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The most disturbing movies of 2019

People like to quip about how often life tends to imitates art (or vice versa), and how cinema in particular can serve as a mirror image of the world not just as it is, but as it might become. If either of those points of view can be taken at face value, then the world we're living in is more than a little bit fractured. Perhaps more worrisome than that unsettling fact is that all manner of wicked things seem to be working their way through the ever-widening fissures.

However you choose to view the world, there's little doubt that a broad swathe of fears, uncertainties, social strifes, and inherent paranoias are helping guide those evil things to the surface. In turn, they're also driving the narratives for some of the more intriguing (and most disturbing) big screen confections in recent years. Those same complex topics and themes are behind some of 2019's most challenging works as well. As the year continues to deliver a potent slate of movies possessed of unholy terrors, nefarious characters, and beastly delights, we're happy to chronicle each and every one of them for you. These are the most disturbing movies of 2019.

The Hole in the Ground

Since its founding less than a decade ago, A24 Films has transformed itself from the little indie studio that could into a bonafide indie powerhouse. They've done so by producing a savvy blend of stark, human dramas (Moonlight, Lady Bird, Room) and artfully oblique genre fare (Ex Machina, The Witch, Hereditary). This year sees A24 staying the course with that release strategy, and kicking 2019 off with Lee Cronin's paranoid chiller The Hole in the Ground.

If you're unfamiliar with Cronin's name, it's because The Hole in the Ground is the Irish filmmaker's first feature film. Rest assured, it's a damn impressive debut — one that finds a young mother and her son attempting to build a new life for themselves on the edges of a small rural town. Unfortunately, their new home also exists on the edge of a vast forest, and in said forest there exists an ominous, expansive sinkhole — which may or may not be connected to the dramatic behavioral changes in the boy.

Just FYI, it is. That's not really a spoiler — for one thing, the fact becomes obvious early in the film, and for another, The Hole in the Ground is less concerned with shocking twists and explanations than it is with building a bleak atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Cronin and company manage that feat in spades, coupling their atmospheric chills with a haunting, slow-burn approach that culminates in a finale that feels like the stuff of Kafka's nightmares.

Velvet Buzzsaw

Dan Gilroy last teamed up with Jake Gyllenhaal for a caustic media satire about an ambitious Angelino trying to break into the world of crime journalism. That film seamlessly blended its biting satire with a distinctly "doom and gloom" sensibility, even utilizing certain horror movie tropes to give the action a nightmarish, post-modern quality. Featuring one of the best performances of Gyllenhaal's career, Nightcrawler proved to be not just one of 2014's best films, but also one of its most unnerving.

Such a success was the combination of director, actor, and material that the pair re-teamed for Gilroy's latest satirical confection, the supernatural thriller Velvet Buzzsaw. You'll be happy to know that they deliver another scathing indictment of capitalist culture the second time around, though Velvet Buzzsaw sees them do so with tongues firmly planted in cheek. 

The setting this go 'round is the fickle, opportunistic world of modern art, and more concisely a vapid circle of taste-makers out to get rich by selling off a recently unearthed cache of paintings. The catch is these paintings were created by a madman whose spirit (and more) resides in each, and seeks to wreak revenge against anyone who tries to profit from them. Yes, that plot is as silly as it sounds. And yes, Gilroy fully embraces that silliness throughout Velvet Buzzsaw. He also tempers it with a heaping dose of menace that transforms his acerbic parody into a brooding, bloody beast of a movie with a head full of whimsy and a heart full of wrath.

Lords of Chaos

The world we live in is quick to remind us that fact is often much weirder than fiction. Case in point: the beyond bizarre true story which inspired Jonas Åkerlund's black metal opus Lords of Chaos. For those of you unfamiliar that story, it follows a Norwegian teen named Euronymous who created "true Norwegian black metal" via his band Mayhem. In attempting to bring Mayhem to the masses, Euronymous and his pals engaged in a wave of shocking publicity stunts that shook the nation to its core.

