Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn on the set of The Exorcist.

20 of the most controversial horror films

Written by:
October 24, 2023
Warner Bros. Pictures // Getty Images

20 of the most controversial horror films

Art often stirs up controversy, especially when dealing with delicate subject matters such as religion, sexuality, and violence. Some might say the best art provokes its audience, although one could also argue that mere provocation without substance means nothing (as is often the discussion surrounding the infamous "The Human Centipede" trilogy).

As time has gone on, the boundaries of audience tolerance and good taste have shifted and been tested, which is particularly apparent in the horror genre. Already aimed to cause the viewer a certain level of distress, many directors have pushed horror movies to the far reaches of human discomfort. Why? Perhaps because it's simply the story the filmmaker wants to tell; perhaps it's an attempt to convey a certain message; or perhaps it's because, well, they can.

Some films—like "Cannibal Holocaust," "Martyrs," and "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom"—seem to go even beyond the beyond, which can not only spur backlash but place them squarely in the purgatory of ratings disputes or even outright bannings, as determined by different country's ratings boards. Ratings contribute to a film's distribution, and an extremely restrictive rating, such as NC-17, can cause a movie to be severely limited in certain markets.

For this list, Stacker explored some of the most contentious horror movies ever made, sourced from a variety of film reviews, news articles, and retrospectives. Some older entries on this list might seem quite tame by today's standards (like 1973's "The Exorcist" or 1981's "The Evil Dead") while there are others we wouldn't even suggest readers go and watch. (However, if you do decide to, don't say we didn't warn you.)

Without further ado, here are 20 of the most controversial horror movies of all time.

Possession (1981)

In "Possession," married couple Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) are thrown into increasing emotional disarray after Mark finds out that Anna has been cheating on him. But things become strange and surreal as Mark's emotional torment threatens to overtake him, and Anna hides a bigger and much darker secret than the affair.

Despite a warm reception at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, "Possession" was lumped in with the colloquially termed "video nasties" in the U.K. in the early '80s due to what was considered its extreme, disturbing nature at the time. That's when the director of public prosecutions created a list of 72 films believed to contain extreme sexual violence and gore, which set them up to be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. "Possession" was initially banned in the United States as well—eventually, in 1983, it was released with a version cut 40 minutes shorter than the original.

The Evil Dead (1981)

A group of young friends sojourns to a cabin in the woods, only to stumble upon a flesh-bound book known as the Necronomicon. The contents of the book unleash a torrent of evil body-possessing spirits called Deadites upon the group. Ultimately, it's up to one of them, Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), to fight the Deadites or become one.

The first film in director Sam Raimi's popular "Evil Dead" franchise was met with controversy due to the gruesomeness and sexual violence it depicted. The British Board of Film Classification asked Raimi to tone down the most excessively violent and gory scenes, which led to 49 seconds being cut from the original version. Still, it was given the most restrictive ratings in the U.K. and U.S. and, like "Possession," declared a "video nasty." (It took until 2001 for an uncut version of "The Evil Dead" to finally reach U.K. audiences.) At the time of its release, the movie was outright banned in countries like Finland, Ukraine, and Singapore.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

In Meir Zarchi's controversial 1978 flick "I Spit on Your Grave," a young woman is brutally assaulted and left for dead by a group of men, leading her to go on a warpath to get revenge. Due to its graphic depictions of sexual violence, the film was met with significant controversy in the United States over its rating. The Motion Picture Association of America had awarded an edited version of the "I Spit on Your Grave" an R rating, but the organization eventually sued the producer in 1984, claiming they added in more scenes of sexual violence after the rating was handed down—scenes that would have given the film an X rating.

Critic Roger Ebert also became a loud and outspoken detractor of the movie, calling it "a vile bag of garbage" and saying watching it was "one of the most depressing experiences of [his] life." "I Spit on Your Grave" was also dubbed a "video nasty" in the U.K. and banned or censored in other countries. A 2010 remake and its two sequels were met with similar ire.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

"Cannibal Holocaust" is one of the most notorious films of all time. The Italian horror movie follows an anthropologist on a rescue mission in the Amazon when he finds the lost footage from a documentary crew who had mysteriously disappeared. The crew intended to document the region's Indigenous cannibal tribes, and the footage disturbingly reveals just what happened to them.

When it premiered in 1980, "Cannibal Holocaust" was so controversial that, 10 days after it first screened in Milan, director Ruggero Deodato was charged with obscenity, and the film was seized. Later, Deodato was even charged with murder over rumors that actors were filmed being killed, though the charges were dropped when that proved to be false. "Cannibal Holocaust" was also banned in several countries over its gruesome depictions of violence, including real animal killings. Decades later, the movie is considered to be the pioneer of the found-footage horror genre, paving the way for movies like "The Blair Witch Project" and the "Paranormal Activity" franchise.

