I recently watched the theatrical version of The Exorcist (aka, not The Version You've Never Seen) with William Friedkin's commentary track on. Even with Friedkin's voice drowning out most of the dialogue and music, the film still terrified me. Those fast cuts, spooky lighting, and demonic images still make for one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. But I still think the movie is fantastic for its look at religion and good versus evil. Thus leading me to a weird spot: do I really want to watch a great movie even though it's rather unsettling to watch? I say yes, but with reservations.
The AV Club compiled a list of 24 films that, while great, are painful to watch again and again. For the ones I have seen (Requiem for a Dream, Straw Dogs, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple and The Last House on the Left), I concur. Seeing the lives of protagonists worsen because of drug addiction, innocent women be raped and/or murdered, and hearing audio of people dying from poisoned Kool-Aid is not what I consider criteria for an enjoyable movie-watching experience. (There's a reason why Requiem is the only movie on that list that I've seen a few times.)
Yet I'm not someone who thinks movies should only entertain and make me to turn my brain off. Quite the opposite: I like movies where I feel something -- from sadness to happiness -- and not in fluffy, cotton-candy ways.
Jonestown in particular makes me wonder what scares me more: fictional horror films or tragic documentaries. I can suspend disbelief when there's an unkillable monster on the loose named Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees. I can't with seeing the few Jonestown survivors describe the final hours of the temple.
I boil my movie-watching down to movies that I can watch at any time and in any mood and those that I can't. Most of the aforementioned movies fall into the latter. For example, I can't watch The Exorcist at night with the lights out because I will have trouble falling asleep. In addition, I can't have much food in my system as I watch green vomit come out of a possessed child (not to mention that scene where the syringe goes into her neck).
The average movie-watcher does not want to feel challenged with a movie. I don't think that notion is something to frown upon; that's not how every movie is made. In my case, some of my all time favorite movies are Star Wars, The Muppet Movie, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Student Bodies, American Graffiti, American Splendor and Kevin Smith's movies. So I doubt this attitude will change in the foreseeable future.