Like most artistic endeavors, those stunts started small, with Satanic graffiti and undead face makeup sufficing. Mayhem's live shows soon became fodder for severed pigs' heads, fire-breathing, and self-mutilation. As Euronymous and his crew continued to push each other, the voracity of the stunts escalated, the lines between "act" and "reality" dissolved, which paved the way for arson, violence, and (inevitably) murder.

Yes, Lords of Chaos tells one of those stories that simply feels too bizarre to be believed, but it's based entirely in fact. For his part, Åkerlund presents each unholy endeavor with a startlingly impassive gaze, allowing the increasingly absurd facts of this case to unfold more or less exactly as we've come to know them. Along the way, he takes no particular delight in presenting the shocking acts within (even as he presents each in vivid detail), and ultimately delivers a haunting, biographical drama about artistic ambition run amok that would feel the stuff of farce, if not for its unconscionable reality.

Us

By now, you should be familiar with Jordan Peele's meteoric rise to prominence behind 2017's pitch-perfect social horror experiment Get Out. And if you're not, well, we'd urge you to go watch Get Out immediately, because it's every bit as amazing as you've heard. So amazing was Peele's Oscar-winning debut that there was legit concern whether he'd avoid the sophomore slump that plagues many breakthrough directors. Those concerns amplified when Peele announced he'd be returning to the horror genre for his followup.

Of course, those concerns faded into anxious anticipation when Peele unleashed the bone-chilling first trailer for Us on the public. For most of the movie-going public, they evaporated completely about five minutes into the director's latest socially conscious fright fest.

Much like its predecessor, Us is another bold, incisive, even witty genre confection that wears its influences firmly on its sleeve, but somehow doesn't look, feel, or play like any horror film that came before it. As far as the plot goes in Us, it's a relatively simply tale of doppelgänger fiction that finds a family being terrorized by evil versions of themselves. Like Get Out, Peele has much bigger fish to fry with a narrative that twists and turns and tethers in ways you simply cannot imagine. Of those twists and turns, we'll say nothing more. Just know that they arrive behind a near-suffocating sense of existential dread, and with a penchant for arterial spray unseen in anything Peele has done before.  

Dragged Across Concrete

Speaking of movies with an eye on societal woes, have you seen the nihilistic oddity that is Dragged Across Concrete? Even if you haven't, we'll assume you've heard a little something about S. Craig Zahler's latest as it features Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson. These days, such casting (Gibson in particular) carries with it a bucketful of questions about possible agendas. In regards to agenda, we can tell you with all certainty that Dragged Across Concrete is not the "right-wing, white male rage" propaganda machine some critics have made it out to be.

If Zahler's film has any agenda, it's purely that it wants to shock, provoke, and condemn anyone who sits through it. That act in itself is one of attrition given the film's 159 minute runtime — a runtime magnified to infinitum by the film's slow-core pacing, and the fact that it's basically about vile people doing self-serving things.

Like Zahler's prior works, Dragged Across Concrete takes a pulpy, ultra-violent approach to cinema, depositing narcissistic, morally compromised tough guys into nightmarish (if marvelously photographed) worlds where unspeakable brutality awaits. Vaughn's and Gibson's racist, easily corrupted cops are the face of this particular nightmare. As such, the film never seeks to make heroes (or even anti-heroes) of them or their smarmy, self-entitled world view. Rather, Dragged Across Concrete presents a stylishly seditious, unforgiving landscape in which they can actually exist. It's an ugly world that's closer to our own than many will be comfortable with, and if Dragged Across Concrete has an overarching message, it's that nobody, not even the innocent, can stay clean in it.

Piercing

If a dozen movie lovers named the ten most disturbing horror films in history, two movies would likely appear on every list — Takashi Miike's demented, atmospheric chiller Audition and the harrowing gothic drama The Eyes of My Mother. Just FYI, the first is based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, and the second was directed by indie auteur Nicholas Pesce. It should come as no surprise then that Piercing — adapted from a Murakami novel, and directed by Pesce — should find its way onto this list.

What may surprise you is what a different sort of beast Piercing is in comparison. Yes, Pesce's penchant for grim atmospherics is in play. And yes, the grotesque body horror and sadistic detachment that dotted Murakami's Audition are there as well. Amid those macabre influences, Pesce somehow finds room to imbue his latest nightmare with an odd, almost playful energy more reminiscent of a '60s sex comedy than a grisly horror flick.

