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23 Disturbing, Brutal Movies Based on Real-Life Atrocities

“Based on a true story”—we see it all the time. It’s a marketing tool, a cloying device used to engender empathy for the characters, to bring the audience closer to the story. More often than not, these films are sentimental, inspiring, or heroic. Yet from time to time, we get a film based on a true story that isn’t happy, but terrifying. Call it “based on a true atrocity.”In many cases, these films aren’t afraid to go all the way—to take the audience on a spirit-crushing journey through disturbing truths about the dark side of human nature.
A Serbian Film

Photo:  Jinga Films

Widely considered one of the most disturbing films ever made, A Serbian Film has been banned in most countries that allow the banning of films. Supposedly a political metaphor for the atrocities of the Bosnian War, the movie follows a retired porn star asked to make one final film, and proves excruciatingly hard to watch as it progresses from standard porn fare to scenes of rape, infant rape, decapitation by machete during rape, death by choking (on a penis) during rape… well, you get the idea.

Hostel

Photo:  Lionsgate

Wait, what? Yes, indeed. Believe it or not, Hostel began life as a documentary about an underground extreme thrill-seeking practice director Eli Roth discovered online whereby participants pay $10,000 to kill someone. The practice was supposedly not illegal because people volunteered to be murdered—extremely poor people from rural southeast Asia sacrificed themselves so their families could have money to change their lives.

Roth set aside the idea of making a doc when he realized that people who make a business of killing might, you know, kill him if he ruined their business. And so was born Hostel, the popular zenith of torture porn, which, according to some, also serves as an allegory for relations between America and the rest of the world immediately following 9/11.

Auschwitz
Photo:  Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY)

The word Auschwitz in and of itself evokes enough tragedy and dread for a film with that title to land itself on this list. But that’s not all. Auschwitz was directed by Uwe Boll, one of the least subtle—and by many accounts, least talented—filmmakers of all time. Before seeing the film, critic Sophie Albers wrote “The words Auschwitz and Uwe Boll in one breath rightly leads one to fear the worst.” She wasn’t wrong.

The film depicts Jews having their teeth pulled out while being shoved into ovens, the massacre of children, and a cameo from Boll himself as an SS officer standing nonchalantly outside a gas chamber as the people within pound on the door trying to escape. A metaphor, perhaps?

The Strangers
Photo:  Rogue Pictures

The Strangers, a sleeper hit in 2008, provides enough squeamish, disturbing home invasion material to please genre fans but make others think twice about sitting through the film. The movie adds an interesting twist to the “based on true events” label—it seems to be an amalgamation of three true stories: (A) the Keddie Cabin murders; (B) the Manson family murders; and, (C) something that happened to the director as a kid. Watching the film with this in mind makes it all the more difficult to sit through.

Wolf Creek
Photo: Weinstein Company

Begone, heady political and social aspirations of other films on the list! Wolf Creek is a both-guns-blazing (or, more appropriately, both-knives-slicing) exploitation film with enough cover-your-eyes bloodletting that audiences members were walking out of early screenings.

The film has been dismissed as many things—misogynist, cruel, cynical, vicious—but was also nominated for multiple Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. Wolf Creek was inspired by real-life killings of backpackers in Australia in the 1990s.

12 Years a Slave
Photo: flickr/CC0

If you haven’t seen it you certainly know enough about it—12 Years a Slave makes a bold move by dispensing with the formality of story and proceeding unflinchingly into the barbarism of slavery. Less a narrative film than a visual catalog of the horrors of the slave trade, the film is extremely difficult to watch, and seems intent on forcing the American public to accept the brutality upon which its society was built.

The enslaving of Africans, alongside the genocide of Native Americans, is without doubt the greatest atrocity of the post-Renaissance world, and 12 Years a Slave pulls no punches in making sure you know it.

The Whistleblower
Photo: Samuel Goodwin Films

The Whistelblower tells the true story of a Nebraska police officer recruited by the UN as part of a peacekeeping force in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, only to uncover a sex trafficking operation with corporate backing that the UN seemed intent upon ignoring. After being fired, the police officer in question brought her story to the BBC and won a wrongful termination lawsuit.

The filmmakers claim they toned down details of the actual case, though the film graphically depicts the squalid conditions in which the women lived and has a very hard-to-sit-through scene in which a woman who tries to escape is raped with a lead pipe.

