Recently, we shared a clip from Ken Russell’s The Devils, a racy 1971 horror film that’s finally available for streaming on Shudder after years of obscurity. That got us thinking about other cult movies once deemed so scandalous they were either censored, banned, or taken out of circulation for years.
Some of these films have remained off-the-radar curiosities, more famous for causing controversy than anything else. Some of them have since received souped-up theatrical and Blu-ray releases. Some have even been put through the Hollywood remake machine. But all of them retain a certain amount of shock value that’s still potent even today. (A warning, many of the trailers are NSFW.)
After he made Dracula with Bela Lugosi, director Tod Browning tackled the movie that basically ruined his career. Freaks—inspired in part by Browning’s own teenage years with a traveling circus—famously features real sideshow performers like conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and “human torso” Prince Randian, whose ability to light a cigarette despite having no arms or legs has its own featured vignette (glimpsed in the trailer, above). Censors were aghast—the film’s original running time was trimmed by nearly a third—and though Browning’s intention was to offer sympathetic portrayals of the film’s so-called “freaks,” audiences were horrified for all the wrong reasons. Over time, of course, it’s become a respected cult classic, preserved for posterity by the Library of Congress, and elevated to a punk touchstone by the Ramones (“Gabba gabba hey!”) Even more importantly, Freaks occupies a specific niche that literally no other film will ever fill.
Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel initially received an X-rating in America, and it was removed from circulation in the United Kingdom after being blamed for a handful of crimes that supposedly took cues from its scenes of rape and “ultra-violence.” That said, it was also a box-office hit and scored Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. Even today, watching it brings forth equally strong feelings of distress (for the subject matter) and admiration (for Malcolm McDowell’s performance and Kubrick’s masterful presentation).
Long before Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven made his feature debut with this low-budget horror film inspired by a surprisingly highbrow source: Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Even still, Last House was initially banned in the United Kingdom, then released in carefully edited versions for decades after its original release. It’s not hard to see why—the film is violent in some exceptionally horrible ways. Naive teenager Mari and her slightly more streetwise best friend make the fatal mistake of trying to buy weed from a gang led by a brutal escaped convict; later, the gang makes the fatal mistake of falling into the clutches of Mari’s parents, who are hellbent on revenge. Many of the scenes are very difficult to watch. But there’s also an oddball sense of humor that bubbles up between the grime, as well as a weirdly catchy folk-rock soundtrack contributed by David Hess, who plays Krug, the main villain.
John Waters’ gloriously trashy early-career entry made censors nervous for being sexually explicit and for featuring a scene in which iconic star Divine, playing “the filthiest person alive,” eats dog poop, among other reasons. However, that proudly transgressive content—and the fact that the campy script and performances are flat-out hilarious—are precisely why Pink Flamingos will forever be one of cinema’s most beloved cult movies.
Today, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not just a cult classic—it’s one of the horror genre’s most revered films. It’s one of the first scary movies to claim to be based on a true story (which it wasn’t, though certain aspects of it were inspired by real-life grave-robbing murderer Ed Gein), and despite its nightmare-inducing title, a lot of its violent scenes are shaped more by clever editing than special effects. The title alone is enough to put censors on high alert, and it was initially banned in multiple countries. Copies of the film are now as easy to come by as barbecue in Texas, and other filmmakers have been enthusiastically ripping it off for over 40 years, but it’s still scary as hell.
After a big-city writer who travels to the country for some peace and quiet is horrifically gang-raped by a pack of leering locals, she gets revenge by gruesomely murdering each of her assailants. Originally titled Day of the Woman, writer-director Meir Zarchi’s brutal film was initially received with disgust—but has since been reappraised with appreciation for its (sorta) feminist themes, despite its unavoidable torture-porn leanings. Interestingly, star Camille Keaton and Zarchi married after the film’s release (they divorced in 1982). And the film’s controversial elements didn’t hamper the film’s enduring popularity; I Spit On Your Grave was remade in 2010, and both the original and rebooted versions spawned two sequels.
The legendary British comedy troupe’s irreverent take on Jesus ruffled the features of multiple humorless religious groups, as this contemporaneous report from The Guardian recounts:
The Catholic archdiocese of New York, plus three distinguished Jewish organisations - the Rabbinical Alliance of America, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and the Council of Syria and Near Eastern Sephardic Communities - have condemned the film.
The Catholic archdiocese has called Life of Brian a “blasphemy”, adding that it was a “crime against religion which holds the person of Christ up to comic ridicule.”
The Jewish groups are equally damning. They regard the film as “grieviously insultlng,” and have described it as “a vicious attack on Judaism and the Bible, and a cruel mockery of Christian religious feelings as well.” The three Jewish organisations speak for more than 1,000 rabbis.
However, looking on the bright side—as the song suggests—the film was a hit with comedy fans. It may not inspire quite as much reverence as 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it’s still funny as hell.
Look, you know if you’re sitting down to watch something called Cannibal Holocaust, you’re in for something viciously unpleasant that’s going to make you lose your lunch. Director Ruggero Deodato didn’t make the first cannibal movie—a genre lovingly perfected by Italian exploitation filmmakers—but he did make the most infamous one, packed with shocking racism as well as animal and human torture that looks alarmingly realistic (and animals really were killed on camera, though despite all appearances, humans were not). Adding to that realism is the fact that Cannibal Holocaust is one of the earliest found-footage horror films, presented as the last documentary made by a crew that went missing after some very bad behavior deep in the Amazon jungle. Widely banned for a number of reasons—animal cruelty was obviously a big one—Cannibal Holocaust is now probably the ultimate feel-bad midnight movie staple.
William Lustig’s legendary slasher film about a mannequin-obsessed mama’s boy is buoyed by an equally legendary performance by Joe Spinell, who also co-wrote the script. Special effects master Tom Savini has a memorable cameo as a disco dude whose head is reduced to splatter by the titular terror’s shotgun. That death scene isn’t even the grossest thing in Maniac, which also contains scenes of scalping and is just generally one of the sleaziest grindhouse movies ever made. Naturally, it required major editing to get an R-rating, and was banned in the United Kingdom for years. A 2012 remake starring Elijah Wood took the stylistic risk of being almost entirely shot from the killer’s POV, and was banned in New Zealand because of its “tacit invitation to enjoy cruel and violent behavior through its first-person portrayal and packaging as entertainment.” Of course, only time will tell if the newer version achieves the cult-movie heights of the original.
In this legendary oddity from director-writer-star Noel Marshall (co-starring his then-wife Tippi Hedren and her daughter Melanie Griffith)—a film intended to convey a message of animal conservation—the cranky big-cat stars really attacked the cast and crew, resulting in dozens of hideous real-life injuries. “The most dangerous movie ever made,” indeed, and the proof is right there up on the screen. A 2015 Alamo Drafthouse re-release (dig the trailer, with just a few of the broken bones and whatnot tallied up, above) cemented Roar’s place in the cult pantheon.