Considering the film is about a man who hires a call girl for the sole purposes of torturing and murdering her (thus diverting his urges to put an ice pick into his infant son), that's no small feat. That said energy survives the bloody, brutal tête-à-tête that drives the action is impressive too. That Pesce wrangles those disparate tones into a nasty, stylish gothic thriller that simultaneously invokes the work of David Lynch and Billy Wilder is what makes Piercing must see cinema — even if you end up hating it. And many of you will.   

The Wind

There are essentially two ways to approach making a horror movie. The first involves buckets of fake blood, a masked killer (or a bloodthirsty monster), and a dozen or so jump scares. The second is to focus entirely on building an ambience of pure psychological terror in service of meticulously executed scares. Set among the isolated landscapes of the Western frontier circa the 1800s and focused on a homesteader driven over the edge by the harshness of life on the unforgiving plains, Emma Tammi's harrowing western/horror fantasia The Wind wholeheartedly takes the latter approach. Like the best of atmospheric thrillers, it finds more genuine chills within its hushed, haunted narrative then any schlocky slasher flick could even imagine.

Like the best of atmospheric thrillers, The Wind takes a relatively simple approach to its narrative about a tough-as-nails homesteader left alone amid a sprawling prairie landscape in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. The culmination of that tragedy plays a vital part in The Wind's overarching narrative, but the film is most effective when the woman (who believes a malicious demon may be haunting the area) is trapped in total seclusion. In these taut, moody moments, when Tammi allows her film to linger in hushed, eerie reverie, consumed by a sense of isolation as horrifying as any malevolent spirit, The Wind is as an almost perfect exercise in psychological horror. It's effective enough to overlook the fact that certain elements of the dialogue and non-linear narrative elsewhere in the film leave something to be desired.

Pet Sematary

With critically praised genre offerings hitting theaters on a seemingly weekly basis, it's clear that we're living through a veritable golden age of horror. As Stephen King is behind some of the genre's biggest hits of late, it's safe to say we're also living through a golden age of King adaptations. While we anxiously wait for It: Chapter 2 to hit theaters, we can more than make do with a grisly, emotionally punishing new adaptation of King's best-selling novel of necromancy, Pet Sematary.

Those who remember Mary Lambert's merciless 1989 adaptation are still suffering nightmares of scalpel-wielding infants. That original was the gritty sort of horror that made you want shower after the credits rolled. If you're wary of the new Pet Sematary, be warned that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer lose none of that grittiness in their incantation. With a couple of key narrative changes, they actually bolster the grit to boot.

Of course, the crux of the story is the same. A family moves to Maine, tragic deaths ensue, misguided resurrections follow, and undead mayhem reigns. What sets the mayhem apart here is that the bulk of the bloodletting comes at the hand of a child. While Kölsch and Widmyer clearly revel in building a relentless sense of atmospheric anguish throughout Pet Sematary, their film catches fire when the dead rise and that anguish turns to unmitigated terror, and the duo take explicit joy in driving it all towards a heartbreaking finale that's bound to leave you gasping for air.

High Life

Since shedding the bedazzled skin that made him a star with the tween set, Robert Pattinson has become one of the most compelling actors in cinema. He's done so by seeking out unconventional roles in auteur-driven films like Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), The Rover (David Michôd), and Good Time (The Safdie Brothers). With every new role, and every new director, Pattinson seems bent on setting the bar ever higher for himself.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Pattinson would be attracted to a bold new project from French provocateur Claire Denis. Even less surprising is that the actor again outdoes himself in the role of a man struggling to keep himself and his daughter alive in the confines of a dilapidated craft lost in deep space. What may be surprising to many is just how wild Denis' twisted, high-concept psychosexual space drama is.

