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Top 10 Controversial Movie Trailers
A proper preview for this list about movie previews:
“In a world . . . where every hypersensitive man and woman has a social media megaphone, and where politically-correct journalists call for horror movie trailers to be banned . . .
From the website that brings you your favorite listicles of all things offensive comes what comment thread critics will call ‘terrific!,’ ‘meh,’ and ‘another awful list from this idiot writer.
Listverse Studios presents ‘Ten Controversial Movie Trailers,’ a rollercoaster journey showcasing some of cinema’s most upsetting film previews.”
This list is not yet rated. Enjoy.
10 The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist stands out on this list as the only movie that, despite having its trailer pulled from theaters, still went on to become the year’s highest grossing film.
A significant factor here is the time period: In a special effects-challenged moviemaking era during which Night of the Living Dead – a film whose monsters and plot move so slowly that it evokes tears of boredom rather than fright – was considered groundbreaking, The Exorcist was unlike anything audiences had experienced. It was another level of horror.
The movie’s trailer, which features a quick-flash, photo negative-esque juxtaposition between a little girl and the demon that haunts her, was an incredibly powerful preview of the all-possessing experience that awaited moviegoers. Too powerful, in fact; upon screening it, theaters reported people walking out, and even running to the restrooms to throw up.
The reaction even scared The Exorcist’s director, William Friedkin, who zeroed in on the ghoulish soundtrack by composer Lalo Schifrin as a dealbreaker between passable and puking. Friedkin scrapped the soundtrack and turned to musician Mike Oldfield, who composed new music for the finished film. A victim of a job too well done, Schifrin’s score scared audiences so completely that it got him exorcised from The Exorcist.
9 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace holds two related yet drastically different distinctions. First, it is arguably the most disappointing movie in cinematic history, an utter disaster that left fans calling for the heads of both George Lucas and his wretched rabbit-esque creation, Jar Jar Binks.
Its second accomplishment is, in part, what exacerbated the first: The Phantom Menace was the most popular movie trailer ever, and it’s not even close.
A long, long time ago (circa late 1998), before the advent of YouTube, the only way to watch movie trailers “on demand” was at the theater itself (it’s also worth noting that trailers at theaters were released far earlier than those shown as TV ads, often by months). For force-starved fans, then, catching an early glimpse of the first Star Wars film in 15 years meant buying tickets to films currently playing in the theaters.
Theaters showing such long-forgotten films as Meet Joe Black, The Siege and A Bug’s Life swelled with paying customers . . . for about the first ten minutes. After the Star Wars trailer played, more than half the attendees often got up and left, a phenomenon that made headlines.
In defense of these pre-film fleers, The Phantom Menace’s trailer is pretty awesome. It basically encapsulated every single decent thing about the terrible two-hour movie – a CGI-sharpened Yoda, Tatooine’s desert landscape, Samuel L. Jackson – into two riveting minutes. The only other good part was watching Qui-Gon die, albeit not nearly as painfully as he deserved.
8 United 93 (2006)
Five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Universal Studios released a film reenacting the tragedy of that dark day’s fourth and final hijacked plane, United Flight #93.
The movie depicts the dramatic true saga of how passengers aboard the doomed jetliner, after learning the previous three airplanes had been used as kamikaze missiles, attempted to retake the cockpit from a team of jihadists. Inaction meant certain death; their bravery that day is aptly summed up by passenger Todd Beamer’s final recorded words: “Let’s roll.”
Though they failed to wrest control of the aircraft, they succeeded in preventing it from reaching its target: either the White House or US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Instead, the plane nosedived into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.
The trailer did what trailers are supposed to do: evoke an emotional reaction. Some blowback for a film about a tragic recent event was inevitable; however, some theaters witnessed both an outcry and literal crying, with patrons reportedly sobbing in their seats. What to do?
Though one theater in Manhattan unilaterally pulled the trailer, Universal refused to remove it en masse, instead opting to limit its showing to R and PG13-rated films – a reasonable position and rare example of Hollywood showing some spine amid controversy. The idea that a day as monumental as September 11, 2001 would never be depicted on the big screen is denying history for sensitivity’s sake, and five years is far enough removed from the event that neither the trailer nor movie were in poor taste.
