“When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself”
– Oscar Wilde
Throughout the rich history of film, some of the most acclaimed and historic landmarks of the medium have generated controversy, often resulting in censoring, boycotts, or bans. One of the most discussed tensions is the contrast of film and religion, and the question of artistic morality.
The ten films presented in this list were all controversial due to their subject matter’s relation to religion, and many still are. By watching these films, we get a thorough and entrancing view into religious morality and values, as well as an understanding of our own inner demons and fears.
10. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
One of the most lauded horror films of all time, as well as the film that really started the Satanic craze of the next decade, Rosemary’s Baby is a troubling classic that is as fascinated with the darkness of the human experience as it is with Satan or black magic.
Loosely summarized, the film is the story of a woman who finds she is impregnated with the Antichrist and that her neighbors are Satanists. If that plot sounds campy or comedic, you could not be father from the truth. Roman Polanski’s striking and terrifying psychedelic direction as well as a tragic performance from Mia Farrow capture an occult feeling of terror and dread that has rarely been seen before or after.
Though hugely successful both commercially and critically, Rosemary’s Baby still is perceived as a troubling, if not dangerous film, with a distressing, eerie surrealism that makes the work hard to swallow.
9. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Though the film never explicitly tackles the issue of religion, it is almost impossible to separate Ang Lee’s lush drama from the controversy it stirred at the time of its release in 2005.
An epic that covers the decades long romantic relationship of two men in the American west, Brokeback Mountain was met with a whirlwind of controversy over the same sex relationship of the characters. with a theatre in Utah pulling the film at the last minute and the conservative media blasting the film at every opportunity. Ultimately the film was a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for eight academy awards, wining three.
The film can now be seen as a notable event in America’s cultural wars; it became part of the turning point in American attitudes regarding the validity of same sex relationships. Today, the film still stands as an icon for philosophical differences in art and politics.
8. The Omen (1976)
A beloved horror classic, The Omen is a definitive entry in the satanic horror film trend of the late 60’s and 70’s. Telling the story of a wealthy family who slowly learn that their son is the Antichrist, many of the motifs of the film became horror movie icons; mot notably popularizing the occult implications of the number 666.
However, the grizzly subject matter caused the film to become the center of many urban legends about it being cursed (a common rumor about satanic themed films at the time), with two separate plans carrying Gregory Peck and screenwriter David Seltzer were both struck by lighting on the way to the UK, among other strange and violent incidents. In spite of all of this, the film was released to blockbuster success, and is a must see of 70’s horror.
7. Haxan (1922)
At the time of its release, Haxan was the most expensive Swedish film ever made, and decades later its still easy to understand why. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece of silent era cinema, with groundbreaking special effects and a striking frame narrative –a “mocumentary” decades before that term was coined.
Essentially touting itself as a history of Witchcraft and Satan, the film is also perhaps the first Comedy Horror. Despite its then controversial scenes of torment and evil, the film is actually a satire on religious fanaticism and a plea for compassion and reason instead of religious justification of hatred.
As a result, the tone of the film can be hard to pin down, sometimes seeming deeply disturbing and other times seeming notably absurd.
Though the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries, a greatly edited version was released in 1968 with counter culture icon William S. Burroughs narrating, making the film an instant cult classic. Though the original uncut version of the film is the truly groundbreaking film, Burroughs cold and poetic narration make the 1968 version well worth the investment as well.
Now both versions of the film are seen as classics, as well as a high water mark for early horror. Now almost a century later the film may not still be as visually terrifying, but it is still as philosophically unsettling as it was at the time of its release.
6. The Exorcist (1973)
An early example of 70’s blockbuster masterpieces, as well as one of the most controversial and successful films ever made, The Exorcist is something of a rite of passage for film fans, and a staple of American horror movies.
William Friedkin was last in a line of directors hired to direct the film (including Stanly Kubrick), and his stark attention to realism and detail make the film particularly troubling. Its brutal and blasphemous depictions of supposed demonic possession as well as ambiguity as to the role of deity in every day events made the film instantly controversial despite its massive success both financially and critically.
Now considered an American classic, it’s hard to separate The Exorcist from its controversial reputation, as well as its status as “the scariest film ever made”. It stands now as an essential part of the American Hollywood cannon as well as an iconic part of how Americans view religion and terror on the pop culture level.
Despite controversy over the graphic content and blasphemous motifs, the film is now widely considered the standard in horror, as well as the dawning of the blockbuster era in film.