There are horror movies that will give you nightmares, and cause you to fear showers and shallow waters for decades. There are some that get deep under your skin – often times because they’ve literally flayed or burrowed under their characters’ skins – and others that will make you see everyday items (a bowl of pea soup, a hockey mask, a videotape) in a horrifying new light. And then there are the ones that push so many social-taboo envelopes, strike so many collective raw nerves and tweak so many communal gag reflexes that they are a cut, if you will, above the rest. We’ve all seen good scary movies and bad scary movies – it’s the really ugly ones, however, that tend to generate the most memorable and notable notoriety.
So we’ve singled out 14 horror films that have caused various degrees of public outcry upon their release – or in a few cases, weren’t released in certain countries for decades. Several films nearly got folks arrested; a couple merely inspired repulsion and disgust from critics and audiences alike, along with some passionate jeers. But all of the movies here fall under the category of controversial, all of them took the genre to some fairly extreme places, and all of them get a 1-10 according to how much respective outrage each work generated. Remember, it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie… .
By Charles Bramesco, Scott Tobias and David Fear.
‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980)
Synopsis: Square one of horror’s found-footage subgenre, this alleged “lost tape” from an American film crew trekking into the Amazon crossed every line it could reach. An anthropologist leads an expedition to recover the documentarians who went looking for the indigenous tribes of maneaters rumoured to be hiding around the jungle; they then find savagery beyond their wildest imagining, including an infamous sequence of a young woman impaled on a wooden stake and numerous examples of why the movie is named Cannibal Holocaust.
Controversy: After 10 glorious days of release (during which the film generated a staggering $200 million0, the film was pulled from theatres and Italian director Ruggero Deodato was slapped with obscenity charges. When the film ran in France, Photo magazine alleged that the extensive ritual-sacrifice sequences were the real deal, and the courts threw a murder charge on Deodato for good measure. The filmmaker had to track down his actors and bring them before the jury so they could explain that they had not, in fact, been slaughtered during the production. His name was cleared, and his space in the fake-snuff-film hall of fame was cemented. CB
‘The Exorcist’ (1973)
Synopsis: A young girl in Washington D.C. begins exhibiting some incredibly odd behaviour. It turns out that, well, she’s possessed by a demon. Holy men are called to rid her of the unholy spirit. Heads do not roll so much as rotate around, 360-degrees.
Controversy: The self-mutilating crucifix masturbation, the film-long buffet of sacrilege, “your mother sucks cocks in hell” – even audiences who had become accustomed to the loosening of restrictions on sex and violence were shocked by William Friedkin’s the-devil-made-her-do-it horror movie. Paramedics were supposedly called to numerous screenings, and rumours that people died of heart attacks watching some of the movie’s intense scenes persist to this day. The U.K. banned it from home release for a decade, and scholars have obsessed over the controversial presence of subliminal messaging in the film in order to disturb viewers – something Friedkin has confirmed over the years. CB
‘Faces of Death’ (1978)
Synopsis: Never mind Mondo Cane; this pseudo-verite movie about various weird and creepy phenomena around the globe, including scenes depicting a graphic autopsy, a decapitation, a suicide, a cannibal orgy, and a bear mauling, is considered one of the most horrifying and nauseating “documentaries” ever made.
Controversy: Conservative politicians and self-appointed social watchdogs linked John Alan Schwartz’s film to the more heinous crimes of the day, and bans followed in a handful of countries. Even the FBI, fooled by a cruddy print, looked into whether the scene showing a death cult in San Francisco might merit some further investigation. CB
‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1986)
Synopsis: John McNaughton’s take-no-prisoners indie lets viewers tag along with its titular killer (played memorably by Michael Rooker) and his sleazy, degenerate pal as they randomly rack up one murder after the next. The introduction of his friend’s sister, Becky, into his life suggests that Henry may have a chance for a normal life. That notion is short-lived.
Controversy: The film’s production company didn’t even want to give the movie a theatrical release, leaving McNaughton to personally send screener copies to prominent critics in the hope of drumming up buzz and snagging a distributor. But nobody was biting after the MPAA slapped Henry with an “X” rating, then mostly reserved for porno flicks. The violence-heavy film helped precipitate the creation of the NC-17 rating, a distinction for movies with with extreme content that didn’t cross the line into nudie-pic territory. Nearly three years after his festival premiere, McNaughton landed a limited release that earned just over $600,000, but made him into a folk hero on the cult-film circuit. CB
‘The Human Centipede (First Sequence)’ (2009)
Synopsis: A German surgeon kidnaps three tourists and forces them to participate in an experiment. Putting his “100% medically accurate” theory to the test, he creates a conjoined organism by sewing them together, mouth to anus.