7 The Mechanic (2011)
The most entertaining thing ever to happen during an episode of Glee ended up getting a movie trailer banned from British television.
During a commercial break from the insufferable singalong show, an ad previewing The Mechanic, in which Jason Statham plays a hitman who stages his kills to seem like accidents or suicides, exploded onto the screen. Or, rather, the head of one of Statham’s victims did. How’s that for a choir intermission?
The trailer also includes a scene where Statham emerges from underwater to jam a spear through someone’s leg, though a Glee cast member’s larynx would have been a more deserving target. A fiery bus explosion also made the lighthearted audience’s mood decidedly less gleeful.
England’s Advertising Standards Agency banned the trailer from the country’s airwaves after complaints from just 13 viewers, a figure that confirms (1) the organization’s spinelessness and (2) that at least 13 Brits have very poor taste in television. Where’s a good mechanic when you need one?
6 The Watch (2012)
Perhaps the only time George Zimmerman – the alleged woman-beating, road raging and of course trigger-happy Sunshine State vigilante who was a true #FloridaMan before it trended on Twitter—has ever been of service to others (with the exception of mandated community service) was when he saved Florida moviegoers from previews for a dumpster fire of a comedy called The Watch.
He did this merely by being himself. He gave the movie’s original title, Neighborhood Watch, a bad name by blowing away a black teenage boy armed with a seemingly menacing bag of Skittles and bottle of iced tea.
The controversy that transpired largely split along political and racial lines. Some eyewitnesses said the youth, Trayvon Martin, was on top of Zimmerman and pummeling him, and that the shooting was therefore an act of self-defense. Others contended that Zimmerman had no reason to follow and ultimately confront the teenager other than the color of his skin. The phrase “Walking While Black” made headlines across the country.
One thing everyone agreed on: The Watch was unwatchable, earning an ungodly 17% on Rotten Tomatoes despite the star-studded cast of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill playing basically the same characters they play in every movie. The film’s producers promptly removed all trailers and posters for the then-named Neighborhood Watch from Florida theaters, and eventually went a step further in renaming the film.
5 Gangster Squad (2013)
Some controversial movie trailers are simply victims of bad timing. The 2013 film Gangster Squad portrays the true story of the Los Angeles Police Department’s battle to suppress organized crime during the mob’s 1940s heyday. Of note, its trailer shows a group of gangsters indiscriminately shooting up a movie theater with machine guns.
Unfortunately, one of the movies Gangster Squad’s trailer frequently preceded was The Dark Knight Rises. And on July 20, 2012, a sicko ruined both Dark Knights and movie theaters for a lot of people.
In Aurora, Colorado, 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes strode into a packed showing of The Dark Knight Rises wearing a gas mask and body armor. Strapped with multiple firearms, Holmes proceeded to kill 12 and wound another 70. He was later arrested and found guilty of multiple counts of murder and attempted murder.
The incident affected not only Gangster Squad’s trailer, which was promptly pulled from screenings of The Dark Knight Rises, but ultimately the movie itself. Producers decided to postpone the movie’s release for reshoots, no pun intended, leaving the suddenly unpalatable movie theater scene on the cutting room floor.
4 Hereditary (2015)
“Mommy, why is that nice man on fire?”
In 2015, parents took their young children to a matinee showing of Peter Rabbit in Perth, Australia. But before bunnies and cuddly woodland creatures graced the big screen, a projectionist who is either really funny or really stupid played a trailer for Hereditary, a horror film about a family matriarch who wreaks havoc from beyond the grave.
Being a fly on that theater wall must have been highly entertaining. Like many horror films, the trailer for Hereditary is a slow build, though its opening funeral scene certainly must have given parents pause. Still – and this is an hysterically terrific coincidence – one of the movie’s characters is a miniature figurines aficionado, which likely lulled mom and dad into thinking something more age appropriate was about to transpire. (“Look daddy – a dollhouse!”)
Then we get a close-up of grandma’s corpse and a little girl cutting off a bird’s head with scissors – though in the film’s defense the child did not run with them beforehand. Phew! You can let go of those pearls, Karen.
The budding ornithologist then asks her mom when she’s going to die, a lovely post-movie conversation starter. Then a teenage boy gets his head bashed into his desk at school and a guy gets set on fire in the living room.