Believe us when we tell you that High Life really does put the psycho back in psychosexual. For those wondering just how Pattinson's papa ended up in deep space, it's because he was a bad, bad boy on Earth who — along with several other offenders and one truly mad scientist — signed up for a radical reproductive experiment in space rather than die in prison. Sound weird enough? Denis and Co. are just getting warmed up. What follows is a maniacal mind-f**k of a film fueled by sex, violence, betrayal, and ultimately/unexpectedly hope. And yes, at the center of the insanity is one of the finest/weirdest performances of Pattinson's career.

Possum

If you happen to suffer from pupaphobia (a.k.a. fear of puppets), or have a fear of creepy, crawly things with eight legs (a.k.a. arachnophobia), and especially if you happen to suffer from both, we'd urge you to stop reading, because Matthew Holness' stark, oppressively bleak debut feature Possum can offer you little more than a world of pain and a lifetime's worth of nightmares. Actually, the same may be true even if you don't suffer from either of those phobias.

Don't be surprised if you've never heard of Holness' Possum. The film never got a theatrical release stateside, and after a well-received yet limited run in its native U.K. last year, went straight to VOD for U.S. markets earlier this year. After experiencing this emotionally grueling little film ourselves, it's easy to imagine theaters and viewers staying away in droves. That doesn't necessarily mean you should too.

Yes, a puppet does feature prominently in Possum. It's shaped like a large arachnid with a monstrous human head attached, if you're wondering what'll really set off the phobic among you. Coupled with the film's suffocating sense of existential dread, Possum is indeed quite a difficult watch. If you can stomach that particular madness, you're still in for a gritty, pitch-black metaphorical abstraction about a human psyche damaged beyond repair by childhood trauma and abuse — one that, though beautifully photographed and skillfully acted, is so relentlessly desolate it makes the likes of Lynch's Eraserhead and Cronenberg's Spider (both clear influences) feel like a walk in the park. Consider yourself warned.

The Perfection

Attention, body horror fans. All body horror fans please report to Netflix immediately and add Richard Shepard's The Perfection to your queue immediately. Rest assured that even the biggest fans of the unholiest of horror sub-genres may get a little more than they bargained for throughout the first third of Shepard's harrowing, gore-filled psychological thriller. At the center of this twisted tale are a pair of cello prodigies (played with equal parts sinister zeal and sinister sensuality by Allison Williams and Logan Browning). The opening moments of The Perfection find the cellists at dramatically different points in life, with Williams' star faded after walking away from music to care for her dying mother, and Browning's star shining bright within the music world — particularly in the eyes of the pair's haughty instructor.

When Charlotte finally finds herself free from familial obligations, she immediately tries to work her way back into the music world she was forced to leave. An initial and seemingly mutual admiration/attraction between the pair quickly puts the cellists on a road trip, which rapidly devolves into a body horror nightmare that would make David Cronenberg cringe. But that's just the film's opening act. From there, well, things get a bit nuts, with Shepard and crew twisting the unwieldy narrative in increasingly unsettling ways that ultimately prevent The Perfection from reaching that titular aspiration. Still, it often proves itself a first-rate, lavishly executed thriller possessed of a maniacally menacing energy sure to sate the twisted, bloodthirsty appetites of the genre hungry.

Climax

Throughout his decades-long career behind the camera, Gaspar Noé has been labeled everything from a shameless provocateur to a cinematic visionary. As you might guess from those disparate labels, Noé's films are as likely to leave viewers disgusted and running for the door as they are to leave them entranced in uneasy rapture. The one peculiar element fueling the filmmaker's incendiary body of work is that Noé himself seems less concerned with how viewers react to his movies so long as those movies are getting a reaction, 'cause that exactly what they're designed to do.

Like the four Noé-directed features that preceded it, Climax is another wild cinematic experiment hellbent on pushing the boundaries of both narrative decency and artistic ambition. To be clear, Climax is a technical, artistic, and narrative achievement as potent as anything Noé has done before. It's also certain to have many viewers tapping out at the first sign of the debauchery to come.

That moment arrives about halfway through Climax, round about the time the troupe of dancers at the film's core discover their beverages have been spiked with a powerful narcotic. That's as much the plot as we're comfortable giving here — not because we're scared of spoiling anything for Noé neophytes, but because words simply cannot chronicle the hallucinogenic hellscape the director unleashes in the wake of that moment. Just know that at times, it's almost impossible to watch the madness unfold in Climax, but it's often just as hard to look away.

