The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time


The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
Movie Title Screen
Film Title/Year, Director

The Deer Hunter (1978)
D. Michael Cimino

Michael Cimino's depiction of friendships tested by the horrors of Vietnam won a Best-Picture Oscar, despite accusations of historical inaccuracy and racism.

Storywriter/producer/director Michael Cimino's epic about war and friendship was a powerful, disturbing and compelling look at the Vietnam War through the lives of three blue-collar, Russian-American friends in a small Pennsylvania steel-mill town before, during, and after their service in the war.

Although a Best Picture Oscar-winner, the meandering, sometimes shrill, raw film was extremely controversial on many accounts - political, historical and emotional. The flawed, extravagantly-expensive film was often pretentious, ambiguous, overwrought and excessive, and loosely edited, with under-developed character portrayals and unsophisticated, careless film techniques. Critics argued that the film grossly distorted historical fact.

The most talked about sequences were the contrived, theatrical, and fictional Russian Roulette tortures, imposed twice in the narrative - on the American POW's during wartime, and played as a game in a Vietnamese gambling den. [However, there were no documented cases or historical reports of the deadly game in actuality.] Historically inaccurate or not, the fabricated scene of a Vietcong atrocity metaphorically depicted the brutal absurdity of the war.

Director Cimino was also criticized as distortedly and one-sidedly portraying all the Asian characters in the film as despicable, sadistic racists and killers. He countered by arguing that his film was not political, polemical, literally accurate, or posturing for any particular point of view.

Faces of Death (1978) (aka The Original Faces of Death)
D. John Alan Schwartz (aka Conan LeCilaire)

The fact that it was "banned in 40+ countries" was a selling point for this morbid collection of death scenes, some real and some fake.

This dark horror mondo-type shockumentary film, a recognized cult film, was a gimmicky, semi- faked compilation of 'faces of death' and was a huge success on home video in the late 70s and early 80s. It was inspired by the earlier similar film, Death: The Ultimate Mystery (1975). The 'documentary' film was originally financed by Japanese producers for a theatrical run in 1979 or 1980 (and was originally titled Junk), and only later became a success in the US during its home video release. The video box displayed a white skull on a black background, with the statement: "Banned in 40+ Countries" (some claimed 46 countries!) Two scenes of animal cruelty were actually cut from the film, to satisfy British censors (the bloody dogfight, and the monkey brain bashing scene).

The sensationalist, 'forbidden' or even 'illegal' film pales in comparision, however, to present-day cable-TV images, the Internet and 'real horror' news footage. About half of the film was composed of real footage, while the remainder was stock footage or blatantly re-enacted (staged) incidents. The compilation surveyed animal violence, abuse, and cruelty, and then human death and suffering. Sequels followed with numbered supplements, in 1981, 1985, 1990, 1995, and 1996.

It first began with a failed open-heart surgery when the patient died ("In one brief moment, in the span of a heartbeat, your world could stop. There is no way to predict when you will become one of them"), followed by a very graphic autopsy during the titles sequence. The main character was introduced - narrator and self-proclaimed Dr. Francis Gross (who claimed to have traveled around the world to complete research because of his "compulsion to understand death") - a parody of a mad scientist. He said he wanted 'to look at man's morality and the mysteries and rites surrounding death.' Real footage included a Mexican account of exhumed mummified corpses, a bull fight, fighting pitbulls in Mexico, a snake attacked by a pool of piranha, the hacking of a chicken's head, and the slaughterhouse butchering - gutting - skinning of sheep and cattle. Then came the infamous monkey hammer-bashing and brain-eating sequence (faked, but based upon actual practices) in an exotic restaurant. Next followed shark fishing, the clubbing of seals in Alaska, and a re-enacted alligator attack on a Florida game warden.

The remaining portion of the film included a 1973 police stand-off and shoot-out outside a house with a murderous beserk criminal and a bloody crime scene inside, an assassination in France viewed on TV, a gas chamber execution and an electric chair electrocution (faked), a real-looking decapitation, suicide (an immolation and a woman jumping from a window - although her body lying on the pavement was staged), a religious and cannibalistic San Francisco cult practicing sacrifice (and eating victims' flesh and organs), a grizzly bear attack, archival footage of concentration camp and Holocaust images, a fatal malfunctioning parachute jump, a grisly car crash, and the nightmarish aftermath of a genuine San Diego plane crash.

