Why Horror Movie Ratings are Insane

With many, many horror titles being released straight to DVD these days there is a much touted plus factor the distributors try to lure the potential renter/purchaser with: the unrated tag. But just how accurate, or to be more precise, just how rewarding is it?

In America it is optional to submit your movie to the ratings board, the Motion Picture Association of America, which was created in 1968 after the dismantling of the rigid, tyrannical Hays Production Code. A few more changes happened over the years the most significant being in 1984 with the addition of the PG-13 and in 1990 with the changing of the X rating to NC-17 (the same restriction is in place – no one under 17 admitted – but the “porn” stigma was dampened).

If you wish to have your movie given the official stamp of approval, whether it be a G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17, then the MPAA logo and respective serial number has to appear at the very bottom of your end credits list. But there are pros and cons for movies which come with the MPAA rating.

The good side of the coin means, as long as the movie isn’t rated NC-17 it will have a healthy distribution (providing you have a good distribution company working for you) and cinemas will happily book your movie (providing it doesn’t run for three hours or more). With the exception of just a handful most commercial horror movies in America are rated either R (under 17 have to be accompanied by an adult/guardian) or PG-13. Horror fans will generally turn their nose up at a PG-13 rated movie though.

Unfortunately if a movie gets slapped with an NC-17 cinema chains tend to baulk at booking the movie, as it still carries the ominous aura of something too sleazy and lurid for mass audience consumption. Horror fans have been crying out for years for an MPAA rating that reflects the horror genre staple elements and not simply a flesh flick for the dirty mac brigade.

Of course if you attempt to distribute your movie without an MPAA rating you may as well kiss your box office receipts goodbye. Virtually no cinema chain will book the movie and newspapers will run advertising for it, which brings me to the unrated DVD phenomena.

Video chains don’t have the same attitude of snobbery, although I heard that the Blockbuster chain in America doesn’t carry NC-17 rated titles. Horror movies can carry – and in many cases proudly display on the cover – the unrated tag. For horror fans this supposedly means that violent content, and to a lesser degree sexual content, has not been cut out in order to receive an R rating.

In Australia the rating system is different. It is compulsory to have a movie rated. Most horror movies are rated either M (general admission but recommended for mature audiences), MA (under 15 must be accompanied by adult/guardian) or R (no one under 18 admitted). There is an X rating too, but this is reserved only for sexually explicit hardcore adult movies and those titles are never shown theatrically, and can only be bought or exchanged in adult sex stores. The hypocrisy is that in recent years there have been several “mainstream” movies which have had actual sex in them, yet have carried an R rating, but that’s another kettle of smelly fish entirely.

In Britain the ratings board slap 12, 15 or 18 restrictions on movies. The UK was responsible for the notorious “video nasties” black list in the mid-80s when dozens of video titles, the majority of which were horror, were deemed reprehensible and were removed from video stores.

So, I’ve rambled enough about the censorship nuts and bolts, what about the guts and glory? If horror movies are managing to enjoy a renaissance of popularity and many are reaping the fans’ approval for their unbridled intensity, what about some of those classic titles that were butchered by the MPAA in the Scarlet Age of Modern Horror? There have been many movies during the 70s and 80s that were censored, but there’s one choice movie that I keep coming back to, one which was ruthlessly slashed in order to receive an R rating in the U.S. A Canadian stalk’n’slash flick by the name of My Blood Valentine (1981).

Paramount Studios owns the rights to it, and apparently they still have all the excised footage; all those juicy seconds of graphic violence which were cut before the movie was released, yet images found their way into Fangoria magazine. According to imdb.com producer John Dunning claims to have footage of the cut scenes, as well as a complete negative with 8 to 9 minutes of extra footage. He is currently trying to find a way to release a complete uncut DVD, but rights issues with Paramount have so far prevented that. Supposedly Paramount has a rigid policy that they will not release any unrated or movies which were originally rated X for the home market. They see themselves as bastions for wholesome family viewing and will not sully their name to pander to the gorehounds and exploitation freaks.

Some directors have been successful with releasing movies on the big screen with an X rating or unrated, but they are far and few between. A intriguing example of it going pear-shaped is George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Romero released Dawn with a self-imposed X rating and it did very well considering, however when he released Day unrated it bombed at the box office.