Filmsite.org has listed the most controversial films of all time, films that “have the ability to anger us, divide us, shock us, disgust us, and more. Usually, films that inspire controversy, outright boycotting, picketing, banning, censorship, or protest have graphic sex, violence, homosexuality, religious, political or race-related themes and content. They usually push the envelope regarding what can be filmed and displayed on the screen, and are considered taboo, “immoral” or “obscene” due to language, drug use, violence and sensuality/nudity or other incendiary elements. Inevitably, controversy helps to publicize these films and fuel the box-office receipts.”
The list includes Entertainment Weekly’s June 16, 2006 issue which contained a listing of their top 25 “Most Controversial Movies of All-Time” and more.
What I have included in the following is the list of films that I’ve seen myself, and was mesmerised, and indeed shocked on at least the first viewing:
Blue Velvet (1986): an original look at sex, violence, crime and power under the peaceful exterior of small-town Americana in the mid-80s. Beneath the familiar, peaceful, ‘American-dream’ cleanliness of the daytime scenes lurked sleaziness, prostitution, unrestrained violence, and perversity – powerful and potentially-dangerous sexual forces that might be unleashed if not contained.
It was considered controversial, shocking, and lurid when released. The compelling film was often criticized for its depiction of aberrant sexual behavior, as well as highly ridiculed and disdained as an extreme, dark, vulgar and disgusting film, especially for its cinematic treatment of Isabella Rossellini – director Lynch’s wife at the time.
Its most repulsive scene was the one in which clean-cut, all-American boy/trekker Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) first voyeuristically watched the fragile nightclub singer named Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) from her closet — when she discovered him, she forced him to strip at knifepoint and fondled him — but they were interrupted by the entry of a monstrous, loathsome, nitrous-oxide sniffing kidnapper – the evil, vile and depraved drug-pusher psycho Frank (Dennis Hopper). Beaumont witnessed the sexually-depraved, blackmailing relationship between the abused/brutalized, sado-machochistic mother and Frank – who used an oxygen inhaler while terrorizing and raping Dorothy as he play-acted being both her Daddy and Baby (“Baby wants to f–k”). After Frank left the scene of victimization, Dorothy pleaded with a consoling Beaumont to further abuse her: “Feel me. Hit me.” Later in the film in a scene considered gratuitous and personally degrading, a vulnerable Dorothy appeared naked and battered on the Beaumont’s front lawn.
Cannibal Holocaust (1985): This extremely graphic, hotly-debated cult classic Italian film – the uncredited inspirational precursor of the faux-documentary The Blair Witch Project – was filled with violent, grisly, and disturbing images. The exploitation film was purportedly the story of a film crew, led by Alan Yates (Gabriel York), that disappeared while making a documentary (a feature entitled “The Green Inferno” about the last surviving tribes that still practiced cannibalism) in the wilds of South America’s Amazon area. Masterful cinematic tricks and special effects created an unnerving view of the fate of the team – found in undeveloped film cans by a search and rescue team.
Grisly, realistic-looking scenes included a woman impaled on a pole, a castration, some beatings with large hammers, guts-eating, a forced abortion, numerous animal slaughterings (including a horrible turtle murder), and gang-rape.
For his work on the film, the director was arrested by Italian authorities on suspicion of murder charges and faced life in prison, following its 1980 Milan premiere. He endured a trial when Italian authorities were unconvinced that the footage was indeed staged. Deodato lost the original trial, and all prints were to be destroyed, but he managed to have the ruling overturned in the early ’80s when the actors finally appeared on TV to prove otherwise. Some five years passed before the film saw release in Deodato’s home country. This movie was banned for twenty years in certain countries, including the UK.
Citizen Kane (1941): This widely-acclaimed film from debut film director/actor Orson Welles (24 years old) is usually regarded as the greatest film ever made. The film, budgeted at $800,000, received unanimous critical praise even at the time of its release, although it was not a commercial success (partly due to its limited distribution and delayed release by RKO due to pressure exerted by famous publisher W.R. Hearst).
