“It’s like a car crash, you can’t look away.” It’s a well-known and simple expression, meaning that something is so appalling that audiences want to look away but are unable to. The concept doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface; why would anyone be drawn to disturbing images?
Life-threatening scenarios stimulate the amygdala part of the brain, which controls emotions and survival instincts. People then interpret and evaluate the threat, evoking the fight or flight response. Essentially, people are intrigued by horrific things like torture because it releases adrenaline, so if someone is looking for a rush, these 10 cinematic torture scenes should do the trick.
Updated on January 8th, 2021 by Theo Kogod. There is no shortage of gory torture in cinema, as it will always captivate audiences. Sometimes, these graphic depictions of torture genuinely help the narrative and make for emotional moments that haunt viewers for years to come, even adding layers of meaning to a story. In other cases, such scenes can feel like unnecessary cruelty for its own sake. But in either case, there are some truly unforgettable scenes of torture that should not be overlooked, no matter how bad audiences might want to look away. We’ve added an extra 6 to this list to round out a collection of some of the most brutal torture scenes ever filmed.
16 Tempura – Ichi the Killer
The classic yakuza movie Ichi the Killer by director Takashi Miike is based on Hideo Yamamoto’s subversive manga of the same name. After his gang’s boss goes missing, a sadomasochistic enforcer named Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) devises inventive tortures to interrogate his enemies.
In an unforgettable scene, one yakuza member wakes from unconsciousness to find himself hanging from meat hooks that run the length of his back and limbs. Kikihara impales the man’s mouth with a steel tempura skewer while interrogating him. Then he takes a pot of boiling oil off the stove and pours it onto the man.
15 Parents’ Revenge – Lady Vengeance
Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance has one of the most memorably horrific torture scenes of his Vengeance Trilogy.
A group of parents who have all had their children brutally murdered is brought together, where they are given a chance to exact vengeance upon the killer (played by Choi Min-sik). They watch videos of their children’s deaths, then decide what to do about it. One-by-one, they take turns with axes, knives, and other tools to make this man suffer, killing him as a group.
14 Speed Bag – Once Upon A Time in America
Sergio Leone’s crime drama Once Upon a Time in America is the legendary director’s greatest and most underappreciated masterpiece. It follows the decades’-long friendship of two Jewish gangsters, Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods). After studio interference crippled the film’s pacing in the initial release, Leone’s original vision was restored in a cut of the film released in 2012.
One of the most harrowing scenes occurs early in the movie. A character named Fat Moe (Larry Rapp) is bound with hands behind his back and a choke-rope securing his neck to a speed bag. During an interrogation, he is punched repeatedly, the ropes strangling him, both eyes blackened, his entire face swollen.
13 Roman Execution – The Passion of the Christ
Actor-Director Mel Gibson’s career is filled with controversies, but his historical movie about the execution of Jesus of Nazareth (Jim Caviezel) may be his most disturbing work. The movie was praised for having dialogue in reconstructed Aramaic, but criticized for prevalent antisemitism and prioritizing the death of Jesus over his life’s messages.
The scourging and crucifixion show the barbarity of what were standard Roman punishments. The crucifixion lingers on every detail, including how the weight of gravity worsened the ordeal as the wooden cross was raised.
12 Flaying – Martyrs
Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs is a twisted and harrowing revenge story. A woman named Lucie Jurin (Mylène Jampanoï) executes a family who subjected her to horrible violence when she was a child. Lucie is haunted by psychological trauma and self-mutilates, believing herself to be savaged by a demon. Her friend, Anna Assaoui (Morjana Alaoui), begins to investigate matters and is eventually kidnapped by a cult that tortures people in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, making them into “martyrs.”
After undergoing numerous tortures, Anna is skinned alive. While the process of the actual skinning happens off-camera, the film shows the aftermath as Anna lies on a table, skinless, still conscious, as one of her tormentors leans over her to determine whether she has achieved enlightenment through her pain.
11 Circle of Blood – Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom
This controversial film from director Pier Paolo Pasolini is based on the Marquis de Sade’s most subversive and political novel, The 120 Days of Sodom, adapted to be set in WWII’s fascist Republic of Salo.
Four powerful men, a Duke, Bishop, Magistrate, and President, lock themselves in a castle and torture people they have ordered soldiers to kidnap as the film explores themes of fascism, capitalism, authoritarianism, and institutions of power. Even the “tamer” early scenes are absolutely brutal, but the final segment, Circle of Blood, escalates the violence as the victims are scalped, lynched, burned alive, and branded with hot irons. In a bizarre twist, the film ends by showing two soldiers dancing with one another, taking a moment to appreciate beauty with no regard for the executions taking place.
