Unrated...and Unwanted

AMC's decision to pull Hatchet II from its theaters was purely a business move made on a ballsy original choice that more or less ended up backfiring. End of story...right?

Hatchet II

Director: Adam Green
Cast: Danielle Harris, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Tom Holland, Alexis Peters, Ed Ackerman
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Dark Sky Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-10-01 (General release)

We've all heard of a play closing while in tryouts, or even worse, the day after opening night and TV shows can frequently be cancelled after a single airing. But when was the last time you heard of a movie being pulled from theaters after only three days? Back in the old days of studio controlled and owned venues, the practice was common. Executives, afraid their latest musical or magnum opus was tanking, would quickly yank a feature from release, shuttle it into the editing room, and come back a few weeks later with a 'new' and "improved" version. But in the case of Hatchet II, Adam Green's goofball slasher exploitation film, the sudden departure from the AMC chain is doubly disturbing. Not only does it argue for an unsubtle censorship, there's even a suggestion that the MPAA is somehow involved.

Let's go back for a moment and review the facts. Green, who directed the wildly effective 2010 thriller Frozen, conceived the original Hatchet as a throwback to the days of masked serial killers and slice and dice plotting. With over the top gore effects and a decidedly tongue in cheek approach to the terror, his crazy little creepshow earned a decided cult on home video. Given the opportunity to make a sequel, he spun the legend of Victor Crowley into a repeat of gore and splatter slapstick. Mandated to do so if he hoped for a wide general release, he turned his efforts over to those paragons of misguided movie virtue, the Motion Picture Association of America. Without pause, they plastered an NC-17 on the buoyant blood feast. Nonplused, Dark Sky Films struck a deal with AMC to show the film Unrated in 70 of its theaters around North America. While not a major opening, it was an apparent victory.

With a PR push that saw studio reps really trying to sell the seasonal scarefest and talent such as Green and star Kane Hodder making the rounds to as many genre-oriented websites as they could, it looked like Hatchet II could buck the trend and make a minor name for itself. Of course, no one thought it would be for becoming one of the few films in the post-modern era ever to be unceremoniously yanked from distribution. For their part, AMC is claiming finances. In their mind, the film's poor performance at the box office (estimates have it at about $70,000) did not validate the lack of advertising (no commercials or preview possibilities) and the stress on staff (carding and verifying ID at the door, manning theaters for any potential underage attendees). Purely a business decision on a ballsy original choice that more or less ended up backfiring.

End of story...right?

Not exactly. It seems that Green is clamoring further because of requisites and restrictions placed on theaters by none other than the MPAA. Newspapers won't advertise your film without the organizations R-to-G rubber stamp, and some chains won't even look at anything not given the group's seal - and even then, there are further limits. Oddly enough, the much heralded answer to the "adult" alternative, NC-17, turns 20 this year, and yet for all the promised progress the rating would bring, the same sort of stigma is attached to any film falling under said category. Had Green accepted the MPAA's most notorious label, he would have faced a similar uphill struggle. No ads. Limited screen space. And the undeniable air of being involved with something so far outside the mainstream that it barely warrants consideration by the average film fan.

It's true that much of the debate is semantic. Green made his body part covered bed and needs to learn to lie in it. Unrated films have rarely, if ever, gotten wide distribution, and to think that AMC wouldn't balk under some sort of pressure - industry or more grass roots - is ridiculous. Anchor Bay is facing a similar struggle with their MPAA hated remake of I Spit on Your Grave. In Florida, for example, the unrated revenge thriller is being marketed to Miami first. If the film shows some legs there, and a lack of Hatchet II like internal hoopla, it hopes to move slowly across the state. It's the same for other markets around the country - one or two theaters, under the radar, expand if there is a clear response from moviegoers.

It seems odd that in this day of easy self distribution, simple social networking, alternative outlets, cable/satellite possibilities, and fan friendly film festivals that Green would argue over such an old school screen strategies. Taken at face value, it looks almost petty. But when you dig deeper, the director seems to suggest that the MPAA's power - which is voluntary and arbitrary by all accounts - is too great. In Constitutional Law, such underhanded censorship would be called "the chilling effect." By their various orders and decrees, by the silly stranglehold they have on Hollywood and its product, the so-called parental guidance group can dictate content. Of course, they would argue that all edits are merely "optional " and that a filmmaker can feel free to release their film without MPAA approval.

Green now knows firsthand how successful that can be.

It's all part of a bigger motion picture joke. A regular PG comedy will get slapped with an Unrated label for DVD release if the director or distributor add an additional line of dialogue or two - even if said conversation is as conservative as a teabagger. It's the dirty little secret that retailers and home video marketers don't want you to know about. Indeed, if a film is altered in anyway - say an especially brutal scene of arterial spray is REMOVED from a title between theatrical and digital release - and the MPAA has not had a chance to approve the "new" version, it goes out Unrated. In a rather bizarre twist, there's little complaint about such a strategy from places like Amazon and Netflix (Blockbuster used to ban the rental of anything over an R - and you see where that got them...).

Sadly, it seems that the idea that the MPAA somehow "protects" us - and by us, we mean the always vulnerable children of an increasingly disconnected parental base - has translated into an abuse of almost unlimited power. Names such as Kevin Smith and Kirby Dick (whose absolutely brilliant This Film is Not Yet Rated MUST be seen by all cinephiles) have long argued that the political lobbying branch of the motion picture industry - for that is what the MPAA really is - has become an unwieldy arbiter of taste and content acceptability. They would argue against such a statement is false- and thus the circular ridiculousness of the situation continues.

It's clear that Green and Dark Sky will use the circumstances to their advantage (one can already see the blood-red "Banned from Theaters" plastered across the DVD cover art) and, for a film that got little pre-release publicity outside of the critical community, many in Messageboard Nation now know of its infamy. The cynical could suggest that this was the plan all along - test the waters of the real world before causing a stink and slinking back into the always open arms of the indie arena. Oddly enough, when he was trying to get a wide release for his undead chicken opus Poultrygeist, longtime champion of cinematic art Lloyd Kaufman argued that an MPAA led cabal was keeping his unrated effort from wider distribution. With Troma's crackpot repute, the argument seemed specious. Now...

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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