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Are unrated horror movies the new 3-D?

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A beautiful young woman travels to a charming cabin in secluded woods, where morally deprived locals inflict hideous acts of torture and degradation. Revenge ensues involving bear traps, baseball bats and rusty hedge clippers.

That pretty much sums up director Steven R. Monroe’s reboot of the 1979 cult classic ‘I Spit on Your Grave,’ which reaches theaters on Friday.

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But while the original was a controversial exercise in torture porn -- and was named to Time magazine’s Top 10 Ridiculously Violent movies thanks to its extended scenes of gang rape and graphic depictions of murder -- the new ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ is making headlines around Hollywood for a different reason: It’s the second horror movie this month to be released in major markets without an MPAA rating.

Last Friday, an unrated version of ‘Hatchet II’ was carried by 60 theaters in the nationwide AMC chain, the widest opening for an unrated film in a quarter-century.

Far from treating the absence of an MPAA rating as a liability, marketers of this new wave of horror are making it part of the sales pitch. ‘Unforgiving. Uncompromising,’ read title cards cropping up between scenes of ultra-violence in the ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ trailer. ‘Unmerciful. Unapologetic.’ More violence and mayhem ensues. ‘Unrated,’ the narrator intones.

The trailer for ‘Hatchet II,’ meanwhile, declares: ‘...For the first time in over 25 years, a horror film is coming to American major cinemas uncensored, uncut, uncompromised. Gore like you’ve never seen in the theater before.’ The play is clear: turn the absence of a rating into a novelty, like 3-D.

Unrated DVDs are common enough to be forgettable. But getting an NC-17, or opting to go unrated, usually works like kryptonite against theatrical releases.

While attitudes are starting to change -- Darren Aronofsky’s surrealistic junkie drama ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ for instance, reached 90 theaters in its unrated form and grossed a respectable $3.6 million -- unrated films have also misfired. After howls of injustice from Oscilloscope Films chief (and part-time Beastie Boy) Adam Yauch about the MPAA’s NC-17, the Holocaust documentary ‘A Film Unfinished’ was released unrated in just five theaters to gross a lackluster $135,000. And Lars Von Trier’s graphic and deliberately provocative ‘Antichrist’ -- a movie for which NC-17 does not begin to cover the spread -- arrived in theaters without rating to a measly $404,000 domestic take.

These new horror movies are trying to change that, though they may have to work harder: Despite its brazen campaign, ‘Hatchet II’ averaged fewer than 10 people at any given screening on its opening weekend.

-- Chris Lee


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