At some point, we were all shocked at the movies. Whether by a movie like “Psycho,” which was supposed to be shocking, both in terms of subject matter and plot twists, or by something that hit us personally, it’s a nearly universal experience among moviegoers.
Recently, I put up a request on Facebook for people to tell me what was the first movie that had shocked them. The responses were interesting. Of course some of these were horror movies or thrillers, but a surprising number weren’t.
The first time I can remember being genuinely shocked by a movie was “Catch-22,” based on the classic modern novel by Joseph Heller. I was only a kid when my parents took me to see it, and it was, I’m pretty sure, the first time I’d ever seen nudity or truly graphic violence on-screen. It’s also a vehement anti-war document, and probably had something to do with my lifelong ambivalence about society’s tendency to say war is bad, while at the same time celebrating it.
Several people mentioned “Jaws,” the movie everyone went to see during the summer of 1975. That movie helped spark the debate that ultimately led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. “Jaws,” it’s now hard to believe, was rated PG, despite admittedly brief shots of a severed limb and a severed head. The intensity of the movie went far beyond the gore. More than one reader specifically mentioned the opening of the film, in which a nude female swimmer is killed by the unseen shark. Carolyn Cockerham-Wiggins was particularly unsettled by the obliviousnss of the victim’s boyfriend, who passes out on the beach.
Kelly Ann Berger mentioned “The Exorcist,” citing the movie’s realism. She certainly isn’t the only one who felt that way. William Friedkin’s adaptation of the bestselling William Peter Blatty novel took a documentary-like approach to the fantastic tale of demonic possession, and unflinchingly showed audiences a face of evil that was anything but seductive. People still talk about the projectile vomiting scenes, and you can tell yourself it’s pea soup all you want. The scene where the possessed little girl (Linda Blair) violently masturbates with a crucifix, accompanied by some very raw dialogue, nearly got the movie an X rating, and is still strong stuff.
WAIT UNTIL DARK
My colleague Terra King pointed also pointed to a thriller, “Wait Until Dark,” starring Audrey Hepburn (spoiler alert):
“A blind woman trapped in her house with an attacker the audience thinks is dead,” Terra says. “When he jumps at her, it was shocking. I think it was so shocking because it’s something everyone is horrified of, begin attacked in your own home. This was also the first film that made me scream out loud.”
My colleague Amy Biancolli cited the 1958 adventure epic “The Vikings,” starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine. The scene that particularly did Amy in was “ When Tony Curtis had his hand cut off. I saw it on TV in the 60s one Saturday or Sunday, and it traumatized me for years.”
The scene is not graphic by modern standards, which you wouldn’t expect it to be in a 1958 movie, but “The Vikings” was directed by Richard Fleischer, who tended to specialize in machismo – he also directed “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, “Soylent Green,” “Mr. Majestyk” and “Conan the Destroyer” – and he made it tough to watch.
To this day, audiences are not used to seeing characters, particularly protagonists, maimed, and the device still shocks. From “Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” to “The Hangover Part II,” unattached body parts still strike a chord.
Carroll Reed’s big screen adaptation of the musical “Oliver!” might seem an odd inclusion at first glance, but Debbie Walton singles out the scene late in the movie (spoiler alert) where Bill Sykes, played by Oliver Reed, murders his lover Nancy (Shani Wallis), a very sympathetic character.
“Yes I know” she says. “But I was eight and it was a musical. Nancy, the female lead, is brutally murdered just off screen, but you see the cudgel repeatedly raised as her screams die with her just out of sight behind a wall.”
The scene was shattering, and took all the humor out of the criminal characters, who after all were created by Charles Dickens.
Recent LeMoyne College grads Bethany Dixon and A.C. MacKenzie noted animated films that were marketed to children. Dixon thinks of Disney’s “101 Dalmations” was the earliest time she can remember being shocked by a movie, and that’s due to the movie’s villainess, Cruella De Vil.
“She wanted to kill puppies!” Dixon says. “I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to kill puppies.”
THE IRON GIANT
As a child, A.C. MacKenzie found “The Iron Giant” shocking “for it’s less-than-happy finale (the eponymous giant is revealed to be a war machine and, despite its empathy and the friendship it established with the young human protagonist, is seemingly destroyed),” which he thought “was a genuine shocker.”
FUN WITH DICK AND JANE
Some movies shocked younger viewers because they upended social convention. Susan Jahoda remembers a scene from 1977’s “Fun with Dick and Jane” in which Jane Fonda’s character showed some unladylike behavior:
“Jane Fonda’s character pulls down her pants and pees during the scene in front of her husband.” she says. “I was horrified!”
THE COLOR PURPLE
Penny Lynn Morris remembers being shocked by Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” which was the first time she ever saw a woman kissing a woman.
LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR
Some movies shocked because of unexpected elements or because of the message the viewer thought was being sent. Anna Cruz didn’t expect the level of violence in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” seamy though the story was.
DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN
“Desperately Seeking Susan” was shocking to Gigi Giorgio because, in her words, because “it was aimed at teen and preteen girls and the message of the movie was ‘it’s more fun to be and out of control whore and promiscuous slut than a staid and settled wife.’”