The movie industry is a funny old business; no other field, it seems, rewards questionable work in quite the same way. And while some films play by the rules, others do everything in their power to shatter them. So from extreme counterculture commentaries to gore-fest jaw droppers, here are 20 controversial movies you’ve probably never seen – and you’ll be glad that you haven’t.
20. Ichi the Killer (2001)
Ever been given vomit bags while entering the cinema? Well, if you saw this manga-inspired Japanese movie upon its release, then you would have – and for good reason. The controversial film, which is still banned in some countries, caused uproar due to its sexualized violence and graphic depictions of torture. Easy there, Ichi.
19. Last Tango in Paris (1972)
The Marlon Brando-fronted Last Tango in Paris blurs the line between art and pornography. Supposedly inspired by director Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexual fantasies, this tale of two lovers features scenes of sodomy, rape and humiliation – and this caused outrage among groups like the National Organization for Women, which lamented it as a proponent of “male domination.”
18. Kids (1995)
The innocence with Kids ends at the title. Based around the lives of some disillusioned teenaged skaters, the movie delves pretty deeply into the promiscuity of young people. Today the production would almost certainly fall foul of the Child Pornography Prevention Act, though this hadn’t been signed by the time it was released.
17. Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters’ 1972 shock-a-thon Pink Flamingos attempted to break every taboo in the book. Indeed, many scenes are simply too shocking for words. Because the movie was widely banned, only heavily cut edits were released, and yet this actually helped it to become a cult favorite. It’s since been heralded by Taste of Cinema as “the most important queer film of all time.”
16. Song of the South (1946)
This controversial Disney movie from 1946 is still banned on video and DVD across the U.S. Because it depicts African-Americans in a particularly offensive way, Song of the South has – quite understandably – been labeled overtly racist. Indeed, Richard B. Dier wrote in The Afro-American that he was “thoroughly disgusted” while watching it.
15. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Don’t Look Now really delivered in the shocks stakes, especially when stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie came under fire for their pretty graphic sex scene. Cue a censorship storm that saw the movie rated X in the U.K. and R in the U.S. As for its ending – well, it’s still one of the most disturbing scenes in movie history.
14. The Devils (1971)
A movie where Jesus, played by Oliver Reed, has sexual relations with a nun was bound to cause controversy. But Ken Russell’s The Devils by no means ended there, much to the consternation of the Catholic Church. The film remains banned in many countries for its graphic depictions of religious figures in shocking and violent scenarios.
13. Maniac (1980)
Slasher movies have become parodies in modern-day cinema, but there was no such parody in 1980’s Maniac. The violence towards women it depicted caused a real national outcry; it was so strong, in fact, that it received coverage on TV news channels. Indeed, this movie was so extreme that it didn’t receive certification until 2002.
12. Faces of Death (1978)
Combining real footage of death with fake death scenes and featuring obscene gratuitous violence, Faces of Death boasted that it was “banned in 40+ countries.” But while the movie’s blurring of fact and fiction was hard to swallow, this didn’t prevent it from making a reported $35 million at the box office.
11. Blood Sucking Freaks (1976)
Blood Sucking Freaks, which falls under the “exploitation-splatter” sub-genre, is another ham-fisted attempt at shocking audiences. It didn’t get much traction at the box office, either, but that didn’t stop it from coming under fire from Women Against Pornography. Why? Because it basically depicted every possible way to dissect parts of the human anatomy – via torture.
10. I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, I Spit on Your Grave is notorious because of its 45-minute rape scene. The flick’s creators attempted to justify the highly panned scene by explaining that the victim eventually exacts revenge – but this doesn’t detract from the fact that this film is seriously depraved.
9. In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Explicit – and very real – sex scenes are rife in this Japanese movie about two twisted lovers. To get around Japan’s strict censorship rules, director Nagisa Oshima had the production’s footage processed in France. And while the film was supposed to be released worldwide, most countries could only tolerate heavily edited – or heavily blurred – versions.
8. Freaks (1932)
Such was the controversy surrounding Freaks that around 30 minutes of footage were ultimately removed from the movie. What was so bad? Well, the film centers on carnival performers – and specifically performers with real deformities. It was so exploitative, in fact, that the U.K. banned it for three decades. It effectively brought director Tod Browning’s career to an end, too.
7. Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Aside from its impressive and praised performance by Emily Browning in the lead role, Sleeping Beauty received criticism at Cannes Film Festival for its over-the-top nudity and problematic narrative. Indeed, the controversial 2011 film focuses on the life of a sex worker, Lucy, who is violated after taking a powerful sedative.
6. Nekromantik (1987)
Released in 1987, Nekromantik features seriously troubling necrophilia imagery – a taboo that’s too great for even the most liberal movie buff to take. The German production’s scenes are as dark as you can imagine and more, and they’re also plainly disgusting. But despite it being widely banned as a result, the movie managed to attract a cult following.
5. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
This ’80s video nasty continues to sicken viewers today. Indeed, everything about this distasteful picture screams controversy, from the inflammatory title to the found footage voyeurism. Cannibal Holocaust is so shocking that, when it was released in Italy, director Ruggero Deodato was arrested for obscenity offences.
4. A Serbian Film (2010)
This take on a snuff movie generated buzz for all the wrong reasons. Director Srđan Spasojević defended A Serbian Film by explaining that it is a “diary” of alleged abuse carried out by the Serbian government. However, the scenes depicting necrophilia, rape and child abuse were too much for many countries to tolerate.
3. Antichrist (2009)
Danish Director Lars von Trier was apparently severely depressed while making Antichrist. And that may well explain this twisted tale of pain and suffering – and quite possibly the explicit gore and deeply depraved scenes featuring vicious torture techniques. It’s a tough watch, yes, and yet critics have highlighted the 2009 movie’s impressive execution.
2. Salò (1975)
Salò takes the sickness stakes up a notch; this, after all, is one of the most banned movies in existence. The violent acts Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film depicts are essentially pointless: the victims portrayed are subjected to grotesque punishments for the picture’s duration, with barely a flicker of hope surfacing throughout.
1. Irréversible (2002)
The 2002 French movie Irréversible seems to take great satisfaction in its own provocative nature. In fact, the rape scene – which involves Alex, played by Monica Bellucci – is considered to be one of the most graphic and hard-to-watch moments in cinema history. It lasts for ten minutes, but owing to its intensity, it feels like much longer.