Antichrist (2009)

The tragic death of an infant child at the accidental hands of his parents (unnamed in the film and played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) puts the mother in particular in a deep state of grief, leaving her psychiatrist husband desperate to treat her. He takes her to a remote cabin in the woods in an attempt to help her, but it only causes her to become more unhinged and sexually violent.

No stranger to controversy, director Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" was met with polarizing reactions from critics, with some calling it "a masterpiece of abject horror," others deeming it "colossally boring and pretentious," and some questioning if it was "a work of genius or the sickest film in the history of cinema?" Von Trier made different cuts for potential distributors at the famed Cannes Film Festival in the south of France to avoid censorship.

The team behind "Antichrist" chose not to apply for an MPAA rating in the U.S.; instead, they released an unrated version to six stateside theaters. Meanwhile, seven years after its release, "Antichrist" was banned in France when a court ruled that the initial rating, allowing those 16 years old and up to see it, was "a mistake" amid pressure from a Catholic traditionalist group.

The Devils (1971)

"The Devils" is based partly on the true story of a 17th-century priest named Urbain Grandier accused of witchcraft after a group of nuns claimed to be possessed by evil spirits. Director and producer Ken Russell's take on this historical account includes graphic violence, sexually explicit scenes, and controversial religious depictions, which led to it being banned in numerous markets. In the U.S., it was given an X rating only after being heavily cut, including one particularly controversial scene in which nuns have sex with a life-size statue of Jesus Christ.

Dead Alive (1992)

Before Peter Jackson directed the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he helmed one of the most appalling splatter flicks of all time. "Dead Alive," known as "Braindead" in its native New Zealand, follows a hapless young man named Lionel (Timothy Balme) whose overbearing mother is bitten by a deadly Sumatran rat-monkey, leading to a string of undead murders and mayhem.

While the BBFC ultimately gave the film an 18-and-older rating, the board originally considered the gore lighthearted enough to warrant a less restrictive rating. However, other countries found the content worthy of heavy censoring (like in the United States, where it ultimately received an R rating) or altogether banning (as was the case in Finland, Singapore, and South Korea).

The Last House on the Left (1972)

The late director Wes Craven is the king of slasher movies, creating the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise and directing the first four installments of the "Scream" series. But it was his directorial debut, "The Last House on the Left," that arguably ruffled the most feathers.

The controversial film follows two 17-year-old girls who are lured to the apartment of a group of escaped prisoners, where they're raped and tortured. The story, which Craven and company claimed was true, pushed the boundaries of how realistic sexual violence and other forms of physical violence could be depicted on screen. "The Last House on the Left" was banned in multiple countries, including the U.K. and Australia. In the U.S., the film's tagline ("Can a movie go too far?") brought it added notoriety. Today, of course, it's considered a horror classic.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

It may be hard to believe that the original "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and its villain, Leatherface, almost didn't see the light of day, considering how deeply cemented in horror movie history they are today. The movie, which was marketed as being based on true events like "The Last House on the Left," felt all the more realistic thanks to its largely unknown cast of young people who are attacked in an abandoned house they're seeking refuge in.

Director and producer Tobe Hooper struggled to find a distributor for "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and wanted his film to be seen as widely as possible, so he limited the quantity of fake blood on screen in the hopes of securing a PG rating from the MPAA. Unfortunately for him, the violence and terror depicted (bloody or not) yielded an R-rating and the movie faced more extreme reactions abroad, getting banned in countries like Australia and the U.K. James Ferman, the secretary of the BBFC in 1975, described the movie as "the pornography of terror."

The Exorcist (1973)

Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is a normal adolescent girl—until she becomes possessed by the demonic entity Pazuzu, who turns Reagan from a sweet, happy child into a vomit-spewing, tongue-speaking servant of hell. In William Friedkin's masterpiece of horror, it's up to Fathers Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) to exorcise Regan of this evil force before it tears her and her mother (Ellen Burstyn) apart.

"The Exorcist" sparked a torrent of notoriety and controversy: at screenings, with ratings boards, and among religious groups. It was banned in parts of the U.K. until 1998, and the trailer alone was banned in America after its strobe effects resulted in seizures and vomiting from test audiences.

Faces of Death (1978)

With its unique combination of staged scenes and historical footage, "Faces of Death" presents audiences with many macabre deaths, all narrated by a fictional pathologist named Francis B. Gröss (Michael Carr). Some of the movie's most infamous sequences were acted, but because of the real footage used (including scenes from slaughterhouses and concentration camps), "Faces of Death" was banned in many countries, like Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the U.K., where it was deemed a "video nasty." There are (somewhat dubious) claims that it was barred in 46 countries.

