vulture lists

The 25 Most Memorable Movie Walkouts

Photo: Warner Bros.

When news broke last year that Lars von Trier’s new film, The House That Jack Built, would be a serial killer movie, the question wasn’t whether it would be violent, but exactly how violent it would be. The film traces 12 years in the life of the eponymous Jack, played with sinister zeal by Matt Dillon, as an unsuccessful architect and full-time psycho. With victims ranging from women and children to unlucky waterfowl, the film was built for controversy.

The buzz started during the film’s Cannes premiere, when more than 100 people walked out of the screening. Even for von Trier standards, that number was staggering — though those that stayed gave the director an extended standing ovation. While an R-rated version of the film is slated for a limited December 14 release, true masochists can catch a one-night-only theatrical screening of the uncensored director’s cut on November 28.

In dubious honor of that, we’ve taken a look at the 25 most memorable walkouts in movie history, from the political to the profane, the visceral to the flat-out revolting.

25. Freaks (1932)
Director Tod Browning freaked the Establishment when he used nonactor, real-life circus performers in one of cinema’s earliest horror films. The story of a “normie” trapeze artist attempting to steal the inheritance of her circus “dwarf” husband, the film was roundly vilified and heavily censored following initial release. Audiences had no idea how to take the film at the time, and one female patron attempted to sue the studio, claiming the film was so horrific that she suffered a miscarriage. Now considered a cult classic, the film still elicits shock, as Browning walked a very fine line between exploitation and empathy for his performers.

24. The Wild Bunch (1969)
On the heels of Bonnie and Clyde, Sam Peckinpah upped the ante on screen violence with his bloody elegy to the American West. Violence lurks over every bluff, from the opening scene of children torturing scorpions, to the slo-mo, bullet-riddled climax, which remains one of the most brutal sequences in movie history. At a notorious 1969 screening in Kansas City, a rumored 30 people fled the theater, some vomiting in the aisles. One furiously scrawled comment card said it all: “Only a madman could call this creation!”

23. Straw Dogs (1971)
Back at it again, Sam Peckinpah drew extreme controversy and backlash for the graphic rape and violence in Straw Dogs. Most troubling was the extended rape of Susan George, which was vilified and construed by some critics as a misogynistic male fantasy. According to David Weddle’s Peckinpah biography, If They Move … Kill Em, a third of the audience for the first preview of Straw Dogs had fled before the lights came on. Future walkout king Gaspar Noé, who would go on to direct one of cinema’s most notorious rape sequences in Irreversible, stated that when he saw Straw Dogs as a teenager, he balked. “I thought it was too heavy to handle,” he told the Guardian in 2002. “During the rape scene, I had to walk out.”

22. The Exorcist (1973)
The granddaddy of them all, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist set new standards for provocation, testing just how far audiences would let a director go. Preying on the sanctity of religion and the desecration of the innocent, watching young Linda Blair masturbate with a bloody crucifix proved way too much for many audience members. Add the subliminal visage of the demon Pazuzu, along with pea-soup vomiting, gave audiences cause to faint, cry, and regurgitate in kind. This groovy clip of ’70s crowd reactions to the film shows how alluring the thrill of shock can be.

21. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The reputation of moral outrage surrounding The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has largely been overstated, much like the lack of actual bloodletting in the film itself. Rumor has it that at a sneak-preview screening in San Francisco in 1974, half the audience got sick, while others pelted the screen, yelled obscenities, and demanded their money back, while fistfights broke out in the lobby. Some say that the screening was just several San Francisco politicians who took such offense to the film that they spread rumors to avoid moral decay. Regardless, a legend was born.

20. Caligula (1980)
One of the most critically reviled films of all time, Penthouse founder Bob Guccione’s “historical” account of the Roman bad boy emperor wasn’t allowed in the multiplexes — it was played in “speciality theaters” to avoid seedy porn houses. Legal issues surrounding the unsimulated sex and violence further hindered the film from finding a mass audience. Notable, however, is the fact that Roger Ebert, who sat through so much dreck in his lifetime, actually walked out. He lasted two hours into the 170 minute run time, making it one of the few movies he ever confessed to leaving early.

19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
While Raiders of the Lost Ark offered its share of face-melting, visceral scares, Temple of Doom careened off the rails, sending mortified parents and tearful kids fleeing for the exits. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg purposely injected their own negativity over romantic breakups into the film, and the heart-ripping scene is a literal representation of their dark headspace. Parental complaints over the violence and overall tone of the film piled up, leading to the institution of the PG-13 rating.

18. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Based on the equally controversial novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Martin Scorsese’s portrayal of a human and flawed Christ was begging to be martyred. Theaters beefed up security and police presence in fear of violent protests, but apart from a Parisian theater being set ablaze by a militant Christian group during a screening, the response was generally positive. Still, religious leaders who were invited to an advance screening left in droves, where the Reverend Frank Eiklor stated, “When you see Jesus portrayed this way, when you see Jesus Christ made the wimp, I could only walk out outraged.”

17. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino made one hell of a first impression with Reservoir Dogs. All of his future trademarks were present: retro soundtrack, pop-culture digression, and most memorable of all, graphic violence. The ear-slicing scene was obviously the moment that tested audience mettle, and Tarantino began counting the number of walkouts while the film made the festival rounds. The most he counted in one night was 33 — surely a badge of honor for the budding provocateur.

16. The Lion King (1994)
Movie trauma, at a young age, can leave the most visible scars. Disney may have underestimated the stress that the death of Mufasa, young Simba’s father, caused among younger audiences at the time. During screenings, lobbies turned into triage as parents calmed down their weepy children, eventually coaxing them back into the theater for a rousing “Hakuna Matata.”

15. Crash (1997)
David Cronenberg’s cold, clinical look at a subculture of car-crash fetishists, based on J.G. Ballard’s scandalous 1973 novel, played like a twisted nightmare in a pre-internet age. Before we had access to every perversion on our phones, audiences were disgusted at the sheer notion of the film. It was met with boos and walkouts at Cannes, and, as Cronenberg recalled, during his first test projection for the film, “There was a woman in the audience who never stopped saying, ‘Oh my God.’” Mission accomplished.

14. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
While it wasn’t the first found-footage horror film (1980’s Cannibal Holocaust deserves the honor) The Blair Witch Project will forever be remembered for spawning the subgenre. While the trope, along with hand-held, jittery camerawork, is now commonplace, the gimmick was entirely new in 1999. Mass instances of audiences reporting motion sickness and nausea began to crop up, while some even lost their lunch in the aisle. It all fed the hype machine, making Blair Witch the must-see experience of the summer.

13. Audition (1999)
Director Takashi Miike has made an extremely prolific career out of boundary pushing, but the body horror and fluids of Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q still pale in comparison to the torture in Audition. The tale of a widower who stages phony auditions to meet a new mate, he auditions the wrong woman in Asami, who takes revenge with needles and wire saw. The film was a hit at the Rotterdam Film Festival, but it wasn’t met without walkouts. One woman screamed at Miike, calling him evil on her way out of the screening.

12. Irreversible (2003)
Containing what might be the single most brutal scene in film history, the nine-minute rape and beating of Monica Belluci, all held in one excruciating take, is a litmus test for fans of extreme cinema. For good measure, director Gaspar Noé also threw in a fire extinguisher beating that reduces a man’s head to goo. It’s estimated that 20 percent of the audience at Cannes and Sundance walked out. On damage control at the time, the former president of distributor Lionsgate pointed out that few people walked out of the film at the Toronto and Telluride film festivals. “They had 900 in the audience at Toronto and only six walkouts,” he said. Good on ya, Gaspar!

11. The Brown Bunny (2004)
Vincent Gallo won admirers with his debut feature Buffalo ’66 in 1998, but he lost just about everyone with his follow-up, the torpor-inducing Brown Bunny. The story of a long cross-country drive, culminating with the unsimulated fellatio of Vincent Gallo by then-girlfriend Chloë Sevigny, the film was decried as pompous, pretentious, and pornographic. At Cannes, Roger Ebert called it, “The worst film in the history of the festival,” which led to one of the strangest feuds in film history, where Gallo cursed Ebert’s colon, and vowed to never make a movie again. As of press date, he still hasn’t.

10. The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005)
This little-seen British import follows a group of teens and their drug-addled descent into ultraviolence and gang rape, set against the backdrop of the Iraq War. First-time director Thomas Cray claimed that he used the film’s multiple rapes as a metaphor for war atrocities, but that didn’t excuse the ugliness for many critics; the film prompted a mass audience walkout at the Cannes premiere. Many fled after a home-invasion scene involving a husband and wife, where the woman bleeds to death following a gang rape, a scene Variety called, “A sequence excruciating beyond any in memory.”

