You would, I would think, have to be hardened to the point of psychopathy not to react negatively to witnessing the infliction of pain or serious harm on a person in some form or other, even in the fictional framework of a movie. We are, after all, encouraged to identify with the lead characters in films and to put ourselves in their shoes, to connect with what they are going through over the course of their misadventures, and if they suffer, we are meant to suffer too. But every now and again a film takes this empathic process a crucial step further and makes the experience personal in a way that will prompt even the most seasoned viewer to turn their heads and let out a small groan.
The shape of these moments will vary from viewer to viewer, depending on experience and your own specific list of personal horrors. For some just the sight of a spider crawling across someone's hand will have them screaming and running from the room (look, I don't like fucking spiders, okay?), but there are few who do not react to acts of bodily harm, particularly those that we can personally relate to. It's for this reason that so few of us will squirm with horror when someone gets shot in a film. For the vast majority (happily, I'd say) it's an abstract concept, something that we've had no direct experience of and that has been effectively sanitised by film and TV to the point that it's too often presented as a quick and painless death, or something that just knocks you off your feet and prompts you to gamely grit your teeth. But almost everyone knows what it feels like to accidentally cut themselves (or, for those of us with slightly dodgy backgrounds, to be cut by someone else), and it's thus a lot easier to empathise with the pain such a wound would inflict. And while I've not included any examples of this on my list, I can name a fair few films where someone under attack grabs the blade of a knife and has it pulled through their fingers, cutting into their flesh as it does so. Show such a scene to almost any audience and you'll be treated to a loud and collective squeal of horror.
Personal phobias also play their part here, and what will make one person frown will have another reaching straight for something to hurl their lunch up into. Common trigger points include eyes, amputation, fingers, teeth, genitals, medical procedures and just about anything involving the Achilles tendon. And just occasionally a filmmaker will bring the horror of even those more abstract acts of violence home in a single grimly realised moment. There is actually one of those on my list.
I'll let Camus go first here, as I did when I suggested that we compile this list, as I knew we'd double up and I seemed to have a slightly larger collection of nightmare movie moments than he could recall at such short notice. I fully concur with all five of his choices, but chose an additional five for mine to avoid doubling up and to give those with a taste for such moments a wider menu to choose from.
I should mention that this list was inspired by our recent review of Arrow's Blu-ray release of Miike Takashi's Audition, whose climactic scene would qualify here on a number of counts. Since I've already covered the offending scene in some detail in the review itself, I see no point in repeating myself here and its inclusion would mean ejecting some other favourites that haven't been covered elsewhere on the site.
It's also important to note that that in order to discuss a good many of these moments in any real detail, we're going to be delivering some serious spoilers for the films themselves. Thus, if you get to a title that you haven't seen yet and plan to do so soon, you might want to give that one a miss for now. You have been warned.
Wincing is a uniquely human response and overtly empathic. It is the reasonable reaction to a piece of unreasonable, physically damaging behaviour meted out on screen and imagining what our own response would be to it. Its synonymic phrase is 'sucking teeth'. Showing in cinemas right now is a scene with an elephant in Grimsby which I won't see because that brand of humour just doesn't sit well with me and no, that's not a joke about anal penetration though I am assured the movie is well stocked in that department. Seeing the reactions of those who have seen the notorious sequence – it's all over the net, audiences being shown the sequence and being duly shocked – I wondered if there are things that we can put on screen simply with the intention to get that kind of reaction. I tried to keep my choices circumscribed by the fact that these chosen moments were integral to the story and not shoehorned in with the filmmaker's thinking, "This will make them squirm..."
1. Marathon Man – No, not that bit...
Famous for its dental torture scene ("Is it safe?"), Marathon Man has one scene (actually, it's just one shot) that always makes me wince big time. Roy Scheider, so I recall reading, was quite proud of his body and so he should have been. It was a fine example of the male physique. This may have contributed to the fact that when that body (even a small part of it) is sliced open, I suck teeth. A cheese wire is a curious weapon. Used against cheese with impunity, it makes straight lines and smooth walls of cultured curd. Used against human flesh and the effect is not quite as satisfying. First the dermis is breached and as the blood subsequently spurts, the fibrous tendons give way until only bone is left to see-saw through. The mere idea of this sequence of events sends me packing. Scheider plays 'Doc', the hero's brother who is trying to track down diamond smuggling Nazis. He is marked for assassination and while having a drink on a Parisian balcony, the cheese wire killer whips the weapon over Scheider's head but on high alert, he is able to get a hand up to stop the wire near-decapitating him. In a wide shot he's pulled back into the apartment. When we cut to the mid shot of the struggle, the wire starts to do its job and blood spurts from the back of his hand. Yikes. It doesn't help that he then hits the assassin with the same hand and screams in agony. It smarts every time I see it.
