1 STAB FORWARD, 2 STABS BACK: Are studios backtracking on R-rated movies?
Apart from unnecessary remakes, the one thing absolutely and positively guaranteed to grind the gears of a horror fan, is the news that an upcoming event movie has been cut to achieve a PG-13 rating (NB: 12, 12A, or 15 are the equivalents for us UK folk). The idea that mature content and/or spectacular death scenes in a scary movie have been trimmed or censored, so that studios can ensure a maximum audience and profit, feels like a proper smack in the face for those that care about artistic integrity or the process of filmmaking itself. And let’s be blunt, we all crave a splatter epic, a movie that doesn’t speak down to us, or one that isn’t weirdly bereft of people yelling F-bombs as they face the Grim Reaper.
Up until very recently, it looked like cinema in general was finally starting to embrace R-rated movies as desirable projects. The success of superhero movies had something to do with this, with “Deadpool” (and the equally sweary sequel) and “Logan” pulling in the loot big time at the box office. But from our perspective it was the recent massive financial haul of Stephen King’s “IT” that raised the eyebrows of Hollywood and the viability of R-rated genre movies. “The Conjuring” and “Get Out” also proved that R-rated horror could result in large critical and financial rewards. With the sequel to “IT” being fast-tracked and further projects of a similar ilk being planned, it seemed that aficionados could look forward to seeing some studio horror that would treat us like grown-ups looking for effective scares, rather than assuming we’re all nuclear families dragging our children to shared experiences that wouldn’t traumatise the little tykes. And so it would seem… except for three somewhat worrying bits of news that were shared in the industry media this week;
“The Meg” had scenes filmed by director Jon Turteltaub that included some elaborate gory deaths. Admittedly the visual effects and sequences were never completed (which means they will NOT appear on “Special Edition” or “Unrated” DVDs… no matter what people on social media think), but they were excised from the movie early in production to ensure a PG-13 for Warners Bros. Jason Statham also admitted that the film he had signed on for ironically lost some of its teeth during production.
“Venom”, the fun-but-grisly looking Spiderman spinoff from Sony, is now said to be pursuing a PG-13 rating, and will be cut accordingly. Which you wouldn’t think would be a big deal, apart from the fact that director Ruben Fleischer had been hoping for an R-rating from the start. The thinking here is that Sony has basically lost their balls, even after the success of the “Deadpool” films, and wanted to ensure that not only would the box office potential be maximised, but that potential crossovers with other Marvel characters wouldn’t be affected. When you’ve got a toothy character that wants to snack on heads and innards, comic fans were welcoming the darker approach. If true, this could well be a decision that will piss off many prospective viewers.
Perhaps most worrying of all, are the possible repercussions of Disney buying out 20th Century Fox. Whilst many have been jubilant about the idea of the X-Men joining the MCU as a result, some journalists have started to point out some of the cold hard facts of the situation. It would mean that well-known genre franchises like “Alien” and “Predator” could be at risk, or be sold off. Over the years Fox has contributed to horror with the original versions of “The Omen” and “Halloween”, successful remakes like “The Fly”, not to mention original cult offerings like “28 Days Later” and “The Sixth Sense”. Strategists and insiders predict that the mouse-eared company will only focus on “family-friendly” franchises and assured money-spinners, rather than risk-taking horrors or sequels to more mature movies. It’s a sobering thought, although admittedly based on hearsay.
While two of those points rely on conjecture and rumours, it’s indicative of studio horror as a whole, and it seems a shame that more risks aren’t being taken in the cinema. It might seem like the curmudgeonly whinges of an old genre fan… and yes, it really is. But during the 80’s and early 90’s, the most loyal horror fans were used to be perennially stiffed by the studio franchises. Not a week would go by without news that the latest “Friday the 13th” or “Elm Street” had been cut, to avoid getting an X or NC-17 rating in the US market. So those juicy FX you saw in Fangoria magazine were now on the cutting room floor. Fans in the UK were used to getting international versions of films like “Zombie Flesh Eaters”, just to see them uncut. We accepted that mainstream filmmakers were always being bullied by the MPAA/BBFC, and pushed into taming or dumbing-down their more horrific offerings for the cinema. Happily things are much improved in this brave new world of multiple channels and entertainment company sponsorship. Inventive and more extreme scares are available to all, depending on your taste. The problem now lies in the lower bracket of the genre, with the fine line between PG-13 and R still remaining a difficult and controversial gap to jump across.
From a horror fan’s perspective, it rankles to hear that something like “The Meg” could have been (literally) more full-blooded in its content. You want to be able to see the footage as it was intended to be shown by the writer and/or filmmakers. It’s easy to hoof a hefty boot into the gonads of Warners Bros. or Sony, and demand that they treat the audience like adults. But at the end of the day, money is going to take precedence over artistic content. It often sucks from a cinemagoer’s viewpoint, but it is a film “industry” after all. If the studio heads and demographics dictate that a film needs to be of a certain rating to succeed and create a profit, then that is what’s going to happen. They’re not always right, and happily sometimes it’s the risk-taking that ultimately defines the movie. “Deadpool” was such a hit, because it was R-rated and appealed to the ready-made mature audience that appreciated what it did with the superhero tropes (along with the basic potty humour). “IT” proved that there was a massive potential audience for R-rated horror in the multiplexes. Other films have proven this in the past, most notably; “Get Out”, “The Exorcist”, “Scream”, etc. But “IT” was the first one to break $300m in US domestic gross. These examples provide us with ammunition for the commercial potential of harder-edged genre efforts. But unless children and teenagers are banned from auditoriums, the fact of the matter is that the big studios are always going to look at PG-13 films as the most financially attractive option when making a movie, horror or not. We need a LOT more “IT”’s to change their minds on that front.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that PG-13 horror is not necessarily a bad thing, and this writer has leapt to the defence of this category on several occasions. Let’s not forget that “Jaws” and the original “Poltergeist” were the equivalent of PG-13 on their original release (Christ knows how… but they were). And modern genre films like “A Quiet Place”, “Happy Death Day”, “The Ring” and “Insidious” are all fantastic examples of non-R-rated horror. Scary and uncompromising in their differing ways, they don’t have to be bloodier or more vicious to achieve exactly what they set out to do. Alternatively, there are also a number of PG-13 horrors that have been noticeably castrated to get that rating, and deservedly suffered critical derision as a result. But as steadfast horror fans, we kind of know the rules regarding what to expect from the studios. If we want really extreme frights or gore fests, we’ll generally head to the Indie market, or hunt down those R-rated experiences that have bypassed theatres and appear on streaming channels or home media. We know that we need to support the little guys to get the uncensored big frights. And whilst we recognise the constraints of mainstream horror, we obviously support them too. Hopefully the risk-taking and heavily promoted R-rated scary movies won’t be limited to occasional anomalies and predictable sequels. It would be nice to think that we’ll still get the opportunity to get regular fixes of hard-edged originality on the big screen outside of festival showings, and that film studios don’t become too squeamish and unadventurous. Again. Time will tell…