A (R)ite of Passage With Your First R-Rated Movie

Rated-RRemember your first R-rated movie?

For young movie fans, it’s a major rite of passage whether you see your first “Restricted” title on the big or small screen. At least it used to be. Who knows what’s going on with those darn kids today?

As for me, I have very particular memories of first experiencing works branded “No One Under 17 Admitted Without Parent or Guardian” as a big deal on the big screen.

In fact, I not only remember seeing my first R-rated movie, I remember my first three.

Cable was around (and we had it) when I was a kid, but not cable as we understand it today, with hundreds upon hundreds of channels. I had the experience of those primitive multi-channel boxes: 12 push buttons in the center, one dial to the left to move you up and down between three levels. So: 36 channels.

(That still seems like more than enough channels to me, but I am already revealing too much about my age without sounding crotchety, so let’s just move on.)

rated-r-dirty-harry-the-enforcerBefore crossing the barrier between PG and R in a movie theater (nope, no PG-13 around when that happened for me), I had certainly already “seen” some R-rated fare on cable. Meaning, Mom always rushed to cover my eyes during the offending scenes. One moment that stands out for me in this regard is a scene from the third Dirty Harry picture, The Enforcer.

In the film, Harry’s chasing People’s Revolutionary Strike Force bomber Henry Lee Caldwell across a San Francisco rooftop when the luckless militant falls through a skylight and smack into the midst of the action of a porno movie production. Harry jumps down to continue the chase and plows through the room, barely (ha) acknowledging the naked people scrambling around him.

My mother always figured her hand went up in front of my face just in time. Why would I bother convincing her otherwise?

There’s another memory I have of Cablevision Carnality that I will have to clear up someday because I haven’t seen the film in such a long, long time: I have a very strong, if completely fuzzy, recollection of seeing buttocks bared in extreme closeup…and, before I’d done a little reading to check my facts and discovered it was not rated R, I was certain it was the counterculture classic Billy Jack. The memory sticks out for me because I distinctly recall being alone in the house when I was watching it, whatever it was—“HBO will show this feature only at night” was gravely intoned before the start of such forbidden fare—which made the images feel all the more scandalous to me. Even now, my mind pictures that square TV screen filled side-to-side with enormous cheeks.

One day I mean to revisit the film to see if my recollection is correct, but I have a feeling I may have either a) the wrong film or b) a memory magnified to outrageous proportions, the result of some kind of guilt over my youthful indiscretion.

I was well shy of the age of 17, though, when my parents decided it was safe to usher me through the ticket booth to see my very first R-rated film: the 1979 remake of Dracula. I remember being so excited about the possibility of seeing it that I would call the box office over and over again just to listen to the theater’s recorded message, where they would announce the title, the screening times, and a little sound bite from the trailer. In this case, the movie theater was Newark, Delaware’s Cinema Center 3 (it still exists, the sole theater still standing from my childhood), and I can picture that deep voice on the answering machine that sent chills of anticipation up and down my spine after the wolf howl:

“Dracula. Rated R.

When the night came, I was given a final choice to make: Are you sure? Here’s your choice: We can see Dracula…or…The Muppet Movie.

You look back and realize: parents do have a sense of humor.

rated-r-dracula-1979-frank-langellla-kate-nelligan-alien-chest-bursterSo, OK, as far as R-rated movies go, director John Badham’s film turned out to be rather mild in terms of its content. You didn’t have nudity, but you had Kate Nelligan wearing a pretty revealing nightgown during a steamy, pre-bite makeout session with Count Frank Langella—photographed from some tantalizing angles; you saw a neck-snapping dispatch of Renfield far more ghastly than you were used to seeing on Saturday afternoons when the Lugosi classic aired on Dr. Shock; and, finally, you had quite a violent twist at the climax that did a decent job of shocking me as a longtime Dracula fan well acquainted with the details of the book.

(I won’t reveal it here in case someone out there may not be aware of it)

The monster movie Alien was the next R I racked up as a youngster. Obviously, my parents figured taking me to R-rated horror films would be “safer” than, say, taking me to see Caligula—but nobody was prepared for how strong “that” scene in the early going would be. Mom was too busy screaming to cover my eyes.

Again, here we’re talking about a film light on sexual content—we’re always more squeamish about sex than violence here in the U.S. (as I pointed out with my video store war story in What’s Taboo in the Movies Today?)—but heavy on disturbing amounts of gore and goo. I believe I was fairly well wigged out by Ian Holm’s milky demise.

It was only a matter of time, however, before I would cross that particular ratings rubicon, and my Tour of Titillation will now climax—ahem—with a reminiscence of my parents taking me to the drive-in to see the John Boorman flick Excalibur.

Well, now we’re talking!

rated-r-excalibur-gabriel-byrne-katrine-boorman-lovemakingMaybe Mom and Dad thought I’d fall asleep before the film started—like the time I fell asleep at the drive-in the first time they took me to see Jaws (sadists both, they returned me to a movie theater to see it again, where I not only stayed awake, but was so traumatized by it I was nervous about going into the swimming pool, forget about the ocean)—but I was alert enough to get really squirmy during the film’s extravagantly explicit opening minutes.

There’s just no way around it, it’s beyond odd watching sex scenes in the company of your parents…no matter how old you get. But in Excalibur, we’re not just talking about your run-of-the-mill lovemaking. No, we’re talking about a truly bizarre coupling brought to us by Boorman, the same auteur who gave us the charming backwoods rumpy-pumpy of Deliverance:

When Excalibur-wielding king Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) convinces Merlin (Nicol Williamson) to help him satisfy his lusts and bed Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), wife to the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave), he does so by having the wizard transform him into the spitting image of her husband, who is busy getting killed conducting a raid on Uther’s camp.

Cornwall is gruesomely impaled; his daughter senses the death of her father, but look, Igrayne says, there’s your father, back from battle! Thanks to Merlin’s magic, she’s unaware it’s Uther, who rips off her flimsy nightgown and has his way with her. Without removing his suit of armor. The film now launches into a truly disturbing montage of parallel action, Cornwall writhing in bloody agony even as Uther pounds against Igrayne in front of a roaring hellfire, composer Trevor Jones’ surreal accompaniment of wailing vocals and low, undulating strings taking command of the soundtrack.

While the little girl watches.

Talk about a weird way of being introduced to sex onscreen.

(Katrine Boorman, who plays Igrayne in the film, is director Boorman’s daughter, and that adds an extra layer of weirdness to the whole thing.)

By the time I had actually turned 17, seeing R-rated movies was old hat; I’d already seen my first R-rated movie on a date: Beverly Hills Cop. The first R-rated movie I saw away from home (that is to say, first semester college)? Witness.

I never quite recaptured that “scandalous” tingle again until I saw Peter Greenaway’s NC-17 nutter of a film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which was dirty and weird enough to make you feel like you were getting away with something just by watching it and not getting arrested. Still, as a fully legal adult (old enough to vote and old enough to drink), I felt it didn’t pack the same emotional punch as those first glimpses of cinema skin.


By that point, we already had the video rental business in full swing, making it far easier to obtain truly racy fare like Pink Flamingos and Pieces, not to mention actual pornography—the viewing of which, frankly, also didn’t deliver the frisson that breaking that R barrier did for me so long ago.

(UPDATED: Blog and ye shall receive!) So much for tales of my first R-rated movies. The first R-rated movie, 1968’s The Split, starring Gene Hackman, appears to be currently unavailable  ready for you to order! The first film to ever receive an MPAA rating of any kind, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, remains a title movie-loving completists can easily add to their video libraries.