Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What's happening to R-rated horror?

Well, I discussed PG-13 horror earlier, which I feel can be quite effective. But I believe we are entering a phase where R-rated horror features in the major cineplexes will become very scarce. I don't like it, as PG-13 horror can not completely replace R-rated fare, but I think the writing is spelled out in blood on the wall.

I mentioned Snakes on a Plane in my post on PG-13 horror, and I need to revisit it for a moment. The studios had shot a PG-13 version of the movie, but internet buzz was furious and, in an attempt to cater to the seemingly obvious fan base, New Line Cinema added footage to earn the movie an R rating. Sure, the studio could have just let Jackson scream out his now famous tag line, but I assume New Line didn't want the fans to feel cheated, so we had some chilling (and horribly animated) scenes combining nudity and snake bites.

So the film was released and no one showed up.

Like a jilted date on prom night, I can only imagine the sense of betrayal running through New Line after the weekend box office results were released. All the money spent on reshoots and, like a prom dress or tuxedo, no way to get a refund. This was the beginning of the end for R-rated horror.

Let's go back a bit further, to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. No, let's go further back, to Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Granted, the film is rather tame in the gore department, but when it was released, audiences didn't know what hit them. Jaws is a relentless film, so intense that people were afraid to swim in the ocean after viewing it. The film's PG rating came under fire, with many feeling the film was too horrific for children. And, not to anyone's surprise, it was.

In 1981, Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to release Raiders of the Lost Ark. Again, while the film was a critical and box office success, many complained it was too violent for younger children. In fact, the film originally received an R-rating, dropped to a PG after a column of flames was inserted to obscuring Belloq's grisly demise.

Then came Temple of Doom and Gremlins. Both movies weren't really R-rated material, but were not for younger children plopped down in their seats and left unattended. Remember, this is the 1980's, when slasher films such as the Friday the 13th franchises were pushing the limits of on-screen violence and gore. I think that Temple and Gremlins both presented family units (of sorts) in peril, sticking together to overcome the horrors of outside forces, which the MPAA took into account when issuing both film's ratings.

After the uproar (but box office success) of these films, the MPAA created the PG-13 rating, indicating to parents that the films contained material unsuitable for younger children. At first, I feel this rating worked well. It kept films that might have earned an R-rating for minor scenes or thematic elements from being isolated from their target audiences. While younger children probably shouldn't have seen movies such as Red Dawn and Dreamscape, it allowed the teenagers to flock to them.

And there is the problem. Like Star Wars, which added a decapitated arm to avoid a G-rating, studios discovered that teens would view a PG-13 movie over one rated PG. Thus, the inevitable creep started. Studios began pushing the limits of a PG-13 rating, making movies that implied as much as possible. True, some things were still off limits, but at this point, I think you'd be lying if you said that Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me wouldn't have received an R-rating were it released back in the 70's.

Meanwhile, R-rated movies started stretching the limits of nudity and violence on the screen. I saw Freddy vs. Jason in the theaters on it's opening week and remember my jaw dropping at what was on screen. Not that I was shocked by the mayhem, but that an R-rated movie could get away with it. This was a level of violence that, 20 years ago, would have condemned a film to an X-rating, or forced the studios to release it unrated. And 2009's remake of My Bloody Valentine has Betsy Rue in a prolonged full frontal nudity scene that would have made submitting the film for an R-rating an exercise in futility.

Okay, so how does all this relate to the demise of R-rated horror, you are probably wondering. Yes, I can get a little wordy, but it all makes a point. If you look at the audience of most PG-13 movies, it's mostly families. These movies imply, but don't show, making them the Looney Tunes of this age. And teens can go to them without feeling like they're watching anything childish.

Yes, PG-13 movies can be as tame as Iron Man (come on, that was a PG film dressed up as a slutty PG-13), but it doesn't matter. The rating implies that it's not for kids and, added to the crack down on underage kids sneaking into R-rated films, it's no wonder the theaters are full of teens watching them.

Meanwhile, the R-rated film is aiming for it's target audience, the 17 and up audience, which is either download the film illegally, or waiting for it to reach iTunes or DVD. I know, as I'm guilty of this as well (at least the waiting for DVD part). What happened to Snakes on a Plane continues to be played out in theaters every month. The target audience won't be bother going to the theaters, waiting until they're able to catch the film at home.

(See how I tie it all together? Okay, I'll stop patting my own back now.)

I think the test for R-rated horror isn't this week's release of A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. No, the true test will be in August, when Piranha 3D hits the screen. Previous, non-3D films such as the Friday the 13th remake have shown a significant drop in the box office after opening weekend, but still make back production costs. However, My Bloody Valentine and The Final Destination both had strong box office draw after their opening weekend. Add to that the pounding both Saw 6 and Halloween 2 took at the box office, and the performance of any R-rated movie in 3D is going to be closely watched by other major studios as an indicator of things to come.

So, I feel R-rated horror might become harder to find in the theaters, unless the fans support it. So don't wait for the online version of A Nightmare on Elm Street. See the film in the theaters. I plan on it. Sure, we might all blow $10 on a piece of trash, but it's a small price to pay in order to keep R-rated horror in the theaters.

And no, I'm not paid by Platinum Dunes. However, I know that, when it comes to Hollywood, your dollars in the theaters is like voting, it's the only way your opinion will be counted. And I'm don't know of any other R-rated horror films opening in theaters after it until Piranha 3D. And that is a damn shame.

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