For this list, we will not only be looking at films that sought to shock audiences and critics alike, but also those that were the subject of much public scrutiny and political censorship, and yet still have managed to endure, creating a lasting legacy for their controversial content.
7) Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Starting off our list at number seven is this Bernardo Bertolucci classic. Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, Last Tango in Paris tells the story of an anonymous sexual relationship between a recent American widower and an engaged Parisian woman.
Known for its graphic sexual content, including the infamous “butter scene,” in which the dairy product is used as a lubricant. Both Brando and Schneider said they felt violated by the film.
In Italy, one week after the film’s release, authorities were ordered to seize all copies of the film, and the film’s director was put on trial for “obscenity.” The Italian Supreme Court would later order all copies of the film destroyed, with Bertolucci being sentenced to a four-month suspended prison sentence. On top of that, he had his civil rights revoked for five years. However, in 1987, a new ruling allowed the film to be released in Italy.
Last Tango in Paris received similar government censorship in countries such as Chile, South Korea and Portugal, and upon its release in the United States; the film received an X rating by the MPAA, but was later re-classified as NC-17 in 1997.
6) Antichrist (2009)
The number six spot is for the Antichrist. William Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a grieving couple struggling with the death of their newborn son in this experimental art film written and directed by Lars Von Trier.
Simply credited as “He” and “She,” the couple isolate themselves from the rest of the world in a cabin appropriately called “Eden.” After the wife’s guilt begins to grow, a twisted, and perhaps misogynistic, battle of the sexes ensues.
While praised for its artistic style, the film has gained a considerable amount of controversy over its graphic and sometimes repulsive content, including body doubles being used for genital mutilation scenes and un-simulated sex scenes.
Since the film’s release, there have been two different cuts in circulation. The first being the un-cut “Protestant” version, which runs 108 minutes, and the second being the “Catholic” version, which runs between 100 and 104 minutes.
5) Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Cannibal Holocaust comes in at number five. This cannibal exploitation film, directed by Ruggero Deodato and written by Gianfranco Clerici, is about an American film crew that goes missing while on an expedition to document the indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest.
10 days after its premiere, the film was confiscated, and the director was arrested for allegations that the piece was actually a “snuff film;” a film that depicts the actual murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, and of course, illegal. Facing life in prison for murder charges, Deodato was forced to gather the cast members and prove the violence was actually staged.
However, since the time of its release, Cannibal Holocaust has come under attack by many animal rights groups, since seven animals were in fact killed on-screen.
The realistic presentation of documentary crew’s footage, which was how the film was framed, can be seen as a precursor to the “found footage” genre of filmmaking, popularized by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007), and like other films in the genre, Cannibal Holocaust bears an anti-imperialist sentiment.
4) Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Number four is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s modern retelling of The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis da Sade, who was an elected delegate to the National Convention during the French Revolution. Although written in 1785, the novel was not published until 1905.
Set back in the days of the Italian Social Republic, which was a satellite state of Nazi Germany nicknamed “Salo,” four wealthy, fascist libertines abduct eighteen 18 boys and girls, and for 120, subject them to the most violent forms of torture, sadism and humiliation, which ends in nearly all their murders.
The film was initially banned in several countries for its graphic portrayal of the rape, torture and murder of actors thought to be younger than 18. However, in the years that followed, the ban was lifted in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
But perhaps the most infamous aspect of the film was the later murder of its director, an outspoken Marxist and homosexual. Pasolini’s murder, which over the years has been the center of much speculation, remains unsolved to this day.
3) The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Coming in at number three is D.W. Griffith’s silent epic, The Birth of a Nation. Based on the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr., the film was the first 12-reel film in the United States, and its lost sequel, The Fall of a Nation (1916), is considered to be the first sequel in the history of cinema.
Told in two parts, The Birth of a Nation chronicles the relationship between two families during the American Civil War and the country’s re-construction afterwards. President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is also dramatized.
Though a financial success at the time of its release, the film was highly controversial for its portrayal of black men, who were played by white actors in blackface, as savage, and the Ku Klux Klan as a noble force for good in the South. This sparked protests, and even riots in several major cities, such as Boston and Philadelphia.
The strong backlash and harsh criticism inspired the filmmaker’s follow-up film, Intolerance (1916), another epic which intercuts four different storylines, including the fall of the Babylonian Empire, Christ’s crucifixion, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and a contemporary story of American “intolerance.”
2) The Exorcist (1973)
Number two – The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin and based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, the story was inspired by the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, a pseudonym given to an anonymous boy who was the supposed victim of demonic possession.
Starring Ellen Burstyn as the famous actress, Chris MacNeil, whose daughter Regan (Linda Blair), has become possessed by a demon. The demon’s name is later learned to be Pazuzu. After modern science fails to diagnose the problem, the desperate mother turns to Father Karras, a troubled priest struggling with the loss of his mother, and Father Merrin, an elderly priest who has battled Pazuzu before.
While widely regarded to be one of, if not the scariest movie of all time, The Exorcist drew considerable criticism for its portrayal of violence towards children, particularly the vulgar acts and language coming from the young girl.
Conspiracy theorists have made allegations that subliminal imagery is used throughout the film, most notably the padding on Regan’s bedpost being shaped to cast phallic shadows.
1) A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Making the number one spot on our countdown is Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel of the same name.
Malcolm McDowell stars in this ultra-violent tale as Alex DeLarge, a charming, Beethoven-loving adolescent, who along with his gang of “droogs,” spends his nights wreaking havoc on a dilapidated, near-future version of England.
But after being sent to prison for murder, in exchange for a lesser sentence, Alex subjects himself to the controversial Ludovico technique, a radical experiment proposed by the increasingly authoritarian government, aimed at “curing” the individual’s undesirable tendencies, but at the same time, taking away the very thing that makes him human.
Not only was the film rated X in the United States by the MPAA for its depiction of gang violence and rape, but was also pulled from British distribution, as per the director’s wishes. Kubrick stated there were protesters outside his home, and that he and his family had received numerous threats.
For the next 27 years, this made seeing A Clockwork Orange in the United Kingdom very difficult, and it was only after the filmmaker’s death in 1999 that the film was re-released.