Read ‘em and Seep

Ranking of the rank, in one view…

  1. Total Recall

In Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi blockbuster, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) finds himself on the run from the governor of Mars. As part of his evasive maneuvers, he must extract a tracking device that’s been implanted in his sinus cavity. A hilarious sequence follows in which Quaid sticks a sort of futuristic caulking gun up his nose and pulls out a red orb the size of a golf ball. Arnie’s face goes through a lot of agonized contortions in this scene, but it doesn’t seem like too tricky a feat, comparatively speaking. After all, since the device was designed to be extractable, the process seems more uncomfortable than painful. And what a relief you must feel once you’re done!

  1. Game Night

At a certain point in this entertaining, one-crazy-night comedy from last year, suburban husband Max (Jason Bateman) gets shot in the arm, forcing his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) to figure out how to extract the bullet using only items she’s scavenged from a dollar store, while guided by an instructional video from an alt-right website. I strongly identify with Max in this scene, from the gag reflex that kicks in as soon as the blood begins to flow to his annoyance at the way his wife has arranged the display settings on her smartphone. Not fainting when the penknife accidentally makes contact with bone would be a challenge, but I think I could soldier through.

  1. Prometheus

In Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel, an astronaut (played by Noomi Rapace) who believed she was sterile suddenly appears to be pregnant. Since she is in an Alien movie, she knows that’s no human embryo inside her, but a killer baby xenomorph. And so she seals herself into an automated surgery pod and tells the computer to give her an emergency cesarean. As grueling as this experience may look, it’s not as sustained a test of one’s pain threshold as other scenes on this list. Once Rapace’s character hits the button that sets the operation in motion, she’s a passive patient in the care of a supercomputer. She even gets local anesthesia!

  1. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

At first blush, the showstopping moment when a crazed Ash (Bruce Campbell) chain-saws off his own hand might seem to be way too low on this list. But here’s my logic: At this point in Sam Raimi’s 1987 splatter comedy, Ash’s hand is possessed by a demonic entity and won’t stop smashing plates and bottles over his head. It seems like a kill-or-be-killed scenario to me, and moreover, the heat of battle would mute the pain of the amputation process. In fact, the hardest aspect of this scene for me to replicate might be revving up a chain saw with my teeth.

  1. Cast Away

Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) extracting a rotten tooth using nothing but a mirror and the blade of an ice skate is easily the most excruciating scene in Hanks’s entire filmography (okay, with the possible exception of his pidgin-English monologues from Cloud Atlas). Noland’s intense whimpering, the horrifying sound of the tooth coming loose, and the crudity of his tools all combine to elevate this moment in Robert Zemeckis’s survival drama, released in 2000, to the pantheon of cinematic dental trauma, right alongside John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, and Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors.

  1. Saw

While later films in James Wan’s horror franchise played up the elaborate backstory of the serial killer Jigsaw, this 2004 original was juiced by the same elemental appeal as those questions 12-year-olds concoct for each other during sleepovers: Would you rather freeze or burn to death? Swim through a mile of shit or a mile of dead bodies? Saw through your own leg or let your wife and child die? Before Cary Elwes’s character takes a hacksaw to a limb, he has to muster the willpower by channeling the insanity of his situation. Could I work myself into the same leg-lopping froth? I’m doubtful.

  1. 127 Hours

In this 2010 drama, the act of self-surgery is far more than one vivid element of an overall story. Every viewer who bought a ticket knew they were going to see James Franco’s character remove his own arm with a pocketknife. And the rest of the movie—the flashbacks, Franco’s rambling monologues to his video camera—serves only to delay the inevitable moment. What really sells the agony of this sequence is the way director Danny Boyle reminds you that Franco’s doomed hiker doesn’t just have to cut through bone and muscle; he’s got to slice through his own nervous system as well. And that’s why my corpse would still be pinned at the bottom of a Utah crevice to this day.

  1. Gerald’s Game

Mike Flanagan’s 2017 Stephen King adaptation is built upon an elegantly simple scenario: After Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) begin a romantic getaway in a remote cabin, he manacles her to a bed for kinky fun, then dies of a heart attack with the handcuff keys beyond her reach. How will she free herself? I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that she commits an act I’ve never seen another movie character do. It traumatized me for days. And it introduced me to an unwelcome word: degloving. Carla Gugino, you are cinema’s ultimate self-surgery badass, and I hope you’ll understand if I’d rather not shake your hand.

Film Self-Surgery Art

Art by Heather Benjamin

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