This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. Learn more

Cinema's 15 most shocking moments

Cinema's 15 most shocking moments

Cinema's 15 most shocking moments

Warning: contains plot (and lunch) spoilers.

15. 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.

14. 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.

13. 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.

12. 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.

11. 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.

10. 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.

9. Sloth awakes in Seven (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.

8. 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. Gut-wrenching in Django Kill (1967)

A sweaty and surreally violent spaghetti western, which director Giulio Questi claimed was based on his experiences as an Italian partisan fighting in the Second World War. The townsfolk realise a gunslinger has been shot with gold bullets, so tear him open to get at the metal.

6. 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.

5. Brown banquet in Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Italian arthouse don Pier Paolo Pasolini channelled his contempt for fascism into this allegory of the horrors that ideology wrought. The banquet of human faeces, and the characters tucking in may just be the most disgusting film moment ever.

4. Buttering up in Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is an example of directors taking advantage of relaxed censorship laws – mainly for its blunt depiction of Marlon Brando forever transforming a humble food staple – a block of butter – into something much more sinister.

3. The big reveal in The Crying Game (1992)

The whole world lost its marbles 20 years ago when it was revealed that IRA man Stephen Rea’s girlfriend was a pre-op transsexual. For all the latent homophobia and prejudice the reactions revealed, there’s no denying that it was a fine twist, expertly orchestrated to nudge the film into masterpiece territory.

2. 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.

1. Eyeball slicing in Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel set out to shock with this short film – and its eye-slicing scene still freaks people out. A razor is held to a woman’s eyeball, then we cut to a close-up of a cow’s eye being slit open. Strong stuff, even for today. A worthy winner.

(Images: All Star)