Controversy: Like a modern-day William Castle, Dutch director Tom Six used his “100% medically accurate” gimmick to troll for controversy, adding extra offense by evoking the spectre of Nazi experiments. (The name of Dieter Laser’s mad scientist, Dr. Josef Heitler, none-too-subtly fuses Adolf Hitler with Josef Mengele.) When he claimed that the movie had been called “the most horrifying film ever made,” a British journalist tried to track down the source of the quote; it was never found. He also mentioned that, when the film showed at festivals, there were copious incidents involving people vomiting in the aisles – which probably was true. The film’s 2011 sequel caused even more controversy, with several newspaper asking if the movie should be banned indefinitely. ST
‘I Spit on Your Grave’ (1978)
Synopsis: Woman retreats alone to isolated Connecticut college. Woman gets terrorised and raped by four locals. Woman goes to church. Woman lures them back for the kill.
Controversy: Banned in several countries, including a spot on the U.K.’s “video nasties” list, I Spit on Your Grave remains notorious for drawing the ire of Roger Ebert, who gave it zero stars and considered it the worst film ever made. Among the countries to have banned the film were Iceland, Ireland, Germany and Norway; some countries showed a shortened version of it over the years, usually trimming what is indeed a prolonged gang rape sequence. Various activist groups still consider this one of the most anti-women films ever made, despite the fact that its director, Meir Zarchi, originally wanted to call it Day of the Woman. ST
‘I Stand Alone (1998)
Synopsis: Situated between the French arthouse’s extreme edges and exploitation cinema’s lunatic fringe, Gaspar Noe’s notorious feature debut often feels like an existential slasher film as told from the perspective of the killer. Abused at a young age by a priest, an unnamed French butcher ends up killing the man he thought raped his daughter, getting raped himself, and indulging in more hard-to-watch incidents than can be counted on one bloodied hand. It does not end well, to say the least.
Controversy: Noe has never shied away from the graphic (see his rape-revenge drama Irreversible) but his debut feature took many folks completely off-guard with its penchant for perversion, taboo-breaking, and overall brutality. Festival audiences reacted violently at several screenings, though to be fair, he did add a warning title card giving sensitive viewers 30 seconds to vacate the auditorium before his stomach-churning climax. Still, the most sickening and violent scene – in which the butcher performs a DIY abortion on his own wife through a shockingly direct method – raised the majority of public hackles and got the enfant terrible accused of being the cinematic equivalent of a terrorist. Speaking to IndieWire, the filmmaker cited the 1983 Austrian “masterpiece” Angst as one the movie’s indirect inspirations, and talked glowingly of how the movie was banned for being too out-there. Though Noe’s film did not meet the same fate, it was not for lack of trying. CB
‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972)
Synopsis: En route to a concert, two teenage girls are sexually assaulted, tortured, and killed by a sadistic gang in the woods. When the thugs inadvertently hole up in one of the victim’s houses, her parents have their revenge.
Controversy: Loosely inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and blessed with a home-movie crudeness, Wes Craven’s rape-revenge thriller pushed the limits of good taste, from its horrifically violent scenes of comeuppance to a notorious scene in which a character is forced to urinate on herself. (We can be thankful that the director abandoned the idea of including hardcore pornography like he’d originally planned.) New York Times critic Howard Thompson admitted to walking out after 50 minutes of this “sickening tripe,” and despite a few prominent critics rising to its defence at various times, Last House stayed on the U.K.’s notorious “video nasties” list for decades, losing appeal after appeal until finally getting an uncut video release in 2008. Even its lead actor, Fred Lincoln, once said that “I wish it had been banned in the United States.” ST
‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968)
Synopsis: After a space probe explodes in Earth’s atmosphere (the most likely reason, given that it’s a theory voiced by the film’s resident scientist), the dead began to rise from their graves and shamble after the living, attacking them for their delicious, delicious flesh. A group of survivors hole up in a house while outside, dozens of “ghouls” – though these creatures would soon be known throughout the world as “zombies” – try to get at them. And with one $114,000 independent horror movie, director George A. Romero gives birth to a cottage industry.