Boys Don’t Cry
Photo: Fox Searchlight

Boys Don’t Cry depicts transphobia in a terrifying way—through the real-life murder of trans man Brandon Teena at the hands of his own friends, who didn’t know he was trans. What makes Boys Don’t Cry so hard to sit through is how it breaks your heart, and terrifies you, in equal measure. Directed with sensitivity and compassion by Kimberly Peirce, the film makes you fall in love with Brandon and his friends.

It then shows you the fathomless darkness buried beneath the congenial nature of Brandon’s friends, and ends with Brandon’s death. It’s a tragic vision of prejudice and fear in small town America.

Changeling
Photo: Universal Pictures

Like FoxcatcherChangeling is hard to sit through not only on account of its traumatizing real-life narrative, but also because it’s a pretty bad movie. The disturbing true story of a woman whose son was inexplicably replaced by another boy, Changeling details the rampant sexism and corruption and lurid criminal landscape of Los Angeles in the 1920s.

The central character is locked in a mental asylum and driven mad as she fights against a thorny conspiracy, and if that weren’t disturbing enough—MAJOR SPOILER ALERT—you get to see children hacked to death with an axe in a chicken coop.

Rosewood
Photo: Warner Bros

Rosewood, from Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, is a no-holds-barred look at racism and racist violence in the American south. Not much more needs be said for you to know it’s hard to sit through. Based on the Rosewood massacre of 1923, the film depicts the brutal aftermath of a white woman claiming she was assaulted by a Black man—a gang of white men, some KKK, marched on the Black hamlet of Rosewood and burned it to the ground over the course of three days.

The town was abandoned and half a dozen Black residents murdered. No one was indicted for the crimes. Hard to watch, but an important film.

Zodiac
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Countless movies exist based on real serial killers. But only one of them was made by the inimitable David Fincher, master at finding the intersection of disturbing, violent, lurid, bizarre, and hilarious.The violence of Zodiac isn’t what makes the film hard to sit through–it’s the constant, suffocating dread permeating the banal day-to-day lives of normal people, the way in which the film depicts one small kernel of fear and violence snowballing to destroy people’s lives and their perception of their fellow man. The film’s uneasy ending also leaves audiences unsettled.

Bully

Photo: Lionsgate

Bully tells the true story of a high school bully who was murdered by the kids he bullied. Directed by Larry Clark, the man behind the similar, no-punches-pulled Kids, Bully presents a disturbing psychological case study of bullying, the bullied, and group mentality. It’s also a complex, honest, very dark portrayal of the confusing, hyperbolic emotional state of teenagers.

Gorillas in the Mist
Photo: Universal Pictures

The extent to which you find Gorillas in the Mist hard to sit through probably comes down to your tolerance for cruelty toward animals. The film tells the story of Dian Fossey, an anthropologist who worked with gorillas in central Africa. Fossey confronted a culture of total indifference toward animals upon arriving in the region in the 1960s, and the film doesn’t skimp on details of dismembered animal parts for sale at local markets.

As political stability in the Congo eroded, Fossey was arrested and had to bribe her way out of the country. She was murdered by machete in 1985, when she returned to Africa. Not a happy film.

Snowtown
Photo: Madman Films

Talk about hard to sit though. Director Justin Kurzel’s knack for engrossing ambiance and stark, beautiful images makes for a formally striking film, but does nothing to alleviate the menagerie of savagery in this account of Australia’s Snowtown Murders. The words “incest rape” should be enough of a reason to include Snowtown on this list, but it doesn’t stop there.

Suffice it to say if you like dogs, don’t see this movie.

Compliance
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Compliance features very little violence but is one of the most disturbing films in recent memory. Closely based on a true story, it examines themes similar to Shakespeare’s Macbeth—the nature of power, suggestion, subservience, and gender relations—while the action unfolds almost entirely in a fast food restaurant. The setup of the story is absurd enough to seem unreal—a man claiming to be a police officer calls a fast food restaurant and asks the manager to hold one of her employees, a young woman, for questioning.

From there, it quickly turns to the dark side of human nature. The police never show up, and the man on the phone talks the manager through an interrogation of her employee that leads to disturbing events and conclusions.

The Act of Killing

Photo: CinedigmThe Act of Killing is a documentary, so maybe it’s a bit of cheat for this list, but the fact remains that it’s an extremely-hard-to-sit-through movie based on real atrocities. The film focuses on Anwar, a man who lead a death square during the Indonsian massacres of the mid-1960s, during which as many as 1,000,000 alleged communists and leftists, as well as ethnic Chinese, were killed.

