Movie ratings have been practiced since the Golden Age of Hollywood, beginning with the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code or the Hays Code, adopted after the infamous incident with actor Fatty Arbuckle. The Motion Picture Association designates explicit, offensive, and pervasive films with an NC-17 rating. The acronym stands for No Children or No One 17 and Under Admitted. The movies aren’t strictly pornographic, but the MPA recognized that they needed to qualify the maturity of their audiences.
NC-17 films are for adults only and deal with serious subjects. Their controversial release borders on candid exploration and distasteful exploitation. Such a fine line even leads to these films being removed and receiving a re-rating by the MPA rating system. NC-17 films are the black sheep of cinema that shy away from self-censorship and bare all in a raw display of crass, counter-current credence. Here are some of the films that are worth watching despite the ominous rating hanging over them.
Update January 31, 2024: This article has been updated with more NC-17 films and where you can stream each title, but viewer description is advised.
A dark and modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood steeped in the seedy underbelly of America, Freeway sees teen Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) running into various unsavory characters after running away from home. This includes a run-in with the “I-5 Killer,” played by Kiefer Sutherland, who, after turning the tables on his murderous intent, ends up becoming a news sensation, though for all the wrong reasons.
Matthew Bright’s Freeway has intense love/hate relationships with audiences. Its crass and in-your-face humor pushes the boundaries of good taste to a level not everyone will appreciate. This also led to its NC-17 rating, as while it is not overly graphic, the themes it explores and the extremes it goes to when establishing its dark humor were seen as too much for the MPA to give a lower rating. Those who enjoy dark comedy should give this one a shot, even if just to check out the phenomenal performance by Reese Witherspoon as the headstrong and unapologetic Vanessa Lutz.
The Cell, follows an FBI Agent who convinces a social worker, Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer to try to discover where his last victim is being held. Catherine’s journey sees her face off against the killer, who uses his past trauma and murderous desires to shape a surreal landscape that she must navigate to get information from him.
Originally given an NC-17 rating due to its graphic and disturbing content, including deviant salacious content, The Cell was later cut to have a theatrical release. One notably contentious scene came from actor Vincent D’Onofrio’s character doing unsavory things with a dead body. Unsurprisingly, the MPA asked for this and other minor cuts. This would be a wise compromise as the movie would be a minor theatrical success, grossing $104 million of its $33 million budget, and would receive praise for its unique visuals, cinematography, and performances by the cast. The full uncut version was later released on DVD.
Happiness is about three families with a dark underbelly of humanity. One family man is secretly a pedophile who is obsessed with his son’s classmate. When the student is invited for a sleepover at their home, the husband drugs and molests him. One woman removes the genitals of a man who molested her, and another, a teacher, has an affair with one of her students.
These deep-seated albeit twisted needs show how society’s modern life or status quo can influence an eye-for-an-eye and desperate mentality, the worst parts of human nature. Its approach to sensitive subjects, a staple of Todd Solondz’s work, ensured the movie would receive an NC-17 rating. Still, Solondz’s cult following and critical acclaim have given him a willing audience despite his purposely disregarding concern over the limiting of his films due to their ratings. Happiness is Currently Not Available for Rent or Stream
When two students, Marie and Alexia, decide to visit Alexia’s secluded farmhouse to study, they have no idea of the horrors that await them. With a killer watching over their every move, the depraved and violent killer moves in on his prey, taking the lives of many in his quest to get his hands on the girls. As the movie progresses and things escalate, the lines between reality and fantasy blur as the killer’s origin becomes shrouded in mystery.
There are a multitude of films from ‘New French Extremity’ movement that could have made this list, with the country producing some of the most visually graphic and violent films of the 2000s, with that carrying onward with a new generation of directors, including Julia Ducournau with Raw and Titane. Still, out of all the movies, the one that really introduced America to the graphic approach of French cinema was Alexandre Aja’s High Tension. In many ways a traditional slasher, the movie got an NC-17 due to the extent of violence, especially when considering the deviant desires of the killer.
Bad Lieutenant stars Harvey Keitel as the titular character. The NYPD lieutenant’s first act of debauchery begins shortly after he takes his kids to Catholic school. He engages in a drug exchange, smoking crack cocaine in the process, which he confiscated from a crime scene and shared with an unrelated drug dealer. From there, he continues to devolve into more perverse and violent acts, abusing his power whenever it is convenient for him.
Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant tackles police corruption by creating a character so utterly despicable that he is beyond redemption. Its release was met with a heavy mixed reception because of this. Still, it did find praise with Roger Ebert, who emphasized Harvey Kietel’s performance, saying, “Keitel has given us one of the great screen performances in recent years.” Regardless, the movie’s NC-17 rating was unavoidable as the importance of the film conveying its message required an extraordinarily corrupt and despicable character to be at the center of it.
Santa Sangre follows Fenix, a former circus performer who escapes from a care facility to reunite with his armless mother, who has become a cult leader. As he reintroduces himself to his old circus friends, Fenix begins to slowly slip into madness, feeling his mother control his arms and having him commit murders. The movie also explores Fenix’s past that led up to this point and his love for a mime that he grew up with.
Santa Sangre came over a decade after Alejandro Jodorowsky wowed audiences with his midnight classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, showing that the director had not lost his step. Surreal, disturbing, and drawing influence from various sources, Santa Sangre is less a narrative movie than an experience with its plots and more a means to celebrate the bizarre imaginings of its creator. Despite its art house nature, the film got an NC-17 rating for extreme violence, which, when cut down to its R rating, makes around a 3-minute difference.
Gummo revolves around the lives of various residents in a tornado-devastated town in Xenia, Ohio. It primarily focuses on two kids who idle away the days biking around the town and having various run-ins with the eccentric locals. Filmed with an abstract approach with intertwined and disconnected vignettes, Harmony Korine digs deep into the underbelly of poverty-stricken suburbia.
A peculiar mix of sci-fi dystopia and an intimate portrayal of a broken modernity, Gummo gained accolades from many other provocateurs of cinema like Werner Herzog and Gus Van Sant, putting director Harmony Korine on the map for many new to his work. The film would get the NC-17 rating for its pervasive depiction of the anti-social behavior of juveniles, which included substance abuse, animal cruelty, and lewd behavior. Flowing like a long dream, Gummo is a classic of underground and indie filmmaking that is worth checking out despite its provocative content.
Gummo is Currently Not Available for Rent or Stream
Man Bites Dog follows a group of documentary filmmakers recording the crimes of a serial killer remaining at large. The longer they study the criminal’s violent streak, the sooner they become his accomplices. The psychological yet sociopathic reasoning behind his killings keeps the film crew involved as they help him nonchalantly commit crimes.
Man Bites Dog is a film that has long-lived in infamy since its release, offering an intimate portrayal of a killer taking a unique found footage perspective that predates the genre’s rise to its current day prominence. The acts of murder committed throughout are indeed disturbing, but how personal and realistic they feel likely led to the movie being given the NC-17 rating. The sensational nature of the film, combined with an exploration of the criminal psyche, makes for a profoundly engaging watch.
Possessor follows assassin Tasya Vos, who uses technology to implant herself into others to commit crimes and frame the murderer. However, her most recent assignment sees her struggling to keep the connection, resulting in her identity blurring with her target. This allows the mind she thought she had control over to investigate the bizarre incident that led to him killing another.
Brandon Cronenberg has certainly lived up to his family namesake, evoking the same uncomfortable, intense, and aggressive approach to the body horror genre. Possessor certainly pushed boundaries with its graphic depiction of violence with a surreal approach that makes for a haunting nightmare. The film’s NC-17 is likely due in part to the movie’s closing moments (which we won’t spoil), as its shocking nature is upsetting yet crucial to the story Cronenberg was looking to construct.
Midnight Cowboy depicts two strange bedfellows, Ratso and Joe Buck, a Texas cowboy turned male sex worker and a con man. They become hustlers in New York, selling Buck’s services while squatting in the city. The con man grows unbearably ill and grotesque in his squalor, inside and out, which convinces the two to make their way to Florida to turn over a new leaf.
