ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

The most shocking movie moments in mainstream cinema

Jaw-dropping moments in movies that shocked the world.

The most shocking movie moments in mainstream cinema
22 November 2022

Warning: the following contains plot (and lunch) spoilers. But, seriously, cinema at its most extreme is sometimes the best cinema. Without filmmakers pushing the boundaries of taste and decency means that we actually know where the boundaries are.

We won't offer up any spoilers, but the likes of Dashcam, Titane and Crimes Of The Future prove that extreme cinema is not just still around but making something of a resurgence.

The following are some of the most extreme moments in mainstream cinema. We're not talking about the cult classics here - we will leave Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Martyrs, Audition and others for another time. But these are the most extreme moments from mainly mainstream-ish movies that pushed audiences to the limits throughout the years - and then some...

Most extreme scenes in cinema

Most extreme scenes in cinema

1. Hobbled love in Misery

It's hard to believe that Kathy Bates' first movie was Misery. Never has an actress debuted on the screen so utterly fully formed as Bates. She's perfect as Annie Wilkes, the psychotic fan of an author who just so happens to crash near her home. To rehabilitate him after the crash she keeps him bedridden. When he decides to leave his prison, though, he's given the ultimate punishment - legs hobbled by a mallet. You see nearly nothing, yet in your mind you see it all.

53
6
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

2. That shot in Full Metal Jacket

Vincent D'onofrio may be The Kingpin to a whole legion of fans but he will always be Private Pyle to us. Pyle, the bullied recruit who, throughout the first half of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, picks himself up and then gets to a point where he is as fit as any other soldier. The kicker is, that isn't enough and he shoots himself just before he becomes a real soldier. It's coming-of-age tragedy that is excruciating to watch.

32
7
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

3. Sloth Awakes In Se7en (1995)

Never mind what’s in the box, popcorn flew everywhere when the Sloth victim’s mutilated body turned out to be convulsively alive. Pity the poor Swat agent who had his face right up close, but pity the victim more – strapped to a bed and tortured for a year. “And he still has hell to look forward to,” notes a doctor in one of the cheerier scenes.

30
6
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

4. Shower Scene In Psycho (1960)

Paramount expected an Audrey Hepburn flick; Alfred Hitchcock gave them one of the most shocking films of all time. Janet Leigh’s character is built up as our protagonist for half the film only to be savagely dispatched in the iconic shower murder scene. Such ruthlessness is seldom seen even today.

28
10
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

5. Teething troubles in American History X

Hands up who have watched this scene without wincing. Nope, us either. American History X may have had a troubled production but it also offers up some brutal moments - the teeth on curb scene is the absolute worst. It's not what it shows, but what you hear. Ugh

25
7
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

6. Toxic wasted in RoboCop (1987)

Emil, Paul McCrane, taking a bath in toxic waste is one of the most shocking scenes of the '80s. Yes, everything in RoboCop is all done with a dollop of hyperealism but seeing one of the villains melt in the way he does offers up one of the most nightmare inducing images even put to celluloid. Paul Verhoeven we love you, but you are awful.

20
3
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

7. Exploding Skull In Scanners (1981)

By the Eighties, special effects had reached the point where there were very few limits to what directors could show. David Cronenberg exploited this masterfully in Scanners’ head-exploding scene, where a demonstration of psychic powers goes drastically wrong. The worst headache in film history.

17
5
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

8. Ass-et management in Requiem For A Dream

Darren Aronofsky's twisted nightmare is extreme throughout. It's a daring piece of filmmaking but the one scene that sticks out for us is the 'ass to ass' moment, where Jennifer Connelly's Marion Silver is at her lowest ebb, putting on a sex show for a drug baron. It's disgusting, horrible and utterly harrowing to watch.

14
8
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

9. Crucifix Abuse In The Exorcist (1973)

Trying to choose the most shocking moment in the hugely controversial The Exorcist is almost akin to picking the least likable Nazi. But the scene in which possessed schoolgirl Linda Blair defiles herself with a crucifix, before forcing her mother’s face between her legs and sending her flying across the room definitely edges it.

15
10
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

10. Gangster Kills Girl In Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

You never kill the kid – it’s a sacrosanct screenwriting law. But John Carpenter’s exploitation classic showed it meant business by having an emotionless gang member shoot a little girl at an ice-cream truck. Even more cruelly, she was only there because she’d been given the wrong flavour just five minutes before.

9
6
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

11. Head On A Stick In Wolf Creek (2005)

Sometimes the power of a shocking moment comes from its banality. Wolf Creek gets under the skin thanks to its sweaty realism, particularly in the ‘head on a stick’ scene, where the creepily friendly killer severs his victim’s spine, while calmly explaining how she will be left paralysed.

7
6
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

12. Slit Throat In Hidden (2005)

Michael Haneke grabbed us by the lapels with Hidden. Its most arresting moment? When Daniel Auteuil thinks he’s found the person sending him CCTV videos of his house, only for the man to slit his own throat. The arterial spurt is bad enough, but Haneke’s unblinking camera sears it into your soul.

6
5
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

13. Fowl Play In Freaks (1932)

Tod Browning’s underground classic shocks us today for its matter-of-fact presentation of circus ‘freaks’. But its climax turned heads both then and now. A trapeze artist has married a dwarf for his inheritance; his fellow performers get wind of a murder plot, so mutilate the trapeze artist and transform her into a bizarre duck-creature.

4
4
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

14. Death By Dwarf In Don’t Look Now (1973)

Grieving parents Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie head to Venice to get over the death of their daughter. Sutherland pursues a red-coated figure he thinks is the spirit of the girl. It turns out to be an old dwarf woman, who stabs him to death. Our mental scars will never heal.

8
8
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

15. Arm-less fun in 127 Hours

127 Hours isn't Danny Boyle's best movie but it is another showcase of how he always offers up unique filmmaking tricks in his movies. In 127 Hours, for the most part it's filmed with GoPros and the like which makes the realism of Aron Ralston having to free himself from being stuck between some rocks that much more realistic. It's a tough watch as Ralston (played by James Franco) goes to work on his arm with a pen knife. It's when he hits a nerve and the soundtrack amplifies this that gets us. But the whole things is a hard watch. Even harder when you learn that it's a true, bloody story

10
10
Thanks for voting
Most extreme scenes in cinema

16. Fruit Punch In The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy attracted controversy on its release for the scene where James Cagney rams a breakfast grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face. Shockingly mundane in its petty brutality, a moment of domestic violence like this is still horribly transgressive.

7
23
Thanks for voting

SOMETHING MISSING FROM OUR SHORTLIST?

Tell us about it, and if enough people agree we'll add it in.