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Selling the Splat PackThe DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film$

Mark Bernard

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780748685493

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748685493.001.0001

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The DVD Revolution and the Horror Film, Take Two

The DVD Revolution and the Horror Film, Take Two

Rise of the ‘Unrated’

(p.70) 4. The DVD Revolution and the Horror Film, Take Two
Selling the Splat Pack

Mark Bernard

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how DVD led to the mainstreaming of once marginal ‘Unrated’ horror films. It looks at the emergence of the Splat Pack films after an industrial change in ratings policy. During the DVD era, the film industry's ‘sell-through’ pricing mandates, coupled with DVD's ability to add to — and take away from — the content of a film, allowed ‘Unrated’ movies to make their way to the mainstream. This chapter considers the increasing prevalence of gory, graphic and prolonged violence in films made by the Splat Pack as a reflection of Hollywood taking advantage of a rating system that had changed because of DVD technology. Cinema versions of these films need only feature ‘just enough’ gore, blood and carnage to entice viewers to check out the ‘Unrated’ version on DVD, a product that, the consumer is assured, is ‘uncut’. This chapter discusses the reasons why home video became a viable avenue for the release of ‘Unrated’ films.

Keywords:   unrated horror films, Splat Pack films, DVD, sell-through pricing, Unrated movies, film industry, home video, rating system, Hollywood

‘The Unrated DVD Changed Everything’

One imperative in cultivating an appreciation for a work of ‘art’ is making certain that one has access to the artist’s entire vision. DVDs not only make it possible for films to be positioned and sold as art objects; they also give studios the opportunity to create the illusion for consumers that they are experiencing the entire film: complete, unadulterated and uncut. In the case of the horror film, Lionsgate and other distributors did this by releasing films ‘Unrated’ on DVD. This label promises consumers that no censorious organisations have come between them and the film which, in the case of the Splat Pack, has been discursively constructed as ‘art’. As Guins explains, this label is intimately linked to a film-on-DVD’s status as art object: ‘Even the “Not Rated” classification accompanying paracinema on DVD today is closer to a category of exemption attributed to art than the outlawed “NC-17” or nostalgic “X” afforded to filmic licentiousness’ (Guins, 2005: 28–9). As Chapter 3 outlines, the rush to sell films on DVD as art objects and collectables is one factor in how the Splat Pack was sold to a film-going – or a DVD-buying – audience. Working in concert with this factor is Hollywood’s decision to release ‘Unrated’ films on DVD, another material change in film industry policy that facilitated the emergence of the Splat Pack.

A few illuminating comments about ratings appear at the beginning of Jones’s article on the Splat Pack. These few provocative quotations are not from a member of the Splat Pack but from Tarantino. Tarantino had positioned (p.71) himself as something of a mentor to Roth and to other Splat Packers. Not content to sit on the sidelines, Tarantino had got into the act himself. At the time of his comments to Jones, he was taking a break from working on Death Proof, a homage to drive-in era car films and videotape-era slasher films that would play alongside Robert Rodriguez’s apocalyptic zombie movie Planet Terror as the combination film Grindhouse, released in the United States in April 2007. Jones begins his article with Tarantino proclaiming: ‘No question – this is a fantastic time to be making real horror movies’ (quoted in Jones, 2006: 101). As Tarantino continues ‘in his trademark motormouth fashion’ (Jones, 2006: 101), he identifies the reason for this horror renaissance:

Ratings systems have drastically changed … Censor boards like the MPAA in America have finally realized horror movies with extreme gore and horrendous violence are clearly marked. Audiences want to see them because they are so bloody and brutal. That’s the whole point!

(quoted in Jones, 2006: 101)

Tarantino’s connection between the Splat Pack ‘movement’ and changes in industry policy is astute. Throughout most of the journalistic writing on the Splat Pack, however, this attention to the industry was generally drowned out by discussion – both by journalists and by the film-makers themselves – about how their films were reflections of post-9/11 America.

The issue of ratings resurfaces briefly in the New York Post article when Roth admits to Tucker that the introduction of the ‘unrated DVD changed everything’ (quoted in Tucker, 2006):

When a [horror] movie is released unrated, it probably triples the audience. Hostel came out and it was outselling [The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Adam Adamson, 2005)] at Wal-Mart. So for Hostel: Part II, Lionsgate is saying, ‘Go nuts. We don’t want to even do an R-rated DVD’.

(quoted in Tucker, 2006)

If Hostel was outselling the first Chronicles of Narnia film at Wal-Mart, Roth would have much to crow about and Lionsgate would have much cause to celebrate. Superstore retailer Wal-Mart became crucial territory for studios during the DVD era; Wal-Mart’s ability to move DVD product led them to ‘account for most of the studios’ revenues’ (Epstein, 2010: 178). Doubly impressive would be outselling a film like Narnia, considering that ‘kids’ videos’ were the ‘ultimate accelerant for the sell through market’ (Ulin, 2009: 173). Thus, beating a children’s film in sales would be a significant accomplishment. Interestingly, Jeff Ulin argues that the emergence of the DVD market and the profit it promised spurred ‘the reinvigoration of [Disney’s] animated film (p.72) business’ (2009: 173) which brought about an industry-wide investment in animation and children’s films. When Roth brags about his films’ profitability and how this profitability is tied to the DVD format, something similar may have been the case with the proliferation of violent ‘Unrated’ horror films also spurred by the DVD market.

The DVD market enabled, for the first time, mainstream Hollywood studios to release ‘Unrated’ films widely. Officially releasing a film without an MPAA-sanctioned G, PG, or R rating – with the additional ratings PG-13 and NC-17 added in 1984 and 1990 respectively – used to be an uncommon practice for the studios because of the public relations problems it created. DVD made this practice more common for several reasons, however. Video was not subjected to the same stringent rating system as cinema releases. Also significant were the format’s interactivity, sell-through pricing, and major retailers such as Blockbuster agreeing to sell and rent ‘Unrated’ DVDs. While this change has affected all genres, it has significantly affected the production and release of horror films, a genre that has a history of being a contested terrain in terms of censorship.

Jack’s Rules: the Ratings System and the Stigma of X

The adaptation of the studios’ philosophy concerning ratings policy warrants a closer examination. Chapter 2 noted how a change in industry self-regulation contributed to the release of films from American horror’s ‘Golden Age’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While these then graphic films may be read as subversive critiques of, among other things, the United States’s involvement in Vietnam, these films also represented how the then restructuring studios took advantage of Jack Valenti’s new ratings system to get audiences into cinemas to see provocative content they could not see at home on television. The ‘subversive’ content of these films was largely a by-product of Hollywood’s desire to regain ground after a recession and losing audiences to television.

It is interesting, then, that Splat Packers should so often cite the horror film-makers of the 1970s as an influence on their own films. There is certainly a connection between these two groups of film-makers but a less rebellious one than they lead consumers to believe. One of the strongest resemblances between the horror directors of the 1970s and the Splat Packers is that they both emerge from an industrial change in ratings policy. The trajectories of audience manipulation in these two instances move in reverse directions, however: if the ratings system adopted in 1968 intended to draw adult audiences out of their homes and back into cinemas, the ‘Unrated’ DVD suggests that, to see a film completely and properly, one has to see it at home. Before considering the rise of the ‘Unrated’ DVD, a summary of the history of ratings such as X and NC-17 will illustrate that these ratings do not represent greater (p.73) freedom for film-makers but, instead, allow the industry more control over the film marketplace.

