The Last Picture Show (1971)
Dir. Peter Bogdanovich
The Last Picture Show was adapted from the novel by Larry McMurty. The film is a portrait of life in a small Texas town in the early 1950s with an emphasis on the sex lives of teenagers. Author Larry McMurty based The Last Picture Show on his experiences growing up in Archer City, Texas and the movie was shot there. The residents of the town were not particularly happy to see local gossip and scandals turned into a major motion picture and they were hostile toward the filmmakers. For its time, The Last Picture Show was extremely frank in its depiction of sexuality; in one memorable scene a group of teenagers skinny dip in a country club pool. The movie was released in 1971, which was an incredible time for controversial cinema. In a year that also saw the release of Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, and The Devils, the scandalous portions of The Last Picture Show must has seemed tame by comparison. However, the sexuality of The Last Picture Show led to the film getting banned in Phoenix, Arizona when the city attorney declared the movie obscene and ordered that it be censored from drive-in theaters. Columbia Pictures complied and pulled the movie but then pursued the matter in federal court where the ban was struck down.
The Terminator (1984)
Dir. James Cameron
The Terminator was written and directed by James Cameron, who went on to helm Titanic and Avatar, and this was the movie that broke him into the mainstream. The film tells the story of a cyborg sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future to kill the woman who will give birth to the savior of humanity. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison claimed that the premise and several sequences of the film were plagiarized from work he had written, in particular an episode of the television show The Outer Limits, and he filed a lawsuit against Terminator financier Hemdale and distributor Orion. According to Ellison, Cameron had admitted to a writer for Starlog magazine that he had borrowed ideas from the sci-fi writer’s work and when confronted with the journalist’s testimony Hemdale and Orion decided to settle. James Cameron has maintained his innocence and claimed that Hemdale and Orion would only fight the lawsuit if Cameron agreed to pay any damages out of his own pocket. Cameron claims that he didn’t have the financial resources to risk on the suit and so the matter was settled out of court. When The Terminator appeared on home video, the notice “Acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellision” was added to the end credits.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Dir. Arthur Penn
1967’s Bonnie and Clyde was based on the life and crimes of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a pair of young lovers who went on a bank robbing spree throughout Depression-era Texas. While gangster pictures were a staple of Hollywood, Bonnie and Clyde was an altogether different kind of movie. In the crime films of the Production Code era, the violence was mostly off screen, the criminals were always demonized, and the villains would usually repent at the end of the story. Bonnie and Clyde was (for its time) quite bloody but the violence was offset by broad humor and a bluegrass soundtrack. The film also had an anti-establishment posture that suited the rising counter cultural movement of the late 1960s; the moviemakers romanticized Bonnie and Clyde’s outlaw lifestyle, making them sexy and dangerous.
Bonnie and Clyde was among the first titles in the New Hollywood movement and as such it did away with the conventions of studio era moviemaking even though the picture was made inside the studio system. Warner Bros. president Jack Warner hated Bonnie and Clyde and the movie was dumped into theaters with a limited release and a lackluster marketing campaign. Warren Beatty, who was a producer as well as an actor on Bonnie and Clyde, aggressively campaigned on behalf of his movie and convinced Warner Bros. to rerelease it. When the movie finally connected with its audience, Bonnie and Clyde became a generation-defining hit.
Bonnie and Clyde was a landmark in American cinema because of its style, which influenced everyone from Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) to Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers) to Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise) but the movie was also a turning point in American film criticism. Bonnie and Clyde was initially dismissed by critics, especially the older establishment writers, and Bosley Crowther of The New York Times launched a crusade against Bonnie and Clyde. Crowther wrote several pieces about the film in which he called it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy” and derided the movie for its violence and glorification of criminality. But Bonnie and Clyde would turn out to be Crowther’s last stand. As the critical consensus on Bonnie and Clyde evolved from contempt to praise and the movie became a box office hit, the editors of the New York Times concluded that Crowther was out of touch with public opinion and pushed him out of the job he had held for thirty-nine years. Crowther was replaced by Pauline Kael, who had been a vocal champion of Bonnie and Clyde and would become one of the most influential film critics of all time.
