Sometimes a movie comes along that is so warped, twisted or just plain challenging to conventional mores that it causes people to completely lose their shit, start picketing, writing letters and everything else old church ladies love to do. Of course, this controversy usually ends up getting the movie even more press. It’s funny how that works. But some movies have gone beyond offending the usual church lady crowd – I’m pretty sure there were whackos upset because Transformers gave souls to robots or some such nonsense – and become controversial to almost everyone. These are the movies that obliterated social taboos, and in the process became nine of the most controversial movies ever made.
9. ‘Natural Born Killers’
The Movie: Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis kick the serial killing game up a notch in Oliver Stone’s satire about the American media’s love affair with violence and sensationalism. Naturally, it was written by none other than Quentin Tarantino.
The Controversy: Perhaps not surprisingly, people got all bent out of shape because they felt that a movie about the media glorifying serial killers ended up, well, glorifying serial killers. It didn’t help that there were reportedly several copycat crimes.
The Aftermath: The movie was banned in Ireland and its release was delayed in England while officials investigated reports of copycat killings in America. It was also accused of “inspiring” the Columbine massacre amongst other hideous incidents. Woody Harrelson coped by building a house made out of hemp and then smoking it.
The Movie: Circus freaks gone wild.
The Controversy: It seems quaint today, but Tod Browning’s 1932 film made people completely lose their shit back in the day. It was basically 1932’s version of torture porn.
The Aftermath: Audience members walked out, some fainted, and one lady even claimed that the movie caused her to have a miscarriage. What can I say? America has never liked ugly people. The movie also effectively ended Browning’s career, even after he made several cuts to the movie, eliminating some of the more gruesome scenes in order to make it more palatable to audiences. Back then, it ruined a dude’s life. Today, it’s used as parody fodder by The Simpsons. Times have, uh, times have changed.
The Movie: Larry Clark’s pull-no punches look at teenagers in America in the 1990s. Naturally, this includes, sex, drugs, rape, AIDS, you know good ol’ fashioned icons of Americana. Incidentally, this was also Chloe Sevigny’s and Rosario Dawson’s film debuts.
The Controversy: Believe it or not, people weren’t that comfortable with depictions of kids gone wild. I know, shocking.
The Aftermath: Critics and hysterics accused Clark of being a pedophile, and Leo Fitzpatrick, who played Telly, was harassed by people who assumed he was actually his character. Meanwhile, feminists blasted the movie as misogynistic, meaning that the movie was pummeled from both the right and the left, which is always a fun place to be. On the plus side, it was only the second most degrading role of Sevigny’s career since at least her boyfriend didn’t make her blow him on camera in this one.
6. ‘Triumph of the Will’
The Movie: Leni Riefenstal’s chronicle of the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg Rallies, which ended up being used by Nazis as the ultimate propaganda piece. It elevated Nazism to something akin to epic religious fervor.
The Controversy: Uh, read that again.
The Aftermath: The movie has been both condemned as a propaganda piece and paradoxically praised as the best, most effective propaganda piece ever created, and has been held up as a landmark achievement in filmmaking. Riefenstal’s career was of course irreparably altered by the aftermath, and she spent a good portion of the rest of her life both defending her work as an art film and downplaying the fact that she was an active participant in the rallies. The film was the direct inspiration for Frank Capra’s just as famous “Why We Fight” series of propaganda films for the U.S. during World War II, and was – and is – so powerful that it is still banned in Germany to this day.
5. ‘The Birth of a Nation’
The Movie: D.W. Griffith’s silent 1915 film depicted the relationship of two families in the Civil War and in the years that followed. It is widely considered the first great American film. But…
The Controversy: For as great as it’s considered technically, it’s also considered one of the most irresponsible movies of all time. It’s portrayal of black men (played by white dudes in blackface because that’s just they got down back then) was hideously offensive, depicting them as out of control monsters who just wanted to rape white women all day. It also glorified a bunch of rednecks in white hoods, which probably explains its original title: The Clansman.
The Aftermath: Even back in 1915, people were uncomfortable with the film’s depiction of black dudes, and when you’re too racist for 1915, you know you’ve done some really messed up shit. The glorification of the Ku Klux Klan was the inspiration for the group’s revival in the South, which probably explains why the NAACP tried to get the movie banned. There were widespread protests, even as white audiences flocked to the theater, and Griffith was compelled to answer his critics with his next movie, Intolerance. Thankfully, racism was never a problem for anybody ever again.
4. ‘Deep Throat’
The Movie: A woman can’t orgasm, so she goes to a doctor who discovers that her clitoris is actually in her throat and that she can only climax by blowing dudes. Truly, both a progressive take and a plot worthy of Shakespeare.
The Controversy: This was basically the first porno film to have a plot and production values beyond some seedy dude hanging out in a warehouse with a camera bellowing “Okay, now fuck!” Believe it or not, most Americans didn’t really appreciate porn going mainstream.
The Aftermath: The movie was banned in a lot of places, including the UK, and was the subject of countless obscenity trials for many years after. It also inspired a brief bourgeois interest in porn dubbed “porno chic,” and infamously lent its name to the Watergate scandal. Star Linda Lovelace spent years explaining that the film was a liberating experience before doing a complete 180 after leaving her husband, claiming that she actually was forced to do the movie against her will at gunpoint. Richard Nixon was not a fan.
3. ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’
The Movie: Before he can get on with the business of saving the souls of humanity, Jesus struggles with very human temptations and imagines himself living a normal life after Satan tempts him while he’s on the cross.
The Controversy: That normal life includes him banging his wife, Mary Magdalene, which… uh, take one guess at how people reacted to that.
The Aftermath: Martin Scorcese’s movie was boycotted and picketed in America by fundamentalist groups, and one nut even offered to buy the film from the studio so that he could destroy it. It was banned in much of the world, and some French Christian terrorists went wild and threw Molotov cocktails into the theater showing the film, causing it to close for three years. You know, just like Jesus would have done.
2. ‘The Passion of the Christ’
The Movie: Mel Gibson re-imagines Jesus’ final hours in harrowing, brutal fashion.
The Controversy: This time, it was the left getting all indignant while the evangelicals flocked to see Jesus suffering for their sins. Critics claimed the film was nothing more than obscene torture porn, and oh yeah, there was that whole thing with Mel Gibson being a raging anti-Semite and the movie basically claiming that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death. Just a small detail, really.
The Aftermath: The movie was a smash hit, largely because it was in-line with the fundamentalist take on Jesus’ final blowout. However, it’s literally medieval take (the movie was pretty much the direct descendent of the medieval “passion plays” used to kick up anti-Jewish frenzy back in the day) turned off even more people, and effectively destroyed Gibson’s career. The lesson? Never, ever make a movie about Jesus.
1. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’
The Movie: Italian director Ruggero Deodato pioneered the “found-footage” genre with this gruesome flick about a group of documentary filmmakers who get lost in the Amazon, and hey, wait a minute, that’s not chicken.
The Controversy: The movie was sickeningly violent, and was so realistic that people actually were convinced that this was footage of people being killed and eaten by savages. Also, the movie featured animals being tortured and killed. Unfortunately, those scenes actually were real.
The Aftermath: The movie was banned in several countries, including Deodato’s native Italy, and things got so out of hand that Deodato was actually arrested and charged with murder because people believed that the actors were all dead. Deodato was forced to produce his actors on live TV in order to prove that they were still alive and that the whole thing had been staged. To this day, though, there are people who believe that Deodato basically made a snuff film. But hey, at least he didn’t make one of the main characters Jesus.
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