When Valenti created the ratings system, he copyrighted the G, PG, and R ratings but neglected to copyright the X rating. Valenti’s pitch for not copyrighting this rating was grounded in terms of opening up the market and allowing film-makers’ freedom of expression. Valenti explained: ‘We didn’t copyright the X rating from a legal standpoint. It had to be open-ended so that if somebody doesn’t want to submit a picture, they can use the X. Otherwise, we could be challenged on First Amendment grounds’ (quoted in Wyatt, 1999: 241). Valenti claimed that the X rating gave film-makers the option of not submitting their films to be reviewed by CARA. If film-makers chose to make use of this ‘freedom’, they could simply label their films with an X and release them in the marketplace.

If any film-makers attempted to take this tack, however, they faced significant, if not insurmountable, obstacles in the movie marketplace. When Valenti instated the ratings system, ‘approximately 50 percent of theatres across the country refused to play X films, and as many as thirty large city newspapers, along with many television and radio stations, refused to advertise them’ (Wyatt, 1999: 244). Thus, any film released with an X rating or without a rating – in other words, any film that attempted to circumvent CARA and MPAA standards that were controlled and set by the major studios – were marginalised in the marketplace and had little to no hope of economic success.

As ‘the X rating became synonymous with stronger adult (later pornographic) content’ (Wyatt, 1999: 244), this rating did obtain cachet as a marketing tool for the hardcore film industry. Key pieces of legislation, however, ended this brief period of success by favouring the studio members of the MPAA. Wyatt and Jon Lewis both cite the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Miller v. California as perhaps the most significant piece of legislation in this regard. In this case, the Supreme Court ‘relinquished power over deciding on obscene media to the individual states and localities’ (Wyatt, 1999: 254). Wyatt notes, ‘The implications for the porno market were far-reaching – suddenly producers and distributors of both hard- and soft-core feared that their market faced erosion through possible prosecution on a market-by-market basis across the country’ (1999: 254). The implications reached further than just hardcore and soft-core film-makers and distributors. As Chapter 2 notes, the decision in Miller v. California (1973), coupled with decisions in the cases Paris Adult Theater I v. Slaton, United States v. 12 200’ Reels of Super 8 mm Film, and United States v. Orito, ‘gave the MPAA exclusive access to the theatrical marketplace’ (Lewis, 2000: 263). Valenti’s ratings system made it so that only pictures with CARA-approved ratings (G, PG, R and later PG-13) would be guaranteed easy passage through cinema distribution and exhibition circuits. Films without a CARA-approved rating would get little (p.74) or no advertisement and ‘were fair game for local prosecution’ (Lewis, 2000: 273).

The method set in place for cinema distribution and exhibition by Valenti’s rating system still holds today for the most part. Cinema chains, many of which are now back in the hands of the studios (or, more specifically, the corporate conglomerates that own the studios) after the decision in the 1985 case United States v. Capital Service, will not screen X or ‘Unrated’ films (Lewis, 2000: 70).1 Even when CARA added the NC-17 rating in 1990, the designation did not significantly alter the landscape of how films were distributed or exhibited in cinemas. Ostensibly, MPAA members drew up the NC-17 label to test the waters and discover how profitable distribution and exhibition of more adult-themed materials would be. The answer, after the lukewarm to hostile reception of such films as Henry and June (Kaufman, 1990) and Showgirls (Verhoven, 1995), seemed to be resoundingly negative. This result should not be surprising because, as Jon Lewis explains:

NC-17-rated films face significant industrial obstacles. They don’t play in most mall theaters (where leasing agreements prohibit such fare) or at many multiplexes (for fear of folks sneaking in after paying to see another title). None of the premium pay-channels … screen NC-17 films. Blockbuster Video and Kmart won’t shelve NC-17-rated videos.

(Lewis, 2001: 26)

Perhaps memories of the taboo X rating loomed so large in the media marketplace that NC-17 never stood much of a chance. After years of pitching the ratings system as a way to protect children – Valenti often argued that the ‘primary objective’ of the ratings system was to protect children from harmful or pornographic materials (quoted in Lewis, 2000: 141) – the MPAA had difficulty selling NC-17 films, such as Henry and June and Showgirls, that looked a great deal like soft-core pornography. After home video had been established as the primary venue for hardcore pornography, it was difficult to entice audiences to pay to see soft-core in the cinema and run the risk of public embarrassment of being seen at a ‘dirty movie’ when they could enjoy hardcore pornography on their VCRs in the privacy of their homes.

The biggest strike against the NC-17 rating was that the MPAA never intended for it to work anyway. The NC-17 rating resulted from protests by ‘independent producers and distributors, who led the charge of the long-standing accusation that CARA’s policies prevent serious adult films from being made’ (Sandler, 2007: 84). By creating the NC-17 rating, Valenti and the MPAA seemed to be catering to independent producers and distributors but the establishment of this rating was similar to Valenti’s subterfuge in 1968 when he argued that the X rating would offer freedom for film-makers who wished (p.75) to operate outside the Hollywood film industry. The change from X to NC-17 was ‘merely cosmetic. The MPAA and NATO conducted business as usual, continuing to abandon the adults-only category, as did video store chains, by now a well-established lucrative ancillary market for theatrical films’ (Sandler, 2007: 85). Like the X rating, NC-17 was a handy tool for the MPAA to marginalise producers and distributors that were outside Hollywood’s inner circle.

The MPAA’s disapproval and other tactics aside, the NC-17 rating was not a good fit for either the family-friendly or hardcore crowd. It simply was not worth the risk of producing and distributing NC-17 films for cinema and for home video markets, especially given the increasingly global reach of corporate Hollywood. The primary purpose of the film industry’s self-regulatory policies is to make certain that Hollywood creates ‘a product that won’t have problems in the marketplace’ (Lewis, 2000: 7), in other words, a film that will offend as few people as possible, encounter little to no resistance at the local level, and have the ability to play without problems in as many media markets as possible.

Outside the System? Home Video and Ratings

This ratings system, however, has been mostly restricted to cinema exhibition sites and has not affected home video in the same ways:

Unlike television or radio systems, the activities of the global video market were not dependent on government license or large-scale capital investment in the institutional conditions of production and dissemination. The porous trade in video hardware and software therefore could operate outside systems of regulation and control.

(McDonald, 2007: 85)

Rating policies for the distribution of feature films on video were different from Hollywood’s policies for cinema-shown films, as movies on videotape did not necessarily have to adhere to MPAA-sanctioned ratings. Instead, films on videotape were routinely released as ‘Unrated’, a label that was able to escape the pornographic stigma of the X rating. While ‘Unrated’ films had a difficult time playing in cinemas, ‘Unrated’ versions of cinema releases released on videotape did not, for the most part, encounter the same obstacles in the United States.