The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Dir. John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller
The 1983 motion picture The Twilight Zone: The Movie was an anthology of four segments directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. The film was intended as a tribute to Rod Serling’s classic television series which had mixed science fiction and supernatural stories with an undercurrent of social commentary. The initial plan for John Landis’ segment, titled “Time Out,” was the story of a racist man, played by Vic Morrow, who is transported to Nazi Germany where he is pursued by the SS, then to the Jim Crow American south where he is hunted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and finally to Vietnam where he is attacked by the American military. “Time Out” was originally planned to conclude with a spectacular set piece in which the now rehabilitated racist would save two Vietnamese children, carrying them through a river while a helicopter destroyed their village. But when the time came to film the climax an explosion caused the helicopter to crash, killing Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Chen and Myca Dinh Le. The tragedy led to civil suits by the survivors of the deceased and a criminal trial in which associate producer George Folsey, Jr., production manager Dan Allingham, helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo, special effects coordinator Paul Stewart, and director John Landis were charged with manslaughter.
In the book Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case, authors Stephen Farber and Marc Green examine the disaster and its aftermath in depth. Farber and Green assert that the filmmakers’ deliberately violated child labor laws. The helicopter sequence was shot late at night (far past the hours that children are permitted to work on movie sets), their employment was deliberately kept from Warner Bros. executives and the California Labor Commission, no on-set social worker was hired to supervise the children, and the young actors were paid in cash to avoid raising suspicions. The authors also claim that the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board was stonewalled by Warner Bros. and was concluded before investigators performed an accident recreation. Of John Landis, Farber and Green characterize the director as reckless and unprepared; in an earlier scene Landis allowed the use of live firearm ammunition on the set and the director bullied the crew into disregarding safety concerns. As Farber and Green describe it, the Twilight Zone helicopter tragedy resulted from a failure to properly rehearse and block out the scene.
The Twilight Zone criminal case went to trial in 1986 and lasted for nine months. In the end all five defendants were acquitted of all charges. Warner Bros. then reached settlements in the civil suits. Some safety reforms followed in the subsequent years. The Screen Actors Guild instituted a 24-hour hotline to address on-set emergencies and the field of risk management blossomed in the film industry.
Within Hollywood, the outcome of the Twilight Zone trial was divisive. Some felt that the filmmakers were put on trial because of their celebrity while others felt that Landis and company evaded jail time because of strategic mistakes by the prosecutor. Twilight Zone crew members who cooperated with the prosecution found themselves unable to get work. Meanwhile, Frank Marshall, executive producer on The Twilight Zone and who Farber and Green claim was on the set the day of the accident and was involved in hiring the child actors, continued to work in Hollywood, producing the Indiana Jones sequels and the Jason Bourne series.
The Director’s Guild censured John Landis for unprofessional conduct on The Twilight Zone (380). Despite that, and in spite of the fact that Landis was the first director to be indicted on criminal charges for an incident on his set, Landis continued to direct between the accident and the trial, helming projects such as Trading Places, Three Amigos! and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. It was only when his movies began performing poorly at the box office (see: Beverly Hills Cop III and Blues Brothers 2000) that his filmmaking career declined.
Death Wish (1974)
Dir. Michael Winner
In the 1970s the violent crime rates of major American cities were extraordinarily high and there was a feeling of frustration and depression about the country. This gave birth to a series of urban vigilante films including Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver and 1974’s Death Wish. Based on the book by Brian Garfield, Death Wish told the story of a mild mannered architect, played by Charles Bronson, whose wife and daughter are attacked by muggers. Abandoning the pacifism of white liberal society, Bronson’s character patrols the New York City streets, baiting criminals and killing them with a handgun.
