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: Unearthed films
In 2010, A Serbian Film shocked audiences with its story of Miloš, a down-on-his-luck former adult actor who signs on to an "art film" for some quick money. From the moment that Miloš arrives on set at an orphanage, the film descends into the hellish depths of sexual assault, torture, incest, and a few unspeakable acts. This really is a winning bingo card of effed-up movies.
A Serbian Film has been edited or outright banned across the globe. There's an NC-17 cut floating around in the ether that's about five minutes shorter than the unrated version, but don't expect to see either version on streaming sites anytime soon. That being said, there's an unrated Blu-ray of this deeply upsetting film available in all major markets, and a limited-edition action figure of the film's protagonist was released in 2021.
Side Note: If you ever go back to someone's apartment after a date and they have the Miloš action figure prominently displayed, you should probably leave immediately.Crossed the line?
- Photo: Death Mountain Productions
Released in 2010, The Bunny Game is a microbudget horror movie about a sex worker who's kidnapped by a truck driver. Much of the 76-minute runtime is spent watching the trucker sexually assault the young woman. Less a straightforward film and more of an intense audio-visual piece, the whole point of The Bunny Game is to be upsetting.
At the time of its release, The Bunny Game was equally lauded for its realism and criticized for the way it seems to take joy in the assault. The film's director, Adam Rehmeier, later told The New York Times:
[The film is] a cautionary tale about drug abuse and taking rides with strangers... I don’t like the film. It’s not a film you should like. If you say you do, then you’re really weird.Crossed the line?
- Photo: Bounty Films
This little film about a German surgeon who forces three kidnapped tourists to take part in a disgusting experiment has ridden its controversy all the way to the bank. The first film in a trilogy of stories about people who are forcefully sewn mouth to anus is the hardest of them all to watch. Or at least it was in 2010, when viewers had no idea what they were in for.
Director Tom Six has actively courted controversy for his Human Centipede films, boasting that the first movie in the trilogy was called "the most horrifying film ever made" in spite of there being zero sources for that quote outside of Six. Roger Ebert felt that the filmmakers "deliberately intended to inspire incredulity, nausea and hopefully outrage."
Out of all the controversial films of the modern era, Human Centipede is the one that combines the post-9/11 extreme exploitation genre with William Castle's sensationalist "do anything to get butts in the seats" model. Does that make it a good movie? That's really up to you.Crossed the line?
- Photo: Rézo Films
Gaspar Noe always manages to be controversial, but his vicious debut film about a dejected horsemeat butcher who commits gruesome acts of violence and sexual assault is a whole other level of unhinged. Told from the perspective of the butcher, the audience never gets a break from his disjointed psyche.
Every frame of I Stand Alone is concocted to make the audience writhe in their seats, but the movie's final moments are equally unforgettable and mortifying. Noe knew the film would be controversial and even included a title card giving audiences 30 seconds to beat feet out of the theater before the film's disturbing finale. Audiences walked out en masse, something that Noe said made him feel strong. He wrote in The Guardian:
I'm never scared by graphic violence and horror movies. Only psychological and class cruelty can scare me in a film. When I watch The Exorcist I feel like sleeping; Deliverance is far more intense. I'm happy some people walk out during my film. It makes the ones who stay feel strong. And me too.Crossed the line?