Last year, when Lion's Gate released the restored DVD of the original My Bloody Valentine, timed to coincide with the theatrical release of the company's fun 3D remake, fans rejoiced. For years, the title had been one of the most frustrating rentals on home video shelves. It was intriguing and creepy, but Paramount had really taken the scissors to the gore scenes. I rented it a few times because I really liked the atmosphere, but the obvious cuts made me want to scream.
Some say the extreme censorship may have been motivated by the outrage directed at the studio's bloody Friday the 13th released the year before. I think that's true. Although the slasher craze would last through the entire decade, the films actually became less violent as they went along. Jason Takes Manhattan was particularly lame.
I'm always skeptical about those UNCUT AND UNCENSORED! claims in DVD releases. Everyone knows now that the R-rated films you see in theaters will become the "unrated director's cut!" when they reach home video. Still, I had to see what the restored Bloody Valentine was all about. To my surprise and delight, the restored scenes are really nasty. They're not color-corrected to match the rest of the film, but who cares? Now you get to see Harry Warden chowing down on another miner, Mabel's well-cooked body falling out of the clothes dryer in the laundromat, pickaxes rammed into eyes, pipes jammed through heads...sheer heaven for gorehounds.
1981's The Burning, an early Miramax (!) film, is another one that is the stuff of legend. Tom Savini's special effects were supposedly so horrifying that they needed immediate removal. I saw the uncut DVD, and the effects are certainly outre but rather goofy. The film's only interest these days is that it provides early roles for Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander.
Splatter started out strong. The first Friday was pretty red (Sean Cunningham, producer of 1974's Last House on the Left, was the director), and William's Lustig's unrated Maniac (released by Analysis, the company that gave America Tinto Brass's shocking porno Caligula that same year) upped the ante considerably. But the conservative backlash swiftly followed, and a lot of mid-decade splatters would probably fetch a PG-13 these days.
Throughout the '80s I would rent horror films that I hoped would deliver the requisite red stuff, but I frequently found myself disappointed. Some of them were still interesting enough to watch all the way through, but the censoring was so crude—abrupt scene changes, jumps in the soundtrack—that you knew you'd just missed something good. This happened most frequently with foreign films. Distributors who were anxious to sell as many videotapes as possible would change titles, snip prints to shreds and pay for that all-important MPAA "R" rating. It wasn't until the end of the decade that they caught on and realized there was a fan base that wanted the uncut versions.
Dario Argento's movies got the most damaged, unfortunately. Though his masterpiece Suspiria didn't received a legitimate release until Magnum Video distributed it in 1989 (in three versions—R-rated, uncut and letterboxed uncut), his other films regularly went under the knife and got ridiculous title changes to boot.
Anxious to relive the Suspiria experience (ironically I'd only ever seen the Fox-distributed International Classics R-rated cut), I'd rent anything with Argento's name on it, only to be aggravated again and again. His classic 1982 Giallo Tenebrae became Unsane (huh?) for American audiences, and the gore (and some kinkiness) was almost completely removed. Still, the story was compelling, and they preserved the pop-up surprise at the end which scared the hell out of me the first time.
Inferno, the sequel to Suspiria, was released by Fox Home Video in 1980 and fared far worse. Already shaky in the story department, it became almost completely incomprehensible in the hands of the editors. And it was boring—no fun bloody payoffs. When Anchor Bay released the uncensored DVD years later, I still thought the story was a little weak, but at least there were some fun murders, restored to their gory glory. And when I finally saw the original cut of Suspiria—what a revelation! Now you get to see the entire throat slitting in the barbed wire room, the piano player's larynx being ripped out by his seeing-eye dog, and the excruciating, drawn-out stabbing scene that starts the film off with a bang.
Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly's film debut, 1984's Phenomena, became Creepers in the States. Because it had such inherent weirdness going on, I thought it survived the pruning, but once again I was thrilled by Anchor Bay's restored cut. I still hate the heavy metal score Argento used, which doesn't match the onscreen action at all, except for the great title track.
Deep Red (which was subtitled "The Hatchet Murders" in its R-rated version) also benefits from restored gore—and even restored dialogue scenes, presented with English subtitles, because they were never translated. It's probably Argento's most comprehensible film—a Giallo with David Hemmings playing a character modeled after the one he'd played in Antonioni's Blow-Up just a couple of years before.
Argento has spoken frequently about the censorship indignities his films have undergone in the States, but I think it's a tribute to his skill that some of them still make for compelling viewing even after being neutered by a pair of blunt-edge scissors.
There were a lot of low-budget distributors in the game—like Wizard, Paragon, United and Unicorn—who bypassed the MPAA and released their cheesy horrors without ratings. These were the "big box" guys—they packaged their tapes in oversized boxes that would be more prominent on crowded video shelves. The packaging was also extremely sleazy...the VHS equivalent of the Times Square grindhouses that were ironically starting to grind to a halt...because of home video. And ironically the Times Square audiences were frequently enjoying uncut prints while home video renters were seeing the same films cut to smithereens.
Sometimes you'd see a real gem in its original moist European cut, but sometimes it'd be a terrible transfer from a 16mm print already snipped and bleeped for television. It was really hit-and-miss. Wizard's 1981 release of Zombie was uncut, but it was also unconscionably green and pan-and-scanned to the square television format, meaning unless the action took place in the dead center of the screen, you missed it! Particularly ruined was the famous wood-splinter-in-the-eye scene.
Funny how when things change, they still stay the same. Recently Cinemax (and now Fox Movie Channel) has been running the International Classics cut of Suspiria. I guess Fox must have bought the rights in perpetuity—they've had it for 34 years now—but it's still that old censored print I first saw at the State Lake Theater in Chicago when I was a teenager. And the excised gore is certainly no worse than the torture porn that regularly receives "R" ratings in theaters these days. Even Paramount has come around and released uncut versions of some of the Fridays. Kevin Bacon's famous death certainly gets considerably juicier:
But nowadays, when the theatrical "R"s are harder than the old unrateds, and HBO's "True Blood" is steamier than all of them, where else do we have to go?
Oh, yeah. Amateur porn.