2. American History X – Eating curb
This scene was much more of a "He's not going to... He's not... He's... SHIT! He just did!" sort of scene. Edward Norton plays Derek, a neo-Nazi ex-con. He's a lovely piece of work, related in kind to Made In Britain's Trevor played by a young Tim Roth. His ultra right wing views condemn him enough but when a young black man tries to steal his truck, he metes out punishment that seems not only like an over-reaction but an overt expression of his racist beliefs. It's not the actual method of control or the killing stomp that makes me wince. It's the idea of lying down (we are totally with the victim in this instance or at least I am) and opening a mouth full of vulnerable teeth and gums and placing them on a substance that will not yield. I can actually feel my teeth in contact with the concrete curb and that makes me wince so much more than the moment of death. Take a vulnerable part of the body and expose it to something significantly less vulnerable... Wince city.
3. Un Chien Andalou – what else?
It wasn't as if I hadn't been warned. I have a thing about eyes and this Luis Buñuel short may have been the root cause. I won't bore you with details (late night screening, heavily signposted, don't watch if you're of a nervous disposition etc.) but at that young age, I wanted to experience all that cinema was offering especially from the revered directors. When the actress's eye is manually opened from behind and there's a cut to the open razor blade being sharpened, I got nervous. When the passing cloud bisected the moon, I thought I'd been spared. I gave a prayer thanking God for metaphor – and then the bastard filmmakers went and showed the deed in close up. Jesus. I'm wincing thinking of it. And no, it matters little that in reality it was a cow's eye. Just the idea of a blade slicing an eye open... Aieee. I'm typing this squirming and hunched up like someone watching someone scratching blackboards. God, I have to stop writing this right now.
DVD review >>
4. & 5. Swimming With Sharks and Equus
I've grouped the last two for a specific reason. It's a reason that I'm not proud of but it has to be stated up front so you can dismiss – with a clear conscience – anything that I have to say about these two, no doubt, worthy movies. The reason is... I've not seen them and never intend to do so. The Buñuel eye slice probably put me off Equus from the very start. I saw the play and know that the disturbed kid is being psychoanalysed because he blinded several horses with a scythe (oh, that's just great). The Kevin Spacey movie executive tortured by an underling wanting to get ahead in Hollywood features (or so I've read) a torture scene involving Spacey's tongue being cut by paper. To quote Ralph Fiennes in the sublime In Bruges, "That's going overboard, mate!" There is something ordinary, mundane even and yet startlingly horrible about receiving a paper cut. But on the tongue? Ah. Something so normally innocuous is brought into play to cause physical pain, blood etc. Sorry. I have cut myself a lot over the years (I have an inch long scar on the pad of my left thumb from a dumb, self-inflicted knife wound) and I do not need reminding how exquisitely horrific it is. And Spacey's a great actor which would make it ten times worse.
I have to go and lie down now.
Misery – Hobbling
An obvious choice perhaps, but it's a rare thing indeed to find an American film with a major studio distribution deal that has audiences screaming in horror at an act of violence being visited on the story's central character. If you've seen the film you're likely already wincing at the memory of it now, and if you've not then stop reading and rent it immediately; it remains one of the best film adaptations yet of a Stephen King novel. Writer Paul Sheldon has just completed work on the final novel of his Misery series when he is involved in a serious car crash on a remote and snow-covered mountain road. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes – his "number one fan" – a former nurse who treats his wounds but confines him to a bedroom and forces him to rewrite the novel to her liking. One day when Annie is out, the wheelchair-confined Paul picks the lock of his room and explores the house, but unknowingly leaves a tell-tale sign that he has temporarily escaped his forced confinement. Annie decides to do something about it. Calmly explaining her reasons for her actions like a kindly schoolmistress addressing a naughty child, she strategically places a large wooden block between Sheldon's legs and in a single, stomach-churning blow, breaks his ankle with a sledgehammer. No-one I know can watch this sequence without adding their own alarmed audio accompaniment. It's actually made worse by director Rob Reiner's decision to cut away from the ankle a microsecond after it has been hit, as you see just enough to register the severity of the injury and are not given time to write it off as a smart prosthetic. It hits home so hard because we've all twisted an ankle at one time or another, and this is clearly a hundred times worse. And just as you're trying to get your breath back, she moves over to the other foot...
Clean, Shaven – Transmitter removal
For some years I was convinced that I was the only one singing the virtues of writer-director Lodge Kerrigan's impressive independent debut feature, right up until the day when it came out on US DVD as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. Others, clearly, had taken note of this film. Its central focus is Peter Winter, a young schizophrenic who is attempting to locate and reclaim his daughter from her adoptive family, but whose perception of reality is filled with strange voices and electrical noise, which has the effect of triggering sudden and dramatic emotional shits. As a study of schizophrenia it's up there with Cronenberg's too often overlooked Spider, and its brilliantly mixed soundtrack really does put you inside Peter's head. So why is it on this list? Well, at one point Peter, convinced that the white noise that constantly invades his head is being caused by a transmitter in his finger, uses a penknife to tear off his fingernail and stab the exposed flesh beneath. Of course, ripping off fingernails is sure-fire way to get an entire audience climbing the walls. We've all torn a nail at one time or another, and that shared experience means that we understand not just the nature of the pain, but its ludicrously disproportionate intensity (what, one wonders, was Nature thinking putting that many nerves beneath what are essentially claws for hunting?). If you're really looking to punish yourself, you can take your pick from a range of movie-based, fingernail-pulling torture scenes (in the space of a few months they cropped up in both Syriana and The Wind That Shakes the Barely), but there's something about Kerrigan's subjective approach here that makes it one of the very toughest to watch.
