THE TEN MOST CONTROVERSIAL HORROR FILMS OF ALL TIME
you may skip this if you don't like to read... -_-More than any other genre, the horror film has served as a point of often furious contention through the decades with the movie-going public, media, government and religious and cultural leaders. With each passing year, horror films continue to push the boundaries of what is considered an acceptable display of on-screen violence. Films once considered vile and amoral are now seen as tame by contemporary standards, as the defenses of each successive generation are chipped away by increasingly grisly depictions of brutality. The audiences of 1931 who ran screaming from theaters showing James Whale's Frankenstein would be knocked absolutely flat by the violence in modern envelope-pushing horror films like Martyrs or The Human Centipede. In fact, some of them would probably be rushed to the hospital to be treated for shock.
It is this very controversy that often makes being a horror fan so exciting. The horror film is dangerous; it is punk rock. It is what our mothers tried to shield us from – the obscene possibilities of living in a world that pulls no punches. It is what we are not supposed to watch, but what we can't look away from; a flicker of subversion, forever seared into our memory. It is the subject of ridicule, of the proverbial wagging finger, of denunciation by the church leader, the televangelist, the high school principal, the government, grandma, fascists, the Bible Belt Moral Authority. But this is what we like, and what we want. We relish the mainstream attention focused on our oft-overlooked genre. We snicker at all the furor and bombast and pointed accusations, because we know it will merely result in higher ticket sales; the public's moral outrage feeding the very beast it is attempting to slay.
These are films that destroyed careers, resulted in mass hysteria, boycotts, bans, death threats, jail time. One was released only last year, to howls of ridicule and outrage.
10. Antichrist (2009)
To generate controversy in 2009 your film had better be pretty fucking depraved, and better still helmed by a major international director. Although it isn't necessarily the most extreme in terms of its contemporaries, Antichrist is certainly the one that has incited the greatest mass-media firestorm due to its being helmed by internationally-renowned art house director Lars von Trier. First screened in competition at Cannes, the film proved extremely divisive and controversial, with an Ecumenical Jury – which every year gives out a prize to a Cannes film that promotes "spiritual values" – even handing out a special "anti-award" to von Trier's film and branding it misogynist. And while Cannes audiences during premiere screenings are notoriously loud and boisterous, they were especially so during Antichrist, with loud boos and disdainful laughter breaking out spontaneously during some of the most controversial sequences.
Von Trier, ever the controversy magnet, did nothing if not stoke the flames of dissent, at one point during the Cannes press conference proclaiming himself (sarcastically, it would seem) "the best film director in the world" after one journalist attempted to bully him into explaining why he had made the film. Critical reviews were divisive, some proclaiming it a shocking near-masterpiece and others citing its graphic scenes of sexual torture, self-mutilation, and unsimulated sex as pointless indulgences. Nevertheless, the film received distribution internationally and Stateside, and – surprisingly – even succeeded in passing the BBFC's classification system uncut.
9. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
It's often said that those who have viewed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remember more blood and gore than is actually in the film, which speaks to Tobe Hooper's skill in so effectively utilizing the power of suggestion. Interestingly and naively, the director was initially aiming to make a "PG"-rated film (presumably for commercial reasons), a feat he felt he could accomplish due to the relatively little gore onscreen and the fact that there's no sex, nudity or much offensive language in the movie. Of course, the film's blunt style and relentless scenes of visceral horror made it difficult for him to even secure a distributor (Bryanston Distributing Company was the one to finally bite the bullet).
Unsurprisingly, Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a hotbed of controversy in its day, banned in at least a dozen countries and plagued by walkouts in others. In Ottawa, Canada, local authorities asked theaters to pull prints of the movie for fear it was associated with a spike in violence (real or imagined). And many critics, including Linda Gross of the Los Angeles Times and Stephen Koch of Harper's Magazine, decried the film as "despicable" and "hideous", respectively. All this fuss, along with an ingenious "based on a true story" marketing campaign, helped rocket the film to over $30 million in domestic box-office, at the time making it one of the top-grossing independent films ever released.
8. Peeping Tom (1960)
It's pretty tame now, but back in 1960 Michael Powell's creepy-crawly classic was considered shocking and subversive, and succeeded in completely derailing the acclaimed British director's career. The story concerns Mark Lewis, an aspiring filmmaker who gets off on murdering young women and recording their reactions at the moment of death. It also delves into uncomfortable Freudian territory by showing flashbacks of Mark's deeply dysfunctional relationship with his psychologist father, who terrorized his son by using him as a guinea pig in his experiments on the effects of fear.
