The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time


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

Peeping Tom (1960, UK)
D. Michael Powell

British critics called Michael Powell's disturbing thriller about a tormented murderer perverted, necrophilic and trashy; his career never recovered.

Although now widely praised (like Hitchcock's psychological horror film counterpart Psycho (1960) - and the film's thematic counterpart Rear Window (1954)), this chilling and disturbing film about voyeurism, child abuse, and serial murder by honored and best-loved film-maker Michael Powell was originally widely hated, universally loathed and denounced as sick, especially by British critics, who drove it off the screen.

They pronounced it amoral, masochistic, perverted, wholly evil, necrophilic and trashy. It was called nauseating, depraved, depressing, filthy and stench-filled -- and allegedly destroyed the career of its director. It suffered from the devastating, vitriolic reviews and was removed from theaters and excised by its distributor. This censored version was briefly available in trashy US theatres in 1962 and in selected arthouse venues, but then removed for almost two decades. Not until 1979 was a full-length version viewable -- at the New York Film Festival. Over time, it has been critically re-evaluated and vindicated, and is now universally regarded as a masterpiece of psychological terror.

It was a twisted portrayal of shy studio cameraman (and morbid serial killer) Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm) who filmed call girls and then killed them with the metal-spiked leg of his hand-held camera tripod (with a mirror attached so that victims could watch themselves dying). In the film's shocking opening, filmed from the point-of-view of the voyeuristic camera's cross-haired viewfinder, a prostitute negotiated for two quid, walked upstairs, disrobed, and then gave a look of horror as she was being murdered. The photographer would then watch the projected grisly footage over and over in the darkness of his lab-studio. His viewing of this particular death was accompanied by the film's opening title and credits.

The infamous film with dark subject matter, made more lurid by its Eastman Technicolor, was criticized for its unsavory view of the perverted and morbid crimes perpetrated (and witnessed almost as "snuff films") upon unsuspecting female victims (a prostitute, an actress-dancer, and a nude model). In a subtle way, it appeared to implicate the voyeuristic viewer and force the audience to identify with the awful and perverse crimes committed by the madman.

However, it masterfully told the back-story of how the monstrous killer had a very troubled and abused childhood with a sadistic father (played by director Powell in a cameo) who filmed him for his studies on the physiology of fear in children. He had contributed to his son's violent and conflicted subconscious (by observing his reactions to a lizard dropped on his bed, his mother's corpse, or his father's new young wife).

The much vilified film ended with Lewis' own suicidal death in the same horrific manner that he often used - as police arrived. He impaled himself in the neck with his own spiked device, as he spoke to spared female friend Helen Stephens (Anna Massey): "Helen, Helen, I'm afraid...And I'm glad I'm afraid," and then slumped dead to the floor. The words of a tape recording ended the film: "Don't be a silly boy. There's nothing to be afraid of." - "Good night, Daddy. Hold my hand."

Psycho (1960)
D. Alfred Hitchcock

Viewers accustomed to Hitchcock's polished Technicolor thrillers were stunned by this B&W shocker that dared to kill star Janet Leigh before the halfway mark.

Alfred Hitchcock's powerful, complex psychological thriller was the "mother" of all modern horror suspense films - it single-handedly ushered in an era of inferior screen 'slashers' with blood-letting and graphic, shocking killings. The low-budget ($800,000), brilliantly-edited, stark black and white film came after Hitchcock's earlier glossy Technicolor hits Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959).

Psycho also broke all film conventions by displaying its leading female protagonist having a lunchtime affair in her sexy white undergarments in the first scene; also by photographing a toilet bowl - and flush - in a bathroom (a first in an American film), and killing off its major 'star' Janet Leigh (as Phoenix real estate office secretary Marion Crane) a third of the way into the film (in a shocking, brilliantly-edited shower murder scene accompanied by screeching violins).

Like many of Hitchcock's films, Psycho is so very layered and complex that multiple viewings are necessary to capture all of its subtlety. Symbolic imagery involving stuffed birds and reflecting mirrors were ever-present. Although it's one of the most frightening films ever made, it has all the elements of very dark, black comedy. This film wasn't clearly understood by its critics when released.

When the film was originally aired in theaters in mid-1960, Hitchcock insisted in a publicity gimmick (a la P.T. Barnum) that no one would be seated after the film had started - the decree was enforced by uniformed Pinkerton guards. Audiences assumed that something horrible would happen in the first few minutes.

However, violence was present for about two minutes total in only two shocking, grisly murder scenes, the first about a third of the way through, and the second when a Phoenix detective named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) was stabbed at the top of a flight of stairs and toppled backwards down the staircase.

The remainder of the horror and suspense was created in the mind of the audience, although the tale did include such taboo topics as transvestism, implied incest, and hints of necrophilia. The nightmarish, disturbing film's themes of corruptibility, confused identities, voyeurism, human vulnerabilities and victimization, the deadly effects of money, Oedipal murder, and dark past histories were all realistically revealed.

Victim (1961, UK)
D. Basil Dearden

Homosexuality was still a criminal offense in England when this thriller dared to take the side of gay men victimized by ruthless blackmailers.

This film was most notable for reportedly being the first to speak the word "homosexual". Director Basil Dearden's non-judgmental, ground-breaking film-noirish thriller was a daring landmark film with its head-on presentation of the 'un-talked about' topic of homosexuality in the early 60s, when Britain still had anti-sodomy statutes as law.