The film engendered controversy (and efforts at suppression in early 1941 through intimidation, blackmail, newspaper smears, discrediting and FBI investigations) before it premiered in New York City on May 1, 1941, because it appeared to fictionalize and caricaturize certain events and individuals in the life of William Randolph Hearst – a powerful newspaper magnate and publisher. The film was accused of drawing remarkable, unflattering, and uncomplimentary parallels (especially in regards to the Susan Alexander Kane character) to real-life. The notorious battle was detailed in Thomas Lennon’s and Michael Epstein’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), and it was retold in HBO’s cable-TV film RKO 281 (1999) (the film’s title referred to the project numbering for the film by the studio, before the film was formally titled).
The gossip columnist Louella Parsons persuaded her newspaper boss Hearst that he was being slandered by RKO and Orson Welles’ film when it was first previewed, so the Hearst-owned newspapers (and other media outlets) pressured theatres to boycott the film and also threatened libel lawsuits. Hearst also ordered his publications to completely ignore the film, and not accept advertising for other RKO projects.
A Clockwork Orange (1971, UK): At the time, Stanley Kubrick’s randomly ultra-violent, over-indulgent, graphically-stylized film of the near future – and most controversial film – was one of only two movies rated X on its original release (the other was Midnight Cowboy (1969)) that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The film was hotly debated when it was released – both highly praised and objectionable for its bleak outlook, and for its pairing of comedy with violence.
The dystopic film about fascist social conditioning and free will was heavily criticized and opposed by religious groups for its sexual and violent content. Feminists were outraged with some of the misogynistic images – such as the obscene female poses of the supine furniture in the Korova bar. Makes for interesting office furniture? Then, of course there was the the prolonged rape of a big-breasted woman, a gigantic penis sculpture being used as a murder weapon on the Cat Lady, and a view of the protagonist’s snake gliding toward a woman’s vagina.
The most infamous was the rape scene of Mrs. Alexander (Adrienne Corri) in her opulent house, Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) gang of droogs (Pete, Georgie, and Dim) who were wearing masks with comical noses. After cutting away her skin-tight red jumpsuit Alex delivered horribly vicious blows of his boots to Mr. Alexander’s (Patrick Magee) mid-section — timed rhythmically to his singing of Gene Kelly’s tune “Singin’ in the Rain”. In a later scene, Alex was subjected to corrective treatment — experimental aversion therapy imposed by the state in which he was behavioristically conditioned (with his eyes clamped wide-open in order to view scenes of violence in films while drugged to induce nausea and forced to listen to his beloved Beethoven) to suppress his violent and sexual drives – and in the process gave up his own individual and personal rights.
Because of the copy-cat violence (some gangs dressed as droogs sang “Singin’ in the Rain” as they carried on violently) that the film was blamed for by the media and courts, Kubrick withdrew it from circulation in Britain about a year after its release. Some believed it was because it was rumored that Kubrick and his family had received death threats. It wasn’t officially available there again – in theaters or on video – until 2000, a year after his death.
The Deer Hunter (1978): Storywriter/producer/director Michael Cimino’s epic about war and friendship was a powerful, disturbing and compelling look at the Vietnam War through the lives of three blue-collar, Russian-American friends in a small Pennsylvania steel-mill town before, during, and after their service in the war.
Although a Best Picture Oscar-winner, the meandering, sometimes shrill, raw film was extremely controversial on many accounts – political, historical and emotional. The flawed, extravagantly-expensive film was often pretentious, ambiguous, overwrought and excessive, and loosely edited, with under-developed character portrayals and unsophisticated, careless film techniques. Critics argued that the film grossly distorted historical fact.
