ere it is folks: the final installment in my four-part series in which we have discussed some of the most controversial films in cinematic history. Most of them eventually overcame legal and moral backlash to achieve classic or cult followings, but still manage to shock audiences even today. (Previous entries: part one; part two; and part three.)
In our last chapter we focused solely on 1980, a landmark year for public outrage directed toward explicit content in general and movie violence in particular, especially in the United States. With the 1990s came the NC-17 rating, created by the Motion Picture Association of America to help non-pornographic films avoid the stigma of the X rating (the only MPAA rating that had not been copyrighted and thus appropriated by the adult film industry as a mark of salaciousness). It didn’t work, as most family-oriented theater chains seldom accepted NC-17 films, and local media often refused to run ads for them. Nice try, but would-be moralist gatekeepers always seem to find a way to set up roadblocks for provocative art.
As the end of the 20th century approached, bringing new fears about an uncertain future, a new breed of transgressive cinema emerged. Much of it came from outside the United States, where European movements like the “New French Extremity” and the early (pre-streaming) days of the internet provided film buffs access to extreme cinema from many other countries. Asian filmmakers also responded to declining box-office sales with a new wave of made-for-video movies containing more explicit sex and violence, and many of these gained a worldwide underground reputation — as well as a few legal tangles of their own.
If you have been enjoying this series and find yourself thirsty for more, be sure to let me know; we fans of outsider cinema are always on the lookout for new discoveries, and your feedback can help shine a light on even more underground finds from every decade of film history. But for now, let’s bring this list of highlights up to the present day...
Guinea Pig (1985-1990)
Graphic content became much more commonplace in Japanese films with the rise of direct-to-video “V-Cinema,” which was far more permissive with depictions of sex and violence than mainstream productions. Despite concerns about the brutal content in these videos inspiring copycat crimes, fans couldn’t get enough of them, and they provided a new playground for fearless filmmakers such as Takashi Miike, who helped usher in the international popularity of “J-Horror” with shockers like Audition and Ichi the Killer. One series of video vignettes might have been lost in the crowd if it weren’t for one specific incident (which I’ll discuss in a moment): the six-episode franchise Guinea Pig, partly inspired by manga artist Hideshi Hino, who also wrote and directed two of the episodes. While some of them were surreal and even semi-comic, the first two chapters caused an international outcry for their graphic depictions of torture, mutilation and murder. The second installment, “Flower of Flesh and Blood,” is the most notorious for its onscreen depiction of a deranged man dismembering a captive woman, using drugs to keep her alive as long as possible.
Japanese authorities attempted to ban the episode after the arrest of real-life serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who owned VHS copies of several Guinea Pig episodes (ironically, “Flower” was not among them) and whose murders were also uncomfortably similar to the one depicted in the video. Controversy later sprang up in the United States, when actor Charlie Sheen was reportedly given a bootleg copy; he was so convinced the grisly footage was real that he contacted the FBI, sparking a brief investigation. Some sources claim this incident is an urban legend, but Sheen has neither confirmed nor denied these rumors.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Even compared to our current obsession with true crime, it’s hard to imagine this brooding examination of the title character, loosely based on actual serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, would endure such an uphill battle to reach movie screens. While the film is relentlessly grim and violent, director John McNaughton’s camera doesn’t usually linger on the murders in progress, instead showing the grisly aftermath — though the onscreen deaths are quite brutal. Regardless, the MPAA wasn’t having it, and slapped the film with the toxic X (NC-17 didn’t exist yet, but it’s been said Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer played a role in that rating’s introduction). None of McNaughton’s efforts to edit down the violence seemed to help; he claimed the ratings board considered the film objectionable for its “overall tone” rather than specific scenes.
While Henry’s positive reception at film festivals (including a surprising thumbs-up from Roger Ebert, who championed the film’s release) created a major buzz among horror fans, it still faced relentless pushback from the MPAA, who continued to deny it the more accessible R rating, which the distributor insisted upon. This battle continued for years before Henry was finally given a limited release in the United States in uncut and unrated form, and since then it has achieved widespread acclaim. Censors in other English-speaking countries weren’t too kind to the film either, and the original cut was denied certification in the U.K. and New Zealand; that restriction was not loosened until the mid- 2000s.
The cinematic trend known as the “New French Extremity” arguably began with this boundary-busting film, co-directed by adult film star Coralie Trinh Thi and writer Virginie Despentes (based on her own 1993 novel). Sort of a nasty version of Thelma and Louise, Baise-Moi seemed destined for controversy, from its title (which literally translates as “Fuck Me”) to its explicit portrayal of frontal nudity and sexual violence. While both creators insisted the film did not fit the definition of pornography, it was banned from mainstream theaters in France for nearly three decades before finally achieving release.