When Death Wish opened it caused a sensation. The violence of the film was cathartic for urban moviegoers who responded enthusiastically to the movie, turning Death Wish into a box office hit. Critics were divided. Some admired it as an effective piece of entertainment while others derided Death Wish as a reckless incitement to vigilante violence. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Death Wish “a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” The Catholic Church’s Division for Film and Broadcasting also objected to Death Wish, saying that it appealed “to the dark side of the American Character.” The fears of Death Wish’s detractors were not unfounded, as there were several copycat vigilantes.
Another critic of the movie Death Wish was Brian Garfield, the author of the original novel. He hated the movie, which he felt had dumbed down and reversed the core ideas of the book. In fact, Garfield fought with CBS when the television network chose to broadcast Death Wish. Garfield called the decision to air the film in primetime “irresponsible.” The author subsequently wrote a sequel to Death Wish, titled Death Sentence, which from Garfield’s point of view corrected the themes of the story and the trajectory of his characters. Death Sentence was adapted into a 2007 film directed by James Wan.
The Death Wish series continued throughout the 1980s with cinematic sequels starring Charles Bronson. Produced by Cannon Films, the Death Wish sequels were low budget affairs that transformed the series from a gritty crime drama into a shoot ’em up adventure. Although the movies were profitable they weren’t well received. Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave the original Death Wish a three star review, awarded no stars to Death Wish II, a score he reserved for “movies that are artistically inept and morally repugnant.”
More information on the Death Wish series can be found in the book Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films by Paul Talbot.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Dir. Michael Cimino
The Deer Hunter had the distinction of being one of the first major motion pictures about Vietnam to be released after the end of the war. The story concerns a group of friends from rural Pennsylvania who enlist in the armed forces. While in Vietnam they are captured by the Vietcong and held under brutal conditions and forced to participate in games of Russian roulette. The debate around The Deer Hunter caused an upset at the 1979 Berlin Film Festival. Soviet Russia and other countries denounced the film and wanted it pulled from the screening schedule. When the selection committee refused to cancel The Deer Hunter, the Russians and their allies pulled their delegations and films from the festival.
The Russian roulette sequence was controversial in part for its vicious depiction of Asian people but also because there were no recorded instances of the events described in the movie. Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie. The Deer Hunter is no more a historically valid comment on the American experience in Vietnam than was The Godfather an accurate history of the typical Italian immigrant family in the United States.” The Deer Hunter was also protested at the 1979 Academy Awards where it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Thirteen members of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War were arrested outside the ceremony and other protesters distributed pamphlets denouncing the film as a racist attack on the Vietnamese people.
The Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter took on additional controversy as it was alleged that several people died imitating the scene. In 1981, three years after the release of the film, psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Radecki claimed there had been twenty-five confirmed Russian roulette deaths in the United States connected to viewing The Deer Hunter. However, since most of the incidents occurred in isolation it is unclear what role the movie might have played in these deaths.
For many years following its release, The Deer Hunter has been regarded as a classic. The movie was listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest American films and it was added to the National Film Registry in 1996. However, the movie’s status has faced reappraisal. Director Michael Cimino followed The Deer Hunter with 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, a movie whose critical and commercial failure has become legendary, and Cimino’s career never recovered. The filmmaker didn’t help himself with 1985’s The Year of the Dragon which was also accused of an anti-Asian sentiment. The decline of Michael Cimino’s career has led some critics to change their minds about The Deer Hunter.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Dir. Charles Sellier
Throughout the 1980s, slasher films were an immensely popular and profitable film genre. Following Paramount’s success with Friday the 13th, Hollywood studios began financing and buying low budget slasher movies and distributing them with the full force of a major Hollywood release. Critics, politicians, and conservative parental groups periodically spoke out against these movies but none more so than 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. The film, about an ax murderer dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, was not the first Christmas-themed slasher title but Silent Night, Deadly Night caused an uproar due to its poster art and television promos, which made it look as though Santa himself was on a killing spree. Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert laid into the film on their syndicated television show and parental groups picketed outside theaters and wrote letters to distributor TriStar. According to director Charles Sellier, TriStar was preparing a new stock offering and was skittish of the bad publicity. Also, TriStar was owned by Coca-Cola and it has been speculated that the soft drink company, which uses Santa Claus as part of its holiday ad campaign, pressured the studio to drop Silent Night Deadly Night. Eventually TriStar pulled the movie, cancelling its entire run in west coast theaters. However, like a lot of slasher titles from the early 1980s, Silent Night, Deadly Night cost so little to make that it turned a profit long before it was pulled. TriStar relinquished the rights to the movie and sold it to an independent distributor that reissued Silent Night, Deadly Night to cinemas a few months later with an advertising campaign that sold it as “the movie they didn’t want you to see.” The irony of the protest against Silent Night, Deadly Night is that it has ensured the longevity of a fairly lousy movie that would otherwise have been forgotten. Silent Night, Deadly Night inspired a series of sequels and a remake was released in 2012.