The most talked about sequences were the contrived, theatrical, and fictional Russian Roulette tortures, imposed twice in the narrative – on the American POW’s during wartime, and played as a game in a Vietnamese gambling den. [However, there were no documented cases or historical reports of the deadly game in actuality.] Historically inaccurate or not, the fabricated scene of a Vietcong atrocity metaphorically depicted the brutal absurdity of the war. Director Cimino was also criticized as distortedly and one-sidedly portraying all the Asian characters in the film as despicable, sadistic racists and killers. He countered by arguing that his film was not political, polemical, literally accurate, or posturing for any particular point of view.
The Exorcist (1973): The director adapted William Peter Blatty’s best-selling, 1971 blockbuster book about satanic demon possession (based on a true-story of a 13 year-old Maryland boy in 1949), and created one of the most disturbing, frightening, shocking, and exploitative films ever made. The horror film masterpiece, the first major horror blockbuster, was one of the most opposed and talked-about films, especially during its pre-release time period. Viewers and the studio took note that there were accompanying ominous events, including the deaths of nine persons associated with the production (including Jack MacGowran and von Sydow’s brother) – and a request was made to exorcise the set.
Its controversial content, sensational, nauseating, and horrendous special effects (360 degree head-rotations, self-mutilation/masturbation with a crucifix, the projectile spewing of green puke, a mixture of split-pea soup and oatmeal, etc.), for its depictions of desecrations, vivid representations of evil, and for its intense scenes of exorcism (accompanied by blasphemies, obscenities and graphic physical shocks). One of the most controversial scenes was the long sequence of invasive medical testing performed on the hapless patient – criticized as medical pornography.
A sweet pre-teenaged girl Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) became possessed by a malevolent evil spirit – and after urinating on the carpet in public and experiencing a shaking bed, was soon transformed and disfigured into a head-rotating, levitating, green vomit-spewing, obscenity-shouting creature. Her divorced, film-star mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) was at wit’s end, until she called on a dedicated, faith-questioning Jesuit priest Father Karras (Jason Miller) to exorcise the malevolent devil from her daughter’s body. An elderly priest Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), whose archaeology project released the Satanic being, also risked his life (and died of heart failure) to administer rites of exorcism with incantations and holy water.
The film was enormously popular with moviegoers at Christmas-time of 1973, but some portions of the viewing audience fled from theaters due to nausea, convulsions, fainting or sheer fright/anger (Headlines proclaimed: “The Exorcist nearly killed me!”), and it was reported that one patron in San Francisco literally attacked the screen in an attempt to kill the demon. Mass hysteria led to paramedics being called to some theatres, and others were picketed in protest.
The film’s showings also led to a reported increase in temporary spiritual possessions or psychoses by individuals, and an increase in requests for priests to exorcise everything from loved ones and pets to houses, neighborhoods and appliances. Evangelist Reverend Billy Graham stated that he “felt the power of evil buried within the celluloid of the film itself”. The film was also banned on video in the UK for fifteen years.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004): Michael Moore’s controversial ‘documentary’ film was a critical expose and scathing indictment of the George W. Bush presidency and administration for its handling of the terrorist crisis and his alleged connections to Al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden’s family. It was accused of being propagandistic – especially in an election year – and that it contained half-truths and distortions of facts, and some conservative groups called for theaters to not screen it.
The documentary film was included among the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition (only the second time in 48 years for a documentary) – and won the top prize called the Palme D’or – the first for a documentary in nearly 50 years. It also broke the record for highest opening-weekend earnings in the US for a documentary, and established a significant precedent for a political documentary (eventually earning $119 million) as the highest-grossing, non-concert, non-IMAX documentary film of all time.
The controversial film had earlier gained further publicity and notoriety when Disney opted not to distribute the film through its Miramax subsidiary unit, and Moore accused the company of censorship. Disney’s refusal to let Miramax release it, because it would risk causing a partisan battle and alienate customers, actually contributed to the film’s great success. [Supposedly, Disney also feared the film might endanger tax breaks Disney received in Florida where its theme parks were located, and where the president's brother, Jeb Bush, was governor at the time.] Although the film was rated R, under protest from filmmaker Moore, some theaters defied the rating and allowed teenagers (without guardians) to attend.