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) (2011)

The sequel to Tom Six's notorious body horror film "The Human Centipede" is a metatextual continuation about a man who becomes so obsessed with the original film that he embarks on his own quest to create a 12-person human centipede. Due to its shocking depictions of violence, sexual violence, and gore, "The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" was heavily censored or outright banned, including in the U.K. (albeit, for four months), Australia, and New Zealand. At the movie's North American premiere at Fantastic Fest in 2011 in Austin, Texas, one audience member needed paramedic assistance after watching the film.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Based loosely on the 18th-century novel by the Marquis de Sade, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film depicts a group of depraved fascists who kidnap nine young boys and girls and subject them to 120 days of mental, physical, and emotional torture. A controversial work by a controversial artist, "Salò" is considered by some film scholars to be a classic and an essential work. However, it was banned in several countries due to its perverse and extreme content, especially because the plot centers on minors.

A Serbian Film (2010)

A retired and financially insecure porn star agrees to take part in an art film in order to support his family; it turns out to be a snuff film of horrific content. Suddenly, the porn star is faced with cruelty and violence beyond his comprehension and he finds himself fighting to survive. Upon its premiere, "A Serbian Film" was met with immediate controversy and backlash due to its gratuitous violence and sexual content—it is considered by some to be one of the most disturbing and nastiest films of all time. Even more than 10 years after its release, "A Serbian Film" is still banned in several countries, like Spain, Australia, and New Zealand.

Grotesque (2009)

A doctor with extreme degenerate desires kidnaps a young couple and forces them through a gauntlet of torment and horror, which slowly but surely crushes their hopes of survival in this Japanese exploitation horror film. Due to its extensive sequences of torture, "Grotesque" was banned in the U.K., which subsequently caused the film to be pulled from Amazon Japan.

Ultimately though, that may have been what director Kôji Shiraishi wanted. "I'm a little disappointed, but actually that means the movie I've made has the power to cause a controversy, so I'm happy in that way," he told 3:AM magazine, noting his producer told him to make a movie "so violent that it almost can't be shown."

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Released from his stint in prison for murdering his own mother, serial killer Henry (Michael Rooker) has a day job as an exterminator and moonlights indiscriminately murdering random people. The gritty violence and realism of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," loosely based on real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, caused censorship challenges upon its release, though director John McNaughton refused to make cuts to get it an R rating. He refused to brand the movie with the X-rating the MPAA gave it; ultimately, it was released as "unrated" and ended up contributing to the MPAA's revised NC-17 rating.

Inside (2007)

In this French horror film, a pregnant woman finds herself tormented by an intruder while home alone at night, and she must find a way to fight for both her survival and that of her unborn child. Considered to be part of the New French Extremity movement—a series of transgressive and controversial movies released towards the beginning of the 21st century—"Inside" received mostly positive reviews and was called "the last great slasher movie" by Screen Rant. But the extensiveness of its gore, violence, and torture of a pregnant woman resulted in some backlash; even reviews praising the film acknowledged it "crosses the line."

Irréversible (2002)

Set in reverse-chronological order, Gaspar Noé's "Irréversible" follows a sexual assault survivor, her boyfriend, and her former lover, all of whom set out to take revenge on the random attacker who assailed her one brutal night in Paris. Ever the provocateur, Noé's film was deemed by Roger Ebert to be "a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable."

Generally, "Irréversible" received mixed reviews, which tended to praise the direction and performances while criticizing the film's brutal depictions of violence. Like "Inside," it's also associated with the New French Extremity movement.

Nekromantik (1988)

Robert Schmadtke (Bernd Daktari Lorenz) is a street cleaner who specializes in gruesome accidents in this uniquely twisted horror movie. He brings a decaying corpse home for the sexual gratification of himself and his wife, Betty (Beatrice Manowski)—however, much to his dismay, she soon prefers the corpse over him. This West German exploitation horror film has garnered a cult following in the decades since its release, but its depiction of a subject as taboo as necrophilia caused it to be banned in several countries, including Iceland, Malaysia, Finland, and parts of Canada. It finally received a release in the U.K. in 2014, 26 years after it was initially banned.

Martyrs (2008)

It's impossible to talk about controversial horror films without discussing "Martyrs," a movie about a woman who escaped unimaginable abuse as a child and seeks revenge on her supposed captors: a seemingly normal, nuclear family. After slaughtering them, her friend, also a survivor of abuse, arrives to help clean up the crime scene, and the two slowly uncover a secret world of mutilation and torment.

"Martyrs" incited a number of walkouts at its premiere at the Marché du Film in 2008, and alleged vomiting in Toronto. Significant controversy followed the film in its home country of France, and while it was purchased for North American release by the now-defunct Weinstein Company, Bob Weinstein was reportedly so repulsed by it, that it went straight to DVD.

Story editing by Jaimie Etkin. Copy editing by Tim Bruns. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

Trending Now