Inspired by Los Angeles magazine film critic Steve Erickson’s recent essay on violence in film, Amy Wallace ticks off ten movies from the past 46 years—from A Clockwork Orange to The Passion of the Christ—that raised our limits for on-screen brutality to bloody new heights
1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) directed by Arthur Penn
Warren Beatty produced this film, about a couple on a crime spree, as well as starring in it with Faye Dunaway. The ending alone, dubbed one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history, broke many taboos and motivated other filmmakers to be more graphic in their portrayal of violence.
2. The Wild Bunch (1969) directed by Sam Peckinpah
New York Times critic Vincent Canby began his review by calling the movie “the first truly interesting American-made Western in years.” But he also predicted that it was “so full of violence –of an intensity that can hardly be supported by the story – that it’s going to prompt a lot of people who do not know the real effect of movie violence (as I do not) to write automatic condemnations of it.” Canby was right.
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971) directed by Stanley Kubrick
Malcolm McDowell plays a sociopath who leads a gang of thugs (“droogs”) on an evening of “ultra-violence” in futuristic London. Images of rape and a woman being bludgeoned by a phallic statue add extra horror to this disturbing, brilliant film.
4. The Godfather (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Considered one of the greatest films of all time, it was notable because it showed the Mafia’s ruthlessness from the perspective of an insider. One shocking scene featured the real severed head of a horse, placed in the bed of a man who had ignored a request from the Godfather (played by Marlon Brando).
5. Death Wish (1974) directed by Michael Winner
Charles Bronson plays a once-liberal-minded man who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted. The movie spawned a franchise of four sequels, the last of which came out in 1994.
6. Natural Born Killers (1994) directed by Oliver Stone
Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play damaged lovers who become mass murderers. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly called the film – which also commented on the media hype that made violent criminals famous — the eighth most controversial movie of all time.
7. Kill Bill: Volume I (2003) and Kill Bill: Volume II (2004), directed by Quentin Tarantino
When it comes to mayhem, it’s hard to pick just one Tarantino movie (remember the ear-severing scene in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs?). As in many of his films, the violence here is an homage – this time to Hong Kong martial arts and Japanese chanbara films, among other genres. With more than a four hour running time, this packs a lot of punch.
8. The Passion of the Christ (2004) directed by Mel Gibson
Critic Roger Ebert called this depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life the most violent film he’d ever seen, writing: “The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus.”
9. Saw (2004) directed by James Wan
Sadism, humiliation, torture, and a truly gruesome marketing campaign were the hallmarks of this horror film, which launched a lucrative franchise of gory depravity. Seven films and two video games, so far, have been mostly panned by critics, but have enjoyed huge financial success.
10. 300 (2007) directed by Zack Snyder
This fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae had violence as its major selling point. As Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “unless you love violence as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino or a video-game-playing teenage boy, you will not be endlessly fascinated.” It grossed more than $450 million.
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