Horror has always been controversial. From the early Universal monsters to the grindhouse exploitation films of the 1970s, horror movies have been scaring audiences out of the theater and creating moral panic with little more than a logline. What about the films of the modern era?
The scary movies of the early 21st century did anything but lose their edge. Found footage was king in the 2000s, and an ultra-violent brand of horror took the genre by storm. Audiences were equally titillated and horrified. The advent of social media let fans, the media, and even presidents rail against a movie in a way that the film world had never seen before.
These controversial horror films range from big studio pictures to one that only cost 13 grand to produce. Their price tags don't matter here, and neither do their quality - all that counts is they made audiences question why they were watching the movie.
- Photo: IFC Films5
In Lars von Trier's Antichrist, a couple decamps to a cabin in the woods after the death of their child, and things get freaky from there. The film features very violent sexual imagery. Von Trier practically dares the audience to keep watching as the main characters are covered in swollen ticks and faced with a cavalcade of dead animals. It's a rough watch.
When the film premiered at Cannes in 2009, there were rumors of audience members fainting and cries of misogyny. Time magazine reported that the film was proof von Trier had "gone mad." Antichrist isn't meant to be a "fun" watch, and after Cannes, much of the fervor over this movie died down.Crossed the line?
- Photo: Wild Bunch
Martyrs is beautiful. It's painful. It has no desire to comfort the audience. It's very hard to watch. This 2008 tentpole of the New French Extremism movement begins as a psychological revenge thriller, kind of, and then turns into something much more harrowing.
Through a series of twists and turns, the film's protagonist, Anna, winds up as a captive of a group of religious fanatics who believe they can learn about the afterlife by torturing a young woman until she's so close to death that she can see the other side. The climax of the film is brutal, depressing, and yet somehow euphoric. The French really know their way around a horror movie.
The real controversy surrounding Martyrs isn't the film's thesis statement on faith or religion, but the brutal violence and degradation that are used as blunt instruments to assault the audience. This is a movie that audiences either love or hate; there's no way to be lukewarm about Martyrs.Crossed the line?
- Photo: Anchor Bay Films
Megan Is Missing tells the all-too-familiar story of a teenage girl who flirts online with who she thinks is a young man... and then goes missing. Her best friend Amy then goes on a search that leads her down a dangerous and ultimately deadly road.
The controversy over the film began shortly after it was released in 2011. New Zealand banned the film because of its extreme violence and sexualization of its young protagonists. Megan Is Missing has some genuinely upsetting visuals, and its "based on a true story" vibe is more than enough to scare younger viewers away from their DMs for a while.
In 2020, controversy swirled around the film again when young audiences found the film and started posting about the traumatizing story on social media. Audiences were so put off by the film's stark, brutal imagery that writer/director Michael Goi released a statement for viewers who were unsure whether or not Megan Is Missing is the movie for them. He said:
I didn’t get to give you the customary warnings that I used to give people before they watched Megan Is Missing, which are: do not watch the movie in the middle of the night, do not watch the movie alone, and if you see the words "Photo No. 1" pop up on your screen, you have about four seconds to shut off the movie if you’re already kind of freaking out before you start seeing things that maybe you don’t want to see. Apologies to those who are already posting about how the movie is already freaked them out. Fair warning to those of you who are still contemplating watching the film.Crossed the line?
- Photo: MGM Distribution Co.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is one of the most profoundly disturbing found-footage films of the 2000s. It claims to be edited from footage recovered from a serial killer living and working in Poughkeepsie, NY. The film is made up of news footage and interviews about his upsetting crimes with footage abruptly cut in that looks like something from a snuff film. The overall feeling of this film is "no thank you."
This upsetting entry into the horror genre was supposed to receive a theatrical release from MGM in 2008, but the distributor worried that the film was too violent, that its images of people with physical abnormalities would offend members of the audience, and that it would upset the people of Poughkeepsie. In 2017, Scream Factory finally released this film on physical media.
Perhaps it's for the best that The Poughkeepsie Tapes was shelved for nearly a decade before its release. It's an unnerving film - but would it have made a dent at the box office? This is a cult classic, and no amount of controversy can stop it.Crossed the line?