Unless you're surfing Skinemax, "X-rated" doesn't mean much anymore. But, for a few decades, that decisive letter symbolized Hollywood's dreaded stamp of rejection and certain commercial doom. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) formed in the 1920s to become the regulator and censor of the film industry. In 1968, a four-tier ratings system — G, M, R, and X — went into effect, with Brian De Palma's Greetings landing the first-ever X rating for its quasi-shocking sexual content that year.
From there, a surprising number of future critical and cult classics were branded with the dramatic rating — most going through a series of edits to be reassessed something more palatable, though some embraced their outlaw status. This censorship dance went on until 1990, when the MPAA threw out the X rating in favor of the less drastic NC-17, which simply means no one under 17 will be admitted at a theater. (Even that rating is rare in a final product; for context, Scream was originally NC-17 before a careful edit).
So, from movies boasting crude animated cats to weird, politically charged sex to zombie beheadings, here's a selection of X-rated classics.
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Photo: via Ebertfest.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Robert Ebert collaborated with notoriously titillating director Russ Meyer on this sordid, satiric Hollywood camp, inspired only incidentally by Jacqueline Susann's book, Valley of the Dolls
. Aside from nudity and lurid sex, there's a beheading in there that Ebert knew would make them head straight from an "R" to "X." He was right.
Photo: via TCM.
Gore Vidal's 1968 book inspired this 1970 erotic comedy, which is one of two X-rated films that Fox would release in the next 10 years (the other, fittingly, was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
). Though its sexual content earned it its dramatic rating, audiences today often remark that it's "quite tame."
Photo: via Sound On Sight.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and Hollywood king Harvey Weinstein landed in hot water with the MPAA with Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
in the '90s. It all comes down to two scenes really: one involving sweaty sex, and the other involving a fake missile that ends up as a sex toy at bath time.
Photo: via Universal.
The Evil Dead
The original Evil Dead was immediately labeled a "video nasty" for its graphic violence, but safely falls into NC-17 territory today.
Photo: Courtesy of Universal.
Fans of Brian De Palma's 1983 crime classic would love to see the infamous X-rated director's cut released, but it's a far-fetched dream — because it doesn't quite exist. There are multiple allusions to chain-saw massacres, but no body parts are actually shown being hacked off — though, De Palma still had to convince the MPAA it didn't earn its extreme original rating. He edited the film over and over until he reached a breaking point and told Universal to either release it or fire him. Eventually, De Palma was able to win a court decision to release the original edit as an "R-rated" film. And, the rest was history.
Photo: via Crumb Products.
Fritz the Cat
Ralph Bakshi's notorious animated film debut was unabashedly rated "X." How can a cartoon about cats land that rating? Well, it's based on a comic strip by Robert Crumb, which sums it up well. "We're not rated 'X' for nothin', baby!" the poster boasted.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick's original edit of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novella received an "X" rating for sexually explicit material (no surprises here). But, Kubrick excised 30 seconds of the most offensive material (the rape scene in the Ludovico treatment) to receive an "R" rating upon American rerelease in 1973.
Photo: Courtesy of United Film Distribution.
Dawn of the Dead
Much like The Evil Dead, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead landed itself an "X" rating for graphic violence, including the infamous "headshot" scene. Romero dealt with this by simply releasing it unrated; it premiered in 1979, but remained banned in certain countries until years later.
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Yet another Brian De Palma film makes the inglorious list! In 1968, Greetings had the distinction of being the first film to receive an "X" rating ever. Why? For its significant sexual content, with provocative fetishization of the Zapruder film paired with intercourse. Weird!
Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
There are a lot of very wrong things about Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (done in all the right ways), but it was "extreme violence" that landed the classic film its initial "X" rating. Far more disturbing is the fact that John Hinckley Jr. took personal influence from the film and cited Travis Bickle as partial inspiration for his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
Photo: Courtesy of Criterion Collection.
I Am Curious (Yellow)
Vilgot Sjöman's 1967 film starred himself as well as his lover Lena Nyman, a student who is obsessed with social justice. Highly experimental in nature, it blended new editing techniques with a documentary style that hadn't been seen before in Swedish film. It also contains a ton of nudity and explicit sex, as well as some fairly radical politics. In 1969, I Am Curious (Yellow) was even banned in Massachusetts for being pornographic, and an arsonist set Houston's Heights Theater on fire during the movie's run there.
Photo: Courtesy of Criterion Collection.
The Canterbury Tales
The middle film in Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life," The Canterbury Tales
is based on Geoffrey Chaucer's classic Middle English collection of verse. Like the The Decameron
before it and Arabian Nights
after it, the movie is full of raunch, slapstick, and violence, including one scene in which two men are accused of sodomy — yet only one is convicted, and ultimately burned alive for his crimes. That's contrasted with a Boschean depiction of Hell
, full of farting devils and swinging genitals. It's actually pretty funny.
Photo: Courtesy Image Entertainment.
Women in Revolt
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn — transgender doyennes of Andy Warhol's Factory clan — play "women's libbers" in this send-up of 1970s feminism. Darling plays an heiress involved in an incestuous relationship with her brother. Curtis, a virginal academic, and Woodlawn, a man-hating nymphomaniac, attempt to get her to join their cause, called P.I.G. (Politically Involved Girls) in order to bring money and glamour to the women's movement. It alludes to the famed S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, the Factory hanger-on and prescient feminist who shot Warhol a few years earlier.
Photo: Courtesy of Troma Team Video.
Joel Reed's 1976 splatter film is a typical genre picture that's based on Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore. His remake figures on Master Sardu, who runs a Grand Guignol-style live act that purports to depict simulations of mutilation and murder — but all of his gruesome acts are totally real. In classic exploitation style, it features a ton of topless women and completely unrealistic amounts of blood, with victims who never seem to realize that they should maybe scream for help. (Don't worry — they get their revenge in the end.) We can thank films like this one for what we now call torture porn, even if this one is far, far campier than anything Eli Roth could've dreamt up.
Photo: Courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS
This film is part of the sub-sub-genre of Nazi-themed women-in-prison exploitation flicks that must be taken with a huge
grain of salt, because its offensiveness veers into the realm of simply unbelievable absurdity. (Clearly, Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie are fans
.) Ilsa is an SS kommandant who, during the day, attempts to demonstrate the capacity women have for pain, and has her way with one of her male prisoners each night. When the men invariably can't meet her needs, she has them castrated and killed. It's pure, unadulterated camp that definitely deserved its X rating.