Memorable images include Bush’s continued reading of the children’s book “My Pet Goat” in a Florida elementary school after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center (filmmaker Michael Moore narrated: “When informed of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, where terrorists had struck just eight years prior, Mr. Bush decided to go ahead with his photo opportunity…”), the many self-incriminating Bush clips (such as when he demonstrated his golf swing – “Now watch this drive!” – immediately after calling on nations to stop terrorist killers, his stumbling through speeches and delivering such damning lines as: “What an impressive crowd: the haves, and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite, I call you my base”); the documentarian’s questioning of Democratic and Republican politicians about enrolling their sons for military duty; the mall scenes in which Marine recruiters targeted minority teenagers for enrollment, and Bush’s inept handling of the terrorist crisis and his agenda (after 9/11) to illegitimately launch a pre-emptive war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last Tango In Paris (1972, It./Fr.): Bernardo Bertolucci’s film was a landmark, controversial erotic film with raw (yet simulated) sexual scenes and primitive force – critics and audiences alike asked – was it erotic art or pornography? In the film’s story, a distraught, confused, grieving widower and middle-aged, overweight American exile Paul (Marlon Brando) plunged into a sado-masochistic, physical (yet impersonal and basically anonymous) relationship with young, big-breasted 20 year-old Parisienne ingenue Jeanne (Maria Schneider). Paul’s gutter-language and set of ‘no questions asked’ rules was notable for the time: “We are going to forget everything we knew – everything” – and their relationship became increasingly more vile, slavish, empty, humiliating, and unromantic (i.e., “You know in 15 years, you’re going to be playing soccer with your tits. What do you think of that?”).
It was noted for Paul’s scatological monologues, its bathtub washing scene and the disturbing and explicit ‘butter’ scene during anal intercourse, in which she passively acquiesced to rape and forced sodomy (with an application of butter: “Get the butter”) in an empty, rented apartment, as he forced her to repeat phrases such as: “the will is broken by repression”. Later, Paul reciprocated by letting Jeanne penetrate him anally with her fingers – part of his objective to “look death right in the face…go right up into the ass of death… till you find the womb of fear.” By film’s end, she had shot him with her father’s gun, and confessed to police: “I don’t know who he is” and “I don’t know his name”.
It was noteworthy as the first “mainstream” film to carry the dreaded “X” rating. In 1974, it became the first film to be prosecuted under Britain’s Obscene Publications Act – and the sodomy scene was ordered deleted. In the director’s own country, the film was seized and banned, and charged for its “obscene content offensive to public decency”. In the mid-70s, it was permanently banned in Italy (with all prints seized), its stars and director were condemned, and Bertolucci was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence.
The Passion Of The Christ (2004): Co-producer, co-writer, and director Mel Gibson’s R-rated, self-financed, independent smash-hit film, a brutal depiction of Jesus’ last 12 hours on Earth, stirred up considerable controversy. It was filmed with dialogue in three languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin) with subtitles, and although Gibson claimed that the account was authentic and ‘truthful’ – it would be nearly impossible to derive a strict and true historical account of the events from the Gospels. The scourging (a 10-minute sequence) and crucifixion scenes in particular were overpoweringly graphic, bloody, torturous and vicious. Even Gibson admitted that the film was deliberately “shocking” and “extreme” in order to depict Jesus’ enormous sacrifice.
Even before it was released and viewed, religious leaders were indignant over its Catholic-tinged interpretation of the Bible, its use of extra-Biblical sources, and its poetic license, and Jews protested the film as anti-Semitic – believing that the “obscene” film would blame Jews for the death of Jesus. Even Gibson had difficulty securing a distributor for his film.
The film went on to be one of the most successful R-rated films ever, with $370 million US box-office receipts, mostly due to its embracing by evangelical church groups. An unrated, re-edited re-release of the film (still R-rated), named The Passion Recut (2005), with Gibson’s own edits (removal of about 5 minutes of graphic violence) was shown in theatres for a short time a year later.