Aside from more lenient regulatory policies, home video was a viable avenue for the release of ‘Unrated’ films for several other reasons. With home video, greater responsibility is shifted to the consumer and away from the producer, distributor or retailer. If shopping mall cinemas will not show films beyond an R because of leasing agreements, these agreements do not extend to the home. Similarly, with home video, there is no cinema manager who has to worry about children paying to see a PG movie and sneaking into an ‘Unrated’ film. (p.76) If an adult rents an ‘Unrated’ videotape, brings it into the home, and a child in the home views the tape without permission, it would be impossible for the adult to blame the distributor of the videotape. Ultimately, even as cases like Miller v. California redefined the regulation of ‘obscene matter in public places’ better to suit and protect MPAA members, it left ‘constitutional doctrines of privacy in the home’ relatively untouched (Sandler, 2007: 59).

For these reasons, ‘Unrated’ films on home video posed minimal risk for producers and distributors in the United States. Many films issued as ‘Unrated’ on videotape were horror films from independent producers and mini-majors that had to have some scenes of violence or gore edited in order to obtain an R rating. Frederick Wasser explains that, after the advent of the VCR:

Independent producers and mini-major studios such as Orion, Vestron, DeLaurentiis, Carolco (allied with LIVE), and Cannon did not have big libraries [that they could reissue on video] and therefore expanded their production through the mid-1980s in anticipation that the global video market would pay for more new movies. (2008: 124)

These independents and mini-majors often focused their energies on ‘the production of properties that could be easily exploited in ancillary markets’ (Tzioumakis, 2006: 223). They also pioneered the possibilities of the home video market by offering their horror films, which necessarily had to be rated R to play in cinemas, as ‘Unrated’ on videotape by reinstating footage (sometimes only amounting to a few seconds) that had to be cut from the film to obtain an R rating for cinema release.

Even though the home video market for VHS set a precedent for the release of ‘Unrated’ films, the ‘Unrated’ horror film on videotape did not bring about the sea change for the horror film that the ‘Unrated’ DVD did in the late 1990s and 2000s. There are several reasons the ‘Unrated’ film on videotape failed to bring about this change. One is that the majors neglected to utilise fully the economic possibilities of ‘Unrated’ videotapes. A brief look at how Paramount handled the various releases of its lucrative Friday the 13th franchise offers an illuminating case study of the majors’ reluctance to venture into ‘Unrated’ territory during the VHS era, even when horror fans were clamouring for them to do so.

Paramount, Friday the 13th, the VHS Era and Ratings

Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) was a financial triumph for Paramount Pictures when it was released in 1980. Shot on a minuscule budget of just over half a million dollars, the independently produced slasher film was a sleeper hit for distributor Paramount, grossing almost $40 million in the United States (p.77) (Bracke, 2005: 314). The film’s success should not have come as a huge surprise: it had a catchy, memorable title and its plot closely followed the formula of John Carpenter’s Halloween, a sleeper hit two years earlier. One of the keys to success in Hollywood is to offer a film that is similar to a previous hit but just different enough to convince people who paid to see the earlier film that they are not paying to see the exact same thing again. One of the ways Friday the 13th differentiated itself from Halloween was having a higher body count; the trailer for Friday the 13th promised thirteen victims, as opposed to Halloween’s five.2

Another way Friday the 13th differentiated itself from Halloween was by promising its viewers kills with plenty of blood and gore which had not been central to the relatively bloodless Halloween. As director Cunningham explains, ‘Halloween was a real artistic piece of work, but I knew that Friday was going to be very gory’ (quoted in Grove, 2005: 16). Cunningham hired Tom Savini, a special effects artist who specialised in gore and was riding high after the success of Romero’s 1978 ‘Unrated’ zombie epic Dawn of the Dead for which Savini supplied gore effects. Savini’s work on Friday the 13th did not disappoint, and several moments – like one victim (Kevin Bacon) being killed by having an arrow shoved through his throat, another victim (Jeannine Taylor) receiving an axe blow to the face, and the killer (Betsy Palmer) being bloodily bested when the film’s ‘Final Girl’ (Andrienne King) decapitates her with a machete – became beloved set pieces among horror fans.

Despite the gory kills, Friday the 13th had relatively few problems when Paramount submitted it to CARA. According to Peter Bracke, ‘after only two submissions, the MPAA requested a mere nine seconds of deletions from the film’s graphic murder sequences before granting it an R classification’ (2005: 40). Bracke finds it surprising that Friday the 13th was required to cut so little from its running time because it is, as he proclaims, a film that ‘revel[s] in the kind of lurid, sadistic violence that tested not only the standards of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board, but all manner of good taste, propriety and social responsibility’ (2005: 40). In Hollywood under Valenti’s ratings system, however, the decision to pass Friday the 13th with as few cuts as possible makes complete sense. Because Paramount is an MPAA member, the MPAA wants Paramount’s films to play in as many venues as possible, something that obtaining one of Valenti’s copyrighted ratings assures. If violence and gore are elements that differentiate Friday the 13th as a product, it is in the interest of Paramount and the MPAA that the film retain as much gore as possible to draw curious customers into the cinema but not so much that the film would cause public relations problems.

After Friday the 13th concluded its profitable cinema run, Paramount neglected to restore to the film the nine seconds cut from the cinema release and issue Friday the 13th on home video as ‘Unrated’. Several factors account (p.78)

The DVD Revolution and the Horror Film, Take TwoRise of the ‘Unrated’

Figure 4.1 The unkindest cut: an image from the nine seconds cut from Friday the 13th to obtain an R rating.

© Paramount Pictures/Georgetown Productions.

for this decision. Paramount had been purchased by zinc and sugar giant Gulf+Western in 1966. Thus, the studio was no stranger to the rules that made global corporate conglomeration work. Valenti had placed a stigma on X or ‘Unrated’ that remained in 1980. Even though the ‘uniqueness’ of a film such as Friday the 13th depended upon the presence of graphic violence, the potential public relations problems releasing an ‘Unrated’ version of Friday the 13th could cause corporate parent Paramount were not worth the risk.3 Simply put, in 1980 ‘Unrated’ was simply too close to the stigma of X.

The economic and public relations problems that dealing in X or ‘Unrated’ fare could cause Paramount were brought to life on 23 October 1980 when critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted an entire episode of their television programme to starting a campaign of moral outrage against slasher films, a cycle that both critics blamed Friday the 13th for starting (Bracke, 2005: 45; Nowell, 2011: 228). Even worse, a ‘vast majority of national critics’ joined Siskel and Ebert’s campaign (Bracke, 2005: 45). This backlash put Paramount in a difficult position. They wanted to make more money by exploiting what was now a marketable title and producing more Friday the 13th films. They also had to worry about including too much gore and graphic violence in the series, however, and getting stuck with an X rating, especially in the cinema market. This conundrum placed Paramount in a situation where they had to provide just enough violence to please the viewers for these films but not enough to get an X rating and encounter difficulties in the marketplace.