The Exorcist (1973)
Dir. William Friedkin
The Exorcist tells the story of a pre-teenage girl who is possessed by the devil. The movie was renowned for its realistic style and gruesome special effects. When The Exorcist was nearing completion, the movie was screened for executives at Warner Bros. The executives were shocked by what they saw. The movie was far more intense and explicit than virtually any other mainstream horror film of that time and at least one Warner Bros. executive was so offended that he suggested that The Exorcist be shelved indefinitely. The movie was next shown to a test audience and when it was over the crowd did not react with applause or boos but instead congregated outside the theater talking excitedly about what they had seen. This was a preview of what was to come when the film opened.
The Exorcist was one of those rare motion pictures that transformed from a movie and into an urban legend that was bigger than the film itself. This was partly fueled by the perception of The Exorcist’s authenticity. The Exorcist was loosely based on a true story, it was shot in a realistic style, and Catholic priests had served as technical advisors. Press reports about the making of The Exorcist spun yarns of mysterious or supernatural phenomena on the set and the deaths of several cast and crew members led to rumors that The Exorcist was cursed. Getting in on the act, evangelist Billy Graham stated that supernatural evil was actually embedded within the celluloid of the film prints. The combination of audience expectations and the intensity of the movie made The Exorcist, strange as it may seem, a spiritual experience for its audience. There were widespread reports of viewers experiencing visceral and psychological side effects at screenings such as nausea, convulsions, and fainting. There were even reports of demonic possessions and requests for exorcisms suddenly increased.
The Exorcist faced protest and censorship all over the world. The visceral shocks led some to call the movie obscene and The Exorcist was banned on home video in the UK for eleven years.
The Devil's Advocate (1997)
Dir. Taylor Hackford
The 1997 movie The Devil’s Advocate was a source of legal trouble for Warner Bros. due to copyright infringement. The film told the story of a small town criminal defense lawyer (Keanu Reeves) who is courted by a major New York-based firm headed by a sinister executive played by Al Pacino. The office of Pacino’s character includes an immense statue that was more than a little similar to “Ex Nihilo” by sculptor Frederick Hart which is on display at the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington D.C. Hart sued Warner Bros. and the studio was compelled to alter the movie for its release on home video. Because the sculpture figures prominently in several critical scenes, including the climax, there was no way to cut out the footage. Instead, the prop sculpture was altered digitally so that it no longer resembled Hart’s work. The Devil’s Advocate was first issued on home video in 1998 in its original theatrical version. This edition was priced only for rental chains like Blockbuster Video and the packaging included a sticker denying any relationship between the film and Hart's sculpture. The version of The Devil’s Advocate made available for purchase by consumers was the altered cut. The unrated director’s cut issued on Blu-ray in 2012 still features the digitally altered statue.
Interestingly, Warner Bros. ran into a similar legal dispute with 2011’s The Hangover Part II. In that film, Ed Helms’ character receives a face tattoo that is identical to the one on boxer Mike Tyson. Tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill brought a copyright lawsuit against Warner Bros. and for a time the studio considered digitally altering the tattoo on Helms’ face as they had with the statue in The Devil’s Advocate. However, Whitmill and Warner Bros. ultimately reached a settlement and The Hangover Part II remained unchanged.
