Mainstream film pop culture is all about giving the audience what they want. But sometimes some movies fall through the cracks that go against the established template in a dramatic manner. The more popular such movies become, the greater the outrage and controversy that surrounds them. Case in point, 2019’s Joker, and the media hysteria that surrounded the film’s release.

Such a negative reaction from the media and pop culture watchdogs is not a new phenomenon. As long as Hollywood has existed there have been movies that have generated massive controversy over their content. And yet, some of the most controversial movies of the 20th century can seem relatively tame today. Let us take a look at 10 such movies that caused massive outrage when they were released, but wouldn’t cause such a big ruckus if they came out today.


10 Psycho

psycho shower scene and death
Paramount Pictures

You can’t name a more influential thriller than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 psychological horror masterpiece Psycho. The movie has inspired several generations of filmmakers and is still considered the gold standard for its genre. At the time of its release, Psycho was engulfed in controversy over its shocking (for the time) content, which included showing a toilet being flushed, an unwed couple in bed together, partial female nudity, and worst of all, graphic scenes of murder.

And yet, the movie is actually pretty subtle about showcasing violence. The most famous scene from the movie, where Janet Leigh’s character is killed in the shower, plays out relatively tastefully. You never actually see the knife strike the character, and most of the heavy lifting is done by the scene’s unsettling musical score and the imagination of the audience members. It’s a tribute to Hitchcock’s mastery of atmosphere that he was able to create one the most iconic murder scenes in cinema history without showing the actual moment of murder.

9 Night of the Living Dead

Zombies in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead
Continental Distributing

Every modern zombie movie owes a lot of inspiration to director George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead. The movie showcased zombies of ancient folklore in a newly horrific manner as undead flesh-eating cannibals, even though the word “zombie” is never actually used in the story. The film’s depiction of gore was considered too extreme for general audiences, and putting a Black character in the lead role was unheard of at the time.

As far as the violence goes, Night of the Living Dead really doesn’t do anything remotely extreme by today’s standards. The film was made on a tiny budget, and most of the violence is only implied or shown offscreen. Certainly nothing in the movie comes close to the graphic displays of cannibalism and vivisection that define the modern zombie movie genre.

8 Fight Club

Fight Club (1999)
Fox 2000 Pictures

One of the most misunderstood movies that Hollywood has ever produced is David Fincher’s 1999 thriller-drama Fight Club. Despite starring A-list talent including Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club was met with a deluge of negative initial reviews for what many thought was the film’s focus on glorifying violence and anti-social behavior.

And yet, the film does not really do anything too violent by modern standards. You get a few scenes of men fighting and spilling each other’s blood, but nothing compared to modern action scenes of heads getting decapitated or bodies getting riddled with bullets. Even the overall message of Fight Club is not “destructive behavior is cool,” but a warning against blindly following charismatic leaders all the way over a cliff.

7 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Bryanston Distributing Company

There are a handful of movies that have been credited with kickstarting the slasher horror movie genre, and 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a prominent member of the list. The movie was inspired by the crimes of real-life serial killer Ed Gein. The shocking content of the film proved so controversial that it got banned in several countries upon release.

RELATED: Every Texas Chainsaw Massacre Movie, Ranked

But the truth is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not an out-and-out slasher movie. Certainly not the extent that its sequels were. The original 1974 film shows few of the murders actually taking place onscreen. In fact, when Leatherface kills a man using his iconic chainsaw, the camera is focused on Leatherface’s back instead of showing the victim’s decapitation. Most of the violence in the movie is conjured up in the audience’s imagination due to frequent shots of dead bodies and action that is implied but takes place off-screen.

6 Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver
Columbia Pictures

Today Martin Scorese’s Taxi Driver is regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made. But back when it released in 1976, Hollywood was still operating under a strict code of what was acceptable to show onscreen, especially for non-horror films. This made the reception to Taxi Driver deeply divided, with many decrying the film’s graphic use of violence particularly in the climactic shoot-out scene, which actually got the film booed at Cannes.

