My recent ratings of The 10 Most Disturbing Movies of all Time surprised one of my frequent commenters for the omission of David Fincher's Seven. Let me explain why I don't consider a film like this to be in the same league as the truly disturbing ones I put on my list.
Seven falls into what I call the "disturbing thriller" category, alongside other masterpieces like Silence of the Lambs, Hard Candy, and Cape Fear. They contain plenty of torturous material, to be sure, but most people don't feel soiled or ashamed to be watching (and enjoying) them. On the contrary, these films amuse as much as they disturb, involving colorful psychopaths who are almost anti-heroes. What they do is clearly wrong, yet they gratify us despite ourselves. Everyone loves Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the genteel cannibal obsessed with etiquette. Max Cady and Haley Stark are hilarious, full of nasty wit, each nursing a sore grievance that allows us to sympathize with them in their most passionate moments. (Max was deliberately shafted by his lawyer, and Hayley is furious about pedophiles.) John Doe has grievances too, and we get a glimpse of his soul when his robotic demeanor falls away, and he lashes out against a detective for daring to claim that gluttons, greedy lawyers, whores, and slothful pederasts are "innocent people". Doe even has the grace to acknowledge that he's as sinful as those he kills, and willingly pays the penalty for it. There's something rather over-dramatic about these films that reminds us we're having fun more than getting kicked in the stomach.
And it doesn't hurt that these psychos -- Lecter, Cady, Stark, Doe -- are played by first-rate actors -- Anthony Hopkins, Robert De Niro, Ellen Page, and Kevin Spacey -- who are so artistic in their depravity that it's hard to hate them too much. (With the exception of Catherine Keener in An American Crime and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, the baddies on my list are played by unknown or obscure actors.) Thrillers often involve victims or protagonists who serve in large measure as a foil to the perversely amusing psychopath. Attorney Bowden (Cape Fear) shafted his client by burying evidence that could have saved him; so he's arguably getting his just deserts. Jeff Kolver (Hard Candy) is a closet pedophile and active ephebophile; perhaps he deserves to be castrated. Detective Mills (Seven) is angry and unpleasant, and becomes the perfect tool in a string of serial killings. In truly disturbing films, the victims are thoroughly likable, the baddies utterly despicable. But in thrillers like these, an FBI agent can team up with a man-eating psychiatrist, and we're not sure who to like more.
Most importantly, thrillers don't become unbearably graphic. Silence of the Lambs may deal with cannibalism and skinning people alive, but certainly not on the same visual plane as Cannibal Holocaust and Martyrs. Cape Fear has a vicious rape scene -- De Niro even bites a chunk of flesh out of the woman's face, speaking of cannibalism -- but it's not remotely as pulverizing as those in Last House on the Left, Blue Velvet, and Irreversible. The torture Ellen Page inflicts in Hard Candy excites as much as it disturbs, while the torture she receives in An American Crime is appalling on every level. Seven shows the aftermath of some gruesome killings, and has a miserably unhappy ending, but it allows us to come up for air at plenty of points, and it's also philosophically intriguing. Contrast this with the brutally nihilistic ending of Eden Lake -- a film which doesn't allow us to breathe at all. In truly disturbing movies, the ugliness is the film, and at no point are we remotely sympathetic towards or thrilled by the villains. In thrillers that's not the case.