John Schlseinger’s Midnight Cowboy received critical praise, particularly for Dusting Hoffman and Jon Voight’s performances and willingness to tackle sensitive subjects. The movie is the only film to receive an X rating (later NC-17) and still win an Oscar. While time has left a more divisive view about the film, its initial rating was due to the movie entirely falling under a “homosexual frame of reference.” The movie has also been criticized for homophobia and a negative view of women. That said, the film has remained contentious while cemented as a classic.
The Devils is a historical drama about Roman Catholic priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) who is accused of witchcraft. The accusations originated from Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), who is a repressed nun struggling with the requirements of her faith. Jeanne is attracted to Urbain, but she is aware of his affairs. In a jealous fit, Jeanne accuses him of possessing her, which leads the town to believe he has bewitched her convent, as well as inviting the Inquisition to investigate.
Ken Russell’s The Devils has had a long and contentious history for distribution, finally, after decades of landing on streaming and becoming widely available. The issues facing the production were not so much because of its anti-religious messaging but the extent to which it pushed those boundaries. There is one particular infamous scene that involved a hysterical group of nuns performing various sacrilegious actions during an orgy. This scene alone was enough to earn the movie its NC-17 and bury it. The movie is a masterpiece, brilliantly acted and filmed. It is worth checking out now that it has been brought back into the uncut limelight over 40 years after its original release.
Perfect Blue is a Japanese animated psychological thriller that follows a J-pop singer transitioning to an acting career while being stalked. Her throes with fame, both as a Japanese idol and actress, lead her to confuse reality with fantasy. Her split stage personas conflict with each other as she faces paranoia, delusions, and expectations from the studio. Subsequent murders of her fellow actors and actresses show evidence incriminating her as the culprit.
Perfect Blue’s masterful exploration of the pressures of stardom and its well-scripted and executed thriller has garnered a vocal fan base. Notably, the abstract way the story unwinds becomes an expertly executed exploration of a breaking psyche. The physical and emotional violence combined with the manipulation and identity crisis is jarring to the senses, combining this with the graphic content, earning the anime an NC-17 rating. The movie is now revered as one of the best in the medium and one of the most definitive works by the late great Satoshi Kon.
Five students stay the night in a demonic, Tennessee cabin. The group finds the Book of the Dead, also known as the Necronomicon, with a tape recording of incantations. Upon playing the tape and releasing the demon, the friend succumbs to the demonic force individually until only the sole survivor, Ash (Bruce Cambell), is forced to fend off the remaining undead.
The Evil Dead is one of 72 movies made infamous for being banned in the UK and criminalized for sale. This act cemented several features as future cult classics, though the Sam Raimi flick has since become a success in the mainstream, thanks to TV series, remakes, and countless homages made to Ash and the Deadites. In retrospect, the movie may seem tame by today’s standards, but one can point to a few key scenes that pushed boundaries in a way that would shock the British public and cause an NC-17 release in the States.
Based on the book of J.G. Ballard, Crash explores the point where violence meets eroticism as a couple gets slowly drawn into a world of automobile fetishes focused on famous crashes. Drawn in by the strange allure after meeting one of its members after his car crash, James Ballard (played by James Spader) soon finds himself fully integrated into the group and participating in their fetishistic desires.
David Cronenberg’s Crash seemed set to get an NC-17 rating from conception, given the director’s unapologetic approach to cinema and the sensational book by J.G. Ballard. This would not be the first time, as Cronenberg previously adapted another controversial work in Naked Lunch and got the rating slapped on the movie for similar reasons as Crash did years later. The rating choice is evident for Crash, given its exploration of homosexuality, which was a contentious point with the review board (and is still an issue today), as well as its abundance of lewd content.
A Clockwork Orange follows a dystopian crime spree by a gang of sociopathic delinquents. The rogues, or droogs as they call themselves, are desensitized to violence, sexual assault, and other atrocities. Unlawful acts are their entertainment. The film’s original release received an X and was also pulled from British theaters because it was a possible incitement of copycat crimes.
When a film makes sane people crazy and makes the crazy people sane instead, there’s a hidden silver lining: a better nature among the morally offensive content, turning its victims into far-gone heathens. A film like this holds up a mirror to its audience as a warning, oftentimes a carnival mirror of horrid images and experiences. The Stanley Kubrick feature would become engrained in pop culture and is easily the most notorious movie ever to receive the NC-17 rating.