Baise-Moi met similar obstacles in other countries, including the U.K., where the hardcore rape scenes were deemed obscene and had to be cut in order to secure the “R18” certificate. The title also prevented the film from being advertised in public spaces like subway tunnels and bus stops. Surprisingly, the film was screened uncut in the United States without much noise, possibly due to it being relegated to art-house cinemas, whose clientele tend to be far more permissive than mainstream audiences.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
This film is entirely unique to this list. Not for its controversial nature, but for the massive success enabled by that controversy. You would be hard-pressed to find a big-budget film from a well-known director that stirred up more strong opinions than Mel Gibson’s surreal, blood-drenched pet project about the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Even setting aside the religious aspects of The Passion of the Christ (I’ll get to those shortly), it boggles the mind that a movie depicting two hours of graphic violence rivaling virtually any “torture porn” films of the period (not to mention dialogue entirely in Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin) would be one of the highest-grossing features of all time. Its success was largely due to a savvy promotional campaign directed at evangelical Christian churches, who bused entire congregations, including young children, to theaters. This is a level of exploitation that grindhouse film distributors would have killed for back in the day, since much of this mass appeal stemmed from an almost Medieval fascination with the grisly details of Jesus’ final hours.
Despite Gibson’s insistence that The Passion adhered closely to scriptural accounts of these events, the film sparked immediate backlash from multiple religious groups. Jewish leaders condemned the film as blatantly anti-Semitic, while Catholic bishops disputed Gibson’s claim that the film was endorsed by Pope John Paul II. Massive protests scared 20th Century Fox away from picking up the film, so Gibson arranged to distribute it independently. It’s been raking in profits for Mad Max ever since.
You probably knew Danish director Lars Von Trier would show up on this list at least once, since he seems to delight in the controversy surrounding his emotionally violent works. Nearly all of his films would qualify here, but for the sake of brevity, I decided to pick one that raised the most eyebrows — not just for its hardcore sex and full frontal nudity, but for its unblinking, realistic, stomach-churning depictions of sexual violence as its characters slip fully into madness (for reasons that may be supernatural in nature). Antichrist is a two-character drama weaving elements of grief, trauma, abuse, sexual politics, religion and psychosis into one of the most pessimistic depictions of human nature ever filmed; needless to say, it’s best viewed with caution.
As a way of steering around censors objecting to the film’s explicit content — particularly scenes in which the woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) graphically mutilates her own genitalia and that of her husband (Willem Dafoe) — the film was released in uncut and slightly edited versions. This seemed to satisfy government and industry gatekeepers in most countries ... that is until 2016, when France buckled to protests from a conservative Catholic group and the film was banned despite previously having passed the censors uncut.
A Serbian Film (2010)
The last movie on this list is so notorious it’s become a kind of shorthand for extreme cinema, even surpassing Faces of Death as one of those “I dare you to watch” titles. When it made its world premiere at South by Southwest, presenters were upfront about its horrific content, giving audience members multiple opportunities to leave the theater before the house lights went down. But it didn’t fare as well at the U.K.’s Frightfest when the British Board of Film Classification refused to allow a screening without reviewing the film’s content, after which it demanded multiple cuts to the film’s depictions of explicit sex, torture, brutal murder, necrophilia, and even more vile acts I won’t get into here. A Serbian Film was eventually given a limited theatrical release in the United States and U.K. (the latter in heavily edited form), but several other countries — including Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and South Korea — refused to permit any kind of certification for the original cut, and a few even barred it from their borders altogether. In Serbia itself, director Srđan Spasojević was investigated on charges of obscenity, but the case was eventually dropped.
A Serbian Film is still difficult to track down in uncut form, as it is unavailable on most streaming platforms (Netflix once carried the DVD, but later pulled it from their library), and critics are sharply divided on its artistic worth. Many reviewers condemned the film as crass exploitation masquerading as a political statement; Spasojević insists the film is an indictment of the moral decay consuming his country, as well as a finger in the eye of the Serbian film industry, which he perceived as hypocritical, releasing sanitized, politically correct films financed by other countries that do not reflect the anger, frustration and despair eating away at his compatriots. Despite that mission statement, A Serbian Film was met with harsh criticism from reviewers who believed the film’s intent to shock destroys any moral value to be gained from enduring its gallery of atrocities. If you can find a copy, judge for yourself ... just remember you’ve been warned.
Thanks for joining me on this journey through the long and twisted history of films which, despite frequently gaining reputations as cinema classics today, still manage to ruffle the feathers of would-be moralists around the world. If you enjoy this column, let us know – because there’s plenty more out there, waiting for a new audience!
Gregory S. Burkart is a writer, filmmaker, musician, reporter and editor for multiple genre publications and sites including Fangoria, Dread Central, Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting and FEARnet. He and partner Simone C. Williams co-produced the series Tales from the Netherweb for Blumhouse and DREAD: The Unsolved for Dread Central. They are currently developing multiple features and TV series under the Würkart Entertainment banner.