Working from a story by director James Cameron, 20th Century Fox released Kathryn Bigelow's science fiction thriller Strange Days in the October of 1995, which would go on to earn Bigelow a Saturn Award for Best Director. Despite earning
well-deserved praise from select film critics, including Roger Ebert, the film made just under $8 million in the United States on its $42 million budget. In the years since, however, the film has gone on to become something of a cult hit, and the
film currently holds a respectable 7.2 rating on the IMDb.
Set in the final days of the year 1999 during a period of civil unrest following the murder of an influential rap artist named Jeriko One, Strange Days centres around the character of Lenny Nero, a former LAPD cop, who now makes his living
selling bootlegs of so-called SQUID recordings. SQUID recordings are a kind of hyper-realistic video recording made directly from one person's cerebral cortex; a process which allows another person to experience the actual emotions and memories
of the recordings as if they were there in person. However, Lenny refuses to deal in so-called 'blackjack' (or snuff) recordings. One day, Lenny receives such a recording from an anonymous individual, which shows the murder of a prostitute named
Iris, with whom Lenny was acquainted. This turn of events sees Lenny, and his two close friends Mace and Max, become entangled in a web of blackmail, conspiracy, murder and corruption as they seek to uncover the link between the death of Jeriko
One and Iris.
In the United States, the film received an R rating after cuts had been made to satisfy the MPAA, and this US theatrical cut would become the 'uncut' version released in other countries. Following its classification in America, Strange Days came
before the BBFC for a UK cinema rating in 1995 but the classification of the film across the pond wouldn't go quite as smoothly as it had in the United States. In this special edition of Cutting Edge, we'll be taking an unprecedented look at the
BBFC's files on Strange Days in order to explain the story behind the film's UK release.
Strange Days at the Cinema
Strange Days was first seen officially at the BBFC on September 21st 1995, and response to the film was generally positive. One examiner report from the time states that the film is:
...a visually stunning and skilfully crafted actioner... I was left with an immensely powerful and passionate experience...
Another report also speaks positively of the film:
...it's certainly a gripping and intelligent movie with above par ideas for this kind of thing, and a secure grip on the thrills of high action and suspense in a technical tour-de-force.
However, the BBFC file on Strange Days notes that a key scene in the film -- Lenny's viewing of the blackjack recording of Iris's rape and murder -- caused some examiners to have "grave reservations" about the scene. Interestingly,
these examiners were largely male, and included the BBFC's director James Ferman. However, a report by a female examiner states that:
I do believe it would be the wrong decision to cut this scene on film... not least for the fact that cutting would excise the heart (and perhaps the soul?) of Strange Days. Without these, we, the film and our need to learn or experience
something of the human condition from the cinema, is lost.
Her colleague also stated in her report that:
This snuff clip forces [Lenny] to finally confront and reject the software culture with its voyeurism on other people's experiences, and the film invites us to do the same. The scene was so disturbing as to preclude any
misreading that there was a sexual pleasure being offered here.
Overall, the film critiques the amoral universe it has created... I would argue that the film should be passed 18 uncut.
Agreeably, a report written by a male BBFC examiner states:
The obvious major concern with the film is the sequence in reel three. The scene shocks and the idea of a multiplicity of perspectives is chilling. Without the scene what is there to move the plot? The question is, is the extent of violence and
terror unacceptable and does it offer a degree of sexual frisson as turn-on?
I believe that the terror generated is so strong, as to turn men away from any notion of pleasure [and] I am for keeping the film intact and passing uncut at 18.
The main issue with this snuff sequence (as with all such SQUID recordings in the film) is that it is shot entirely from a first-person point of view; a clever filmic choice by director Bigelow which directly makes a voyeur out of us, the viewer,
whether we invite it or not. The possibility of cuts was discussed after the initial viewing at the BBFC, with a large question mark having being written on the film's paperwork along with a comment stating that:
Further viewing of scene required.
