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10 disturbing movie scenes

There’s a reason I don’t seem many horror movies: I am a wimp.

Now, don’t try to make me feel better. I know the truth, and so does anyone who’s had the misfortune to sit through a scary movie in my presence. I cringe, I cower, I gasp, I glimpse the carnage unfolding onscreen through Vulcan-split hands over my eyes. To this day, I can’t tell you what the characters in “The Ring” looked like. Know why? I took my glasses off 10 minutes in and I never put them back on.

But these sad little details aren’t what form the complete fraidy-cat that is me. It’s the fact that scenes from regular movies — some that don’t fit into the horror genre at all — stick in my brain for all eternity. The bit from “Spun,” with the hooker staying tied up, blindfolded, on a bed for days? Can’t hear heavy metal without flashing back to it. The scene in “Arlington Road” where Joan Cusack says the word “shopping” with all the menace of Jeffrey Dahmer snatching Konerak Sinthasomphone from the cops? Still get the wiggins when I hear that term.

So now, since I’ve gotten myself all worked up and jittery, here’s a list of 10 disquieting, troubling and (in some cases) disgusting scenes that my brain cannot forget:

1. Videotaped family slaughter, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” — No single scene in movie history (and in my short time on Earth) has left me as shaken as the grainy, muffled home video footage of Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles) gleefully murdering an entire family during a home invasion. It makes us voyeurs, removes that safe “this is just a movie” barrier and makes us participants. In a word: Yikes.



2. The opening scene of “Wild at Heart” — Ever seen a moment of violence so brutal, so feral and uncontrolled that it makes you violently ill? I have, and it takes place (literally) at the beginning of David Lynch’s soul-deadening “Wild at Heart,” when Nicholas Cage bashes in — with sickening vigor — the head of a man hired to kill him. 

3. The firecracker/handjob scene in “Mysterious Skin” — Oh, the things kids come up with, how mind-blowingly sick they are. A preteen boy and his gal tagalong get the idea to stuff a firecracker inside the mouth of a shy dweeb and set it ablaze. Afterward, he gives the victim a handjob. Thoughtful … and yet horribly, horribly unsettling.

4. The burial sequence in “Blood Simple” — The fear of being buried alive is old as time, and about that universal, too. Place that fear squarely in the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen and you get a prolonged death scene so upsetting you’ll never, ever look at a shovel the same way again.



5. The chiropractor joke from “Apartment Zero” — When Larry punches Curly in the nose, you laugh. When a sociopathic serial killer (Hart Bochner) breaks a dead woman’s back to stuff her body in a trunk and slings a wisecrack about missing his calling as a professional back cracker? Well, you laugh then too, mostly because you have no idea what to do. And then comes the cringing. A lifetime of it.  



6. The torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs” — They say memories have an emotional core. I can’t think of a better case-proving point than the stomach-turning, nerve-jangling torture sequence in Tarantino’s classic “Reservoir Dogs.” To this day, the clip, with Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) brutalizing a bound-and-gagged cop in time to “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and taking pleasure in it — remains the one part of the film I cannot watch.

7. Guy’s revenge in “Swimming with Sharks” — Pushed too far by his screaming movie mogul boss, Guy (Frank Whaley) promptly drops his basket and ends up exacting the kind of physically painful revenge that involves hot sauce, salt and lots and lots of paper cuts. Let your imagination tell you the rest.



8. The shower scene from “Psycho” — Yes, I realize that this one’s something of a gimme, but facts are facts. There’s a reason this scene is considered a horror classic. Think about it: Where are we at our most vulnerable? That’s the genius of it. Any woman who tells you this scene doesn’t come a’callin’ when she’s showering alone in her apartment is a first-class liar.



9. The last four minutes of “Requiem for a Dream” — “Requiem for a Dream” qualifies as one of my all-time favorite films, in part, because of the final four minutes, an exercise in dark pessimism that assaults the senses and deadens the soul for weeks — make that years — after the credits roll. Seek not your happy, hopeful ending here, for all you’ll find is a killshot of reality. Gripping stuff.