Paramount’s approach to the sequels to Friday the 13th predictably left (p.79) some fans disappointed. This disappointment is evident both in Chas Balun’s movie guide, The Gore Score (1987), and John McCarty’s, The Official Splatter Movie Guide (1989), both of which are geared towards the gore-and-splatter-hungry audience. This approach is apparent in Balun’s movie ranking system for The Gore Score:

Besides employing the customary one to four star (skull) rating system in assessing the relative merits of each film, I have added a second numerical rating that deals with elements totally unrelated to whatever artistic or aesthetic virtues the film may possess. This numerical appraisal based on a scale from one to ten, is …The Gore Score. This evaluation, then, deals with nothing but the quantity of blood, brains, guts, and assorted precious bodily fluids, spilled during the course of the film.

(Balun, 1987: 9)

Balun hopes that ‘both the serious student of contemporary horror as well as the totally undiscriminating, bloodthirsty, sociopathic gorehound’ will find his dual rating system valuable (1987: 9) adding, with a wink, ‘I know which drawer I fall into. That’s why I thought the splatter rating was of such fundamental importance’ (1987: 9). McCarty’s approach to evaluating films is similar to Balun’s. Guins cites Balun and McCarty as ‘definitive voice[s]’ in the fan discourses surrounding gore and splatter films in the 1980s (2005: 22). Their growing disenchantment with Friday the 13th as the series continued throughout 1980s offers a glimpse into the sometimes hostile relationship horror fans had with the Friday the 13th franchise based on how they felt the series disappointed when it came to delivering graphic gore.

Like many fans, Balun and McCarty admire the first film. Awarding the film three-and-a-half skulls out of four, Balun praises the first Friday as ‘fast paced and graphic’ with ‘Imaginative murders’ and ‘great effects work by Tom Savini’ (1987: 27); he gives the film a seven out of ten on the all-important ‘gore score’ scale (1987: 27). McCarty likewise praises the first film as ‘the controversial box-office smash that propelled the independent, low-budget splatter movie into the big time’ (1989: 54). Balun and McCarty begin to display a bit of wariness, however, with the second film, Friday the 13th Part 2 (Miner, 1981). McCarty grumbles, ‘In this and most subsequent Friday the 13th flicks, the MPAA insisted on cuts and Paramount agreed to avoid an X rating’ (1989: 55). Though McCarty is disappointed about there being less gore in this sequel, he shrugs it off and ends his review by admitting that the film is ‘Still fairly splattery, though’ (1989: 55). Balun, on the other hand, has no words of praise for the film: ‘Heavily cut by censors, this sequel is definitely the weakest of the lot … An infuriating … waste of time’ (1987: 27).

As the series wore on, Balun’s fury over the lack of gore in these films reaches a fever pitch. When reviewing the fifth film, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (p.80) (Steinmann, 1985), Balun complains that the film ‘blows it by having the relatively bloodless murders happen OFF screen’ (1987: 28). Balun makes his rage personal when reviewing the next film, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives! (McLoughlin, 1986). Not content with merely pointing out that ‘almost all the signature killings happen OFF screen’ (1987: 28), Balun accuses the director of making the film with a ‘bloodless and wimpy hand’ (1987: 28). McCarty’s disenchantment with the series also develops into outright hostility as he begins his review of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988):

This latest installment in the long-running series contains no surprises. In fact, even the gore is less explicit, due to more stringent controls from the ratings board. The filmmakers have the killings down to a science. The camera cuts away at exactly the right moment so that we think we’ve seen more than what is really shown (in fact, so tightly timed are these shots that if you happen to blink at just the right moment, you may end up thinking you’ve seen much less than is actually shown). (1989: 56)

If Balun and McCarty are representative of fan discourse surrounding the Friday the 13th series, one may ascertain three things. First, there was immense fan interest in seeing Friday the 13th films with a large amount of gore. Secondly, the fans were hungry for more gore than image-conscious, MPAA member, corporate-owned Paramount was willing to offer in the R-rated cinema cuts of their films. Third, Paramount failed to capitalise on the less restrictive format of videotape as an avenue of giving these customers what they wanted. Both Balun’s and McCarty’s books – with their lists of films spanning several years – were meant to be guidebooks for the video renter and/or collector. In short, releasing these films in an ‘Unrated’ format apparently was not an option for Paramount. Because fans were clamouring for more gore in their Friday the 13th films – gore that would be allowable in an ‘Unrated’ cut of the film on home video – releasing these films ‘Unrated’ on home video could have been profitable for Paramount but the stigma that Valenti’s restructuring of the rating system placed upon the X or ‘Unrated’ film still held sway more than a decade after its creation and simply made it not worth the trouble Paramount could get into with moral guardians or unpredictable markets.

It is also possible that it simply did not occur to Paramount to release alternative versions on home video because of the video cassette format. DVD was drastically different from the home video formats that had come before in how it stressed interactivity and changeability. In contrast, the video cassette was, like film, ‘a linear medium, working along the single plane of record, play, rewind and fast-forward’ (McDonald, 2007: 1). The linearity of the videotape format perhaps encouraged studio executives to view their feature films as set, stable objects, not as something that could be added to or taken away from (p.81) after being prepared for cinema release. The movie-on-video cassette was supposed to replicate the cinema experience, not deviate from it. Also, retaining the R rating for a film set it apart from other films, such as hardcore pornography, that were released direct to video in an ‘Unrated’ form.

Perhaps the ultimate reason that Paramount refused to release the Friday the 13th films ‘Unrated’ on videotape is that, despite fan interest in these titles, releasing ‘Unrated’ videos was not that profitable a proposition for them. The VHS market was based on renting videotapes, not selling them. Under this model, when a video became popular and was rented repeatedly, the video shop enjoyed the lion’s share of the profits, not the studios which profited only from the initial sale of the videotape to the shop. Videotapes of a popular franchise such as Friday the 13th were an easy initial sale to video shops that would be happy to have a cinema cut to offer their customers. Offering anything beyond that might financially benefit the video shop but the financial benefits would be negligible and not worth the headache that could possibly emerge from trading in ‘Unrated’ materials. Paramount had a plethora of reasons not to make their horror films available in ‘Unrated’ versions on video cassette.

‘Unrated’ Videotapes: from Margin to Centre

During the VHS era, price also marginalised the ‘Unrated’ videotape. Because the market for videotapes was built on the rental model, and the imagined audience that would buy and collect horror films on VHS was small, studios and releasing houses increased the prices for videotapes of horror films so their risk in producing and distributing these products was significantly defrayed. Tracking pricing trends for horror movies on videotape reveals how high the prices for these items were. For ‘Unrated’ videotapes, the prices increase even more. These high prices, like the majors’ reluctance to adopt the ‘Unrated’ videotape as a viable format, kept the ‘Unrated’ videotape from having much of an impact on the ways in which horror films were made during the VHS era.

One can track pricing trends for horror movies on videotape during this era by surveying video sellers’ advertisements in Fangoria magazine, a hub for horror fans during the 1980s. Hoping to capitalise on Fangoria’s base of horror fans, several video-by-mail speciality dealers – like Michigan’s Marshall Discount Video Service and Sacramento’s Dickens Video By Mail – took out advertisements to publicise their wares in nearly every issue of Fangoria. These advertisements reveal the remarkable extent to which prices of horror videotapes were marked up, even years after the institution of sell through pricing. In the June 1987 issue, one dealer offers classic titles from Universal’s horror canon, such as Dracula and Frankenstein, for the sizeable fee of $59.95 each. These prices, five years after the introduction of sell through pricing, indicate that studios felt these types of films for sale on videotape appealed only to (p.82) niche viewers and priced them so that selling to this limited audience would be profitable.

