As a late outcome of the lax censorship forced by the countercultural manifestations of the 1960s, the increasing recurrence of violent films in the late 60s anticipated the 1970s experimentation with extremism in cinema.
Sometimes consciously, others as a mere result of circumstances, the 70s were rich in productions that further crossed the already transgressed boundaries of good taste, through widely polemical depictions of sexuality, religion, morality, violence and exploitation.
Though some of those productions are now held as mere reflections of its time, the controversy raised by others of them has not yet been overcome.
The next is a list of 20 of the most controversial films of the 70s. Without avoiding critical attacks, some of the titles influenced other 70s controversial titles, or were pleasing critical and financial surprises that exceeded the expectations set on them. Others even raised major debates towards their themes.
20. Snuff (Michael Findlay and Roberta Findlay, 1976)
Promoter of the snuff film urban legend and a definitive title among exploitation supporters, “Snuff” owes the success it would have otherwise lacked to a marketing campaign based entirely on rumors.
This film’s story begins with “Slaughter”, a low budget exploitation title with which Michael and Roberta Findlay continued their B-side filmmaking career in 1971. Covering a series of murders carried by a Manson-like family, “Slaughter” circulated through oblivion until Allan Shackleton purchased it.
“Snuff” is the result of Shackleton’s incorporation of self-reference sequences and additional infamous scenes to “Slaughter”. Mostly amateur and eventful, it raised several affirmations about the first confirmed snuff movie and rumors that lasted many years after its release.
19. Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971)
Mainly dialogic, “Carnal Knowledge” follows the evolution of two best friends’ sexual lives. A local incident upon its release led “Carnal Knowledge” to be part of a major case before the US Supreme Court, which concluded that the film’s depictions were not offensive in any way.
Though it was another attraction of many audiences seeking to fulfill their morbid expectations solely based on its title, Carnal Knowledge resulted, instead, in a groundbreaking revision of misogyny and dysfunctional relations that ultimately reflected a period of transition.
18. Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)
“Dirty Harry” was just the beginning of a series of films following the adventures of the now pop icon Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood in one of his most paradigmatic performances), an unorthodox and ruthless San Francisco police inspector, as he ignores the rules of the book and chases criminals by any means possible.
The precursor of a considerable amount of vigilante films of varying quality that permeated the 70s, “Dirty Harry” raised a series of debates surrounding, among other things, the nature of its main character’s acts and whether its director was delivering a political message.
It is, ultimately, an unorthodox action flick that exploited the issues concerning security and criminality of its time. “Dirty Harry” gained empathy from many audiences through its main character’s answer to the increasing amount of criminality that had everyone frustrated by then.
17. Bloodsucking Freaks (Joel M. Reed, 1976)
An unpleasant forerunner of the torture porn film genre, “Bloodsucking Freaks” is an exploitation-splatter production focused on torture against women.
Misogynistic, pretentiously comic and widely polemical, the film faced open accusations due to its cruel depiction of women. The film’s creators tried to overcome these accusations by appealing to the only issue some critics regarded as redeemable about the otherwise widely ripped film: the “humorous spirit” beneath it.
Though its small cult status has decreased year by year, “Bloodsucking Freaks” is still regarded as one of the most controversial films ever made.
16. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
Disorientating, arguably cartoonish and graphic, “The Deer Hunter” depicts the impact of Vietnam War on three working class friends.
One of the most controversial Oscar winners for Best Picture and a member of American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list, “The Deer Hunter” has faced open accusations of historical inaccuracy, unnecessary emotional wear, and even racism.
Michael Cimino’s answer to those accusations has been the same: “The Deer Hunter”, a non-polemical and inaccurate film, never postured for one side in particular.
15. The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)
“The Last House on the Left” is mostly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “The Virgin Spring”, a moving allegory about vengeance and redemption set in the Middle Ages.
Departing from its inspiration, “The Last House on the Left” lets go everything about Bergman’s obsessive search for redemption, and instead focuses on the exploitation side of its revenge story. As a result, the film faced censorship in many countries due to the extremity of its sequences.
An essential title for the development of the widely controversial rape and revenge exploitation subgenre, “The Last House on the Left”, unlike other 70s subgenre titles, met generally positive reviews.