10. “Chaos” (the whole. blasted. movie) — “There are some things that you see, and you can’t unsee them. Know what I mean?” So said Max California in “8MM,” and if I didn’t know better I’d be convinced his words applied to “Chaos,” a bleak, grim and cheerfully punishing slice of torture porn filled with senseless violence. Things are done that scar the retinas and pervert the mind … things we cannot unsee. And oh, how I wish I could.

What say you, readers? What are your favorite disturbing movie scenes?

Review: “Swimming with Sharks” (1994)

Swimming_with_SharksMuch like Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” George Huang’s “Swimming with Sharks” is something of a cautionary tale, a warning about how marking time at a pointless, demeaning job strangles the soul. But Huang, with his bleak view of humanity, has no interest in delighting us with jokes about tempermental fax machines. No, his meaning here, in this shockingly violent black comedy, is to show how constant humiliation can motivate a man to do just about anything … and how “anything,” in the movie business, leads to bigger, better opportunities. “Between Heaven and Hell there’s always Hollywood” and all that.

Guy (Frank Whaley) does not belong in Hollywood. He’s navigating foreign territory with no map and no compass and probably no pocketknife, either. Guy’s the kind of shy, hard-working, fresh-out-of-film-school man who’d name “It’s a Wonderful Life” as his favorite film. Movie mogul Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey divinely playing, well, Kevin Spacey) senses that about his new assistant and proceeds to eat Guy alive. And Buddy covers all the spirit-breaking bases, from unrelenting verbal abuse (“If you were in my toilet, I wouldn’t bother flushing it” he spits at Guy) to menial grunt work and pointless errands. Buddy’s no mentor, though he does, on occasion, offer Guy helpful advice like “Punching below the belt is not only all right, it’s rewarded.” The fact Guy doesn’t quit says more about his impressive ability to swallow rage than some great inner drive for success. This makes him more dangerous than Buddy, who screams at everyone but leaves his work at work. Nice men like Guy never quite seem able to do that.

At this point Huang takes a turn that — well, let’s just agree to call it “unexpected.” Or perhaps “expectedly unexpected” is more accurate. Being a human, Guy doesn’t have limitless space to store his anger, and so one day he confronts Buddy at home, where he knows his boss is most vulnerable. Details of this meeting are best kept on lockdown, but there are scenes — particularly one involving paper cuts, table salt and hot sauce — so stomach-churning they prove impossible to unsee. (Your brain will store it in the same vault as the “Stuck in the Middle with You” sequence from “Reservoir Dogs.”) And since “Swimming with Sharks” has a certain kind of momentum, there is a showdown, but one that makes us sense the director has no intention of air-planing a spoon in our mouths. Bravo for that. 

But wait. All this makes “Swimming with Sharks” sound like a 101-minute gleeful festival of torture and sadness. That’s not true. The torture only takes up about 90 minutes. Still, Huang’s pitch-black movie falls squarely into the “cringe with laughter” category. It’s tense and brutal and exhausting, the kind of film that wears down your resistance to relishing Guy’s, then Buddy’s, abuse. It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing: the physical violence (there’s plenty) or astonishing but comical insults like “You’re happy. I hate that.” Only Spacey could deliver a line like that. It was meant for his lips only.

And how about that Spacey? He plays the same character over and over, but he does it so well I never notice or care. He’s the only actor who could play Buddy, the only one who could find the right notes of viciousness, sarcasm and bitterness. He shreds the scenery all to hell, alright, but Spacey’s having so much fun you don’t want to plug up your ears and eyes. Don’t go thinking that’s all Spacey’s got up his sleeve, though. Observe subtle demeanor changes as Guy breaks down that ruthless bravado. Buddy’s got a story and he’s got his reasons, but Spacey is too smart to go for melodrama or easy answers. Whaley, the kind of no-name talent just right to play Guy, is no slouch, either. When he finally explodes, the fallout is impressive. What’s better is the way Whaley disturbs us in the quiet moments, makes us feel the sting of life defined by constant and unrelenting humiliation. He may be weak, but anger’s a powerful motivator. Watching him spar with Spacey is a treat, and it’s what makes “Swimming with Sharks” a gripping and bizarrely entertaining character study.

Grade: B