Given the problematic nature of the scene, a second viewing of Strange Days was undertaken by the BBFC almost a month later on October 17th, with the Board's President and Vice Presidents viewing the complete, uncut version of the film. They were
less enamoured with the film than the original BBFC examiners, and the snuff sequence was discussed at length. The Presidents were not sure that cuts would be useful, although it was acknowledged that the scene:
...could be a turn-on to some viewers.
trashing the artistic integrity of
Following these discussions, BBFC director James Ferman felt that one small cut could be made to remove what he called the "forcible exposure of breasts" in the scene. On November 12th of 1995, Ferman wrote to Bigelow in the United
States in order to outline his proposed change to the scene. Given the fact that numerous examiners were in favour of passing Strange Days entirely uncut on film, Ferman's letter speaks volumes and read, in part, as follows:
What concerns us is the shot in which the subjective camera simply looks at the victim's naked breasts preparatory to assaulting her. This is frighteningly reminiscent of the slasher movies of the '70s/'80s in which women were regularly stripped
for the slasher's knife, the genre we used to describe as "See the pretty lady, cut her up!". For more than 20 years, it has been our policy to cut such visuals when they appear as a prelude to violence against women, since we are
worried about their turn-on effect on the kind of men who buy snuff movie sequences for kicks. Clearly your film presupposes that there are men out there who would be tempted to get off on such footage, and given the visceral excitements offered
by Strange Days, this is surely not an unreasonable possibility for us to worry about.
Please don't think this is a criticism of the film, which we all admire. What I do think is that audiences in England might find this scene more acceptable with this small trim, since those who understand the film and are carried along by its
moral development may worry as much as we have at the possibility that the scene will have an appeal to those with no interest in moral issues.
Defending the artistic integrity of
director Kathryn Bigelow
It would be over a month until Ferman received a reply, which came into the BBFC on December 15th 1995. One of the film's producers responded to Ferman's concerns, leaving no doubt as to the position the filmmakers were taking on the snuff
I am extremely proud to have been a part of the long struggle to get ["Strange Days"] made without artistic compromise in a studio system which rewards "Batman" sequels and "Dumb and Dumber". At every juncture a
conscious decision was made by us to use off-camera inferred and implied action to accomplish our goals. The minimum amount of on-camera violence has been used.
Let us most emphatically say this: "Strange Days" bears no resemblance to a 'slasher film', or as you say 'See the pretty lady, cut her up!" The movies that you refer to do not have any moral reference point and are intentionally
exploitative. "Strange Days" by contrast has a very strong and clear moral compass... [Lenny's] horror at the actions of the killer is abundantly clear, both in reactions at the time, and in subsequent scenes, and the film never
glorifies the killer's actions.
"Obviously, we agree with your assessment of "Strange Days" with an 18 rating. However, we believe that in the sequence in question, to cut further would rob it of impact, which is not gratuitous but is the plot-engine which
drives the entire story. I feel strongly that we are standing now on the threshold of Kathryn's artistic integrity being threatened... I urge you to reconsider your position.
Cut Scenes: Cinema cuts to the killing of Iris
But true to style, Ferman stood his ground. In the January of 1996, Ferman was informed that Bigelow thought that his request to remove the sight of Iris's killer gazing at her naked breasts before cutting her underwear was a reasonable one,
and one which would not spoil the sequence. Bigelow had her editor Howard Smith make the change and this was accomplished by extending the preceding shot of Lenny in the car by one and a half seconds in order to cover the offending footage of
nudity in the proceeding shot. This change ensured that the film's running time would remain unchanged for the film's British release.
This re-cut sequence was seen by Ferman, along with three other examiners, just over a month later on February 13th 1996 when Strange Days was finally issued its 18 rating. All of the BBFC examiners in attendance agreed that the cut was
acceptable and had not damaged the scene, but that quite rightly there was:
...some question as to how much of a difference it had made.
Furthermore, the viewing team concurred that the scene:
...remained exceptionally strong, which would need to be reconsidered seriously on video.
Indeed, the snuff sequence would go on to be treated more harshly when Strange Days came in for a video certificate later in 1996.
Strange Days on Video
Under terms set out in the Video Recordings Act 1984 (which had been introduced by the Conservative British government of that year), the BBFC were obliged to take extra precautions when classifying motion pictures for viewing in the home. In
part, this meant that the BBFC had the power to censor a film more heavily on video in comparison to its theatrical version, due to the fact that scenes from a film could be played out of context within the confines of a home viewing environment.