Instead of simply telling a story through interviews and archival footage, The Act of Killing recreates actual massacres in which Anwar took part in the style of various film genres, including musical. The result is a surreal and disturbing portrait of violence and the social psychology behind large scale massacres.

City of God
Photo: Miramax

City of God‘s status as based-on-a-true-story is somewhat thorny, as the film is based on a novel, but the novel is based on true events. It also doesn’t depict any single atrocity, as many other films on the list do. At least not on the surface. A sweeping, deadpan depiction of violence in the favelas of Rio de Janerio from the 60s until the 80s, City of God includes child murders and murderers, rampant drug use and dealing, rape, violent gang hazing, and countless other heinous crimes.

The real atrocity at the heart of City of God, though, is economic crimes–millions of people throughout the world live a life of violence, poverty, and desperation on a daily basis as a result of economic injustice and corporate greed.

Even the Rain
Photo: Vitagraph Films

Tambien la Lluvia (Even the Rain) addresses two true life atrocities divided by centuries of history. A fantastic movie, it tells the story of Mexican filmmakers who go to Bolivia to make a movie about Christopher Columbus only to get caught up in the Cochabamba water revolts, a series of protests and resulting police brutality that arose when the IMF forced Bolivia to privatize water, sending prices skyrocketing and potentially robbing indigenous people of access to clean water.

Through its device, the film shows the atrocities of the Spanish in the new world, including the slaughter, crucifixion, and burning of natives, as well as unfair contracts forced on struggling nations by economically powerful bodies like the IMF and World Bank. At times very hard to sit though, Tambien la Lluvia asks difficult questions about the connections between slavery and the indentured servitude of late capitalism.

Come and See
Photo: Kino Video

Come and See is one of the great undiscovered films of the 20th Century—a Soviet Apocalypse Now detailing the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Russia and surrounding countries. Set in Belarus, the surreal, disturbing film follows a boy as he attempts to escape first Nazi artillery fire, then the invading army itself.

A nightmarish vision of war, Come and See culminates in an overwhelming, excruciating sequence of indifferent brutality that is both extremely hard to sit through and one of the great feats of modern cinema.

Welcome to Sarajevo
Photo: Miramax

A lot could’ve gone wrong with Welcome to Sarajevo. A film about journalists documenting the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, it provides countless opportunities for cliché, including its true story of a British journalist who smuggles a young orphan to England. Yet director Michael Winterbottom makes all the right decisions, and rather than succumbing to sentimentality, Welcome to Sarajevo turns the city under siege into a seething, brutal hell in which occupants and visitors alike become numb to the atrocities of war.

In one very telling scene, a character walks by a line of people being executed without paying much attention. It’s these details that make the film so good, but also hard to sit through.

Bronson
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Nicolas Winding Refn makes very violent films. From his Pusher trilogy, in which a person is graphically ground and processed like meat, to his sleeper hit Drive, the man loves making the audience squirm. Bronson, the true story of Michael Gordon Peterson, who spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, doesn’t shy away from extreme violence, and also serves audiences a healthy portion of European art film cliché.

The resulting picture is disjointed, pugnacious, and in some scenes downright repellent. A surreal mixture of horror, crime, and comedy, Bronson is many things (including the breakout picture for Tom Hardy); easy to sit through is not one of them.

Memories of Murder
Photo: CJ Entertainment

For cinephiles with a high tolerance for disturbing violence and an unsettling mix of the macabre and hilarious, Memories of Murder is a treat. Based on a series of rapes and murders in rural Korea in the late 80s and early 90s, the film examines how violence begets violence–as police search desperately for answers, their frustration turns to brutality and reveals their darker natures.

Directed by Bong-Joon Ho, who went on to make The Host and SnowpiercerMemories of Murder sticks in the audience’s mind like a splinter, revealing the full extent of disturbing nature slowly, over time, many hours or days after the film has ended.

Foxcatcher
Photo: Sony Classics

Foxcatcher is hard to sit through for more than one reason. An ostensibly disturbing portrait of obsession, American masculinity, and the deranged nature of wealth, the film is also something of a hot mess. Slow motion scenes of wrestling intended to evoke barbarism and masculine pride end up feeling like artful gay porn, while the film’s insistence on tackling its absurd events with deadly serious solemnity gives the air of an SNL sketch gone horribly wrong.

You might find yourself laughing out loud when Steve Carrell tells Channing Tatum to call him Golden Eagle, as his friends do. An hour later, you’ll be disturbed by how it all ends.

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