In theory it was a good idea: an NC-17 (no children under 17) movie rating for adult themed films, instituted in 1990 by the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board to replace the X rating. In practice, however, the NC-17 was a bust from the start.

It’s a fact that many newspapers and magazines won’t accept advertising for NC-17 films, and that just as many video rental chains, most notably the once-mighty Blockbuster, stock such movies only in recut R rated versions–which if you ask me defeats the whole purpose of the NC-17. Nowadays no filmmaker wants the stigma of an NC-17 rating, which is effectively (to borrow a quote from Rolling Stone magazine) an X by any other name–or would be, at least, if the NC-17 were given out and/or enforced in any sort of consistent manner.

The inconsistency of the MPAA’s judgments has been well documented (see the 2006 documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED and Roger Ebert’s 2010 article “Getting Real About Movie Ratings”). That inconsistency extends to the NC-17, the hows and whys of which rarely ever make sense (to cite just one of countless examples, I’ll never understand how THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST scored an R rating while the comparatively benign WHERE THE TRUTH LIES was slapped with an NC-17).

There’s also the fact that in some cases the NC-17 has been treated as essentially a glorified R rating. One example is Anime18’s nineties-era VHS and DVD releases of the adult manga classic UROTSUKIDOJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND, which despite being rated NC-17 contain numerous cuts. See also Invincible Pictures’ NC-17 release of A SERBIAN FILM, which was likewise heavily censored.

Back in 1990, of course, things were different. Hard though it is to believe these days, back then it seemed Hollywood was headed in a new, more adult-oriented direction. Amid widespread calls for a new “A” (as in adult) movie rating, that year saw the releases of celebrated envelope-pushers like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER, TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! and LIFE IS CHEAP…BUT TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE, all of which received X ratings from the MPAA–and so were released to the arthouse circuit unrated. That’s in addition to the many 1990 films given X ratings that were downgraded after extensive edits were made, such as SANTA SANGRE, PREDATOR 2, THE GODFATHER PART III and TOTAL RECALL (which in its original form was the final X rated movie). It seemed inevitable that in October of 1990 the A rating made its long-awaited debut in the form of NC-17, attached to Universal Pictures’ sexy biopic HENRY & JUNE.

Over the next few years a flurry of NC-17 rated movies appeared, including DICE RULES, DARK OBSESSION, BAD LIEUTENANT, WHORE, TOKYO DECADENCE, POISON, MAN BITES DOG, TWOGETHER, WIDE SARGASSO SEA, PARIS FRANCE and KIDS. The situation was reminiscent of the early days of the X rating, which following its 1968 inception became fairly widespread, gracing MIDNIGHT COWBOY, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, FRITZ THE CAT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS. That period didn’t last, of course, as in the public mind the X rating quickly become synonymous with pornography. The NC-17, by contrast, was tarnished by a far simpler and more abrupt calamity: the 1995 release of SHOWGIRLS, whose box office failure is widely blamed for demolishing the commercial prospects of NC-17 rated fare.

It was a year later, incidentally, that the rating underwent a change, becoming, in essence, NC-18 due to some pointed rewording: “No One Under 17 Admitted” was changed to “No One 17 and Under Admitted.” Of course, furthering the puzzlement and inconsistency that always seem to accompany the NC-17, the change was barely publicized.

Not that this had any effect on public perception, as by the turn of the millennium the NC-17 stigma had fully settled in. Since the year 2000 a grand total of just twelve NC-17 rated movies have been released: BAD EDUCATION, MA MERE, A DIRTY SHAME, THE DREAMERS, YOUNG ADAM, FRONTIER(S), HATCHET, INSIDE DEEP THROAT, LUST CAUTION, SHAME, EASIER WITH PRACTICE and A SERBIAN FILM (this isn’t counting the NC-17 certified films that “surrendered” their ratings, which include the likes of Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, WHERE THE TRUTH LIES, THE UGLY, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and KILLER JOE).

Looking over those titles, one thing that strikes me is the relative dearth of horror fare. The NC-17 appears to have become reserved for saucy art films, while horror movie distributors unwilling to bend to the MPAA tend to release their films unrated. It seems to me the situation should be reversed, with art house films distributed without ratings (as there’s probably not much danger of children showing an interest in BAD EDUCATION or LUST, CAUTION) and horror movies going with the NC-17, but again, puzzlement and inconsistency are constants with the NC-17.

So where does this leave us? Back where we were in 1990, when the NC-17 rating was first introduced. In 2007 MPAA chairman Dan Glickman acknowledged the failure of NC-17 and announced a new “Hard-R” rating to replace it, but that appears to have gone nowhere. A shame, really, as any problems that might accompany a new adults-only rating can’t possibly be any worse than those we’re dealing with now.