9. Cloverfield (2008)
The viral marketing campaign for Cloverfield came shrouded in mystery, which paid off big as curious moviegoers and J.J. Abrams fanboys flocked to see just what the hell was happening in the fictional town. What they got was a frenetic, found-footage monster movie that proved more nausea-inducing than Blair Witch. So many audience members experienced motion sickness that theaters posted warnings about the probable side effects of watching the film, and AMC Entertainment offered refunds to anyone who got sick and left the theater.

8. Antichrist (2009)
After years of baiting audiences, von Trier finally went full horror monty with Antichrist. Willem Dafoe and von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg are in full-on grief mode following the tragic death of their infant, and the two retreat to their cottage in the woods. The battle of the sexes, culminating in the genital mutilation of both participants, is a metaphor for eons of female suffrage at the hands of men (or something like that). Four people fainted at the Cannes premiere, critics debated whether the film was artistic or just torture porn, while von Trier happily commented, “I haven’t done it for you or an audience.” Touché.

7. 127 Hours (2010)
Danny Boyle has never shied away from shocking imagery, but a Trainspotting ceiling baby was nothing compared to James Franco severing his own arm with a pocket knife. Just as real-life protagonist Aron Ralston had to self-amputate, Boyle forced audiences to witness the procedure, and the buzz-saw sound effect of Franco hitting a nerve was a primal, nauseating jolt. The first public screening of the film at TIFF caused three faintings and reportedly one seizure, making it one of the most visceral shock sequences in movie history.

6. The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s abstract look at life itself proved that audiences will react as negatively to perceived pretentiousness as to extreme rape and gore. Audiences unfamiliar with the auteur, who just wanted to see a Brad Pitt flick, were instead treated to a dialogue-free, interminable opening on the creation of the universe. People left in droves, but the opening sequence proved so irritating that angry patrons demanded refunds. The ultimate punch line was that people who stayed through the whole movie, and then demanded refunds, were out of luck, as AMC Theaters’ policy was to only offer refunds after the first 30 minutes.

5. The Woman (2011)
Director Lucky McKee pushed serious buttons with his depiction of the horror lurking behind the white picket fence. A feral woman is captured and brought home for “rehabilitation” by a sociopathic family man. Degradation and brutality of the titular woman eventually leads to a graphic rape, and the scene led to the most memorable meltdown in Sundance history. After standing up and cursing the film, imploring the audience to walk out with him, an unidentified man continued his rant outside the theater, with the whole thing captured on video.

4. The Walk (2015)
The documentary Man on Wire, about French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s improbable, 1974 high-wire walk between Manhattan’s Twin Towers, is proof that Robert Zemeckis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt should have left well-enough alone. Shot in 3-D, with the desire to put the audience on the wire, the film caused audiences to experience vertigo and nausea rather than thrills. CBS News advised would-be viewers to avoid large meals before attending the film, reporting that at least 10 percent of audiences were getting physically ill.

3. Raw (2016)
This coming-of-age/cannibal horror hybrid arrived from France with the most notorious reputation since Irreversible. The story follows young Justine, a strict vegetarian slowly succumbing to her insatiable desire for human tartare. At least two audience members were treated by paramedics at the Toronto International Film Festival after fainting during the film, and director Julia Ducournau confessed that her friend fainted during a screening, adding, “I apologized afterward. I don’t feel like it’s a compliment that people are passing out. I feel guilty!”

2. Kuso (2017)
Trippy genre-hopper Flying Lotus made the switch from music to directing with one goal in mind: making the grossest movie ever. The result is Kuso, a phantasmagoria of bodily fluids, mutants, oozing sores, and a talking, erect penis. He pushed his hipster following well past their breaking point — walkouts during the film’s midnight Sundance premiere were rampant, with some not even making it past the ten-minute mark. Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, took to Twitter, writing, “It was only like 20 people out of like 400 who walked out. Wasn’t as dramatic as they make it out to be. I tried to warn folks.”

1. Mother! (2017)
The most controversial major studio release since Natural Born Killers, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! didn’t meet anyone in between. While a handful of critics admired the audacity, audiences revolted, inciting massive walkouts and vitriolic Twitter reviews. After a disastrous opening weekend, word-of-mouth spread like a virus, making it the lowest-grossing wide release in Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Audience hatred earned the film an “F” Cinemascore rating, with Mother! sharing such esteemed company as I Know Who Killed Me and Disaster Movie.

The 25 Most Memorable Movie Walkouts