But once again, cinematic content that so deeply shocked our forefathers will seem like small beans to modern audiences who are used to guys like John Rambo and John Wick taking out entire platoons of enemies in the most gun-friendly manner. Scorsese himself went on to make movies with far more graphic and violent content, and today Taxi Driver is remembered more for its story and performances than the controversy over its ending.

5 American Psycho

American Psycho
Lions Gate Films

Before he was Batman, Christian Bale played a very different kind of upper-class dandy with a proclivity for violence in 2000’s American Psycho. Bale essays the role of Patrick Bateman, a narcissist investment banker who fantasizes about committing violent crimes. Much like Fight Club, American Psycho was decried by critics who thought the movie was glorifying violence.

But once again, the critics failed to realize the film was a black comedy that was poking fun at Patrick Bateman rather than lionizing him. As far as the film’s graphic content is concerned, it’s really nothing compared to a regular episode of Game of Thrones. In fact, the book American Psycho is based on features far more graphic content which was toned down considerably for the film.

4 Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde
Warner Bros.

Few real-life couples have caught the imagination of the public in the manner of crime duo Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Naturally Hollywood has mined the lives of the notorious couple more than once. In 1967 Arthur Penn directed a movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie and Clyde, and the film was immediately and furiously opposed by the morality police of the time.

The chief criticism was directed at the frank depiction of sex and violence in the movie. The ending in particular gained the notorious reputation of featuring one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinema history. Unknown to critics at the time, Bonnie and Clyde was set to be part of a New Hollywood movement which would see movies following its trend of openly depicting taboo subjects onscreen. Compared to other New Hollywood movies that came after and continue to be made, today Bonnie and Clyde‘s so-called “gruesome” scenes would barely warrant a raised eyebrow.

3 A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
Warner Bros. Pictures

Stanley Kubrick was always a no-half-measures kind of director. So when he set out to adapt Anthony Burgess’ incredibly violent 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, the outcome was always going to be boundary pushing. Sure enough, Kubrick’s film, showing a bunch of juveniles indulging in a range of criminal behavior from theft to sexual assault, was banned in several countries upon release.

It is true that the movie depicts several scenes that would be hard to stomach even today. But Kubrick’s depiction of the events in those scenes hold deeper meaning than simply being gratuitous or voyeuristic. Compared to the violence shown in movies today, the scenes of A Clockwork Orange can seem quite mild. Although Malcolm McDowell’s central performance as the villain protagonist Alex continues to be one of the best depictions of psychopathic behavior ever seen in films.

2 Battle Royale

Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda in Battle Royale
Toei Company Releasing

Imagine this set up. A group of adolescents are stranded in a forest area. They are provided various weapons by the government, and instructed to kill each other until only a single survivor remains. This set up probably reminds you of The Hunger Games, but we’re actually talking about Battle Royale, a 2000 Japanese movie that has been spoken about in hushed whispers in dark corners of the internet for two decades.

RELATED: Battle Royale: Looking Back at Kinji Fukasaku’s Brutal Film and its ImpactBattle Royale proved so controversial in its graphic depiction of school students killing each other that the film was banned almost as soon as it was released. Still, it managed to gain a large global cult following thanks to the internet, and is today considered a classic that has received praise from many filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino. Once again, the violence depicted in Battle Royale was extreme for its time, but has been out-gored by its spiritual successors on the international film circuit.

1 The Last Temptation of Christ

Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ
Universal Pictures 

Martin Scorsese had established himself as one of the best directors in Hollywood when he set out to make The Last Temptation of Christ with Willem Dafoe in the lead role as Jesus of Nazareth. The movie was almost immediately set upon by religious groups for its depiction of Christ as a person who experiences various human frailties including anger and lust, and who enters into marriage with Mary Magdalene.

Things got so bad that Scorsese was subjected to death threats, and a cinema in Paris that was showing the movie endured a terrorist attack by fundamentalist groups. Today, the subject of Jesus’ human nature and the question of him having children have been popularized by such movies as The Da Vinci Code, and no longer engender such extreme reactions. Also, any graphic violence shown in The Last Temptation of Christ pales in comparison to the bloodbath shown in the more recent Jesus-based feature The Passion of the Christ.