A Serbian Film (2010)
Dir. Srđan Spasojević
Among the most controversial motion pictures of recent years was 2010’s A Serbian Film. The movie tells the story of an aging porn star (Srđan Todorović) who is lured back into the industry by an avant-garde filmmaker (Sergej Trifunović). Once production begins, the actor finds himself in the middle of a snuff film in which he is forced to participate in murder, necrophilia, and child abuse.
A Serbian Film was first shown at the South by Southwest Film Festival, a venue that’s known for showing edgy material. Despite the hardiness of that crowd, A Serbian Film managed to shock and appall the South by Southwest audience. The movie was subsequently screened at other film festivals, where its reputation grew, and authorities intervened at 2010’s Fright Fest in London. Movies shown or sold in the UK are legally bound to pass through the British Board of Film Classification but Fright Fest operates under a special agreement with the BBFC that allows unclassified movies to be screened. Nevertheless, the reputation of A Serbian Film prompted the Westminster Council to intervene and the screening was cancelled. The film was later released in the UK with 4 minutes of footage removed, making it the BBFC’s most severely cut title in over a decade. A Serbian Film continued to cause controversy wherever it played. Norway, Australia, and New Zealand banned the film. In Spain, the director of the Sitges Film Festival was arrested and charged with exhibiting child pornography after screening A Serbian Film. In an example of the interrelatedness of film markets, the legal action taken against the picture in Spain prompted distributor Invincible Pictures to release an edited version of A Serbian Film in North America. When Spanish authorities dropped the charges the film was released uncut in the North American market.
A Serbian Film joins titles like Cannibal Holocaust and Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom among the most disturbing films ever made and like those movies its director insists that the shocking imagery serves a purpose. According to filmmaker Srđan Spasojević, A Serbian Film is a critique of the Serbian motion picture industry and an allegory of life in Serbia after the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. This explanation has been frequently criticized; it’s difficult if not impossible to square Spasojević’s explanation with the content of the movie. However, A Serbian Film is more provocative and makes more sense as a critique of pornography, porn culture, and the torture movies that were popular throughout the last decade. The movie-within-a-movie of A Serbian Film follows the ethos of escalation that characterizes contemporary pornography and the so-called “torture porn” subgenre and it takes those impulses to their logical conclusion. In that respect, A Serbian Film is a satirical exaggeration of the way porn (and cinema in general) can dehumanize people and how creators of media can get lost in between art and reality.
E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Dir. Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial is one of the most beloved films of all time so it’s a surprise to find that this movie was restricted in Scandinavia. In 1983, the AP reported that The Swedish Board of Film Censorship limited audiences attending screenings of E.T. to viewers above the age of eleven; the age limit in Finland was eight while Norway limited the film to viewers twelve and over. (However, Danish film censors did not impose a restriction.) The rationale for the age limit was based on the generational conflict of the story in which children are threatened by adults and must defy and subvert the grownups’ plans. The chief censor in Sweden argued that young viewers might be traumatized by the “threatening and frightening atmosphere” of the movie. The ban on young children seeing E.T. elicited a response from Scandinavian moviegoers. Protesters demonstrated outside theaters and Swedish newspapers reported that parents lied about their children’s age to get them into the film.
- 50 Most Controversial Films at Sky Movies
- 50 Most Controversial Movies Ever by David Fear, Joshua Rothkopf, and Keith Uhlich at Time Out New York
- The 101 Most Controversial Films of All Time at Listal
- BFI Modern Classics: The Exorcist by Mark Kermode (book)
- Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films by Paul Talbot (book)
- For the Love of Movies (DVD)
- Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (DVD)
- Interview with director Charles E. Sellier on the Silent Night Deadly Night DVD
- “The Last Picture Show: A Look Back”(documentary on The Last Picture Show Blu-ray)
- Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite
- Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case by Stephen Farber and Marc Green (book)
- Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (book)