This article was last modified on November 30, 2010.

Horror Films, Censorship and the MPAA

In Stanley Wiater’s interviews with the masters of horror, one topic comes up again and again: censorship and how the MPAA hates horror. Who fears the MPAA? Who is fearless? And what is the future?


Some filmmakers fear the MPAA to the point of precensoring their work, or at the very least believing that the board is right to make it more difficult for people to see certain films.

Wes Craven believes that there is “very, very real censorship” to the point that all but one (Serpent and the Rainbow) of his films “have been censored in a very disturbing way.” The disturbing way is that he was “censored for intensity.” As he puts it, “what they are saying is that it doesn’t matter whether you have a bloody scene or not, it doesn’t matter if there are lopped off limbs or not, what matters is that I’m simply too intense.” To Craven, taking the intensity out of films defeats the entire purpose of the horror genre. “Shocker, for example, was censored in twelve separate sequences. Scenes that were not necessarily bloody, but judged as too intense… the Shocker now showing is not where Wes Craven is in the nineties, it’s simply the version that they’ve allowed to be out.”

The problem with the MPAA, according to Craven, is that there “are simply no guidelines to go on, there’s nothing published. Nothing! They will not tell you specifically what to cut, so even while you’re doing it, you don’t have any guidelines to go by.” This MPAA problem is then made worse by Craven’s way of handling it: “you’re always precensoring yourself. You’re constantly thinking, Why shoot his — it will never pass! Or even at the script level”. If Craven truly precensors, the MPAA has won, and horror fans can only wonder what has been missing from Craven’s work.

The most surprising view, at least to me, came from Roger Corman. Although he says he is “opposed always to censorship in any form”, he does believe that “violence has gotten somewhat out of hand in the motion picture industry.” He supports giving violent films the X rating, because “excessive violence can have a harmful effect on young people.” While I disagree that violent images have a harmful effect on children, he is not completely off the mark — he supports lessening of restrictions on nudity, which makes complete sense: nudity and sexuality is natural, whereas violence should not be glorified. Taken in that context, Corman may be right.

Of course, there is another kind of censorship: refusing to push the boundaries of your mind. Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Psycho, says, “I tend to be my own censor, and with me, it all has to do with taste.”

… And Fearless

And others want to reform the MPAA, the ratings system, or just completely ignore it when making their pictures.

Clive Barker: “you certainly can’t shoot a film thinking about the censors. That’s no way to run any creative endeavor.” “what I try to do is find ways of making the material work so that the MPAA will look at the material and realize that all the material is dramatically justified.” “when I go on the floor in the morning to shoot a scene, I’m not thinking of the MPAA — it’s a useless endeavor. What they may be believing in today, they may disbelieve tomorrow… certain areas of censorship come in and out of vogue… they are a reflection of social pressures, and to some extent, political pressures.”

David Cronberg echoes Barker when he says, “I don’t censor myself at all when I write. I think as soon as you do that, you’re finished.” The key is then finding the right people to bring the vision to fruition. “If things happen right, then you don’t end up self-censoring or even compromising.” How this uncompromising attitude fares against the MPAA may be another story, but Cronenberg isn’t talking.

John Carpenter: “I hate censorship, in all forms.” “If you’re an independent filmmaker, you’d better watch out. If you have a major studio behind you, don’t worry too much… if you’re an independent, then they’re on you like stink on shit!” “censorship is being directed at whatever is not in the mainstream… If you are an independent, and you come up with this evil moral tone, then you will be censored.” Carpenter proposed that the MPAA solve its own problem by creating R-21, so that films more graphic than R would not be automatically branded X.

David Lynch had similarly proposed an ‘RR’ rating for adult films that were not sexual in origin. On September 27, 1990, shortly after Wiater’s interview with Carpenter, the MPAA introduced the rating NC-17 (“No Children Under 17 Admitted”) as its official rating for adult-oriented films bearing the MPAA seal. Henry & June was the first film to receive the NC-17 rating.

