When it comes to books, my policy is generally to make a point to seek out the ones people try to ban; they’re almost always worthwhile, at least to understand why their ideas are being suppressed.
That’s true with movies too, but the calculus is a little different. Some banned movies are essential films, full stop; others are problematic but nevertheless worth exploring; still others are cult favorites seemingly only because they are so controversial. As you make your way through the 11 films collected here, your banned-film binge will offer a bit of everything, from brilliance to trash, and even some brilliant trash.
But first: The lists of countries I’ve added to each entry noting where the films are banned isn’t exhaustive; countries don’t generally publicize lists of banned films, and sometimes movies remain “banned” only because no one’s tried for a new release. There are also countries, like Afghanistan, that ban movies pretty much by default, so no one attempts a release in the first place (anything with queer content isn’t going to fly in Russia, China, or much of the Middle East, for example). It’s complicated, so the countries you’ll see are the places where the film in question was most vocally challenged.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
One of the original found footage horror films is also one of the most effective, a gruesome testament to the power of suggestion so visceral, it tricked the authorities into thinking the filmmakers had done a real murder. The setup is very The Blair Witch Project: After a crew goes missing while filming a documentary about indigenous cannibal tribes in the Amazon rainforest, the anthropologist sent to find them uncovers only their footage, which is gruesome. Some have seen it as a smart commentary on the horrors of the modern world; others think it’s mostly just gross (if effectively so).
Produced in Italy, the movie was seized in that country shortly after production; that prints were smuggled out didn’t help, the subterfuge convincing French authorities that it was all real. Director Ruggero Deodato suddenly found murder added to the obscenity charge of which he was eventually convicted. The cast showed up to prove they were alive and help clear his name, but the film was still banned in France and elsewhere for violating animal cruelty laws. The entirely real onscreen animal deaths are the primary reason it remains controversial to this day, long after concerns about the fictional violence have faded.
Banned in: At one point, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, and others (the original advertising claimed that the movie was banned in 50 countries, which is likely an exaggeration); it’s still banned in Iceland, New Zealand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Norway, and Finland.
Where to stream: Shudder, Kanopy
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Another film that inspires discussions about art versus filth, this one from an acclaimed director who was murdered, violently but mysteriously, before it was released. Based on the work of the Marquis de Sade, Salò depicts its mostly anonymous teenage characters being subjected to torture and sexual violence (boy does it!) to a degree that’s earned it a reputation as one of the hardest-to-watch films in cinema history—certainly coming from a prestigious director like Pier Paolo Pasolini, who has a lot to say here about consumerism, capitalism, and totalitarianism. Just, he says it via depicting the plight of characters forced to, quite literally, eat shit. Not a bad metaphor, come to think of it.
Though never formerly banned in the United States, it became part of a small tempest in 1994 when a video store owner was arrested for renting out a copy. Numerous artists, including Martin Scorsese, came to his defense and the case was dropped.
Banned in: Australia, Finland, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Australia, the UK, Italy, Canada; still banned in Iran and Singapore.
Where to stream: Nowhere currently, but the movie is now part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, so you can be disgusted by it in high definition.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess only-slightly-less controversial novel follows antisocial teenager Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), an ultra-violent criminal whose rehabilitation raises questions about authoritarianism and the extent of freedoms we should give up in the name of safety. The movie makes a point, but not without depicting quite a great deal of stylish violence, including a rape scene that’s all the harder to watch precisely because it plays as a bit goofy—as if its all the big joke Alex and his fellow droogs think it is.
The sexual violence (and related nudity) has been the biggest source of controversy, along with some questionable copycat crimes in its native U.K. In the United States, the film was edited on release to receive an R rating, and still condemned by the then-powerful National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, who forbade Catholics from seeing the film.
Banned in: Canada, the U.K. (where it was pulled from release at the request of Kubrick, whose family was receiving death threats, a “ban” that lasted for nearly three decades), Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Malta, and South Korea.
Where to stream: Digital rental
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic drama finds middle-aged widower Marlon Brando involved in a highly sus relationship with a young Parisian woman played by Maria Schneider. The movie’s most memorable scene, involving forced sex and a stick of butter, was immediately the source of greatest controversy, and has continued to stain its reputation, as Schneider has spoken out about the abusive treatment she experienced from Bertolucci and Brando, particularly during the filming of that scene. Even that ongoing controversy aside, the movie was rather shockingly sexually frank for its era, and it’s likely the first time that an actor of Brando’s stature had discussed the joys of a finger up the butt onscreen.
Pretty much every effort to ban the movie has been based around the idea of the film as indecent or generally obscene; the usual suspects took offense, but the National Organization for Women in the U.S. wasn’t crazy about the movie either, seeing the film’s sexuality as one-sided.
Banned in: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Portugal, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, and Venezuela.
Where to stream: Tubi
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Blasphemy! That was the cry heard round the world when Martin Scorsese’s heartfelt religious drama dared to suggest that Jesus (Willem Dafoe) might have once briefly considered getting a girlfriend. A theater in Paris was bombed during a screening, injuring over a dozen people, and protests across the United States lead to a shadow ban on the film; while never outright barred from shown, theater owners were threatened with violence, which made some reluctant to screen it.
