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The Frighteners

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The Frighteners...

Cutting Edge Episode 21: Too frightening for an MPAA PG-13 and an uncut BBFC 15

Link Here21st May 2015

Although he is now widely known as the man behind The Lord of the Rings films, director Peter Jackson got his start in movies directing black comedy horror films. His first feature, Bad Taste , was a low-budget gory splatter comedy, and it was released in 1987. Jackson later returned to the genre with his gloriously over-the-top gore fest Braindead in 1992. After heavy cuts to appease the MPAA which removed over 10 minutes of violence, it was eventually released the following year with an R rating, with the rather humorous content description:

Rated R for an abundance of outrageous gore.

Following the success of his drama Heavenly Creatures in 1994, Jackson teamed up with acclaimed producer Robert Zemeckis to make the black comedy horror film The Frighteners in 1996. It lacked the outrageous bloody violence from Jackson's earlier films, and received generally positive reviews from critics at the time. However, it barely made back its costs, making just over $29 million on its $26 million budget. The Frighteners has since enjoyed a rebirth on home video, when Jackson's director's cut was released on DVD in 2005.


MPAA Takes Fright

Jackson countered the darker subject matter with comedy
in an attempt to get a PG-13 rating

The Frighteners had its fair share of production troubles. Aware that he was supposed to deliver a PG-13 rating for the film studio, Jackson ran into problems with the MPAA in the United States following a screening of his film. He had made a conscious effort during shooting to make sure that bloodletting was kept to a minimum, and that the violence and horror were not too strong, but the MPAA took issue with the supernatural finale of the film where the killer Johnny Bartlett and his lover kill people in a hospital with a shotgun. Jackson clarified to the ratings board that the violence was implied and unseen, but the MPAA countered that it was the overall dark tone of the sequences that pushed the film into R territory. After Jackson had made numerous cuts, the MPAA did not relent, so Jackson reinstated the cut material as well as beefing up other sequences at the end of the film, and The Frighteners was thus released with an R rating in the United States.

BBFC Takes Fright

The film later came in to the BBFC for a theatrical certificate, where it was decreed that cuts were required for a 15 rating. It is worth mentioning that when Jackson's earlier film Braindead had come in for classification, a case was made by the BBFC that the film should be passed as a 15, despite its graphic, gory violence. One examiner at the time noted:

I was strongly tempted to go for '15' despite the endless succession of amputated limbs, beheadings, buckets of blood [and] dismemberments... Despite there being so much [gore], it is only part of the mechanism of the comedy. I don't think I've laughed so much at a film all year, and I'm not a fan of the genre.

However, following the misguided outrage over the 'Video Nasties' in the 1980s (with films like The Evil Dead causing headaches for both the BBFC and the British tabloids), another BBFC examiner countered:

Apart from the political factor, we need to be very careful before pushing back the horror boundaries too quickly. As things now stand, BRAINDEAD must surely remain '18' uncut.

Braindead was released with an 18 rating, and continues to be available at that category now. With a 15 rating for that film being suggested, it is quite puzzling that the censors of 1997 ordered cuts to The Frighteners; a much tamer and less graphic film.

Cut Scenes:  Dead Mother

Three cuts to reel 5 were demanded before a rating could be granted, with the first two occurring when Lucy discovers the evil Patricia's dead mother in her bedroom:

Reduce blood and gore for the '15' by cutting zoom-in to corpse at about halfway, losing the final 15 frames of bloody face, and then, when Lucy gets up onto bed to escape being stabbed, trim the opening of shot so that corpse is masked by Lucy almost immediately.

As it stands, these cuts made little difference to the strength of the scene.

Around 26 frames were removed to reduce the shock effect of Mrs. Bradley's corpse 

Cut Scenes: Exploding head

The final cut occurred a little while later, when Frank Bannister (played by Michael J. Fox) finds himself trapped between Dammers and the shotgun-toting Patricia. Moving out of the way of Patricia at the last second, Bannister narrowly avoids being shot and Dammers has his head blown off instead, as previously discussed. Ironically, had Peter Jackson removed this footage for a PG-13 rating, this scene would have escaped the BBFC's scissors, but instead cuts were duly ordered, with the BBFC demanding:

When FBI man is shot by Patricia, reduce sight of his exploding head to only three frames of blood expanding to fill screen, removing blowing apart of head with bits of flesh and gore flying off in all directions, which is excessive at '15'.

(Inserting reaction shots of hero or Patricia would enable you to cut back to ghostly head appear on headless torso, which is funny).

To accommodate this demand, the distributors rearranged the footage slightly, cutting away to Bannister falling through the floor to safety and masking the gory impact shot.

The footage shown in the top image was substituted with the footage shown on the bottom,

Following these three cuts, The Frighteners was passed with a 15 rating on January 10th 1997. This cut version was later released on video, LaserDisc and DVD between 1997 and 1999. Annoyingly, in what appears to have been an effort to save money by not having to produce different DVD masters for different countries, Europe and Australia received the same cut UK version on DVD as well, since those regions use the same PAL video format as the UK. The American Region 1 DVD, to name but one exception, was released fully uncut.

The UK, Europe and Australia
all received the UK-censored version on DVD  


The BBFC gets over its fright

Peter Jackson's director's cut of The Frighteners came in to the BBFC for a new DVD rating in 2005, and with both a new Chief Censor and set of classification guidelines in place, the BBFC waived all their previous cuts to the film and passed it uncut with a 15 rating on November 11th 2005 for:

Moderate bloody violence and language."

This version was released on HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and the latter is now the standard version available to British consumers, with the disc containing both the theatrical version and the director's cut. However, the BBFC website does not currently indicate that the theatrical version has officially been passed uncut.

UK Blu-ray



Cutting Edge Video Episode 21: The Frighteners


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.

Gavin has written about film censorship for Melon Farmers since the year 2000. See more on the Cutting Edge Facebook Page.
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