If the audience for horror films on videotape was niche, the audience for ‘Unrated’ horror films on videotape was even smaller. This is reflected in the prices of ‘Unrated’ videotapes that are even more expensive than the classic horror films on videotape. After more time passed and VHS penetration increased, prices of horror titles began to get closer to sell through prices but the prices for ‘Unrated’ fare remained high. In the July 1990 issue of Fangoria, Dickens Video by Mail took out an advertisement of ‘Uncut’ and ‘Unrated’ titles for prices that would leave even the most well-to-do gorehound’s chequebook in pain. Available for $59.95 are ‘Uncut’ versions of such titles as the notorious rape–revenge film I Spit on Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978) and the epic Italian zombie gorefest Zombie (Fulci, 1979).4

This advertisement for Dickens shows two pricing tiers that are even more expensive: $79.95 and $89.95. A glance at the films available on ‘Uncut’ and ‘Unrated’ video shows that it was mostly the independents and mini-majors who were taking advantage of the ‘Unrated’ video format. For instance, two films that Dickens was selling ‘Unrated’ for $79.95 are Bad Taste (Jackson, 1987) and Nail Gun Massacre (Leslie and Lifton, 1985) both of which were distributed on video in the United States by Magnum Entertainment, a distributor that specialised in low-budget exploitation. Even further up the price range, on sale for $89.95, is a parade of titles from some of the 1980s’ most prolific independents and mini-majors: The Carpenter (Wellington, 1988) and Night of the Demons (Tenney, 1988) both distributed on VHS by Republic Pictures Home Video, Waxwork (Hickox, 1988) distributed by Vestron, and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Randel, 1988) distributed by New World Pictures. As Yannis Tzioumakis observes, companies like Vestron and New World ‘exploit[ed] specifically’ the ‘highly unusual circumstances’ brought about by the rise of ancillary markets in the 1980s (2006: 223).

These advertisements for ‘Unrated’ movies on videotape, however, reveal several significant factors that kept the ‘Unrated’ video from having much of an impact on mainstream consumption habits during the VHS era. First, the high cost of ‘Unrated’ videos, marked up to defray financial risks for producers and distributors, kept ‘Unrated’ materials from having any sort of support from mainstream film watchers. Instead, these high-priced ‘Unrated’ films on VHS attracted cult enthusiasts with the interest and the financial means to collect the videotapes. While the ‘Unrated’, collectors-item film did not enter the mainstream at this point in history, these videotapes did, at least, set a precedent for ‘Unrated’, ‘Collector’s edition’ DVDs that would follow later when the DVD market aimed to make collectors out of every customer. At this time, though, the high prices for some of the ‘Unrated’ videotapes (a few of the titles on Dickens’s list would be near a hundred dollars once shipping and (p.83) handling costs were added) would have kept them out of the price range even for some videotape collectors. Another strike against ‘Unrated’ videotapes catching on and thus affecting the way that Hollywood does business was the major studios’ challenge to offer their products as ‘Unrated’ on home video and maintain good public relations. The major studios would have to work out how to seek profit in the ‘Unrated’ business while not ruining their profits in major markets with bad public relations.

Just as these advertisements reveal both the high cost of ‘Unrated’ videotapes and the majors’ hesitance to get involved in the ‘Unrated’ business, however, they also show that things were beginning to change and that the ‘Unrated’ video was making its way to the mainstream. Though Dickens Video by Mail sold a substantial number of ‘Unrated’ videos for astronomical prices, they also offered a few titles at the sell through, consumer-friendly prices of $19.95 and $14.95. Predictably, most of the titles offered at sell through were independent productions such as Empire Pictures’s horror–comedy Re-Animator (Gordon, 1985) and Craven’s infamous Last House on the Left which was being distributed on videotape at the time by Vestron.

That these ‘Unrated’ films were offered at the same sell through prices as Hollywood blockbusters and family films was a sign of things to come. Another was the majors’ gradual warming to the ‘Unrated’ format represented on this list, in part, by a couple of titles offered for the sell through price of $14.95. Listed at this price were ‘Uncut’ versions of Warner Bros.’s cult classic Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) and Carolco’s supernatural thriller Angel Heart (Parker, 1987). Again, it is clear that the mainstream was still playing it safe when it came to home video and ‘Unrated’ material in particular; these two choices for ‘Uncut’ release possessed a certain air of respectability. Bombing at the box office, Scott’s Blade Runner had, by 1990, been reassessed in many circles as a maligned masterpiece from a visionary director. Similarly, Alan Parker, with films such as Midnight Express (1978) and Birdy (1984), had established himself as an ‘artistic’ director, a label that evaded most horror directors at this point. After Parker famously clashed with the ratings board over having to remove approximately ten seconds from a love-making scene between actors Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart, the inclusion of these lost seconds for an ‘Unrated’ release on home video could easily be framed as the restoration of an artist’s vision and was one of ‘the earliest unrated and unedited … Hollywood and independent films released in the ancillary markets’ (Sandler, 2007: 93).

New Line Cinema could probably not claim ‘artistic’ credibility when they released an ‘Unrated’ version of A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989), the fifth instalment in their Nightmare on Elm Street series. Nevertheless, in the same advertisement for Dickens Video by Mail, New Line, through Media Home Entertainment, their home video distributor, was (p.84)

The DVD Revolution and the Horror Film, Take TwoRise of the ‘Unrated’

Figure 4.2 Serving up more gore: A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child goes ‘Unrated’ on video.

© New Line Cinema/Heron Communications.

offering an ‘Unrated’ version of this film for the princely sum of $89.95. While, at this point in its history, it would be inaccurate to call New Line a ‘major’, it was certainly not marginal. Though the company had started in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a distributor for underground fare such as Reefer Madness (Gasnier, 1936) and John Waters’s early films, it had achieved mainstream success with the Nightmare films which, by 1989, had grossed a total of around $170 million dollars at the United States box office, not to mention revenue from home video, merchandising, and other tie-ins. New Line ‘officially’ became a part of corporate Hollywood in 1993 when it was acquired by Turner Broadcasting which was, in turn, acquired by conglomerate giant TimeWarner in 1996. New Line had been a major player for at least a decade before these acquisitions, however, owing, in no small part, to their success with the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

New Line’s decision to release an ‘Unrated’ version of A Nightmare on Elm Street: A Dream Child, a horror franchise film with little or no ‘artistic’ credibility, represents a major step towards the mainstream distribution of ‘Unrated’ exploitation films. Unlike Paramount which, as of late 1990, was offering its Friday the 13th films at sell through prices but only in R rated versions, New Line seemed to be responding to fan viewers – like those represented by Balun’s and McCarty’s writings – who were demanding more gore in franchise horror films. It is important to note, however, that this decision to issue ‘Unrated’ horror on videotape does not represent a daring move or a commitment to artistic integrity on New Line’s part. Rather, their decision (p.85) to put out this instalment of the Nightmare series in an ‘Unrated’ version on videotape probably represents an attempt to cultivate a new avenue of revenue for a film series which had reached a point of saturation that was harming its value as a franchise.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series had been a financial success for New Line, so much so that head of production Robert Shaye has often been cited as referring to the studio as ‘the house that Freddy built’ referring, of course, to Freddy Krueger, the wisecracking anti-hero of the Elm Street series. The first Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984) was a massive hit for New Line, grossing over $25 million in the United States against a budget that was just under $2 million. The grosses from Elm Street films continued to climb until A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988) grossed a series-high of $49 million domestically. The success of these films encouraged New Line to develop a series of spin-offs in various media markets, including toys, comic books and a syndicated horror anthology television show entitled Freddy’s Nightmares. The franchise’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in the summer of 1989, however, when the next film in the series, The Dream Child, grossed only $22 million domestically, less than half that of its predecessor, and became the lowest-grossing film of the series.

