Pushing boundaries both within ourselves and within society is what horror has always been about at its core, which is why controversy and the genre go hand in hand. One of the earliest accounts of a horror film facing censorship over being too controversial was in 1931’s Frankenstein, which depicts the monster throwing a young girl into a lake, where she drowns.
In addition to being a heartbreaking moment in cinematic history, scenes and films such as this were extremely important for future filmmakers who have ventured into the genre since. One of the most recent films to be released with the “controversial” label is Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which you can read more on here. With so much chatter about mother!, I figured it was a good time to look back at 8 of the most controversial horror films ever made.
Although Psycho seems tame by today’s standards, it still makes the list as one of the most controversial horror films. During the 1960’s, the Production Code, which outlined moral guidelines for films by studios, was in decline and Alfred Hitchcock took advantage. Opening scenes showing Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane) in a bra and in bed with John Gavin (as Sam Loomis) after sex was very risque at the time.
Other controversial issues were Anthony Perkins (as Norman Bates) crossdressing as his mother, how much of Leigh’s body was shown during the iconic shower scene, violence, and…wait for it…a toilet flushing.
7The Exorcist (1973)
Watching 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) go from a happy-go-lucky girl to being possessed by a violent demon was controversial in itself, especially with a religion-heavy story. When you add in that same little girl telling a priest “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” and masturbating with a cross, you have one of the most controversial horror films.
Rumor has it that The Exorcist caused heart attacks and vomiting in multiple theaters upon its release.
6Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is one of the most important films in horror history. Not only did it kickoff the zombie sub-genre, but it injected social commentary in a way that wasn’t quite seen before. During the racially-charged times of the Civil Rights Movement, it was a huge deal to cast African American actor Duane Jones as the lead protagonist, Ben. An African American cinematic hero was unheard of at this time and Romero didn’t shy away from the topic of bigotry.
Some of the other controversy comes from the “gratuitous” violence depicted in the film. Although Night of the Living Dead was filmed on a shoestring budget, the practical effects, which included chocolate syrup and raw meat, looked all too real for many. As was seeing a girl reanimate, eat her father, and kill her mother. The film came out one month before the MPAA rating system was in effect, so when young children were able to go to the theater and watch without warning, it caused quite a bit of outrage.
5Faces of Death (1978)
Most of us who grew up in the 1980’s remember hearing that about that “one real death film” that a friend of a friend had watched. That film was usually Faces of Death. Although it’s a bit dated by today’s standards, the film scarred many by claiming to show actual suicides, deaths, and autopsies. Although much of the footage is fake, there are real scenes tied in.
While it wasn’t “Banned in 40+ Countries” as an alternate title claims, it was banned in a handful of countries.
4I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Upon its release in 1978, I Spit on Your Grave caused a huge uproar internationally, and hasn’t really stopped. Director and writer Meir Zarchi doesn’t hold back on the intensity and brutality when it comes to the violence against the lead, Jennifer (Camille Keaton). The audience watches for half an hour as she is nude, ridiculed, and gang raped in multiple ways. This is all before she gets revenge in cringeworthy, yet justified, ways.
The film was labeled a “video nasty” and banned in several countries, with others only allowing censored versions. Just in 2010, the Irish Film Classification Office banned the DVD re-release due to “acts of gross violence and cruelty.”
The Italian-French film Salò, which is also titled as 120 Days of Sodom, is based on the 1785 book The 120 Days of Sodom by the French writer Marquis de Sade. Four men of wealth and power (the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President) kidnap a group of young teenagers of both sexes and subject them to extreme depravity and torture for their own sexual pleasures over the course of four months. The victims, some are thought to be under the age of 18, are raped, tortured, forced to eat feces, mutilated, and murdered. It’s easy to see why the film was banned in multiple countries.
Tragically, director Pier Paolo Pasolini was unable to see the film’s release due to his brutal murder on November 2, 1975. It is believed that Pasolini thought he was going to meet with someone to get back film rolls of Salò, which had been stolen, when he was attacked.
2A Serbian Film (2010)
I was a bit conflicted when it came to the placement of A Serbian Film versus Salò on this list. However, after watching both films within the span of a couple of days (something I wouldn’t recommend), A Serbian Film packed more of a punch due to Salò being dated when compared to. However, both are guaranteed to make you hate humanity for at least a while. So, here we are at the #2 spot for controversial horror films. Let’s take a look at why A Serbian Film very much deserves that honor.
Miloš (Srđan Todorović) is a retiring porn star who agrees to get featured in an artistic pornographic film in exchange for financial security. However, the film Miloš gets involved in, and other films he witnesses, is filled with pedophilia (including a “newborn porn” scene that will haunt your dreams), necrophilia, rape, incest, and murder. To top it all off, A Serbian Film has one of the most depressing endings that I can remember seeing.
The film has been banned in South Korea, Australia, Norway, Malaysia, Spain, Germany, Brazil, New Zealand, and Singapore with cuts ordered before release in other countries. In response to the criticism, director Srđan Spasojević spoke out on how the film represents issues the Serbian people have within their own country and with the government. A documentary is in the works, which you can read about here.
1Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
This Italian film revolutionized the found footage sub-genre and brought a new level of realistic horror that had yet to be seen. In fact, Cannibal Holocaust looked so authentic that it was accused of being a snuff film. Director Ruggero Deodato had to provide a court with proof that no one was impaled or killed for the sake of making the movie and share the methods they used for the practical effects. Deodato was also arrested and charged with obscenity ten days after its Milan premiere.
Despite proving that the actors were very much alive, the film still shows six actual animal deaths, with a seventh not used in the film. The killings included two monkeys getting decapitated (one was a reshoot), a pig shot at point blank range, a coati killed with a knife, a boa constrictor and tarantula killed with a machete, and a large turtle decapitated and taken apart.
Because of animal cruelty and graphic violence, the film was banned in many countries (some sources claiming up to 50). Although Cannibal Holocaust was released almost 40 years ago, it is still a hot topic with censorship boards. In 2005, Australia revoked the longtime ban, while it was yet again banned in New Zealand.
Due to its genuine footage and extremely graphic effects, there’s no doubt that Cannibal Holocaust deserves to be #1 on this controversial horror films list.
Are there any controversial horror films that we didn’t mention? Be sure to sound off in comments below or on social media!