Killers – Acid bath
You might expect there to be a Korean film on this list – there are plenty of wince-worthy scenes in the likes of The Chaser, I Saw the Devil, The Yellow Sea and others – but none have made me yelp as loudly a single almost offhand moment in Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto's 2014 Indonesian/Japanese co-production Killers. The story of a monstrous and meticulous serial killer who encourages an investigating reporter to follow in his footsteps, it promises grisly horror from an early stage, which is where the moment that so startled me occurs. After sleeping with and then violently murdering his latest victim (a killing he films and uploads to the net for wider appreciation), well-to-do serial killer Nomura disposes of the body by dissolving it in acid in a bath we can presume he has specifically for this very purpose. We don't see much of this, but when the task is complete he sets about clearing the gooey remains, and when he goes to remove the remnants of a partially dissolved arm, it's been welded to the bathtub and he has to be sharply and loudly broken away. Now this may not sound like the worst thing a film such as this can throw at you (and believe me, the murder that precedes it is rough enough), but there's something so completely and horribly unexpected about this moment that I was swearing at the TV for some time after, and subsequent viewings have failed to deaden its unpleasant impact.
DVD review >>
Antichrist – The scissors
Few directors seem to divide audiences and critics like Lars von Trier, but his darkly toned tale of a couple who retreat to nature after the death of their child polarised opinion even more violently than usual. Made by von Trier a short while after a spell being treated for depression in a mental institution (this was the first film in his proclaimed 'Trilogy of Depression'), when it screened at Cannes it was given a special 'anti-award' by the Ecumenical Jury, who called it "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world." Critic Mark Kermode, however, who rarely had a good word for von Trier's cinema, absolutely loved it, and cult director John Waters picked it as one of his best ten films of the year. If you've seen the film then you already know the bit that made me twitch in my seat and prompted a friend of mine to declare that he'd never, ever be able to watch the film again. It comes late in the story, by which point we've already watched Her (there are no character names, just Him and Her) smash His testicles with a large wooden block, drill a hole in his leg and bolt a metal weight on to it to prevent him from wandering too far from the nest. But this is small potatoes. Later, in an extreme act of guilt and/or remorse, she throws open her legs and cuts off her clitoris with a pair of scissors. And we see it happen. Just the thought of that scene still makes me shudder. I'd still champion the film as a whole and salute the performances of Willem Dafoe (man does this guy choose interesting projects) and the seemingly fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg, but have had to steel myself up for subsequent viewings.
Blu-ray review >>
A Prophet – Razor practice
Jacques Audiard's A Prophet [Un prophète] has been rightly acclaimed as one of the all-time finest prison-set movies and was the film that transformed actor Tahar Rahim from supporting playing into leading man material. Rahim plays newly transferred Franco-Arab inmate Malik, who quickly finds himself forcibly recruited by the jail's powerful Corsican gang and ordered to kill fellow Muslim Reyeb – a key witness in a case against the Mob – by appealing to his fondness for young Arab boys. With Reyeb segregated and protected by the staff – they'll allow Reyeb his small peccadillos but will search Malik thoroughly before he's allowed through – Malik has to smuggle a weapon in that cannot be detected by the guards, one he can access and use before the quick-witted Reyeb can physically react or sound the alarm. What do the Corsicans give him? A razor blade.
OK, let me pause here for a second, as I've no doubt there are a number of readers somewhat younger than me who have never actually handled a razor blade. Nowadays you buy a plastic stick with a head stacked with the buggers, all sealed safely in place, and once it starts to blunt then you throw it away and grab a new one. But once upon a time, when razors were made of metal and only had only a single, double-edged blade (and still gave you a clean shave), you bought small packs of blades that were so bloody sharp that I probably cut my fingers at least twenty times just getting them out of their paper wrappers. Almost every boy I know, on their early encounters with these deadly slivers of metal, chose to test just how sharp they are were by touching the edge with a finger that promptly opened and spilt blood everywhere.
So where is Malik going to hide this small but frighteningly sharp object to transport it undetected into Reyeb's cell? In his mouth, lodged between his tongue and his cheek. That news alone was enough to make me squirm uncontrollably, but it actually gets worse. In order to deliver the killer blow as quickly as possible without alerting Reyeb, Malik is required to manipulate the blade with his tongue until it sits between his teeth and then slice at Reyeb's throat with a sharp move of his head. And he has to do it quickly. It's not an easy move to make and requires some practice, and in a one-shot sequence that had me crawling backwards out of my seat on my first viewing (and the second, and the third...), we watch Malik stand in from of a mirror and repeatedly attempt to perfect the move, cutting up the inside of his mouth in the process. Though we don't see the wounds themselves (small mercies...), the thought of what it feels like to have those childhood finger cuts transferred to your gums, cheek and tongue is one I will probably take to my grave.
DVD review >>