When considered in this light, New Line’s decision to issue the film ‘Unrated’ on videotape seems like an attempt to revitalise a franchise that had reached the point of oversaturation. Just as Freddy had reached the mainstream and began to appear ‘too safe’ for the gore-hungry types of fans represented by Balun and McCarty, New Line made the financially sound decision of appealing to these viewers by reinserting a minute or so of gory special effects that had been cut from the R rated cinema release. Owing both to more lenient rating restrictions on videotapes and to responsibility for content being shifted from distributor to consumer during the video era, the MPAA did not object.

Issuing the fifth Elm Street film in an ‘Unrated’ version on videotape evidently paid off for New Line for they employed a similar strategy when they acquired the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise and attempted to revitalise the property with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993). After the film failed to find an audience at the box office – grossing an anaemic $15.9 million in the United States – New Line issued an ‘Unrated’ version of the film on videotape. The videotape was issued in a box bearing a label that proclaims the videotape is a ‘Special Collector’s Edition’ of the film. The inclusion of this label is an early example of the mainstreaming of sales strategies that were once used to appeal only to the most cultish film fans. New Line’s forays into offering ‘Unrated’ exploitation movies available at sell through pricing are a precursor of what would become an industry norm during the DVD era.

(p.86) ‘Unrated’ Explosion: Transitioning into the DVD Era

While, owing to the sell through pricing mandate, cultish consumption was mainstreamed fairly quickly after DVDs were introduced to the consumer market, it took the ‘Unrated’ DVD a little longer to catch on. While horror films, specifically neo-slasher films, underwent a mini-boom in the late 1990s after the success of Scream, the distributors did not release these films on DVD in ‘Unrated’ versions. Instead, Dimension Films (then a subsidiary of Disney) issued Scream and its sequels, Scream 2 (Craven, 1997) and Scream 3 (Craven, 2000), on DVD in boxes with covers that were blandly designed, prominently featuring the then popular actors featured in the films. While Dimension was appealing to a collector’s sensibilities – the covers for all three discs feature a matching banner at the top that reads ‘Dimension Collector’s Series’ – they were not attempting to appeal to marginal, cultish collectors with DVD covers adorned with the visages of mainstream television stars such as Courtney Cox and Neve Campbell. These films were ‘low-cal’ horror, the mainstream opposite of the Italian horror released on DVD at the same time (Guins, 2005: 29).

Similar to the situation with VHS, ‘Unrated’ versions of films began to make their way into the mainstream during the DVD era when a respectable director encountered trouble with the MPAA and had to edit the films to achieve an R rating for theatrical release but were able to restore ‘lost’ footage to the film on DVD. This was the situation with director Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, released by Warner Bros. in 1999. Controversy surrounded Kubrick’s film before its release when ‘In order to obtain an R rating from the CARA board, Kubrick supervised the addition of computer-generated figures to obstruct [the audience’s] view of the action during a long and wholly unerotic orgy scene’ (Lewis, 2001: 23). Lewis reports that ‘a number of well-known film reviewers complained about the computer graphics’ that had been inserted into Kubrick’s film (2001: 24). In response, Terry Semel, a co-chairman at Warner Bros., explained their decision to insert the figures and secure an R rating for the film: ‘We’re not in the NC-17 business. NC-17 is a whole industry. It includes triple-X-rated porno films. So to us that’s just not a business that we’re in’ (quoted in Lewis, 2001: 24).

Lewis calls Semel’s comment ‘disingenuous’ partly because of the enormous possibilities for revenue that the home video market had opened up to the studios by allowing them to release movies on DVD with a different rating than their cinema release: ‘In 2001, Warner Brothers released the “director’s cut” on video and DVD. From the very start the plan at Warner Brothers was to cash in a second time on a film that really isn’t very good the first time you see it’ (Lewis 2001: 24). By this point, the majors saw the profitability of the ‘Unrated’ film on video. With the institution of sell through pricing for DVDs, the potential for profit outweighed the potential for risk from moral campaigners. To move (p.87) DVDs off the shelves of retailers such as Wal-Mart, DVDs had to be attractive commodities worth the dollars it took to purchase them. In the VHS era, it was not worth the trouble for the studios to invest in ‘Unrated’. The practice of renting films on VHS rather than owning them assured that independently owned rental outlets would enjoy the majority of revenues, so the studios did not focus on making VHS tapes attractive commodities for purchase. With DVDs, however, the more attractive these commodities could appear to potential buyers the better. After ‘Special Features’ and ‘Deleted Scenes’ were adopted as standards featured on many DVDs, it was not much of a jump to include scenes that were cut from the cinema release at the behest of CARA.

Still, spectres of the past always die hard, and studios proceeded with caution when issuing ‘Unrated’ movies on DVD. Issuing Eyes Wide Shut as ‘Unrated’ was not a risky move for Warner Bros. because the film was directed by one of cinema’s most acclaimed directors, starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, two of America’s most popular actors, and was the centre of a cause célèbre. This was similar to the case of another film issued in an ‘Unrated’ version by a major distributor in 2001, MGM’s DVD release of the controversial Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980). This DVD gave the consumer the option of viewing either an R rated, cinema cut of the film or an ‘Unrated’ cut. Like Eyes Wide Shut, Dressed to Kill was a film by an established, critically acclaimed director who had got into a public tussle with CARA over erotic – and, in the case of De Palma’s film, violent – content.

The first time that De Palma submitted his film to CARA, he received an X rating. Samuel Z. Arkoff, who was co-ordinating the ‘promotion and distribution’ of Dressed to Kill for Filmways, was pleased with this news:

When the CARA board initially indicated that Dressed to Kill would probably receive an X rating, most mainstream industry executives would have panicked. But Arkoff understood that the preliminary rating was mostly good news. So long as De Palma could somehow cut the film to suit CARA – and he had to in order to cash Arkoff’s check – the R-rated version of the film would be immediately notorious and easily exploitable.

(Lewis, 2000: 277)

Arkoff’s shrewd business plan found new life during the DVD era, as studios and distributors could potentially double their profit from controversy. If a film clashes with the MPAA and has to have footage removed for the cinema release of the film, audiences may be tempted to go to the cinema to see what the fuss is about. If the audience is still intrigued, they have the promise that the offending footage might be reinserted or made available as an extra feature for the film’s DVD release. The DVD would be available at a sell through price, a majority of which would end up in the distributor’s pocket.

