Would an NC-17 rating make horror films scarier?
After the news broke that the first cut of Evil Dead received an NC-17 rating, Alec shot me a text suggesting I write up a little somethin' somethin' about whether or not the entire concept of NC-17 horror is a good thing.
That got me thinking, and thinking hard, about the genre. I've done my best to carve my niche on this site as the horror guy and I certainly have the scars to prove it. I've seen a lot of horror films and while I wouldn't call myself an authority, I do think I'm adequately qualified to weigh in on whether or not we really need NC-17 horror.
First up: watch the above trailer. I think it's pretty easy to see how that could dip into NC-17 territory. I mean, tree rape is a very delicate subject, after all. Do I think that Evil Dead should be anything less than a hard R? Of course not. But of course, Evil Dead doesn't represent the whole genre.
Do I think that horror films need to be rated NC-17? No. I actually think that would be a step backward for the genre. The Wikipedia page for the MPAA's rating system defines NC-17 as such:
I watched the remake of I Spit On Your Grave about a year ago, and it was incredibly brutal. It was only rated R. It contained a fairly graphic rape scene and some of the most extreme scenes of revenge-fueled violence I've seen in some time. The film was rated R. I admit, not much gets under my skin, but I shudder to think what people would do with the freedom an NC-17 rating would allow.
Allow me to draw a comparison now: Before he made the jump to satellite radio, Howard Stern was forced to operate within the guidelines of the FCC. Once he got to Sirius, the sky was pretty much the limit. On the radio, he was pretty raunchy. On Sirius, he had no restrictions. I've always felt that the effect was sullied a little bit since there was no longer an envelope to push. Homeless midget twins scissoring in the studio? Sure, why not. [Editor's note: that is a fictional example. So far as I know, anyways.] That is what I would be afraid of if mainstream horror decided to say, "Screw it, let's go NC-17." Although homeless midget twins would make pretty interesting antagonists...
I'm pretty jaded when it comes to horror. I've seen it all. I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading creepypasta. The only part of The Human Centipede that made me squirm was when the doctor removed teeth during the surgery montage. It takes a lot to scare me. That's part of the fun with scary movies. You never know if the film you're about to watch will be your horror holy grail. Two of the three creepiest films I've seen since I've written for this site, Insidious and Mama, were rated PG-13. The other was Sinister, which certainly earned its R rating.
What makes Insidious and Mama so great is that they had to work within the confines of the PG-13 rating. There's little to no blood, guts, or harsh language, but they're still creepy. Sure, once you get a good look at the main antagonist of Insidious, he's a little less scary, but the titular monster in Mama just gets scarier the more screen time she gets. These films don't need the R rating to be scary.
Sinister, however, wouldn't work nearly as well without its R. The film begins with an extended scene featuring a family hanging from a tree. Another family is burned alive in a car. There's plenty in this film that justifies its rating and being able to show more as a result of its rating works for it.
So, what am I getting at? That some films work just fine with a PG-13 rating and others, like Sinister and Evil Dead, wouldn't be able to fully function without an R. However, what more could you show with an NC-17? I don't really think we need more explicit sexual content and sexual assault would do anybody any good. I Spit On Your Grave was one of the more uncomfortable experiences of my life, and I'd hate to think of a movie in the same vein without restraints.
The other problem with ratings is that they typically keep butts out of seats. There were lots of tickets returned at my theater because parents had the good sense to not want to sit through Haunted House and their kids weren't 17 and/or didn't have IDs. When something is rated PG-13, like Insidious or The Possession, anybody can go see it. Evil Dead will be considerably more prohibitive to see with its R rating (you have to be 25 to get someone without ID in). Movies with an NC-17 rating, even if big theaters like AMC or Regal made a habit of showing them, would keep anybody who wasn't 17 out. It's no wonder that Evil Dead is going to make cuts, because releasing an NC-17 is the film equivalent of putting out an Adults Only video game. It's basically product suicide. As a great man once said, "It's all about the Benjamins, baby."
Ultimately, I don't think that ratings speak to the quality of a film, but I am considerably more impressed when a film can stay within the constraints of PG-13 and still get under my skin. I love horror of all shapes and sizes, but they really don't need to go further than R to be scary.
Unless we're talking about Homeless Midget Twins From Beyond the Grave. That's one NC-17 I could get behind.