Very little actual violence is depicted on screen, but when it was brought before the BBFC (the British Board of Film Classification) they nevertheless required Powell to make seven cuts in order to receive the "X" rating (some of this excised footage is now considered lost). Despite these cuts the prudish British press slammed the film as amoral, causing the distributor to cancel further release plans in the country and sell off the rights. It was also banned in some other European countries, including Finland and Sweden. Not until years later did Peeping Tom begin to develop a cult following, with one of its most vocal admirers being Martin Scorsese, who paid for it to be screened at the New York Film Festival in 1979. It's now hailed as a classic by most, but sadly too late to salvage Powell's career. He died in 1990 at age 84.
7. The Last House on the Left (1972)
Director Wes Craven's first film, The Last House on the Left was also his most controversial. Filmed with home-video grittiness, the movie follows Mari and Phyllis, two teenage girls who are tortured, raped and murdered by a sadistic gang. The gang later find themselves unwittingly spending the night in Mari's home, where her parents soon realize what they have done and proceed to dispatch them in a variety of gruesome ways. The most disturbing and controversial portion of the film is the first half, where the girls meet their horrific fates in scenes of disturbing realism and unflinching brutality, where most other filmmakers would have looked away.
This unapologetic sensibility is ultimately what made Last House a favorite punching bag for censors, and it was banned and heavily edited in countries all over the world, including in the notoriously puritanical U.K., where it was eventually deemed a "video nasty" and only in 2008 cleared for home video release uncut. Rather than shying away from or attempting to mitigate the controversy, Craven and his team embraced it, coming up with the now-infamous (though not original) marketing tagline: "To avoid fainting, keep repeating – it's only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…" Their strategy worked. Filmed for an estimated $90,000, Last House on the Left went on to gross over $3 million and spawned a new wave of exploitation cinema.
6. I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Like Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave is a cold and disturbing revenge horror, but unlike Craven's film it's generally regarded as a shallow and misogynist work of exploitation to this day, with very few mainstream defenders. The gang-rape and torture of the main character, played by Camille Keaton, is protracted and incredibly savage, and the crudeness of the low-budget production made it an easy target for censors and critics alike, who almost universally denounced the film as cheap and titillating garbage.
I Spit on Your Grave was rated "X" in the U.S., and internationally the film was banned in at least a dozen countries. Siskel & Ebert were perhaps its most vociferous detractors and even succeeded in having the film pulled from Chicago's United Artist theater (unwittingly drumming up even more interest in the movie than had existed before). In response to all this criticism, director Meir Zachari contended that he had actually conceptualized I Spit on Your Grave as a feminist film, citing his original, preferred title of Day of the Woman as proof. Whatever his intention, the film is viewed with much the same amount of contempt today. Of course, with a remake planned for release later this year, it bears remembering the updated version's very existence is evidence of the original's enduring name value – an infamy boosted considerably by all the heavily publicized moral outrage.
5. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Following his "Trilogy of Life" series (Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights), director Pier Paolo Pasolini made an abrupt turn with 1975's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a film loosely based on de Sade's Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage. Salo featured protracted scenes of sexual violence, forced coprophagia and other acts of tortuous debasement inflicted on a group of teenagers imprisoned by four corrupt fascist officials in Mussolini's Italy. Generally considered one of the most revolting films ever produced, Pasolini's film is nevertheless regularly cited as an important piece of filmmaking, even finishing 89th on The Village Voice's 2000 critic's poll of the greatest films of the 20th century.
Salo is without a doubt one of the most controversial movies ever made. Banned in many countries (including Finland, Australia, the U.K., and its native Italy) for its graphic and unrelenting depiction of a host of perversions, the censors unsurprisingly dismissed (or simply weren't able to understand) the larger moral and political framework Pasolini intended the film to be viewed within. This framework, a comment on not only the horrors of fascism but the dangers of unchecked capitalism, necessitated the absence of the distancing devices typical of the Hollywood School of Horror Filmmaking; audiences were never intended to enjoy the things that were happening on screen, and to that end Pasolini presented them in their rawest form. Of course, it is ironically that lack of formal prettification which led to Salo becoming as controversial as it did. The director didn't live to witness the uproar over his final film (intended as the first of his "Trilogy of Death"), as he was brutally murdered, some say for political reasons, prior to the film's premiere.
