When writer / director's Adam Green's debut feature Hatchet opened in theaters in 2006, the experience was both a dream come true...and a nightmare. Green says, "It was exciting to be able to sit down in a real theater with a paying audience to watch my movie but the film had been edited so much that it didn't feel like my film."
So when Green went to work on the sequel Hatchet 2, he assumed that the film would go straight to DVD. An unrated theatrical film is almost unheard of but unrated DVDs are common and widely available. Hatchet 2 went before the MPAA ratings board and was given an NC-17 rating, which would kill the film's chances of a any theatrical release but distributor Dark Sky Films believed in the film and dediced to forgo the ratings board and try for the impossible.
For a brief moment this past weekend, the impossible happened - the unrated Hatchet 2 opened in over 60 theaters and became a cause for celebration among horror film fans, who viewed the release as a possible way to break the seemingly arbitrary MPAA chokehold that they see as part of the decline of the horror genre.
Hatchet 2 is one of the few times in the last twenty-five years that an unrated film has gotten any sort of theatrical release and the horror launched a Twitter and Facebook campaign to support it. Leading horror website DreadCentral.com had even asked fans to buy tickets for Hatchet 2 online even if they aren't near a theater showing it as a way to send a message to Hollywood that there's a market for unrated horror.
That dream barely made it through the weekend; the theater chains that were carrying Hatchet 2 pulled it without explanation by Monday morning. "It's tough to really know the specific box office numbers since several theaters - in Canada, specifically -- wound up pulling the film right away due to fear of being fined for showing an unrated film," says Green. "We're hearing that others decided to only show Hatchet 2 at specific times due to the hassle of having to have someone guard the cinema door to check IDs. When I saw the film in Los Angeles there was a guard at the door for the entire movie checking ticket stubs and IDs where necessary. It was kind of crazy."
Even the brief theatrical window that Hathet 2 was given provided some hope for die-hard horror fans. "What's great about unrated horror is that it will allow for a resurgence of true-school, old fashioned horror films," says Kurly Tlapoyawa, the co-author of Direct Your Own Damn Movie. "Nowadays it's an extreme rarity to even get an R rated horror film, and those tend to rely on gore for gores sake instead of developing an interesting story with characters you care about. Having a mainstream, national theater-chain decide to screen an unrated horror film is huge news. "'
Green doesn't want to abolish the MPAA but he is frustrated that his indie comedy-horror films Hatchet and were given the kiss-of-death NC-17 rating while the last few years tread of 'torture porn' film produced by larger studios seem to be able to get R rating. He describes a scene from a recent big studio horror remake that includes rape, animal killing, and other violence done in front of an infant -- all in an film that the MPAA rated R. Green says, "I'm a horror fan so I appreciate different flavors of the genre but anyone comparing the tone of the films...it just doesn't make any sense to me."
Green describes the Hatchet film's violence as Monty Phython-esque - lots of blood and completely over the top. "If you hit someone with a hatchet once, it's realistic and dark but if you hit them thirty times with a hatchet, it's something different," says Green.
Filmmaker Kevin Smith - whose comedies have had their troubles with the MPAA in the past and who is currently at work on his own horror project Red State -- takes a practical view of theaters showing unrated films. "The game has changed so much in the last three years, a theater that doesn't welcome reasonably unorthodox programming is merely hastening it's own demise. Why NOT accept unrated flicks, at this point?"
Smith's point is well taken; unrated films are available on DVD, as streaming media, for sale or rental...nearly everywhere in the commercial marketplace except movie theaters, which are actually the most restricted access places to watch a film.
As Kirby Dick vividly showed in his documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA's anonymous and inscrutable process of deciding how to rate films is deeply flawed and seems to favor big studio films over indie productions. It's not surprising and ultimately not good for the art of film.
"The 1970s was the best, more creative period for American filmmaking. There was a time when you could actually find unrated, independent films playing at mainstream theaters and drive-ins," says Tlapoyawa. "The stranglehold that the big, boring Hollywood studios have placed on our collective film-going experience has put an end to all of that."
Hopefully, there's still a chance for common sense and market forces to break free of the MPAA's bad calls and deliver a happy ending.