Actually, I always have questions, but I’m limiting myself here to questions that involve movies, since those are germane to this column. In this case, I’m posing two questions. I don’t necessarily expect any answers, but these seem to be worth some contemplation. Let’s start with this PG-13 version of The King’s Speech that crept its way into theaters this week.
You may have missed this interesting event. I’d heard nothing about this new “family friendly” version of The King’s Speech until I saw some theater booking sheets last Monday. I subsequently learned that the Weinsteins—apparently without the agreement of the director, screenwriter, or star—made “judicicous” alterations in the film’s soundtrack, so it could be recertified in this country with a PG-13 and they could flog it to a theoretically larger audience than the original R-rated version. I haven’t seen the “sanitized” version myself—nor do I have any interest in doing so—but apparently all but one of the film’s uses of the word “f*ck” have been overdubbed with the word “sh*t.”
Apparently, “sh*t” is more “family friendly” than “f*ck”—and not just with the ever-mystifying MPAA rating folks, but with parents. Times change, I suppose, but I suspect I’d have gotten in just about the same amount of trouble for using either word in front of my parents—or other adults—prior to my later (post-high school) teens. Despite what parents might like to believe, it’s unlikely that their children—those old enough to sit through two hours of high-toned British drama—are unfamiliar with either word.
This isn’t quite precedent-setting. Movies have been altered for a softer rating before. Offhand, I can think of two—John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977) and John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981)—that were re-cut after the fact to be re-issued with a “friendlier” rating. I’ve lost track of the various cuts of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), but there’s a 111 UK version, a 109 minute X-rated US version, a 101 minute R-Rated version, and probably a US TV print. For that matter, cutting films for TV is an old, old practice. However, this is—as far as I know—the first time a Best Picture Oscar winner has been subjected to this in its theatrical release.
Does anyone else find this a little outrageous? Or at the very least disrepectful? It’s certainly on the ironic side that a movie called The King’s Speech should have its words censored. I’d find it all a little less troubling if both versions were still kicking around, but so far as I can tell, all the R-rated prints have been pulled and replaced by this new Weinstein-ified one. Of course, the Weinsteins are touting this altered version as a great thing—an opportunity for parents to take the kiddies to this movie. (Hands up, everyone who thinks that children are just dying to go see a movie about a king they’ve never heard of and his stammering problem.) Let’s be honest, this is simply a cash-grab to milk a few more bucks out of a movie that’s been playing since Christmas day.
What I personally find even more perplexing than this trivializing of a fine film is there appear to be quite a few people who embrace the idea. Beyond this, I’ve seen people express the view that they’d been “really looking forward” to the film, but now wouldn’t be going. Now, I’m far from in favor of this kind of bastardization, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine that there’s anyone “really looking forward” to seeing The King’s Speech, who hasn’t had the chance of doing so in the space of over three months.
Warning: Those who haven’t seen Insidious yet might want to read this section later, since I reveal something about the ending.
In an entirely different realm is a question born of having seen James Wan’s Insidious this week. I have no problem with the film. In fact, I liked it—rather a lot—but it did make me wonder why it is apparently no longer permissible to make a horror film with a happy ending. I’m not hell-bent on movies with happy endings, but neither am I opposed to them, and I don’t think a film is necessarilly more “important” because it’s downbeat. I don’t strongly object to the rather grim—to the degree that a movie in the tone of a funhouse spook show can be grim—but I also don’t think it was particularly necessary.
I concede that some horror pictures need that grim ending. It’s inherent in the material of a film like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), and even Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002). But always? Maybe I’m not sufficiently grim-minded, but I much prefered the “happy” ending that was on Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002) to the alternate downbeat one that was later tacked onto the end of the credits. It’s also the last horror picture I can remember that doesn’t have some kind of unhappy conclusion. Christophe Gans’ estimable Silent Hill (2006) not only doesn’t need that dragged-out downbeat ending, but is harmed by the fact that it takes the film out of the mood generated by one of the most horrific climaxes ever.
This approach is a fairly modern one. If you go back to the first wave of horror movies from the 1930s, you’ll find that nearly all of them end on a note that depicts good overcoming evil—at least for the moment, since there may be a sequel around the corner. I’m not altogether certain that that was necessarily a bad thing, though it undoutedly becomes trite and predictable if overused. Then again, so does the downbeat-for-its-own-sake approach. Why is it so rampant in the horror film? Does someone think it will make the general public take the films more seriously? Does anyone honestly belive that this will ultimately change the perception that causes some of the bigger newspapers to palm the reviewing of genre films off on stringers? Really? As for the audience—well, the Thursday Horror Picture Show screenings have arrived at a point where those older titles are outdrawing the modern ones. It might be as well for horror filmmakers to take note of that.