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23 Disturbing, Brutal Movies Based on Real-Life Atrocities

Updated July 24, 2020 66.2k votes 17.3k voters 3.4m views23 items

List RulesVote based on which true stories are the most terrifying

"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. 
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  • 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.
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  • 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.

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  • 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?

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  • 4

    The Whistleblower

    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.

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