Larry Cohen elaborates on Carpenter’s idea that the MPAA is more lenient with big studios: “I think they are less likely to give a harsh rating to a film that has a major star performing the questionable act. If Gregory Peck is doing it, as he did in The Omen, you’d have a lesser chance of it getting an X rating than if it were an unknown actor.” Cohen is referring to Peck stabbing a child on an altar in church. Likewise, “it’s different when the picture is based on a best-selling book. The Exorcist was a best-selling book, so it’s acceptable for a girl to masturbate with a crucifix.” Cohen says that he typically expects “to get an R rating”, but the reasons make no sense. It’s Alive was given a PG, while It’s Alive 2 received an R, despite the film’s complete lack of cursing and nudity. Cohen appealed to the MPAA for a PG and lost, despite coming with statements from Warner Brothers saying the first film — of a similar tone — never received complaints for its rating.

Stuart Gordon thinks the MPAA actually glamorizes and promotes violence by their standards. “If you are going to murder someone in a movie, they want it done with no fuss and no mess, no blood. The lesson they are teaching is that violence is painless and fun… When you portray violence without the reality, I think you are encouraging it.” Although, at the same time, it becomes harder to show things without an X. “I think the standards of the MPAA are getting much more strict, and they’re not allowing certain things to be shown anymore under an R rating.” (This may have shifted the other way, as now it seems more common to see a penis in an R-rated film, and cursing is becoming more universally acceptable, for better or worse.) Gordon does not let changing standards affect his work, though, because “you can find alternate ways of shooting something so the audience will still get he idea without showing everything, and sometimes it’s more effective.”

William F. Nolan has decried what he calls the “splatterpunk” trend in horror films, but would never stop another person from making it. “I don’t believe in censorship in any form,” he says.

George A. Romero sees “a real prejudice by the world”, not just the MPAA, when it comes to horror. Luckily for him, “the rating system hasn’t had a tremendous effect on (him) because all of the times that (he) did really graphic stuff, (they) had a distributor who was willing — and in fact wanted to — go out unrated.” He did have to cut Martin, though “it only amounted to twelve frames”. He sees censorship abroad as more serious, even in Canada where 13-17 minutes of Dawn of the Dead was cut in Ontario. Romero again follows the idea that a big film can do what a smaller one cannot — it is easy to put a “fuck” into All the President’s Men, but less so for Romero’s works.

Tom Savini picks up on Romero’s idea that foreign censorship is worse, agreeing with Wiater’s claim that “there’s intense censorship of horror films around the world, including England.” We might recall the Video Nasties list. Savini says, “Censorship is pretty strange to me anywhere,” and cites a situation where Maniac was allegedly only censored in Miami, Florida. “I really don’t believe in censorship,” he says, pointing out how pointless it is to censor a theatrical film when the home video market can go unrated, and those films are just as easy to get your hands on. Savini does believe in protecting children, saying even his own daughter would not be allowed to see his films at a young age, but the current system may not be the answer.

Kevin Yagher laments the problem of the MPAA on special effects guys. “The filmmakers will always put in more explicit scenes, because they know the sequence will eventually be hacked up by the MPAA.” As a special effects guy, it is “unbelievably devastating” to see something you worked hard on be cut down or completely removed from the finished product. Cutting should be “up to the filmmaker.”

Brian Yuzna thinks that we have partially created the problem — by putting the MPAA in the role of censors, they have become censors, not unlike the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment. “If someone is made a censor, they turn into a censor.” Yuzna has “dealt with them and you have to play a real game with them. The more you give them, the more they twist you. You have to be very careful.”

The Future

The censorship and rating problem may be dying today, and some may even say it’s dead. When “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday” was being made, the director (Adam Marcus) was specifically told that the film would be released in two versions: R and unrated. With the rise of Laserdisc and DVD, home video was becoming ever more affordable and getting on video shelves unrated is pretty easy. (Those who have seen “Final Friday” unrated would insist that there is no other way to see it.)

There does seem to be an ongoing trend to release completely unrated, with the affordability of DVD that makes direct-to-DVD more common, as well as the increase in purchases (with discs today selling for as low as $5 in some cases). Most horror films never see a theatrical release, and without one, why bother to be rated?

At the same time, the “torture porn” of Saw and Hostel has been getting an R, so how could other films fail to pass the test? Male nudity is more common, crude language runs rampant… can a film even get NC-17 anymore without explicit sex (such as with Brown Bunny)?

I pose this to the masters of horror to answer (again)…


Wiater, Stanley. Dark Visions: Conversations With the Masters of the Horror Film Avon Books, 1992.

Also try another article under Film Industry
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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