(p.88) As ‘Unrated’ films became more prevalent on DVD in the early 2000s, their acceptability was aided by Blockbuster Inc. which was then owned by Viacom and was one of the most powerful players in the home video market. As Guins explains, Blockbuster was not ‘a neutral space and benign service provider for the distribution of prerecorded media for home consumption’ (2009: 98). Instead, as part of corporate Hollywood, Blockbuster was ‘a control technology’ for determining what was acceptable on the home video market (2009: 98). Even before Viacom purchased the company, Blockbuster helped the MPAA control the film marketplace by only stocking titles with MPAA-approved ratings, and it justified this decision under the banner of being family friendly. As former chief executive officer Wayne Huizenga once proclaimed, ‘Our philosophy is family and kids’ (quoted in Guins, 2009: 98–9).

While Blockbuster followed through on its philosophy and commitment to providing only family-friendly entertainment by refusing to stock X rated and even MPAA-approved NC-17 films, the corporation made a different decision when it came to ‘Unrated’ DVDs. Rather than refuse to carry them, Blockbuster stocked ‘Unrated’ films and made them readily available on the shelf next to a ‘Rated’ option (Guins, 2009: 99). Given that Blockbuster was an important component of the infrastructure of corporate Hollywood, the video chain’s decision to stock ‘Unrated’ titles represented a significant change in Hollywood’s self-regulatory policies. As Guins puts it:

Blockbuster’s access to the home through its channels of cable television, Internet rentals, and, soon to pass into obsolescence, video stores provides ways for its ‘philosophy’ to affect viewing in the home. Its policy governs access through these circuits of distribution. And these hold influence over Hollywood production on account of Blockbuster’s conglomerate ties to the industry. (2009: 100)

Blockbuster’s decisions have implications for the types of films that Hollywood makes and the types of films that viewers see. Their decision to stock ‘Unrated’ titles can be read as both the ‘Unrated’ DVD’s way in to the mainstream and as an invitation to exploit this new rating possibility. When the industry half-heartedly offered the NC-17 rating as an option in 1990, the studios’ true intentions could be read in the home video sector’s refusal, led by Blockbuster, to stock NC-17 titles. Conversely, Blockbuster stocking ‘Unrated’ films was a clear signal that the industry was in support of this new classification, at least for home video.

Blockbuster’s acceptance of ‘Unrated’ DVDs may, at first, resemble New Line’s attempts to revive their dying Elm Street franchise in 1989 with an ‘Unrated’ VHS release. The decision might look like a last-ditch effort for Blockbuster because the company went into financial decline after the rapid (p.89) growth of the DVD sell through market in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Daniel Gross explains that Blockbuster’s profit margins were designed for renting videos, not selling them: ‘it is three and half times more profitable for Blockbuster to rent than sell’ (Gross, 2004). The decline of Blockbuster was no accident, however: the industry knew that to create a sell through market, the rental market – at least, the traditional, bricks and mortar rental market – would have to be sacrificed. This sacrifice came in late 2010, when Blockbuster declared itself bankrupt. Dish Network purchased Blockbuster in early 2011 but has, to date, been unable to decide what do to with the property. They tried video by mail and instant streaming options but Netflix, the Internet rental business that took off in the wake of Blockbuster’s fall, had already conquered this market. To make things worse, Redbox, a company that loans DVDs and Blu-rays via kiosks placed outside supermarkets and retail markets, has stolen customers from Blockbuster. As Redbox continues to grow, Dish Network continues to shutter Blockbuster shops.

Netflix and Redbox followed in Blockbuster’s path and continue to offer consumers access to ‘Unrated’ movies. Around the time Blockbuster was normalising ‘Unrated’ movies on DVD, independent distributor Lionsgate was solidifying its position as the top independent distributor in the film industry, and it made its future plans evident in industry trade magazines such as Variety. For instance, a September 2004 article for Variety by Dana Harris depicts Lionsgate as ready to profit from the industry’s acceptance of ‘Unrated’. As Harris notes, the studio found itself ‘on top of the indie heap’ partly because of its ‘relatively inexpensive pickup’ of Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever which ended up being a hit (Harris, 2004). Further, Harris remarks that Lionsgate planned to remain on top by repeating the success of Roth’s low on budget, high on gore hit: ‘Look for the company to turn away from the bigger budgets in favor of low-cost, high-return properties such as Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, a sequel to distrib’s 2003 hit House of 1000 Corpses’ (Harris, 2004). Mentioned in passing at the conclusion of Harris’s article is Lionsgate’s January 2004 acquisition of Saw, the spectacular success of which would further solidify Lionsgate’s reliance on low-budget, gory horror films for a reliable stream of revenue. Lionsgate’s turn towards ‘grindhouse’ horror was addressed again in a Variety article by David S. Cohen published almost a year after Harris’s article. According to Cohen, Harris’s prediction that Lionsgate would turn towards low-budget, violent horror had come true, with Rob Zombie leading the way: ‘The truest reincarnations of the grindhouse … have come from rocker-turned-shock auteur Rob Zombie’ (Cohen, 2004).

This evocation of the ‘grindhouse’ may have had cachet with some viewers but it seems like a shaky foundation upon which to build an independent production and distribution business, especially in corporate Hollywood. Lionsgate’s decision to proceed in this manner grows even more questionable (p.90) in the light of Davis’s and Natale’s findings that gorier horror films perform worse at the box office than those with little or no gore, like ‘the ghost film, haunted house film, and period horror’ (2010: 46, 48). Lionsgate’s actions begin to make more sense, however, when one looks beyond the box office and at ancillary markets which accounted for almost 80 per cent of studio revenue at the turn of the century (Ulin, 2009: 161). Lionsgate’s Splat Pack films were perfect products for a home video market in which the ratings system had grown more elastic with the widespread acceptance of ‘Unrated’ movies on DVD. Their films needed ‘just enough’ violence and gore in their cinema release to encourage audiences to investigate the ‘Unrated’ cut on video. With this plan, Lionsgate was, in many ways, simply putting their own twist on a trend that was industry wide. The ‘theatrical platform, to which most of the PR hoopla, magazine covers, TV talk shows, and the rest of the celebrity-worshipping culture is geared, is crucial to generate world wide DVD sales’ (Epstein, 2010: 184). Studios were using the cinema window to create publicity for the video release. Following suit, the cinema versions of films, such as Saw and Hostel, were merely rough cuts or previews of the ‘final’ version that would be available on DVD.

This trend caused cinema owners – especially those like AMC and Regal that are not owned by the same corporate parents that own the studios – to feel as if they were being used. In a speech delivered at the ShoWest Opening Ceremonies in March 2007, John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), attacked the practice of releasing ‘Unrated’ movies on DVD, stating:

we call for our studio partners to abandon the practice of releasing unrated DVDs of the same movies that played in our theatres with a rating. We know that unrated DVDs – unlike unrated movies in our theatres – can do brisk sales. But it is frankly galling to see marketing campaigns designed around the very fact that a movie is ‘unrated and uncensored’. That cheap shot at the rating system undermines everything we strive to accomplish in partnership with America’s parents … At an absolute minimum, no movie should ever be marketed on the basis that it flouts the rating system.

