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Seven of the Most Controversial Horror Films

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Digging into the dark underbelly of the human psyche can be an ugly business. Just ask any of those involved in the making of some of horror’s most notorious movies. As filmmaking and storytelling methods evolve, it allows more freedom to those who choose to explore areas that many would prefer remain hidden. But this often prompts us to ask rabidly debated questions like, ‘Just how far is too far?’  

Way before the days when watching a film banned in your country was simply a matter of a quick illegal download to side step the censors, the MPAA and BBFC were much more of a force to be reckoned with.  Now it seems that films are usually old news way before the censors can even touch them.

We have highlighted seven films that were particularly contentious for audiences and censors alike. Most are from those dark days before the internet, but a few new troublemakers on this list, too.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

If there ever was a film to signal the end of the age of free love then George Romeo’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead is it. With the ratings system that we know and use today was not officially in place until later that year, young cinema goers were allowed admittance unchecked, completely oblivious to the horrors about to be unleashed. This was an apocalypse previously unheard of in American cinema, with the narrative contained to a small group of ragtag survivors in a farm house. Not only must they fight to prevent being eaten alive, they have to contend with the wills of their fellow survivors who may not see eye to eye with the person holding to gun.

As African-Americans were deeply entrenched in the civil rights movement, Night Of The Living Dead starred a black man in the lead role (Duane Jones as Ben) – a fact that makes his fate at the climax of the film troublingly resonant with an America that recently witnessed the harsh treatment of peaceful protesters. The racial undertones are hard to ignore. Ben is mistaken for a zombie and shot by a group of locals. Believing that this isn’t enough to cleanse the fields of the undead they decide to pile the bodies on a fire. As the final credits roll, the last images we see are of Ben’s body being dragged by meat hooks and unceremoniously dumped into the flames, evoking images of lynching from the country’s dark past.

CHILD’S PLAY 3 (1991)

In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was murdered by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both ten years old. It horrified the entire country and in a desperate search for answers the media looked to the boys’ family life. It would later be revealed that Venables’s father had rented Child’s Play 3 and, seeing similarities between a scene in the film and Bulger’s murder, police investigated the possibility that the movie inspired the killing. The media soon caught on and newspaper tabloids everywhere were hysterical in their reaction. Responsible journalism was abandoned as they began printing the film poster on their front page, calling for an immediate ban.  Although today the series is widely considered one of the more playfully comedic horror franchises, for many it was the most notorious of them all.

SALO: 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

If you’re sitting down to an adaption of one of infamous libertine Marquis De Sade’s books, it’s a safe bet that you should send the kids to bed. Written during his 1785 incarceration in an insane asylum for crimes of obscenity toward the Catholic Church, this remains one of the most notorious works of fiction to this day. Banned in numerous countries, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film is a fierce circus of horrifying perversions.  Coprophagia, sadism, incest and rape are all just the tip of the iceberg. Four wealthy, fascist Italian officials lock themselves away in a remote castle in a Mussolini-ruled Italy and, aided by some like-minded accomplices, imprison 18 victims on whom they unleash their depravity.  Comparisons can be made to the work of Michael Haneke, with an unapologetic, unflinching focus on violence. The lack of any soundtrack or complex editing making the atrocities all the more unbearable.  On its initial 1976 release it was emphatically rejected by the BBFC, only seeing a full, uncut release in 2000. So many and varied are the acts of indecency in this movie that there will be at least one scene here that will force you to look away.  Pasolini did not live to experience the reaction to his work, having been murdered just prior to release.

THE EXORCIST (1973)

From production to release, William Friedkin’s film was steeped in controversy. An uncomfortably high number of deaths, injuries, and accidents ran through the cast, crew, and their families, leading to requests that the sets (which at one point had burned to the ground) be blessed by a priest before production could continue. There was great concern for the well-being of Linda Blair, the twelve-year-old who played the possessed girl Reagan. On set, the more distressing scenes were played by a body double but with sensitive members of the public unaware of this, they were outraged to see a child masturbating with a crucifix. Blair began receiving death threats, causing the studio to hire bodyguards for her for six months after release. With vomiting and fainting reported in theaters across America, and religious groups picketing outside theater doors, the notoriety stoked the publicity fires, resulting in box office success and making The Exorcist the first real horror blockbuster.   

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)

Wes Craven’s 1972 rape/revenge film still manages to shock and upset audiences today. Two teenage girls are taken against their will deep into the woods and slowly humiliated, raped and brutally assaulted. After Krug and his gang are finished with the girls, they seek shelter for the night at the home of one of the girls. After discovering their daughter’s fate, the parents decide to unleash bloody vengeance – a little too bloody for some. There were  rumors that angry audience members stole and burned prints. The film was effectively banned upon release in the UK as it was denied a certificate from the ratings board, and eventually found its way onto the notorious “video nasties” list. In the 2000s Last House on the Left started to see limited releases with a few seconds trimmed here and there. It finally saw an uncut release in the UK in 2008.

THE BUNNY GAME (2010)

The most recent entry on our list concerns a down-and-out unnamed hooker who turns tricks for some of Los Angeles’s more unsavory characters, living a life of abuse for a quick buck. Her latest customer kidnaps her and drives her out into the desert where her systematically tortures her. Adam Rehmeier’s film garnered attention for the incredibly raw, primal performance of it’s leading actress, Rodleen Getsic, who appears at the opening frame performing fellatio on a mystery man in an excruciatingly tight close-up which sets the no-holds-barred tone for the rest of this story. There were no sets and no security. Literally filmed with just the director and two actors, the crew holed up in the back of a big rig in the middle of nowhere for the majority of the shoot. Getsic would endure some very real abuse in the name of her art, including a completely unsimulated scene involving a branding iron. The film largely eschews narrative coherency for an unrelenting assault on the senses that most will find hard to finish. Her performance was so effective that some of Getsic’s relatives took particular offense with the film, as the actress lamented in a past Fangoria interview: “Part of my family disowned me and don’t want to speak to me anymore.” 

A SERBIAN FILM (2009)

For those who have already seen this film, it’s entry on a list like this is completely unsurprising.  Milos, a desperate and cash strapped ex-porn star agrees to take part in an ominous film project with the hopes of some quick cash. Although reluctant to take the job, his family’s future security depends on his compliance. He takes directions via a hidden earpiece that lead him from one horrifying experiment to the next.  Despite having high production values, A Serbian Film was hard to defend for even the most jaded of audiences. Some considered it a bleak criticism of capitalism, while others see it as a shallow, exploitative exercise in pushing the boundaries of good taste. Director Srdjan Spasojevic  defended his film in an interview that suggested heavy political cynicism: “My shocking film denounces the fascism of political correctness.... We are also dealing with today’s art and cinema and the corrupt artistic authorities that govern them in a similar manner here.” 

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