Covering their children’s eyes and ears wasn’t enough in this case; the trailer left parents scooping up their kiddies and fleeing for the exits. However, as a parent with a four-year-old, I’ve suffered through Peter Rabbit and can report that they didn’t miss much.
3 I Feel Pretty (2018)
And the award for Best Dramatic Actor at a Movie Theater goes to . . . Mike Mitchell, an overly protective father from British Columbia who heroically rescued children from a two-minute trailer for a lighthearted rom-com.
Mitchell, apparently the Royal Canadian Mounties version of the PC Police, took his nine-year-old daughter to a Saturday afternoon showing of PG-rated The Miracle Season. I have no idea what that film is about, but it sure as hell isn’t about the 2017 Houston Astros, because cheating isn’t a miracle.
Anyway, the theater made the cancel culture mistake of showing a trailer for I Feel Pretty, which was rated PG-13. Among other apparent no-nos, the trailer shows lead character Amy Schumer drinking and dancing in a wet tee shirt that isn’t at all revealing. Mitchell later said that he and his wife “both leaned back in the seats and looked past each other with our jaws dropped going, ‘Do we cover her eyes?’”
Instead of parentally guiding his child, Mitchell guided himself to the theater’s manager. He found the trailer for the comedy too risqué – notable because the film was neither risqué nor . . . funny. You have to admit it though, watching Amy Schumer trying to act her way through a comedy does, at least, give one a sense of schadenfreude. (A sequel, I Feel Mediocre, is currently in the works.)
We all know the ending here: the movie theater chain removed the trailer for I Feel Pretty from all showings of The Miracle Season, single-handedly salvaging our children’s cherished innocence.
2 The Nun (2018)
A preview clip for the 2018 horror film The Nun has an interesting distinction: It’s the shortest movie trailer ever banned.
In fact, the spot is so short that calling it a trailer is a stretch. Designed to automatically play before certain YouTube videos, the six-second clip is both deceptive and pants-pissingly startling – a factor that led to its banishment mere days after it launched.
The snippet’s first visual is a computer volume icon decreasing, leading viewers to believe the ad will be silent. Suddenly, the film’s title character – a possessed nun – lunges at viewers while roaring at full volume. The electronic equivalent of someone jumping out of a closet and screaming “Boo!”, the spot is more flinch-inducing than horrifying.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t appreciate it. Thousands took to Twitter (color me surprised) to express displeasure with the ad, citing everything from its ability to traumatize children to being dangerous to those with heart issues. A “jumpscare” warning went viral, generating more than 100,000 retweets.
But unlike the clergy, who could really use a personnel and PR makeover, in the entertainment business all publicity is good publicity. Despite frighteningly poor reviews, The Nun went on to gross $365 million internationally from a budget of just $23 million. That’ll buy a lot of sacramental wine and adult diapers.
1 The Happytime Murders (2018)
Muppets swearing, killing and screwing? Yes please.
An awful movie with a terrific tagline – “No Sesame, All Street” – The Happytime Murders billed itself as “the way muppets act when the kiddies leave the room.” Early in the trailer, girl Ghostbuster and Ms. Piggy lookalike Melissa McCarthy gets the ball rolling by telling a messed up muppet that she wishes she “had a dick for you to suck.” Later, she sits around with gun-toting puppet gangstas snorting ecstasy. The trailer’s climax is a muppet, well, climaxing, a silly-string spewing phenomenon representing the best non-human sex scene since Team America: World Police.
The trailer accomplished two things. First, like everything else starring Melissa McCarthy, it made seeing the film unnecessary because anything remotely funny was in the preview. It’s really hard to make muppets behaving badly unfunny, but The Happytime Murders manages.
Second, it pissed off the makers of Sesame Street something fierce. Citing social media posts conflating the children’s TV series with the decidedly adult movie, Sesame Workshop sued the film’s producers for “devastating and irreparable injury.” Admirably, the movie’s producers not only held firm but added insult to injury, incorporating “From the studio that was sued by Sesame Street . . . ” to some versions of the trailer.
About The Author: Christopher Dale (@ChrisDaleWriter) writes on politics, society and sobriety issues. His work has appeared in Daily Beast, NY Daily News, NY Post and Parents.com, among other outlets.