Did ‘Evil Dead’ just break the R rating?

My first reaction when I saw “Evil Dead” at SXSW was surprise that the MPAA had allowed the film to go out with an R-rating. I have no problem with extreme gore in a film, particularly if I’m going to see a movie called “Evil Dead,” and I enjoyed the fact that Fede Alvarez goes berserk with the blood in the last third of the movie. I admire a filmmaker who goes for a lot of practical effects work and who is willing to ladle on the gruesome.

Having said that, I don’t understand the rating. Not at all.

And more than that, I’m not alone in thinking that the ratings board made the wrong call on this one. It’s not even just about “Evil Dead,” either. There was a time when each film was rated in a vacuum, and just because one film got an R, it didn’t mean anything regarding any other film. That all changed a few years ago when the CARA, the actual ratings board, decided to allow filmmakers to argue precedent in an appeals process. Now you can take clips from other films into the room, show those clips, and you can push for a sort of ratings parity.

I’ve had three conversations this week with filmmakers who saw “Evil Dead” this weekend, and all of them had the same question for me. These are all filmmakers who have been working on genre films, and all of them have been struggling with imagery that they were afraid might skirt the NC-17. They’ve second-guessed themselves on the set, they’ve been struggling in the editing room, and they’ve been worried about it. And now that they’ve seen “Evil Dead,” they all have the same question: why are they worried at all?

To discuss this completely, I’ll have to delve into specific spoilers for “Evil Dead,” and particularly regarding the last half-hour of the movie. In order to explain why I found certain images so over-the-line, I’ll have to be specific. For me, it boils down to one moment in particular. At the end of the film, Mia (Jane Levy) is the only survivor, and she ends up being chased around by a physical manifestation of the evil that has been tormenting all of them during the film. She ends up in a physical altercation with it, and since she’s managed to get hold of a chainsaw, she proceeds to (NSFW graphic description ahead) jam the chainsaw into the thing’s open mouth and saw it back and forth until she manages to cut the entire head in half, spraying blood and brains everywhere. Her “sawing” is shot from the side, and the image is unmistakably sexual in nature, a chainsaw blowjob that ends in a head-splatter money shot. It is that exact sort of blend of the explicit and the illicit that the MPAA always seems to freak out about, and yet here it is. R-rated. And as clinical as you could possibly want.

There’s also a pervasive meanness to much of the violence in the film. Fede Alvarez was very proud at SXSW of how he used two full 50,000 gallon tankers of blood for the film. At one point, it literally rains blood in the film for no reason other than Fede really wanted it to rain blood. It is gory the way early Peter Jackson films are gory. It is gleefully gory. It wallows. The tree rape, based on one of the most famous scenes from the original film, is played in a way that felt far more invasive and gynecological this time. It is a very pointed very graphic rape image. It is upsetting in how brutal it is. And somehow, this movie is the same rating as “When Harry Met Sally.” There are R-rated films I could watch easily with the kids in the other room because it is for certain imagery or for certain complex ideas that the rating was given, but there are also R-rated films I can’t watch at all if the kids are home because of vocal sex scenes or because of non-stop profanity. I’d like to know what’s in the film before I start watching it so I know how to schedule things. My job has me watching movies all the time, and my kids are in my house even if they’re not in the room. You want the ratings system to work? How about a heads up that matters?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that NC-17 is off the table, as it should be. Thanks to the legal language of theater leases around the county, the NC-17 is untenable as a release strategy. We can all wax rhapsodic about what should be and what we think is fair and what a wonderful world it would be if there was a functioning adults-only rating that allowed for films of a recognized artistic merit that are very simply not for kids under any circumstances. That ain’t the world we live in, though, and the NC-17 is just the X in a different outfit. You still can’t advertise it in newspapers (although the idea that newspaper advertising is any sort of end-all be-all in this age is a little weird) and many theaters simply aren’t allowed to play any NC-17 film in their theater because of their rental agreements and the very broad label that ends up applied to adult films as “porn.” So let’s pretend there is no NC-17 to even consider and the highest rating possible is the R. If that’s the case, then sure, “Evil Dead” is an R.

