frightening, there is no other film like CITW. It is a love letter to horror movies, but a hate letter to the studios who make them. The film is about being manipulated by corporations, and in this case, the film industry. However, it works for just about any corporate entity. The more these companies spy on us, the more stagnant we become as a society. Then it becomes a question of “do I want this thing because I really want it, or is it because I am told that I want it?” 

The Scene: Curt Dies

Now, it’s against the horror genre convention that the most athletic character survives, however, this film flies in the face of convention. So when the road out of the woods is destroyed, Curt steps up. This is conventional, of course. Usually this is when the jock dies, but somehow this moment felt different. Curt was certainly more likeable than his type, and is also intelligent, so it seemed he was going to come through. We wanted him to!

Alas, the group’s best hope for survival does a death defying jump across a deep ravine on his motorcycle only to hit an invisible electrified field. His body somersaults to his death thousands of feet below before we realize we got played. Even though this same electrified field is revealed early on, so much happens between scenes that it is virtually forgotten about. Well done, Mr. Goddard!

The Movie: Drag Me to Hell(2009)

Legendary film director Sam Raimi’s deeply enjoyable Drag Me to Hell is a story of an upwardly mobile loan officer who is cursed and possessed by a demon that will drag her to hell in three days’ time. If you love you some Sam Raimi, this film is right up your alley. Though it is not related to the Evil Dead universe, it is throwing some serious Evil Dead vibes around.

This film resonated with audiences because it is about something we can all relate to; guilt. Much like the movie’s protagonist, Christine, we have all been in a situation where we defied our own morals. Either to impress someone or because we were told to by an authority figure, we have hurt other people. Drag Me to Hell is about that kind of guilt and the damage it does to our psyche when it is not rectified.

The Scene: Christine is Dragged to Hell

Though the ending of this film is entirely shocking, it should come as no surprise as the title suggests Christine is going to be dragged to hell. And she was! Leading up to the finale, we watch as Christine refuses to again defy herself by passing the curse to someone else. Instead, she digs up the grave of the women who cursed her and shoves a cursed button into the dead woman’s mouth. The next scene is tonally consistent with a happy ending. Christine looks happy and healthy. It’s sunny out and everyone is hopeful. She meets her boyfriend at the train depot, ready to continue their romance in peace.

Then Christine realizes that she hadn’t rid herself of the curse at all. She falls backwards onto the train tracks as the train comes roaring in to the station. Then, fiery arms claw from the ground and pull Christine to an eternity in hell. Not the happy ending we were hoping for.

The Movie: House of the Devil(2009)

TI West’s homage to early 80’s horror is about a cash strapped college student who accepts a babysitting job for a mysterious couple during a lunar eclipse. This is a true period piece, down to its format and film stock, and perhaps what it’s best known for. This retro classic connected with horror fans because of the all too real struggle of being young and broke. The combination of desperation and failure to gauge danger is something most people can relate to. Being desperate for cash can make you blind to someone’s ill intentions and is the crux of so many real life tragedies.

The Scene: Megan Dies

If you want to subvert genre expectations, you first have to understand your genre. Clearly, TI West knew exactly what he was doing. He stuck so closely to genre conventions that he was able to thoroughly shock his audience by defying their expectations. Megan, played by Greta Gerwig, fits the best friend savior mold to a T. She’s likable, protective of Samantha(main character), and best of all, ballsy. If this were any other film, Megan would serve as a means to save Samantha, even if it means Megan has to die. However, Megan is out of the picture before we even know what kind of trouble Samantha is in. In fact, it’s a masterful tonal change that completely ups the stakes of the film.

Samantha’s brave bestie leaves in a huff after her best friend refuses to heed her advice that babysitting an old lady for two lying and creepy strangers is a bad idea. She pulls over and parks to smoke in a cemetery as one normally does. Here, a stranger appears out of nowhere to light her cigarette. This guy is really creepy and we are not sure of his intentions. When he asks Megan if she is not the babysitter, Megan says no. Without another word, the guy pulls out a gun and blows Megan’s face clean off. Yikes. So now we know Samantha is in big trouble, and we also know that Megan is not coming to help her.

The Movie: Feast(2005)

Subject of Project Greenlight for HBO, Feast is about a group of people trapped inside a dive bar and fighting for their survival against a pack of horny monsters. If this sounds terribly schlocky it’s because it is. Far from the best film on this list, it does, however, have an outstanding first act. While there is nothing deep about this film, there are certainly a few scenes worth your time if you’re into this kind of stuff. It’s about the bond between a husband and wife as well as the bond between mother and child. It is also about protecting your family from the oversexualization of our culture.

The Scene: The Hero Dies

Quite a few films on this list defy expectations of their genre to produce shocking content, and  Feast does this particularly well. Director John Gulager sets the self-aware style of the film early on and decides to up the stakes from 0 to 60 in no time at all. The hero bursts through the door and right away, has all the makings of a hero. He is handsome, strong and best of all, confident. In the few minutes he is on screen, he exudes hero energy. That is until a monster reaches through the window and decapitates him. Again, not the strongest movie on the list, but a hell of a way to open a film.

Brian Robert Oliver
I love horror films. From time to time I'll make a short horror film or I might write about something horror related.

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