You know the scenes...not necessarily the goriest or most spectacularly violent, but those which make you wince, hide your eyes, dig your nails into the armrest, pucker your ass or fight a gag reflex. Sure, being disassembled by zombies or birthing aliens through one’s chest is awful, but far removed from any true human experience. But needles? Broken bones? Violated orifices? Swallowing something awful? We can all relate on some level. Sometimes the worst things we can imagine (or experience onscreen) are those we can transpose onto ourselves.
1. AMERICAN HISTORY X - Edward Norton gives a tour-de-force performance as a reformed white supremacist trying to prevent his younger brother from following the same path. This intense, harrowing film is often an uncomfortable viewing experience, never more so than during a flashback sequence in which Norton’s character forces a man to place his open mouth on a curb, then stomps back of his head. The act isn’t actually shown, but masterfully implied through editing and sound effects.
2. MISERY - For the most part, this is one of the more faithful (and better) adaptations of a Stephen King novel. However, one key change actually improves on the original story. In the book, psychotic fan Anne Wilkes keeps author Paul Sheldon bedridden by chopping off his feet. The act is horrifying, to be sure, but nothing compared to what Wilkes (Kathy Bates) does in the film. Rather than cut off Sheldon’s feet, she performs an act known as ‘hobbling’, wedging a block of wood between his ankles before breaking them with a sledgehammer. What makes the scene unbearable, besides the suspense leading up to it, is the split second we see one of his feet pounded in an impossible direction. Gore scenes are a dime a dozen, but snapping limbs tend to instill a much more visceral response in the viewer, since many of us can relate.
3. THE THING - Even 30+ years later, John Carpenter’s adaptation of John W. Campbell’s classic story remains the standard by which all other ’body horror’ films are measured. The elaborate transformation & creature effects are as convincing today as they were in 1982. Yet for all of the slime and gore, its most unnerving scene is arguably the ‘blood test’ conducted to determine who is The Thing. One-by-one, everybody’s blood is drawn using an Exacto-knife to cut open their fingers to let blood pour into Petree dishes. It’s ultimately cringe-worthy because we’ve all cut ourselves before, and it sucks. Some of the most sensitive nerves in our body are located in our digits.
4. INVASION U.S.A. / THE DARK KNIGHT - Invasion USA is one of many worthless Chuck Norris flicks to belch from the 1980s, save for one shocking, unexpected moment. During a scene when a woman is snorting cocaine with a metal straw, the main villain slams her head to the table, essentially shoving the straw into her brain. It’s so quick that it takes us a second to process what just happened. Once we do, we realize that’s a sickening way to die. Christopher Nolan shot a similar gag in The Dark Knight two decades later, when The Joker manages to make a pencil disappear...into a gangster’s head.
5. THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION - This unintentionally hilarious cheesefest (shot in Wisconsin, the literal land of cheese), depicts ever-growing spiders who hitch a ride to Earth onboard a meteor. In other words, it’s great fun, especially the climax, featuring a Volkswagen dressed up as an eight-legged monster. Bad movie connoisseurs have been enjoying The Giant Spider Invasion for decades. Still, there’s one scene about half-way through that’s almost guaranteed to stir your gag reflex, when a woman unknowingly includes a large tarantula in her blended breakfast drink. Yeech!
6. PULP FICTION - Heroin addicts notwithstanding, few of us relish receiving injections, and Quentin Tarantino’s classic features one big-ass needle. During the now-legendary scene in which Vincent Vega (John Travolta) plunges a shot of adrenaline into the heart of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), Tarantino masterfully builds tension by forcing us to think long and hard about what’s going to happen…showing Mia’s exposed chest, then the surrounding actors’ intense faces, then the steely needle aimed right at the screen, a single trop of liquid hanging from the tip. We’re horrified before anything’s even happened, so when it does, we’re already squirming in our seats. But we never actually see the needle enter her body. Our dreaded anticipation - along with the sickening thud when Vincent plunges it home - has done all the work.
7. THE EXORCIST - The Exorcist is, of course, a terrifying masterpiece and remains potent today, particularly classic scenes in which demonically-possessed Regan MacNeil projectile-vomits, levitates and violates herself with a crucifix. But really, doesn’t the most harrowing scene occur early on, when she’s brought to the hospital for diagnostic tests? We see, in agonizing detail, Regan’s neck pierced with a horrifyingly huge needle, blood spurting onto her pillow before doctors snake a tube through the needle into her vein. This scene’s realism, coupled with the fact it’s happening to a 12-year-old child, make it tough to endure.
8. PAYBACK - Porter (Mel Gibson) is a career criminal who’s betrayed and left-for-dead. Later, he wants his ill-gotten gains back, going as far as taking-on the local mafia. But in a later scene, his plans are temporarily thwarted when the mob catch him and commence smashing his toes - one at a time - with a hammer. Again, nothing is actually shown, leaving it to our imagination to picture the worst, but the sound effects of the hammer striking the floor has us convinced his piggies have been smashed to a pulp.
9. MARATHON MAN - Dustin Hoffman plays Babe, a college student and marathon runner whose brother - a government agent - is trying to catch a diamond smuggler & former Nazi Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier...Google him, kids). Later, Szell apprehends Babe and uses his well-honed torture techniques to perform impromptu oral surgery to inflict maximum agony where most of us feel the most vulnerable. Szell’s own description of what he’s doing - as well as Babe’s blood-curdling screams - fill in the blanks. Anyone who’s ever feared the dentist’s chair are advised to steer well-clear of this film.
10. SEVEN - 20 years later, Seven remains one of the most downbeat and disturbing films of all time, even though all of the horrible atrocities committed by ‘Deadly Sins’ Killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) are depicted after they've been occurred. The worst scene involves the sin of lust, where a man is forced at gunpoint to have sex with a prostitute using a strap-on, 12-inch blade. The man is understandably delirious once the detectives reach him, and all we need to see is a police photo of the weapon itself to be totally sickened ourselves.