(Fithian, 2007: 3)

The proverbial genie was already out of the bottle in 2007, however; almost a year earlier, Roth had already noted that the ‘Unrated’ DVD ‘changed everything’.

Lionsgate took advantage of the ‘Unrated’ format with their DVD release of Haute Tension and The Devil’s Rejects as the DVD format allowed them to add footage that allegedly had to be cut for cinema release. ‘Unrated’ DVDs also allowed Lionsgate to continue to up the ante for the films in their Saw (p.91)

The DVD Revolution and the Horror Film, Take TwoRise of the ‘Unrated’

Figure 4.3 An ‘Unrated’ evisceration from the ‘Director’s cut’ of Saw III.

© Twisted Pictures/Evolution Entertainment.

series. Not only did 2006’s Saw III become the highest grossing film of the series, pulling in just over $80 million in United States box office sales, but an ‘Unrated’ version (with just under a minute of gore restored) sold nearly three million copies on DVD and earned over $45.5 million, more than half of its cinema earnings. The Saw III DVD was the best-selling horror DVD of 2007, Lionsgate’s best-selling release of a feature film on DVD in 2007, and the thirty-eighth best-selling DVD of 2007.

When box office numbers for the Saw series began to slip, Lionsgate increased the amount of restored footage to the DVD versions of the films, a move that resembles New Line’s decision to release an ‘Unrated’ VHS version of the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street after that film underperformed at the box office. While under a minute of footage was restored for the ‘Unrated’ version of the top-grossing Saw III, much more was added to the fourth and fifth films. For instance, when the United States earnings of Saw IV fell from the third film’s gross of $80 million to $63 million, the DVD release of Saw IV beefed up the film’s running time from ninety-two to ninety-five minutes. Something similar happened with Saw V. Again, American box office earnings fell – this time to $56 million – and the ‘Unrated’ DVD version extended the film’s running time by four minutes. While not all of the material added to the films consists of gore, the implication of the ‘Unrated’ label is that the material being reinserted into the film is in some way ‘forbidden’. The strategy worked; like the Saw III DVD, the DVD releases of Saw IV and Saw V were immensely (p.92) profitable, with the fourth film reaching thirty-ninth and the fifth reaching fifty-fourth place during their respective years of release.

‘Unrated’ Saw DVDs have generated major sales for Lionsgate that put these DVDs in the same league as family films and mainstream blockbuster releases. Saw III sold about 150,000 more copies than the family-oriented film Flicka (Mayer, 2006) during 2007. Figures like these, coupled with Eli Roth bragging about the DVD release of Hostel dethroning Chronicles of Narnia as the best-selling DVD at Wal-Mart, illustrate how the landscape of the home video market has changed since the VHS era when blockbusters and family films dominated the sales charts and ‘Unrated’ videos were relegated to collectors and sold for nearly a hundred dollars each. Now, issuing ‘Unrated’ cuts of films on DVD is commonplace. Perhaps the best example of this is when, in early 2009, Paramount finally issued an official release of the ‘Unrated’ cut of the first Friday the 13th film with the ‘offending’ nine seconds restored to the film at last. Paramount still shied away from the ‘Unrated’ label, however, rereleasing the film on DVD and Blu-Ray with the title ‘Friday the 13th Uncut’ on the cover and the spine of the box while the ‘Unrated’ label is hidden on the bottom of the back of the box.

Conclusion to Part I: Approaching the ‘Film-on-DVD’

A confluence of factors surrounding the DVD format – how it framed horror films as ‘art’ and how it made ‘Unrated’ films more widely acceptable and available – created a media marketplace in which the Splat Pack films could be released, receive wide attention and attain financial success. As such, the Splat Pack is not exactly an independent-minded rebellion against the Hollywood establishment even though it is often depicted as such. Instead, their films represent the efforts of an independent distributor trying both to follow and to create new industry trends. The Splat Pack is not operating ‘outside’ or ‘against’ the MPAA and the ratings system inasmuch as they are working alongside them to create a novel commodity for a very specific industry marketplace. In their case, the novelty is including ‘forbidden’ visuals that viewers have not been able to see in a cinema or in a horror film before.

The marketing impulses that have manifested themselves in the journalistic hype surrounding the Splat Pack and in the material changes in the film industry that have enabled their success reveal the need to consider the commodity status of the Splat Pack’s films before delving into a cultural or ideological analysis of the films. Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus call the DVD ‘perhaps the ultimate example of media-industry synergy, in which the promotion of a media product is collapsed into the product itself’ (2002: 23). The commodity status of Splat Pack films is inextricably bound up in the DVD-fuelled home video market that gave rise to their success, thus making (p.93) it imperative that the films be read in context of synergistic practices that produced them and sold them to viewers. The films of the Splat Pack can and should be read specifically as ‘films-on-DVD’.

Regarding ‘films-on-DVD’, Klinger argues, ‘Special collector’s editions are … suggestive for textual study’ because ‘As feature films appear in new cuts with added footage, their definition as texts becomes unstable’ (2006: 72). Harold E. Hinds Jr posits a useful methodology for approaching the ‘unstable’ texts of films on DVD. According to Hinds, the ‘texts’ of popular culture, such as films, always:

come with a lot of accessory baggage, and thus form what has been termed an ‘encrusted’ text. The ‘primary’ text is encrusted within a sublevel of texts which are produced by the cultural industry to promote it: these consist of such items as ads, criticism and comments, gossip columns, and fan magazines. The original and encrusting text(s) together form a ‘super’ text, the appropriate text for study. (2006: 168)

In the case of ‘Unrated’, ‘Special edition’, and ‘Collector’s edition’ DVDs, the ‘primary’ text (the film) is yoked together and encrusted with the culture industry’s ‘sublevel’ of texts (commentaries, ‘making of’ documentaries and so on) thus making them especially rich objects of study. In the following chapters, the films of the Splat Pack are considered as ‘unstable’ and ‘encrusted’ texts through the matrix of their commodification on DVD.


(1.) For more on the distributors’ takeover of exhibition after 1985, see Lewis, 2003: 86 and Acland, 2003: 90–106.

(2.) For the record, Friday the 13th’s body count is ten which is double Halloween’s but short of the trailer’s promise of thirteen.

(3.) Warner Bros. acquired distribution rights for the film outside the United States and released it uncut on videotape in the United Kingdom. This ‘Unrated’ version of the film did not fall foul of the ‘video nasties’ controversy.

(4.) These two films gained infamy when they were included on the list of ‘video nasties’. (p.94)


(1.) For more on the distributors’ takeover of exhibition after 1985, see Lewis, 2003: 86 and Acland, 2003: 90–106.

(2.) For the record, Friday the 13th’s body count is ten which is double Halloween’s but short of the trailer’s promise of thirteen.

(3.) Warner Bros. acquired distribution rights for the film outside the United States and released it uncut on videotape in the United Kingdom. This ‘Unrated’ version of the film did not fall foul of the ‘video nasties’ controversy.

(4.) These two films gained infamy when they were included on the list of ‘video nasties’. (p.94)