Let me preface this by saying, I am not viewing this list as a film historian may. That is, there are plenty of controversial films that I’m leaving off my list that were controversial because of the timing of their release. For instance, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks was extremely controversial and for decades after its release. Or Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita is considered highly controversial because of the subject matter being dealt with in that time. Certainly, the subject matter is a taboo subject regardless, but I don’t think as many of us would bat an eyelash at it today. Or even Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho was considered controversial for its shower scene, among other scenes. Those films are interesting to me in a historical context, but not of interest to me for this list.
What does interest me, are the essentially, to get the parlance up to par for this list, the most fucked up films I’ve ever seen. I’m fascinated by these movies precisely because they are so fucking insane and push boundaries the mainstream can’t even fathom. Films on this list make the so-called torture porn films like Saw and Hostel look tame by a wide margin. They are often filled with gratuitous sex, violence and depravity and; these films are depicted extremely and uncomfortably-so, in a realistic manner. That said, at the same time, I would contend that much of the films on this list have value as films and should be seen on their merits. Yes, these films are not for everyone, nor should they be, as that would defeat the purpose, but I do not think they are all necessarily exploitative of violence, sex and depravity for its own sake, but rather they are utilized as a narrative function.
A lot of these movies have been banned in several countries upon their release and some weren’t able to legally be seen for decades and even then it was with altered versions. So, even if the film sucks, I still am curious to see it because of the forbidden fruit nature of it. It fascinates me that a film can be “banned.” Is it really that controversial? Maybe, so I want to see what all the fuss is about. Some have lived up to the hype, some have rightly enthralled me on an intellectual level and some have been one-and-done film viewings. I gravitate to these films because they are shocking and shake our sensibilities. We need that from time to time…
Anyhow, here they are:
10. The Last House on the Left
You know this is going to be one fucked up list when I’m starting with Wes Craven’s 1972 film about gang rape. This was the 1970s, when we started having some of the most insane horror films of all time. And the reason, in my opinion, before the 1980s came along with their ham-fisted ‘80s style, was the grittiness of the 1970s. There’s something incredibly tangible about how gritty and real horror films back then were from an aesthetic standpoint and The Last House on the Left is no different. As I said, there’s very disturbing depictions of rape by a gang of criminals on two innocent women, but they get their comeuppance in a very satisfying tale of revenge by one of the victims’ parents.
9. I Spit On Your Grave
Well, this is another 1970s film, another rape film, and another subsequent revenge film. The original working title was Day of the Woman, which could not be more apt. As I said, some may argue that films such as this exploit women and feed into the rape culture, but quite the contrary, I would contend. The film depicts rape in all its barbarism, animalistic manifestations, as it ought to be. There is absolutely no ambiguity about “was she asking for it” or “did she provoke it.” Moreover, there is absolutely no way to sympathize with the rapists. It’s purely a revenge film and another satisfying one at that.
This 2002 foreign film is noted for two scenes: the curb stomp and the longest rape scene ever filmed. It has a nonlinear structure to it, as it moves back in time from those events to realize what happened. The ending is perhaps even more shocking than either of those two scenes.
Man, they call this a “comedy-drama” on the Wikipedia page. Now that’s fucked up. One of the main characters in the film is a pedophile who plainly tells his own son after he raped two of his friends that he wouldn’t rape him; he’d just jerk off instead. As you can guess, the film deals heavily with sexual themes and the title is quite obviously ironic. Famed film critic, Roger Ebert, put it quite well, “In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.” In fact, I would contend that much of the films on these lists epitomize exactly that.
I love the French. They put out some truly fucked up films. And this 2007 offering is one of the most gruesome and disturbing, but for my money, one of the more intellectual horror films of all time. I’ve written extensively on this film in the past, but suffice it to say, I’d highly recommend this to anyone of the horror/psychological persuasion.
5. 7 Days
What would you do if your little daughter was raped and murdered in a park? And what if you knew who did it? Those are the questions the “protagonist” of the film deals with. And well, he answers with kidnapping and torturing the suspected killer for seven days, as the title signifies. The detective given the responsibility of tracking him down had his own tragic past (his wife was killed in a grocery store robbery) and it turns out, the suspect has killed more girls. In fact, one of the girls’ parents is then kidnapped by our protagonist to witness the torture herself. The film deals with those aforementioned questions in a deeply personal, emotional, but intellectual manner. But still, it’s pretty fucked up all around.
4. Cannibal Holocaust
I find this 1980 film to be the go-to controversial film people recommend to those seeking controversial films. “Dude, you gotta see Cannibal Holocaust. I mean, look at the freaking name!” Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one and I would not venture a re-watch. It was just a nasty, disgusting film, as you would expect. I don’t think it has the intellectual merits the others on this list have. Some critics have contended that there is in fact a worthwhile message to be had with one critic saying, “Though the graphic violence can be hard for most to stomach, the most disturbing aspect of the film is what Deodato is saying about modern society. The film asks the questions ‘What is it to be ‘civilized’?’ and ‘Is it a good thing?’ Maybe I’m being too harsh on the film, but then I remember that there is genuine slaughter of animals captured on film and then yeah, I reaffirm my stance.
3. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Yep, here is another one of the go-to controversial films people recommend and another I think is without intellectual merit, but still, it makes my list because there are some absolutely horrific scenes of human degradation, humiliation and sexual abuse. The film is just downright sadistic. Again, much like Cannibal Holocaust, some have praised this film much in the way Ebert praised Happiness. And again, maybe I’m being too harsh, then and perhaps a second viewing is necessary, but I would agree, I guess, that it does depict the “Banality of Evil” as some have cited, quite well.
Lars von Trier’s 2009 film is aesthetically, one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. I am not exaggerating and for that reason alone, I would recommend it. However, I would also recommend it to watch the brilliant performances of the two leads, especially Charlotte Gainsbourg. Man, she is amazing in this. To summate, the film depicts how a couple handles the death of their child. And as expected, it gets fucked up, but I love this film, which is weird to say, but I do. It’s such a tour-de-force in psychological despair unlike any film I’ve ever seen. One critic has referred to this film as a “grotesque masterpiece.” I would concur with that characterization.
Now after that glowing praise of the aforementioned film on my list, why is this 2008 French horror film the top film on my list? Well, the fucking French are amazing at shocking for one. Honestly, though, the less I say about this film the better because you just have to experience it. That’s the best I can describe it because I saw it five years ago and I still consider it in my mind from time to time; it’s left that indelible mark on me.
Okay, I have to do it. After much deliberation, I am going to end another list of mine with a tie, as I present just one more film…
1. The Woodsman
At first, I didn’t want to place this film on here because it’s not controversial or disturbing in the same manner as the other films. What makes Nicole Kassell’s 2004 film starring Kevin Bacon “controversial” and “disturbing” is first and foremost, just how courageous and bold Kassell and Bacon are in their direction and acting, respectively. However, what makes it #1 on this list is that this film is the only film I know of or have seen that deals so sensitively and smartly with the issue of pedophilia. No other film has tackled that taboo of a subject with such grace, such power and such thought-provoking measure. It’s a must-see, undoubtedly. To be sure, this is another one where the less I say the best. Just go see it…