4. Freaks (1932)
Director Tod Browning pretty much had free reign after helming the highly successful Dracula for Universal in 1931, and MGM top dog Irving Thalberg went on to bankroll his adaptation of the Tod Robbins short story "Spurs", about a circus midget who takes revenge on the beautiful woman he discovers is using him for his inheritance. What resulted was Freaks, the extremely controversial film starring real-life circus "oddities" that premiered to public condemnation and withering reviews (this after MGM cut half an hour from the film following a disastrous preview screening, footage that is now considered lost). One woman even sued the studio after complaining that the shock of seeing the film caused her to suffer a miscarriage.
Browning's career never quite recovered from the scandal, his stock in Hollywood plummeting after Freaks' poor commercial and critical reception, not to mention being banned in countries all across the globe. In a prolific earlier career that had seen him direct over 50 films in 15 years, his post-Freaks oeuvre is limited to only four, after which he left Hollywood to pursue a career in real estate. Audiences in 1932 simply weren't ready for a film showcasing deformed sideshow performers, and the film was denounced for being vulgar and amoral despite the fact that the circus "freaks" were depicted sympathetically and the average human characters (with a couple of exceptions) portrayed as the true monsters.
Really though, it's that very idea – humanizing the malformed mortals in an age where they were more likely to be treated as objects of macabre curiosity – that likely proved the most controversial and uncomfortable idea of all. It's unfortunate, then, that in a last-ditch attempt at wringing a profit from the picture, Thalberg attempted to re-brand it as an exploitation film, re-releasing it under the new, more sensationalistic title Nature's Mistakes and advertisting it with lurid taglines like, "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" Sadly, Browning would die before his film received the critical reappraisal and cult status it so richly deserves.
3. The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell's The Devils, a film which beat The Exorcist to the concept of "crucifix masturbation" by two whole years (despite the fact that the offending "rape of Christ" sequence was nixed from the film prior to release), pushed buttons mostly due to its mixture of Christian iconography with scenes of strong violence and frank sexuality. Partially based both on the 1952 book The Devils of Loudon and the John Whiting play The Devils, the film is a dramatization of the real-life case of Urbain Grandier, a 17th century French priest who was tried over allegations of witchcraft and eventually executed in a public burning. Russell takes an over-the-top approach to the material that is clearly designed to stoke the flames of controversy, and he certainly got the reaction he seemed to be courting.
The film was banned in several countries, and heavily edited and given an "X" rating in its U.S. release. In Russell's native UK The Devils also received an "X" after the director (and later the studio, representatives of which were reportedly disgusted by the film after an initial screening) removed several of the more graphic bits, including a two-and-a-half-minute sequence known as the "rape of Christ", in which a group of deranged nuns strip down and masturbate around a life-size crucifix.
Despite being granted this classification by the BBFC, extreme public outrage led to the film being banned outright by 17 different local councils around the country. And even after the long-lost "rape of Christ" sequence was finally tracked down by British film critic Mark Kermode in the early ‘00s, Warner Bros. deemed the found footage too controversial and balked at restoring the film to Russell's original vision. To this day, The Devils has yet to receive a proper DVD release, in any form.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
No list of most controversial films would be complete without The Exorcist, director William Friedkin's adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel that become a worldwide smash hit, cultural phenomenon and controversy magnet when it was released in 1973. Of course, distributor Warner Bros. must have been secretly delighted at the insanity the film drummed up, since it inevitably helped boost ticket sales. As one woman was quoted while standing in line to see it, "I want to see what everybody is throwing up about". Indeed, people were throwing up, and fainting, and also reportedly suffering heart attacks and miscarriages. In a Toronto newspaper, four women were said to have been committed to psychiatric care after seeing the film. People were even (erroneously) reported to have died or committed suicide after watching it, and it was also blamed for some murders.
