Many films are banned internationally, even among so-called ‘free countries’. The nanny state that governs the United Kingdom is infamous for sheltering its people from disturbing content. Even when not banning films, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) often insists that horror movies are heavily edited.
While the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) does not have the power to ban movies outright, it doles out ‘X’ ratings if studios refuse to make suggested cuts. Such a rating virtually guarantees the film will not get picked up by theater chains and the producers will be relegated to begging the owners of independent film houses to show it.
The following are the most notorious horror films to be banned overseas and either forced to make major edits or slapped with ‘X’ ratings in the United States.
Too Close to ‘Real’ Terror
Although based on a 1960 film from Sweden, The Last House on the Left (1972) stands above in terms of brutality and a lack of any compassion for audiences. Ahead of his time, Director Wes Craven said his purpose was to show violence and death as it actually is, instead of the sanitized dramatizations audiences had become accustomed to. Such realism earned an ‘X’ rating in the United States and a 20+ year ban in the United Kingdom. Even as late as 2002, the UK would not allow the release of the film without significant censoring. This was not an uncommon practice with regards to The Last House on the Left. Director Wes Craven and Producer Sean Cunningham decided to cut the most graphic and disturbing scenes and made further cuts for certain markets. Plus, many theaters and individual projectionists made their own cuts. Hence, finding a true unedited ‘Director’s Cut’ to reproduce on DVD has proven impossible.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is modelled on the professed life of Henry Lee Lucas – a serial killer who was active in Texas. Despite its low budget, there is no other movie that more accurately portrays the sexual compulsion and shear messiness – materially and emotionally – associated with serial killing. For that, the MPAA slapped an ‘X’ rating on the film. When producers John McNaughton, Malik Ali and Waleed Ali inquired as to what could be cut to earn the film an ‘R’rating, the MPAA responded that no amount of editing would work, because the theme of the film itself was too disturbing. It was finally released unrated in the United States in 1990 and in the UK (heavily censored) in 1991.
Just Too Weird
Freaks (1932) is considered a classic among horror fans. But in the early 1930s, a film about the way the world of the normals collides with that of freaks in the sideshow business was considered too unsettling. People with real-life genetic mutations were cast for the roles and their revenge at the end was believed to be too grotesque for ‘normal’ audiences. MGM Studios ordered Director Tod Browning to removed 26 minutes from the production. Although Freaks was released on schedule, the film didn’t make much sense with the missing footage and did poorly. In the 1940s the uncut version was sold to an exploitation distributor, who marketed it under various titles (including The Monster Show and Nature’s Mistakes) for adults-only roadshows. The film has only recently been recognized for its contribution to the horror genre and biting commentary on humanity.
Despite its low budget effects, The Evil Dead (1981) proved too shocking for the MPAA and was slapped with an ‘X’ rating. In the UK, the distributor was sued for obscenity by several organizations – confining the film’s release to only a few theaters. Other countries refused to release it at all. In the US, the X-rating guaranteed the film would not be picked up by many theaters and opened in only fifteen initially. But because of such low production costs, The Evil Dead achieved profitability within a week. The most controversial scene – cut out in many international and US markets – was the tree-rape, where a possessed tree stabs a branch into Cheryl’s crotch.
Nekromantik (1987) is a German film about a woman who discovers a perverse pleasure in rough sex with a corpse. Unlike in the Re-Animator (1985), the necrophilia in this exploitation extravaganza is raw, bloody and graphic. It was so well done that some thought Director Jorg Buttgereit used actual corpses. Although this was eventually proven false, the explicit content was enough for dozens of countries to ban the film. It remains banned in Iceland, Norway and several Asian countries. Uniquely, it is the only movie banned in a couple Canadian provinces (Nova Scotia and Ontario), but not the country as a whole. In the 1990s, an edited version was released in a few independent US theaters.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978) was condemned as a thinly veiled misogynic (anti-woman) film. Although the acting detracts from believability, the film’s protracted scenes of violent rape earned it a notorious reputation, despite the revenge sequences that followed. I Spit on Your Grave was so over the line that Director/Producer Meir Zarchi couldn’t find a distributor. Zarchi ended up distributing the film himself under the title The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill. But it only played in venues generally shielded from critics, such as rural drive-ins. It was banned in several countries and in places where it wasn’t, encountered legal challenges. In Australia the distributor was sued for glorifying horrific crimes against humanity.
Be Gone Godless One!!!!
Sometimes films aren’t banned due to disturbing content, but crass and artless themes. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) was an unimpressive attempt to profit from the slasher craze of the early 1980s. Despite being a late comer, Producers Ira Barmak and Scott Schneid sought to capitalize on a gimmick to intrigue horror fans: Santa Claus as a serial killer. Although merely a serial killer posing as Santa Claus, that the film tore into the sanctity of the Christmas tradition and was released during that most magical time of the year, outraged Parent-Teacher Associations across the United States. After less than a week of limited release, the film was pulled by Tristar Pictures at the request of theater owners.
It’s All a Political Statement, Man
Salo aka 120 days of Sodom (1975) is often considered the most sick and twisted film ever made. Prolonged sequences of graphic violence and ridiculously over the line sexual depravity were meant as a commentary on 1940s fascist Italy. The most disturbing aspect of the film – the one that has kept it high on the controversy list – is that much of the terror is inflicted on children (by self-proclaimed fascists). The film remains banned in several countries (though not as many as Cannibal Holocaust) and was banned for 25 years in the UK. And although never officially released in the United States, as recently as the mid-1990s, adult video store owners were arrested for renting out the film on the grounds that it depicts child pornography. Although it certainly does depict naked children in the most sexually disturbing situations, it has been defended as an artistic work that is not sexual. (I am not one of the film’s defenders.)
Men Behind the Sun (1988) is a political-horror film made in Hong Kong and meant to disturb and disgust as much as possible. It graphically depicts the war crimes committed by the Japanese army’s Unit 731, in the name of scientific progress. It was meant to demonstrate to everyone who would watch, the cruelty of the Japanese during World War II. Banned in many countries, including Australia, it was derided as cheap exploitation and what we would call torture-porn today. The film’s controversy endures even now that horror fans have been desensitized to such imagery, due to sequences of unfaked animal cruelty. Among other scenes, the film depicts a live cat eaten by several hundred rats. Those same rats were later filmed squealing as they were burned alive.
This first found footage horror movie was dubbed ‘the most controversial film ever made’ on the uncut DVD version… And it has a strong case for that lofty title. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was banned in more than 50 countries and heavily censored in most others (including the United States). Easily Director Ruggero Deodato’s most notorious production, upon its premiere, he was taken into custody by authorities in his native Italy for making a snuff film. This was the assumption of many people who saw it, because they couldn’t imagine how the most iconic image – reference above – could be faked. But even after the trick was revealed, the film maintained its forbidden status because of the wanton, unfaked scenes of animal torture – to include cutting the shell off a man-size tortoise to film the working organs inside. Even today, such footage disturbs. Deodato set out to demonstrate that the savagery of ‘civilized’ man is more egregious than so-called savage man. In that he succeeded.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about such things deemed inappropriate for your consumption.