But if that’s the case, then there has to be a separate rating for films that are intense but not explicit, because there is no rational world in which “Evil Dead” and this summer’s “The Conjuring” are both the same rating. I always found it irritating that “The Matrix” and “Lord Of The Rings” were on opposite sides of the R/PG-13 divide, because I honestly don’t understand how you make a distinction between the overall tone of the two series. When my kids are old enough to see “Lord Of The Rings,” they are old enough to see “The Matrix.” And I would argue they are nowhere near ready at that same point to see a “Friday the 13th” film or “Evil Dead” or “Robocop.” Those films are genuinely graphic. Those films contain things that absolutely should be labeled so that an audience knows what they’re getting into.

What the conversations I’ve been having about “Evil Dead” have revealed to me, or at least clarified for me, is that more than ever, the old lie about the ratings being “for parents” makes no sense at all. Because when I talk to other parents about what we do or don’t allow our kids to walk, I’ve never once heard someone say, “Well, I was thinking I’d let them see it, but I realized they got an R instead of a PG-13, and I figured I should see it first so that I could assess whether my kids have the emotional and cultural maturity to process whatever it is that caused the CARA board to give it that rating.”

You know why? Because there is no consistency or logic to what you give a film a rating for, and so parents can’t use it as a rudder. At all.

“The Conjuring” is the new film from James Wan, who has certainly made films in the past that have embraced the full latitude of what you can do in an R-rated movie. His film “Saw” basically kicked off a wave of horror that felt like a race to the bottom, a cascade of casual brutality that pushed a little further every time. His last film, “Insidious,” played at the Toronto Film Festival, where I saw and reviewed it. At that point, it did not have a rating or a distributor. When it finally hit theaters, it was a PG-13, and when Wan took the job directing “The Conjuring” for Warner Bros, the plan was to make the new film that same rating.

The film that Wan delivered to the studio is positively squeaky clean. There are two or maybe three images in the entire film involving blood, and they’re very discretely handled in all three cases. The rest of the film features some strong ideas and some heavy emotional material, but there’s no rough language and nothing actually happens onscreen that I would consider “too much.”

The film is rated R.

The studio appealed and they went back and forth with the CARA repeatedly, and they were finally told that there is nothing they can cut and no single thing they can soften. The film is simply “too scary.” I think Warner should force the CARA to put that in writing so they can run that as the entire ad. Just the title and then the giant “R” icon. In the space below the rating, where the explanation of why they gave it is supposed to appear, they should just put those two words. “Too scary.” Make that the entire key art and embrace what the ratings board said as a good thing.

But if you’re going to tell me that one rating can encompass both of those films, I’m going to tell you that as a parent, I have no idea what that means. I can’t look at a single letter and learn anything about the content of the film. If you’d like to issue a code that actually tells me what sort of content to expect — sexual imagery, nudity, graphic violence, drug use — then I would consider that something valuable.

For “Evil Dead,” I would have appreciated a code that read “XV, D, XP, H,” and a system that gives me a legend that translates that code as “extreme violence, drug content, extreme profanity, and horror imagery.” That would tell me what I need to know, and that would guarantee that it’s not even a consideration for my kids. For “The Conjuring,” a simple “H” would tell me that while it’s a horror film, there’s nothing in it that could be considered explicit content. “Horror imagery.” That’s it. There are strong images and ideas in the film. But if I don’t see the XV, then that’s a conversation I can have with my kids. Maybe that’s a chance we take together as viewers.

I am tired of the MPAA and the CARA telling us that the system can’t change. Of course it can. It is a system they invented and instituted, and it works only because the studios agree that it works. Theater owners have figured out how to deal with the system that exists now, and so that’s the way things are. But it could work better. It should work better.

And when you have a film in theaters everywhere that features a mutilated teenage girl face-f**king a monster to death with a chainsaw, and you treat that the exact same way in terms of access that you treat “The King’s Speech,” something is broken beyond repair. Why not acknowledge it and start over in a way that finally does the thing the ratings board has always claimed to do?

Or do we have to keep pretending?