The film was advertised with the tagline: "The Screen Comes of Age!" - with its story about a self-confessed, beleaguered, non-practicing homosexual and wealthy London lawyer (barrister) named Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde, in a role as the screen's first gay hero - and remarkable since the virile Bogarde later was revealed as gay in his private life) who risked his marriage and career to track down a creepy, slimy blackmailer (Derren Nesbitt) over accusations of closeted homosexuality.

Peter McEnery co-starred as Jack "Boy" Barrett (Farr's chaste 'boy friend' from his past as a Cambridge student, who eventually committed suicide by hanging himself in a police jail, where he was incarcerated for embezzling money to silence the blackmailers), and Sylvia Syms as Laura - Farr's stressed, estranged but supportive wife.

In one of the film's most tense moments, Laura asked her husband: "I want to know the truth. I want to know why he hanged himself ... Someone found out he was a homosexual and blackmailed him? ... It takes two to make a reason for blackmail. Were you the other man? Were you?" He burst out an admission of his past indiscretion to her: "I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him!"

The controversial film was denied a PCA (Production Code Administration) seal of approval from the MPAA as a result of its subject matter and explicit use of the word 'homosexual." The unclassified film was not released in mainstream theaters in the US for that reason. Six years after the film's release, the UK's Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 that was passed by Parliament finally decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults over the age of 21 (with a number of exceptions).

Viridiana (1961, Sp./Mex.)
D. Luis Bunuel

Luis Bunuel's surreal masterpiece was widely condemned for its suggestions of incest, rape and necrophilia.

Bunuel's ironic drama has been generally considered a masterpiece and it won the Golden Palm (Palme d'Or) at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival in the year of its release. The film was originally banned in the director's home country and condemned by the Catholic church for its perceived indictment of Catholic self-righteousness, blasphemy, and obscenity. It was also controversial for its scenes hinting at incest, rape and necrophilia.

In the plot, devout Spanish convent novice Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) visited her rich, land-owning widower uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) who was still mourning the death of his wife due to a heart attack on their wedding night in his arms - without consummation.

As Don Jaime played the organ, in Viridiana's bedroom, she partially disrobed and revealed her shapely legs when she removed her dark stockings. She also unpacked her suitcase, carrying a small wooden cross and a crown of thorns. In the secretive privacy of Don Jaime's bedroom (with a veil draped over his dressing chest), he was seen admiring his wife's wedding clothes - he slipped her white, high-heeled satin shoe over the top half of his right foot. He also modeled her corset in front of a mirror. When Viridiana appeared, he was entranced by the sight of her bare legs in front of the fireplace.

Don Jaime had one last favor of the reluctant Viridiana - to satisfy his obsession with her similar looks to his deceased wife ("You look just like her"); he clothed his niece Viridiana in his wife's wedding gown. He admitted: "I can't keep my eyes off you" and reluctantly confessed ("You must think I'm mad") that he would like to marry her ("I never want you to leave this house"). She was repulsed: "You can't be in your right mind. I've been so happy here, and now you've spoiled it all." Don Jaime promised to drop the subject, but then after his servant Ramona (Margarita Lozano) secretly drugged her tea drink, Don Jaime carried Viridiana into the bedroom, reclined her on the bed, kissed her, loosened the top of her dress, buried his head in her breasts, and was tempted to rape her.

The next day, he falsely confessed to her that he had taken her virginity to keep her from returning to the convent for her final vows. When she was still determined to leave, he admitted that he lied ("I only possessed you in my thoughts") -- but the ultimate result was his own guilty self-humiliation and a suicidal hanging with a jump rope. In his will, he left his estate property to her, shared with his illegitimate, cynical son Jorge (Francisco Rabal).

Partly out of guilt, the virtuous and idealistic Viridiana charitably gathered together a destitute group of thieves, beggars, drunks, lepers, cripples, and whores. They took over the house after she had invited them to live at her uncle's crumbling estate, and she had briefly left to formalize inheritance of the property. While she was absent, they invaded the house, and nearly destroyed it - they killed goats for a feast, dirtied the tablecloth, and broke expensive china and furniture.

The most controversial sequence was a drunken parody and re-enactment of Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' by the group - they 'freeze-framed' in a tableau for a mock group portrait at the table, pictured to the sounds of the "Hallelujah Chorus" in Handel's Messiah. At that moment, one of the filthy female beggars, Lola Gaos (Enedina) pretended to be the 'photographer' and metaphorically suggested snapping the picture by lifting her skirt.

The celebration reverted into an orgiastic riot, with dancing, ribaldry, violence, food-fighting and cross-dressing. Anachronistically, a syphilitic beggar clothed himself in the dead wife’s corset and her veil and performed an obscene dance, while another couple had sex behind the living room furniture. One of the celebrants even attempted to molest and rape Viridiana when she returned to the house.

Totally disillusioned or maybe more sexually aware of herself (after two attempted rapes), Viridiana submitted to playing a game of cards, to the sounds of the early 60s pop tune Shimmy Doll ("Shake Your Cares Away") - as the camera retreated backwards through a closeted doorway.

The film ended with a suggested possible menage a trois scene between ex-nun Viridiana, servant Ramona, and her lothario, rakish cousin Jorge.

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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