We turn to movies for entertainment, but it’s not uncommon for the subject matter of certain films make it a little difficult for most to swallow. Throughout cinematic history, there have been movies known for their controversy and these ten memorable features represent the most controversial of their time.
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A Serbian Film
A film of perversion, grotesque themes, and a whole lot of envelope-pushing, A Serbian Film is about as controversial as a movie can get. Written by Srdan Spasojevic and Aleksandar Radivojevic, the movie follows a retired porn star, Milos, who’s manipulated back into the sex industry in hopes of securing his family’s future. What sounds like a noble deed leads to a disgusting romp through the world of underground pornography, with Milos forced to perform deeds too depraved to repeat. We’ll just say children and newborns should never be the subject of porn. Upon release, A Serbian Film was banned in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Singapore, Malaysia, and temporarily Brazil, with Norway following shortly after and Netflix removing the title in September of 2011.
American History X
What wasn’t controversial about the 1998 Tony Kaye film that focused heavily on the neo-Nazi movement and racism? Edward Norton’s portrayal of the ill-tempered and less-than-accepting Danny Vineyard brought a frightening realism to the hate that fueled his character. If you’ve never seen the movie, there’s still a chance you know about the movie’s most controversial and incredibly disturbing “curb stomp” scene. The controversy behind American History X actually went beyond what was in the film itself, stretching to the movie’s production. Director Tony Kaye’s well-known boisterous personality turned production of the movie into a living hell, constantly clashing with actors, the script writers, and the studio. Kaye’s antics during production proved to be too much and New Line eventually banned him from the editing room.
There's a pretty universal rule across the globe that underage teens and children are off-limits. Murder, rape, inappropriate sexual advances - when it comes to kids, that's just messed up and you deserve to be locked away. That's likely one reason why the 1962 black comedy Lolita is still a hot topic these days - that and the release of the 1997 remake stirred the pot some more. You can't even Google the term "Lolita", without fearing being placed on some federal list, so how is one to feel watching a movie that follows a middle-aged man lusting after - and eventually bedding - a girl in her early teens. The filthy Humbert, played by James Mason, does all that he can to remain in the company of the young Dolores, even going so far as to marry the girl's mother. It probably doesn't help matters that the actress portraying Dolores was 14 when filming started.
The Last Temptation of Christ
A film chronicling any portion of the life of Jesus Christ is bound to raise some eyebrows, and Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel of the same name definitely garnered the wrong kind of attention. A different take on the biblical Jesus of Nazareth, William Dafoe's portrayal finds himself surrounded by and constantly struggling with temptation. While the framework of the Bible is there, the deviations were enough to incite rage from a handful of Christian groups. Protests and boycotts were held prior to the film's release and one group event went so far as setting fire to the Saint Michel theater in Paris during a screening of the movie. The Catholic Church even labeled the film as "Morally Offensive," the highest rating given by the National Legion of Decency.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange may be a classic bit of cinema today, but when it first released in 1972 - or 1971, if you caught the New York City premiere - it caused quite a stir. The movie follows Alex DeLarge through a winding tale of murder, sex, rehabilitation, and retribution, one that confuses the audience into somehow feeling sympathy for a man that, moments ago, raped a woman in a drug-induced frenzy. Kubrick shocked audiences with the movie's violence and sex, causing an initial X rating in the United States and an even longer road in the United Kingdom. Shortly after release, the film was cited in one rape and two murder cases and was officially withdrawn from British viewing.
Song of the South
Here's a shocker in the world of cinematic controversy - a Walt Disney musical pegged as being "one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts", or so says cultural historian Jason Sperb, who's views were supported by the NAACP and the National Negro Congress. Taking place post-Civil War, the film depicts live-action Uncle Remus detailing tales of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear. You'll likely remember the film's most popular track, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," but even the cheerful tune couldn't overshadow what many believed to be an improper retelling of slave-master relations. One of the movie's biggest flaws is its failure to properly date the events, leading many to think Uncle Remus is a slave and his cheerful demeanor indicates he's quite happy about it.
Today, it’s one of the most iconic horror films to grace the cinemas. When it released in 1973, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s book received plenty of pushback, and while one may expect the Catholic Church to have the biggest issue with the movie, it was the audience that flipped instead. News reports popped up of people fainting and vomiting in the middle of the movie and Linda Blair was said to have received death threats for “glorifying Satan.” The movie drove audiences mad - quite literally - and pushed the limits of horror with damning scenes like when Regan got a bit too familiar with a crucifix, spouting obscenities like a drunken, horny sailor. The Exorcist also employed flash frames of a demon’s face, thought to increase the tension and fear response of certain scenes.
What could go wrong with a movie that features an orgy in a church, mass exorcisms, and an ending that borderlines necrophilia? Ken Russell's 1971 film The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun, featured all of that and more, leading to a highly-controversial film for its time. Slapped with an X rating in the United States and the United Kingdom and banned or heavily edited in other countries, The Devils mixes religion and sex in a way that would make any religious viewer squirm and look away in disgust. When the sexually deprived nun Sister Jeanne's obsession with Urbain Grandier brings her to accuse him of witchcraft, the movie twists from a well-paced thriller into a freakish religious sex-fest.
Here we are, over 30 years after William Friedkin's film about a serial killer targeting gay men in the S&M underground, and our society still has a grand case of homophobia. So you can expect when Cruising initially launched how sensitive the issue was and how a movie focused on the leather subculture of the gay community would draw some attention. Friedkin's adaptation of Gerald Walker's novel received heaps of hate from the gay community, inciting protests as the movie allegedly depicted the gay community as depraved and insane. Arthur Bell of The Village Voice newspaper spoke out against the film, urging readers to harass the crew working on it. The movie was even said to be connected to hate crimes, such as a shooting that occurred just two months after its release at a club that was featured in the movie.
By today’s standards, Ruggero Deodato’s 1979 Italian cult horror film Cannibal Holocaust is definitely not as shocking as it was during its initial release. You see, a movie like that released today wouldn’t lead to the eventual arrest of the director, a reality Deodato faced when the movie’s effects were deemed so real by Italian police that it was believed to feature real murder. Complicating matters were the contracts the actors signed which kept them from making media appearances, adding to the realistic allure of the movie. The actors were eventually forced out of hiding and aided in Deodato’s release, but the controversy didn’t end. The movie depicts the slayings of real animals. A turtle, pig, tarantula, coatimundi, and two squirrel monkeys were actually butchered, inciting claims of animal cruelty. Currently, the film is banned in countries like New Zealand, Malaysia, and Finland.