10 Hobbling – Misery
Before performing it on Paul (James Caan), Annie (Kathy Bates) describes a procedure used to prevent mine workers from running away. Paul is a novelist who spins his car off the road in a blizzard before he’s rescued and nursed back to health by Annie, who’s a huge fan of his work in Misery (1990).
After Sheldon realizes how psychotic Annie is, he attempts to escape. When Annie catches him, she places a wood block between his feet, then smashes both of his ankles with a sledgehammer in a procedure called “hobbling.”
9 Waterboarding – Zero Dark Thirty
In the Oscar-winning movie following the US military’s decade-long hunt for al-Queda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after his orchestration of the 9/11 attacks, no scene is tougher to watch than the scene in which a terrorist is waterboarded for information by the CIA.
Expertly shot in a way that doesn’t sympathize with the terrorist or his interrogators, the unflinching realism in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) drew criticism from the US government, who claimed they only used “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and that the waterboarding and torture depicted was fabricated.
8 The Dentist’s Chair – Marathon Man
An interesting and under-watched genre-bending story from legendary writer William Goldman (The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men), Marathon Man (1976) follows New York City Ph.D. student Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman), who becomes involved in an international stolen diamond conspiracy after reuniting with his government agent brother (Roy Scheider).
No one likes going to the dentist, but everyone’s worst nightmare plays out when Levy is strapped to a chair at the hands of former dentist and Nazi war criminal Szell (Laurence Olivier) in an oral interrogation scene that will give you toothaches.
7 The Vice – Casino
Director Martin Scorsese has never shied away from violence in his movies, and one of his most gruesome scenes comes during a head-pounding interrogation in Casino (1995).
When mob enforcer Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) is unable to get a name he needs out of an Irish rival gangster after two days and nights of hurting the man, Nicky resorts to his most brutal move – putting the man’s head in a bench vice and squeezing.
6 The Reverse Bear Trap – Saw
One could spend days making their skin crawl with the eight-movie Saw franchise’s elaborate torture scenes, which provide dozens of examples that qualify for this list, but none more iconic trap the first movie’s Reverse Beartrap.
In a flashback recounted by a woman (Shawnee Smith) helping the police, she recalls her encounter with the serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). This involved her retrieving a key from her cellmate’s stomach to unlock the large metal device attached to her head, which is rigged to rip her jaw open when its timer expires.
5 The Dotted Line – Oldboy
Chan-wook Park’s original Oldboy (2003) had a memorable torture scene in which its main character removes his captor’s teeth with the claw side of a hammer, but Spike Lee’s remake went more gruesome with his version of the scene in 2013.
When Joe (Josh Brolin) captures the man (Samuel L. Jackson) that confined him in a room for 20 years, he takes his time exacting revenge and begins by drawing a dotted line across the man’s neck. Using a box cutter, Joe then follows the dashes.
4 Aversion Therapy – A Clockwork Orange
Only Stanley Kubrick could film a torture scene so brutal that it permanently damaged his actor’s eye and required a doctor’s participation to ensure safety. A Clockwork Orange (1972) follows delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell), who enters an experimental rehabilitation program instead of prison.
Alex’s treatment involves him being strapped to a chair with his eyes forced open to watch montages of violence while being administered a drug that induces violent illness. The intention is to condition him to be repulsed by crime, but the therapy yields unexpected consequences.
3 Stuck In The Middle – Reservoir Dogs
A scene so iconic that it’s impossible to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealer’s Wheel without visualizing Reservoir Dogs (1992), the torturing of a kidnapped police officer (Kirk Baltz) by Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) is especially tough to watch because the camera angle puts the viewer in the officer’s perspective.
A scene that begins with Mr. Blonde telling his victim that he’s going to torture him not for information, but because it’s amusing, culminates in the officer’s ear being sliced off with a straight razor, all while the sadistic Blonde playfully dances to ’70s music.
2 Eye Scream – Hostel
Anyone who’s seen Taken (2008) might be wary of European travels, but three years earlier, Eli Roth shocked audiences with his story of three Americans taken hostage while backpacking in Europe in the first installment of the torture-filled Hostel trilogy.
Just as Paxton (Jay Hernandez) has escaped a torture dungeon, he turns back to save a girl he hears screaming. He walks in on Kana (Jennifer Lim) having her eye removed. After killing her torturer, Paxton must save Kana by completing removing her semi-detached eyeball, resulting in a stomach-churning scene that is difficult to forget.
1 The Needles – Audition
Takashi Miike has directed over 100 movies since his 1991 debut, and none are as brutal as Audition (1999). After Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) loses his wife, his filmmaking friend, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), tries to cheer him up by holding a mock casting call where women “audition” to be Shigeharu’s new wife.
Shigeharu is smitten by Asami (Eihi Shiina), who turns out to be a psychotic serial killer. After paralyzing Shigeharu, Asami inserts needles all over his body, including his eyes, as she works towards her big finish of sawing his foot off with a wire.
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