Dr. Gross ended the film with this thought: "During the past 20 years I know that my compulsion to understand death was much greater than just an obsession. My dreams have dictated my mission. But now it is time to witness the final moment, to discover the circle that forever repeats itself. The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? I'll leave that decision to you."

I Spit On Your Grave (1978) (aka Day of the Woman)
D. Meir Zarchi

Vilified as a misogynistic wolf in faux-feminist clothing, this rape-revenge movie so incensed critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel that they tried to have it pulled from theaters.

This exploitative, low-budget X-rated (later released in an R-rated version although of the same length) notorious gang rape/vigilante revenge splatter-horror film was banned outright in many countries, and vilified by critics.

Its uncompromising theme of violent vengeance placed it in the category of filthy and debased exploitation film (masquerading as an anti-rape diatribe), and reviewers such as Ebert and Siskel (who described the unrated version as vile garbage) attempted to have the film pulled from theaters.

Other similar films of revenge preceded it, such as Straw Dogs (1971) and The Last House on the Left (1972). Its director defended the film as evidence of triumphant female empowerment as seen by the film's conclusion, although most of the film depicted prolonged multiple rapes by backwoods hicks upon the city girl.

The story followed Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, grand-niece of comedian Buster Keaton, and married to director/writer/producer Meir Zarchi at the time of filming). She was an aspiring novelist and NYC short story writer (of articles published in women's magazines) who had rented a remote and woodsy, riverside dwelling for the summer (the film was made in rural Connecticut). She had a passing acquaintance with four misogynistic locals when she arrived: three aimless and sex-obsessed guys at a gas station (Eron Tabor as gas station manager Johnny, and his two unemployed friends Anthony Nichols as Stanley, and Gunter Kleeman as harmonica-playing Andy) and a bespectacled, mentally-slow supermarket delivery man (Richard Pace as "half-idiot" Matthew Lucas).

One day while she was sunning herself in a canoe on the river, Stanley and Andy circled her in their motorboat, and towed her canoe to shore where they harrassed her and chased her through a muddy forest. They were met by the other two men - the excuse to hassle her was to aid Matthew in losing his virginity to her ("We got her for you"). So they stripped her of her bathing suit and offered her up, but when Matthew chickened out ("I can't do it now, not now!"), Johnny raped her in a meadow in degrading fashion. She vainly struggled against them as she was held down and violated.

She crawled away and ran off, only to be tracked down again - and then brutally and anally raped by Andy while restrained over a large boulder - and letting out a horrendous scream! The entire painful-to-watch sequence was graphic, lengthy (40 minutes in a 100 minute film!), and particularly heinous, including both a vaginal and anal rape in the outdoors, an impotent attempt by a drunken Matthew to rape her ("I can't come, you're interrupting my concentration...I can't, not with people watching me"), and a brutal beating from Stanley. As she laid there helpless, Stanley told her: "Total submission. That's what I like in a woman. Total submission," then briefly bottle-raped her and thrust his crotch into her face, yelling: "Suck it, bitch!" as he repeated slapped her and called her a whore.

When ordered and coaxed into stabbing Jennifer to death in the heart to eliminate their only witness to the multiple crimes ("If she's dead, she can't point her finger at us"), Matthew faked the murder by spreading blood on the knife blade. Bruised and battered, the traumatized victim Jennifer knelt under a cleansing shower. Two weeks later after Jennifer was spotted on the lawn by the river, Matthew was beaten up for lying.

Afterwards, she visited a church and prayed for forgiveness before the brutal and bloody counter-assault she had planned, followed by the scenes of her angry revenge against each of the four attackers. Two of the killings involved sexually seducing and distracting the men beforehand, in order to lower their defenses:

  • Outside her home where she had summoned Matthew to deliver groceries, she unbuttoned her see-through nightgown as she promised him: "I could have given you a summer to remember for the rest of your life." She kissed him, pulled down his pants to his ankles, and gave herself to him, before slipping a rope noose around his neck while he was climaxing and then hanging him from a tree. She dumped his body into the lake.
  • After picking up Johnny at the gas station, she held him at gunpoint and forced him to strip, but then admitted that she had inappropriately teased the group into raping her. She invited him back to her house, promising: "Come on, I'll give you a hot bath." Naked in the warm bathtub with him, she manually stimulated him as he closed his eyes and relaxed ("You've got great hands - God bless your hands. Oh yeah, that's fantastic"). She conducted a lethal bloodletting castration - a literal bloodbath with a conveniently-placed carving knife (his first reaction: "That's so sweet, it's painful"), causing him to bleed to death in the locked bathroom ("What have you done to me? Oh, God! Oh, s--t!...I can't stop the bleeding...It won't stop bleeding!"). In the living room, she calmly sat stone-faced in a rocker and listened to a Puccini opera on the phonograph as he screamed in the background and died. She burned his clothes in the fireplace, cleaned up the blood-splattered bathroom, and dumped his body on the basement stairs.
  • After hijacking Andy's and Stanley's motorboat on the river, she swung Andy's axe into his back as he swam in the water while rescuing a drowning Stanley.
  • She pretended to help rescue Stanley, but then disemboweled him with the outboard motor as he clung onto the engine while climbing into the boat. She uttered the same words he had spoken to her earlier: "Suck it, bitch!" (the film's final line of dialogue).

Pretty Baby (1978)
D. Louis Malle

Louis Malle's decision to cast 12-year-old Brooke Shields as an underage New Orleans prostitute struck many as verging on child exploitation.

Louis Malle's provocative American debut film - a semi-scandalous picture upon its release due to unfounded charges of child porn, debuted at a time when there was public uproar over child abuse, child pornography, and child prostitution. Some worried that young Brooke Shields would be traumatized by her 'adult' role in the film - yet the entire film was basically free of explicit scenes or language. Today, the historical drama would be considered fairly tame.

Malle had hired a female scriptwriter (Polly Platt) to insure that the film was dealt with in a sensitive manner. The tagline described the film's point of view: "The image of an adult world through a child's eyes." It was gorgeously photographed by Bergman-cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and set in a 1917 New Orleans bordello in the legalized red-light district of Storyville. Customers were entertained with ragtime music in the brothel by cathouse piano player "The Professor" (Antonio Vargas).

The fictional yet historically-inspired drama (based on Al Rose's 1974 non-fictional book Storyville, New Orleans) told the story of a virginal, jaded 12 year-old Violet (former child model Brooke Shields in her breakthrough role) - a child prostitute with her languid New Orleans brothel mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon). Violet and her mother were both often photographed nude by much older Ernest J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine). (One of his actual portraits displayed here was of a turn-of-the-century prostitute.)

In one of the more contested scenes, the brothel madam, Madam Nell (Frances Faye), offered the naked Violet in her bath to a dumbfounded customer: "Now, how about it? Pure as the driven snow." Brothel patrons bid in an auction for the matter-of-fact honor of taking Violet's virginity - it went to the highest bidder ($400).

Bellocq also proposed to and married the young girl who had innocently told him: "I love you once, I love you twice, I love you more than red beans and rice!" Their pairing signified the complete loss of innocence after Hattie had abandoned her (she had married a rich client and moved to St. Louis)! When the coquettish Violet reclined for a long period of time on a chaise lounger as the obsessed Bellocq fiddled with his camera for more picture-taking, Violet became frustrated, lept up, and approached the camera angrily and rebelliously: "I'm tired of lyin' here....It's always one second more with you, and why do you want to take my picture again and again and again?...I don't have to stay here and listen to you yell at me. Well, I'm leaving, and you won't have anyone to photograph anymore." To spite him, she smashed a photographic plate and scratched out the image on another. He viciously slapped her across the face and ordered: "Get out, get out Violet, before I kill you if you destroy any more of my pictures."

Various versions were edited (with dark shading, readjusted formats or closeups), and a G-string shield was worn to avoid portraying the underage nudity of the budding, prepubescent Brooke Shields. Some critics recognized that the film possibly portrayed Brooke Shields as a defenseless and naive daughter used by her manipulative mother - similar to her publicity-fueled image in real-life.

The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
(chronologically, by film title)
Intro | Silents-1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960-1961 | 1962-1967 | 1968-1969
1970-1971 | 1972 | 1973-1974 | 1975 | 1976-1977 | 1978 | 1979
1980-1982 | 1983-1986 | 1987-1989 | 1990-1992 | 1993-1995 | 1996-1999
2000-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-2009 | 2010-present

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