Banned in: Greece, South Africa, Turkey, Mexico, Israel, Chile, Argentina. Still banned in Philippines and Singapore.
Where to stream: Digital rental
I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
A spin on The Last House on the Left that ditches whatever social commentary that highly controversial Wes Craven film offered in favor of wallowing in rape sequences and amping up the subsequent revenge violence, I Spit on Your Grave has become a cult favorite precisely because it’s so shockingly tasteless. The violence has long been a flashpoint, mostly the rather extreme sexual torture (American censors were willing to give the film an R rating if scenes suggesting anal rape were excised). This one was followed by an unauthorized sequel and a remake that itself spawned four sequels. None of them made a penny, but there seems to be enough of a brand here that exploitative filmmakers keep hoping next time will be different.
Banned in: Ireland, Norway, Iceland, West Germany, Canada, and the UK; only a censored version was initially available the U.S. and Australia.
Where to stream: Tubi, The Roku Channel, Redbox, Pluto
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Though not met with quite the same level of outrage as Last Temptation of Christ, Ron Howard’s adaptation of the hugely popular novel The Da Vinci Code was deemed blasphemous for its suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene got married and had children and begat a still-living descendent (or something…it’s all rather convoluted). It’s all very clearly fictional, and pretty silly at that, yet there were protests throughout the U.S. and the movie was outright banned in a bunch of countries and regions. It’s probably the most boring banned movie ever made.
Banned in: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Syria, Belarus, Pakistan, Vatican City, and China.
Where to stream: Hulu
The Life of Brian (1979)
“So funny, it was banned in Norway!” read the ad copy on posters for Life of Brian, the story of a man born next door to, and on the same day as, Jesus, and who finds himself mistaken for the Messiah. Though the Monty Python-produced comedy was a box office success, it was either banned or X-rated in several dozen British localities, even after it underwent a round of cuts, and British television refused to air the movie for years for its allegedly blasphemous content. In the United States, likewise, several towns and smaller cities refused to allow the film to be screened, and even in New York, screenings were met with picket signs.
Banned in: the U.K. and U.S. (if only in specific locations, not nationwide), Ireland, South Africa, and Norway.
Where to stream: Netflix
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Very occasionally, a queer-themed movie breaks through at the box office to the point that everyone gets upset. Such was the case with Brokeback Mountain, which promised a new era of queer movies that never really materialized, but that had a significant cultural moment and also inspired a generation’s laziest gay jokes. The movie was quickly banned in parts of Asia and, in particular, the middle east for its depiction of homosexuality, and because a flashpoint in the culture wars in the US, where a handful of theaters (in Salt Lake City, for example) refused outright to show the movie. It was also, apparently, banned in the homes of many older Academy Award voters, who somehow decided that Crash was a better movie when they were both nominated for Best Picture. Italian state television, in 2008, aired a version with all of the gay stuff cut out…which, unsurprisingly, left audiences with pretty much no idea what was going on.
Banned in: China, the UAE, Malaysia, the Bahamas, heavily censored in Lebanon
Where to stream: Netflix
Cannibal Ferox (1981)
The aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust kicked off a mercifully brief wave of cannibal-themes exploitation pics, of which writer/director Umberto Lenzi’s is the most notorious. Unlike Holocaust—which, it’s been argued (though not always convincingly), offers at least a shred of cinematic value and social commentary—there’s not much to Ferox other than shock value. The quality of the gore effects is mixed (except for a…memorable scene involving a woman hanging by her breasts), and the movie definitely leans into quantity over quality on that score. And like Holocaust, it also includes scenes of real animal mutilations, particularly involving turtles.
The movie was banned in the U.K. as one of the infamous “video nasties” of the 1980s, and ad copy claimed that it had been banned in 31 countries. Guinness even gives it a most-banned page on that basis. I’m not convinced, as it only seems to have generated controversy in the U.K. (though it wasn’t released particularly broadly, and likely would have been banned in the same countries that banned Holocaust). In deference to the movie’s reputation, I’ll give it a spot here, while recognizing that, by the time it came out, people were probably over being freaked out by cannibal movies.
Banned in: The U.K.
Where to stream: Tubi, Kanopy, Fandor
Despite being directed by Andrzej Żuławski, a celebrated Polish auteur, and winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, Possession was reviled upon release—declared a “video nasty” and removed from circulation in the U.K., and edited into incoherent oblivion (and assured box office failure) in the U.S. Never mind that it’s a brilliant use of horror as metaphor: Żuławski produced the film while in the midst of a traumatic divorce, and it lends a literally monstrous edge to the story of the dissolving marriage between an international espionage agent (?) played by Sam Neill and his frustrated housewife, played by a truly fearless Isabelle Adjani. (Frankly, the most shocking thing about the movie in 2023 is how unbelievably hot they both are.)
Come for the slimy creature effects, stay for the truly unsettling, single shot sequence of Adjani absolutely losing her shit in a subway tunnel. Luckily, streaming service Shudder has recently rescued the original cut from cinematic obscurity.
Banned in: the U.K.; more than 40 minutes were cut for the original U.S. release.
Where to stream: Shudder