Controversy: From the very beginning – when the movie premiered in a Pittsburgh theatre during a Saturday matinee screening filled with kids – the Rosetta stone of zombie films attracted its fair share of notoriety. Audiences weren’t accustomed to such in-your-face violence and gore, which completely violated the regulations of what you could show onscreen at the time (according to Glenn Kay’s Zombie Movies, the film’s distributor didn’t even submit it to the MPAA for a rating); Variety did everything but call for Romero’s head on a platter, saying the movie compromised “the moral health of film goers” and essentially established the “guidelines for the pornography of violence.” Controversial or not, the movie went on to break records at midnight screenings and drive-ins. It’s now rightfully considered an American classic. DF
Synopsis: A secretary from Phoenix steals $40,000 from the office and goes on the lam. Exhausted from the drive and facing a heavy rainstorm, she finds a vacancy at the Bates Motel. The proprietor seems friendly. What could go wrong?
Controversy: Audiences had never seen anything as shocking as Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, particularly the famed shower sequence. The movie is considered to have helped kill the old production code that regulated sex and violence onscreen; Hitch played an elaborate bait-and-switch game to get around censors, promising cuts he never made, and he forced exhibitors to stick to a “no late admissions” policy. (In Singapore, the shower scene played en toto, while another murder scene and a shot of a corpse were cut entirely.) Faintings in the audience were allegedly a common occurrence; critic C.A. Lejeune abruptly resigned her post at The Observer after 32 years of service for having to sit through it. It’s still the quintessential slasher flick. ST
‘A Serbian Film’ (2010)
Synopsis: A retired porn star with dwindling finances agrees to return to the screen in an “art film.” Sounds like easy money, right until the shoot opens with jackbooted thugs leading him to an orphanage set.
Controversy: Rape, snuff, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, “newborn porn” (do not ask): this genuinely vile movie, regrettably, has it all. Censor boards around the world have done everything they can to prevent people from seeing it. Two different cuts were released in the U.S. – one NC-17, one five minutes longer and unrated – but Netflix dropped the DVD from its rolls without explanation, and countries like Spain, Norway, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand have banned it entirely. Those who do sit through it will be comforted to learn that the filmmakers see it as a blanket metaphor for the atrocities of the Balkan War. Right. ST
‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ (1984)
Synopsis: As a five-year-old, Billy Chapman witnesses a man dressed as Santa Claus murder his parents. Three years later, he has another traumatic Santa-related experience at an orphanage. Naturally, he grows up to become a serial murderer in a Santa suit.
Controversy: It was the Yuletide hook of this Eighties slasher flick that presented some promotional hiccups, with the parents of America were concerned about their kids seeing posters and TV commercials depicting Jolly Old St. Nicholas as a mass murderer. Critic Gene Siskel called out the names of the distributor, the writer, the director, and the producer for public shaming; Leonard Maltin, in his zero-star TV review, famously quipped, “What’s next? The Easter Bunny as child molester?” Protests greeted the film in the Midwest. In Britain, a conference of Catholic authorities put the movie at the top of its “morally offensive” list, and it was pulled from theatres both here and abroad. ST
Synopsis: A group of murderous, Manson Family-esque hippies, led by a charismatic cult leader, wanders the countryside in search of thrills. After following the gang as they terrorising numerous folks and nubile females, the film then switches gears and becomes a “documentary” of a young women being “killed” by the film’s crew – an alleged actual snuff film.
Controversy: Exploitation-cinema legends Roberta and Michael Findlay had gone down to Argentina to film a quick-and-dirty movie that would cash in on the Helter Skelter craze, titled Slaughter. The result was essentially deemed unreleasable – then distributor Allen Shackleton had the “bright” idea of filming a fake killing, tacking it on the end of the movie and starting rumours that this was the real deal. Doubling down on the urban-legend ballyhoo and renaming the result Snuff (“Shot in South America, where life is cheap!“), he then hired fake protestors to picket in front of theatres and faux-FBI agents to question patrons. Soon, genuine Women’s Rights Groups joined in to denounce the film as misogynistic, real-life cops begin investigating the authenticity of the “murder on camera” claims and New York’s district attorney considered prosecuting a theater owner who was showing it. Variety eventually exposed it as a hoax. DF
‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Synopsis: Five travelers in search of gas come across a seemingly abandoned house in the rural outskirts of the Lone Star State. What they find is a family of homicidal maniacs – and one of the most iconic characters in all of horror history.
Controversy: For its veritable smorgasbord of horrors, Hooper’s film was banned in Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, and what was then West Germany. He had somewhat better luck in the states, though disgusted walkouts were reported in San Francisco, and just north in Ottawa, local police forced two theaters to stop running the film or face morality charges. The film was not merely banned in Britain; the Board of Film Censors blackballed it so hard that even including the words “chainsaw” in a movie title was strictly verboten. Despite ruffling feathers around the globe, Hooper was able to annually re-release prints of his film for eight years after it premiered, becoming a word-of-mouth sensation in the process. CB