Sex, violence, and religion. What do these things have in common — and no, we aren’t using this hot button triptych as the basis for some punchline. In fact, it’s safe to say that anytime one of these concepts is used in a motion picture — subtlety or shockingly — eyebrows will be raised. Now imagine going overboard in the depiction of same, or skirting censorship and the possibility of blasphemy to make a critical comment on each (or all). At this point, you’re wandering into the realm of the sense(less), a place where freaks are curious, yellow and the cook, the thief, his wife and her lover are as thick and human centipede thieves. It’s the world of the shocker, the controversial work of art that envisions a crucifix in a beaker of urine or a skinless human body preserved and positioned as sculpture.
Ever since Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (soon to be known as Hedy Lamar) bared her naked breasts in the Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy, the artform known as film has been dealing with the creative desire to push envelopes and broach taboos. Sometimes, it’s shock for shock’s sake (as in the eyeball slice from Un Chien Andalou). In other instances, the meaning is so unfathomable that even the most daring audience member leaves their scratching their head (as in E. Elias Merhige’s surreal Begotten). From the Mondo movies to the various examples of gore (Bloodsucking Freaks) and gratuity (do we really need a 10-minute rape scene, Irreversible?), cinema seems to thrive on a good PR problem.
With that in mind, here is a list of what we think are the 10 most shocking and/or controversial films ever made. While they may not pack the same punch today, they were definitely shit stirrers at the time, beginning with one of the most infamous…
In some people’s minds, this should be the number one choice for any list like this. After all, Martin Scorsese dared show the Lord and Savior of several hundred million followers fornicating and living the life of a normal man. Of course, it was all a dream, a vision given to the Messiah as he hung dying on the cross. Still, just the mere idea that someone would sexualize Jesus stirred up a whirlwind of wasted energy. The Rapture didn’t occur when the film was released. Clearly, a superior intelligence understood the subtext.
Upon arrival, audiences were so shocked by this supposedly “true” story that police actually investigated. Director Ruggero Deodato was even arrested and charged with obscenity. Oddly enough, animal rights activists still have cause for concern. Like many goona-goona films, jungle creatures are cut up and tortured with reprehensible abandon. As for the journalists who supposed died while making the movie within a movie — it was all faked, a clever commentary on the way in which the news media sensationalizes stories to their own detriment. This is the real Blair Witch Project, and twice as powerful.
You can’t have a collection of controversial titles and not see Leni Riefenstahl’s name on it somewhere. Considered everything from a genius movie artist to a pawn of Hitler and the Third Reich, this document of the decisive rallies at Nuremberg is propaganda at its most misguided… and mesmerizing. Yes, this skilled filmmaker glamorized the genocidal regime and its ridiculous collection of kooks and crooks, but in retrospect, it was all show and no substance. So why is it still so disturbing? We can think of about 10-11 million individual reasons.
Remember that Danish cartoonist who got into a world of fundamentalist hurt when he dared depict the beloved Islamic prophet in a cartoon? Well, imagine the reaction today to a film about Mohammad’s life. Producer Moustapha Akkad, who would later gain fame as the man behind the entire Halloween franchise, wanted to celebrate his Muslim religion and its important leader. Only problem? Mohammad may not be depicted via image or human imitator under penalty of… well, you get the point. Akkad’s answer? Have the actors address the lens, in essence turning the camera into the subject.
When Ken Russell went after something, he really kicked it in the ass. Here, he decided that the book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley was the perfect vehicle for a no holds barred denouncement of organized religion — and Catholics specifically. Wrapped around the Inquisition and centering on a priest (Oliver Reed) who used a local nunnery as his own sexual staging area, the imagery was fierce and the reaction unreasonable. The UK mandated massive edits, while other countries either avoided it or banned it outright. Today, it is still almost impossible to see the full uncut version.
5 – 1
Up until the moment midway through when our craven director decides to unveil his latest victim-based XXX horror, this movie is rather mundane. Yes, it’s filled with misogyny, brutality, violence, and questionable content, but the infamous ‘newborn porn’ moment is enough to earn this film a place in the annals of cinematic atrocities — and then it gets worse. Indeed, the ending offers up a shock so scandalous that it actually resulted in a Spanish film festival director getting arrested. As primal political allegories go, this is one intensely unsettling experience.
You can tell what director Jörg Buttgereit thinks of his own effort. He often refers to it by the alternative title Corpse Fucking Art (actually the name of a Making-Of documentary). Yes, this is a movie about necrophilia — a sick, gory, disturbing film about an equally repugnant subject — and everything your twisted imagination envisions about the concept is offered here in blood-spattered sensationalism. In essence a ménage a trios between an accident scene clean-up technician, his clearly disturbed wife, and a pile of rotting flesh, it’s the very definition of a cinematic shocker.
For a while now, Larry Clark has laid low and kept his always controversial profile even lower. He hasn’t made a movie since 2006 and one of his most notorious — Ken Park — has sat for nine years without a legitimate US release. The reasons are obvious, of course. Clark wallows in the excess of the adolescent…and we don’t mean cool cars and candy floss. No, he highlights teen debauchery in such a sleazy, obsessive way that it makes all their sex, drugs, and rebellion seem twice as tawdry.
In hindsight, the hype and hoopla were all rather pointless. No one actually died during the making of this modified Michael & Roberta Findlay cheapie. No, their original movie entitled Slaughter was later reedited by its distributor, adding a last act atrocity that supposed depicted real death on screen. The uproar it raised at the time was so intense that almost every major news magazine had to run a story denouncing this proposed end of civilization. To this day, people still believe in its urban legend legitimacy, even with the various revelations and caveats.
This is the affront that sired A Serbian Film. It’s an epic abomination where corrupt Italian politicians are leering pedophiles, eat bowls of feces, and force their robotic underage charges to do equally unspeakable things, all in the name of absolute power and its ability to corrupt absolutely. Director Pier Palo Pasolini may have had the noblest of intentions, but the visuals he placed on screen remain as repulsive and shocking today as they did four decades ago. No political diatribe, pro or con, should be so disgusting…and sad.