Knife + Heart

There are a handful of filmmakers that can lay claim to the title of genre game-changers. If you were assembling a list of such directors, you'd have to include Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento, and Brian De Palma. You'd almost certainly find them near the top of French provocateur Yann Gonzalez's list, and Knife + Heart is all the proof you need of that fact. 

Set in Paris circa the late '70s, Knife + Heart presents the story of Anne — a filmmaker who specializes in artsy blue movies of the all-male persuasion. But just as Anne begins her most ambitious film, the members of her troupe start getting killed off in brutal fashion, putting her smack in the middle of a twisted, heartbreaking mystery that spins her world upside-down.

That twisted narrative finds Gonzalez borrowing heavily from the groundbreaking works of the aforementioned masters to deliver the stylized, queer-centric, Giallo-tinged psychosexual slasher flick the world never knew it needed. One that also sees Gonzalez bravely pulling no punches in regards to homosexual content or grisly acts of related violence. (For example, a large adult toy has a switchblade buried inside to make a murder weapon.) 

So yeah, Knife + Heart is obviously not for the squeamish. But the more adventurous may find that this gritty, meticulously executed slasher opus has the makings of a genrefied LGBTQ cinema classic that pays homage to genre masters even as it pushes their visionary work into bold new terrain.

Hagazussa

Recent years have seen a legit movement to bring the horror genre back to the arthouse it regularly dwelled in throughout the '70s and early '80s. That means filmmakers have been a bit less concerned with blindly servicing bloodlust, and more eager to take a slow-burning, psychological approach to the genre. To all the slow-burning beauties that've graced big screens of late (i.e. The Witch, Hereditary, Goodnight Mommy, It Follows), Hagazussa writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld has but one thing to say: "I see your glacial pacing, and I raise you infinity."

That's not a joke, by the way. Hagazussa's meticulous pacing, largely non-verbal narrative, and minimalist sound design make it the sort of slow-burning beast that'll test the mettle of even the fiercest of horror devotees. For those who stick with it, Hagazussa is also one of the most atmospherically heavy offerings the horror genre has ever seen, and happens to boast a finale so unexpectedly grisly that it's guaranteed to turn your stomach.

Just for the record, the film's slow-core approach to story is not featured merely for kicks. Hagazussa is set almost entirely in the mountainous terrains of 15th-century Europe, and follows an outcast woman (branded a witch by many townsfolk) struggling to maintain her sanity while living in almost total isolation with her newborn daughter. Within that striking narrative, Feigelfeld utilizes that methodical approach to lull viewers into a hypnotically paranoid state, which deftly bolsters tension and makes the film's bone-chilling final moments all the more devastating.

Midsommar

Just last summer Ari Aster unleashed the unholy hell that was Hereditary on unsuspecting movie lovers the world over. Well, the seasons have run full cycle, delivering another hot, sticky summer upon the world, and with it Aster has delivered another grueling cinematic exploit that'll ensure no one finds solace in the cool dark confines of their local cineplex.

According to Aster, his trauma-inducing "breakup drama" Midsommar is just a small film about an unhealthy relationship going up in flames. And — on paper at least — that's exactly what this horrific tale of a doomed couple (played to tragic perfection by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) visiting a rural Swedish village's legendary mid-summer festival is. Understand, however, that Midsommar is a "breakup movie" in the same way that Hereditary was a little "family drama." Which means there are far more more terrifying matters at play in the sun-baked nightmare of Midsommar than any "breakup movie" you've ever seen.

If you've yet to experience the sun-soaked terror of Midsommar, you should know that, like Hereditary, it's at times almost unbearably gory. Know that, like Hereditary, those shocking moments cannot be unseen. But like Hereditary, the brutality throughout Midsommar works because of the near suffocating sense of psychological dread Aster painstakingly builds around them in one of the scariest movies of the year. And know that, like Hereditary, we both pity and respect your right to experience this hallucinogenic, soul-shaking succubus with as clean a slate as possible. You've been warned.