Particularly, it was far easier for underage viewers to view scenes on videotape without supervision, so even 18-rated films were often cut on video to remove objectionable material for fear of children being exposed to unsuitable content.
Embarrassingly, the Video Recordings Act would be discovered to have been unenforceable in 2009, since the European Commission was not notified about its inception. Nevertheless, in 1996 this was not known, and the BBFC acted within the confines
of the Act.
Cut Scenes: Video cuts to the killing of Iris
CIC Video submitted Strange Days for a VHS classification in 1996. The version submitted was the uncut version that had been released in other countries outside of the United Kingdom. As previously discussed, the snuff sequence had been
flagged as needing to be reconsidered on video, and as a result James Ferman implemented six cuts to the scene to make it suitable for viewing in the home. For the UK video version, the BBFC cuts list sent to the distributors demanded:
Reduce 'snuff' sequence showing the rape and murder of Iris through the murderer's eyes, as follows:
After Iris is handcuffed to towel rail and Lenny reacts in car, remove all sight of stun gun being used on her crotch, resuming on wide interior of car with driver foreground.
Reduce cutting off of her T-shirt to establishment only, removing sight of her bare-breasted torso, resuming on Lenny's reaction.
Reduce full sight of her exposed breasts at beginning of next shot, resuming as man's hand cuts knicker elastic.
After Lenny's reaction to T-shirt being twisted around neck, reduce strangling of Iris by removing beginning of shot in which camera opens on bare breasts and pans up and back down again.
After Lenny's car careers around corner, remove pan down to her bare breast again during strangling, resuming after camera pans up to her face.
As her head falls forward unconscious, remove pan down to full shot of bare breast, replacing it with insert reaction shot of Lenny, resuming on her to see knot being relaxed as she dies.
After the filmmakers had implemented Ferman's changes, Strange Days was classified 18 for a video release on September 6th 1996 after 13 seconds of cuts. A pre-cut version was later submitted for classification the following year and was passed
without further changes on April 9th 1997. This was rereleased on VHS in May and again in March 2001.
James Ferman subsequently reserved one final (and particularly damning) criticism of the film for the BBFC's 1996 Annual Report. In a carefully worded comment, Ferman accused the controversial murder scene of offering the same kind of pleasures
as a snuff movie, remarking:
The already reduced rape-murder scene in Strange Days was also found unacceptable on video, where the murder was further reduced to remove sexualised images of forcible breast exposure in a medium which could permit the repeated viewing of such
scenes out of context. The scene was designed to convey the dangerous pleasures purveyed by 'snuff movies', but it seemed to the Board to have come perilously close to providing those same pleasures itself.
A 20-minute behind-the-scenes documentary on Strange Days was submitted for a classification in 1998 and was cut by one second before being granted an 18 rating at the end of March that year. This cut removed the brief sight of Iris' crotch being
attacked with the tazer, which had been already been cut from the video.
Strange Days is still cut on UK DVD but the
uncut Australian DVD is encoded to play on UK DVD players
As of 2015, the uncut version of Strange Days is yet to be released in the UK, with the DVD containing the same cut version of the film that has been available on home video for almost 20 years. However, British fans wishing to own the uncut
version can import the Australian DVD, which is encoded for use on Region 2 players and features an anamorphic widescreen transfer. To avoid the 'PAL speedup' on the Australian disc, fans may wish to opt instead for the American Region 1 DVD,
which is also uncut and THX certified. However, the transfer does not feature anamorphic enhancement.
The uncut German Blu-ray is encoded
to play on UK Blu-ray players
For those wishing to own the film in high definition, the German Blu-ray releases also contain the uncut version of the film, with DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in English. These discs are encoded for Region B playback and will play on all UK
Blu-ray players. Additionally, all of the special features on the German Blu-rays are in English, aside from a 23-minute behind-the-scenes documentary which is in German. The ultimate decision rests with you the viewer, but for now, fans of
Strange Days would be wise to avoid any UK release of the film until the BBFC pass the uncut version for home viewing.
Cutting Edge Video Episode 30: Strange Days Special Edition
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.