This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
All horror deals in taboo. Murder is bad. Sex is worse. Some films revel in it and take a little extra pleasure in pushing societal convention to its breaking point. These films, of course, pique our interest only further. Show us what you got, make us hurt. The movies found on this list elicit a variety of emotional responses. A bunch of them are funny as hell. A few others are incredibly upsetting. At some point in all of the chosen movies here, you’ll find yourself wanting to look away but equally compelled to keep your mug glued to the screen. Is that the sign of a provocateur, or just an asshole at work? They’re one and the same.
Without any further taboo, here are our 10 greatest horror films that pushed the envelope as selected by Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Kieran Fisher, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly.
10. Candyman (1992)
There really is no other slasher like Candyman (Tony Todd). He was a celebrated artist and the son of a slave. When he fell in love with a white woman he was hired to commit to portrait, an angry mob of racists tore his painting hand from his body and replaced it with a hook. They smothered him in honey and sat back as swarms of bees stung him to death. A hundred years later, he haunts the Cabrini-Green projects feasting on the fear of the innocent so that his story of rage can forever be told in whispers. Bernard Rose adapts the Clive Barker short story of the same name and uses it to stir up the shame of a nation built on the backs of slaves. Its conversation on race and racism is a little muddy due to the victims Candyman selects, and it will be interesting to see how Jordan Peele‘s production company will realign the killer’s rage in the remake. (Brad Gullickson)
9. Antichrist (2009)
Outside of off-color humor, dead babies are a big no-no in polite society. That doesn’t mean they can’t be mined for blithe grotesqueries, like Peter Jackson’s zombie babe in his splatterpunk opus Braindead, but you’re setting yourself up for a lot of shade if you center your serious drama around them. But you know who doesn’t mind the shade? Enfant terrible Lars Von Trier, who takes childlike glee in pressing his audience’s buttons. But while a dead child is the catalyst for this torrid nightmare, the film is far more awful than just a singular tragedy. Antichrist, whose name is taboo in and of itself, is a rough watch filled with images that swing from laughably absurd to utterly gut-churning, particularly a blood-in-ejaculate scene that I wouldn’t mind never seeing again. It’s a masterpiece of Artaudian proportions, cinema of cruelty at its most pure, and as a one-time experience, unlike anything you’ll ever see again. (Jacob Trussell)
8. A Serbian Film (2010)
Few films cross truly taboo lines, and even fewer do so with more than one hot potato issue. A Serbian Film says fuck that noise — and then fucks all the noise to death. The rest of the films on this list seem quaint by comparison as this Serbian film remains banned and unavailable in many places and unwatched by many people who’ve “heard” about what it contains. It’s a shame as the movie is hilarious (for fans of pitch-black comedy) and horrifying (for fans of children and innocence). Is it offensive and/or disturbing in its gleeful crossing of nearly every societal line imaginable? That’s subjective, but I will promise you the film doesn’t give a shit about offending or disturbing you because it’s too busy going gonzo with its amazingly grim scenarios, dark comedy, viciously unpleasant mayhem, and absolute chef’s kiss of an ending. Watch it, but don’t see it with people you know. (Rob Hunter)
7. Irréversible (2002)
If there is one thing that Gaspar Noé is good at, it’s disrupting any and all things considered polite and comfortable. If there are two things that Gaspar Noé is good at, it’s doing the first, coupled with dizzying and dazzling camerawork. In Irréversible, we get both. The film asserts right off the bat that “Time destroys all things” and in this revenge narrative told in reverse chronological order, that’s true, but what is also true is that a fire extinguisher can destroy a lot, too. In this case — a human face. This act of brutality begins the film, but it’s certainly not the primary source of Irréversible’s taboo-breaking notoriety. The crux of the narrative is the violent rape scene that occurs when Monica Bellucci’s Alex is attacked in a tunnel. The scene plays out in a ten-minute long take that is borderline unendurable. To depict such a vile taboo in this manner is arguably repulsive, indisputably challenging, and, perhaps, a bold undertaking worth more consideration than an initial negative reaction. Either way, Irréversible shatters taboos in ways that only Noé could accomplish. (Anna Swanson)
6. Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)
The Maddest Story Ever Told!?!?!? That’s a lot of bold talk. But, dammit, they’re not wrong. Grindhouse madman Jack Hill yanks Universal Monster mainstay Lon Chaney Jr. into a demonic landscape of awkward, horrible, and grotesque creatures. The one-time Wolf Man is now caretaker to three little kiddies, each one suffering from a genetic affliction that reverts their adulthood to childhood. As these sad beings regress in intelligence and maturity, they also advance in bloodlust. They’re the product of inbreeding and abuse, and they certainly have a right to the hostility bubbling below every thought. Watching them lash out at a supposedly refined society is more of a sorrowful endeavor than a thrilling one. Hill was a trickster who lulled his audience in with an exploitative tagline but kept us there with brutal empathy. (Brad Gullickson)