The controversy was, in hindsight, the greatest publicity Warner Bros. could have hoped for and undoubtedly contributed to The Exorcist's massive success. Groups like the UK's Christian lobby Festival of Light made headlines when they held protests outside theaters, handing out leaflets warning people away lest they open themselves up to the "forces of darkness" burned into the celluloid (a claim also made by American televangelist Billy Graham). Some claimed that the film's "subliminal imagery" (not really subliminal at all) was capable of driving people insane. To this day, rumors persist that the production itself was cursed, pointing to the deaths of actor Jack MacGowran, who died during production, and the family members of several others on the cast and crew. Friedkin, Blatty, and recently Ellen Burstyn have all added fuel to the fire, with Friedkin claiming around the time of release that Linda Blair's levitation had been accomplished through "electromagnetic forces" rather than wires (untrue). For his part, Blatty stated in an interview, conveniently just before the film's original release, that an "evil force" had haunted the production.
Much of the attention, though, was focused around young star Linda Blair, who was thirteen at the time of filming. Rumors that she'd gone insane from the rigors of production proved unfounded when she began giving interviews for the film, happy and smiling, a seemingly well-adjusted kid. Nevertheless, concerns arose that she'd been too young to have been put through the rigorous shoot, concerns not eased by Friedkin, who insisted Blair had played every single scene in the movie herself (also untrue – she had a body double for several of the more gruesome shots, including one where the crucifix is seen being jammed beneath her nightgown in the infamous masturbation sequence). It's ironic, then, that all the controversy swirling around Blair was what ended up hurting her the most; after receiving numerous death threats following the film's release, she was forced into hiding, and by her own admission the terrifying experience has scarred her permanently.
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
After watching an early screening of Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, Sergio Leone wrote the director a congratulatory letter that included the following quote: "Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world." Leone's insight couldn't have been more prescient, as not only was the film a hotbed of controversy; it actually landed Deodato in jail.
Those not familiar with the movie should know that Cannibal Holocaust predates The Blair Witch Project by almost 20 years in its use of the "found footage" narrative hook. The film follows Harold Monroe, a professor of anthropology in New York City, on his search to find a documentary crew that has gone missing in the Amazon rainforest. While there, he discovers the crew has been murdered by the Yanomamo tribe, and in a trade the natives agree to hand over the crew's reels of film, which Monroe takes back to New York for viewing. When he returns, a broadcast company informs him they wish to air the documentary, although Monroe insists on watching the recovered film before handing it over. What they witness is a series of gruesome scenes in which the members of the docu crew terrorize the natives before being brutally murdered themselves.
The film premiered in Milan, Italy on February 8, 1980, and ten days later Deodato found himself in handcuffs after a tip to the local police suggested the director had in fact shot a bona fide snuff film. Making matters worse, the four main actors had signed contracts stating they would not appear in any media until a year following Cannibal Holocaust's release, in order to trump up the idea that the film actually consisted of real-life found footage. To prove his innocence Deodato was forced to revoke the contracts, and all four joined him on the set of an Italian television show to prove they were still alive. However, one of the effects featured in the film – one of the native women, after being raped by the documentary crew, is impaled on a spear by her fellow tribesmen as punishment – proved so realistic that Deodato was forced to demonstrate how it had been created in an Italian court, in order to prove that the woman had not actually been killed.
Despite all the graphic violence, brutal gang-rapes, and one scene that focuses on a ritual abortion procedure in which a fetus is forcibly removed from a native woman's body, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the film to this day is that real animals were brutally slaughtered on camera by the actors. These include a giant turtle, mutilated and beheaded; a muskrat, stabbed several times as it squeals and thrashes; and a monkey whose face is sliced off (actually two monkeys, since Deodato wasn't happy with the first take). Italian authorities decided to ban the film because of Deodato's violation of animal cruelty laws, and he was convicted – along with the writer, producers, and a United Artists representative – of obscenity and violence and given a four-month suspended sentence.
Much has been made of the contradictions inherent in Cannibal Holocaust in the years since its release; it has been debated, condemned, defended, and even hailed as an important artistic work. While Deodato set out to make a potent message film about media sensationalism (which, while over-the-top, is more prevalent today than ever before), many would argue that the director himself engaged in sensationalistic practices in the making of the film, leering over the violence with near-pornographic relish and instructing his actors to brutalize animals. Even to this day Cannibal Holocaust has proven extremely divisive. It is reportedly still banned in several countries, including New Zealand. This fact, coupled with the enormous amount of initial controversy it received, makes it an easy pick for the number one most controversial horror film of all time.