In the years following Scream‘s release in 1996, studios rushed to release as many witty slashers as possible to capitalize on the meta slasher phase before it fizzled out. From I Know What You Did Last Summer to Urban Legend to Valentine, each film seemed to get worse and worse with each subsequent release. This is why it is so upsetting that Geoffrey Wright’s (Romper Stomper) rather brilliant film Cherry Falls, which celebrates its 16th anniversary today, had its theatrical release cancelled in lieu of a television premiere on the USA Network. It also saw multiple cuts after the MPAA and the U.S. Senate came down on violence and sexuality in teen films following the Columbine shootings. Cherry Falls isn’t a great movie, but it’s certainly a good one. It is one of the better Scream copycats to be released in the years following Wes Craven’s classic. So what exactly happened there? Why wasn’t this above average slasher given a proper release and why was it cut apart in the editing room? I’m here to tell you why.*
*All information is pulled from the director’s commentary and various interviews from Scream Factory’s recently-released Blu-Ray of Cherry Falls.
In case you haven’t seen it, Cherry Falls is a slasher film that flips the horror genre on its head by telling the tale of a serial killer who targets virgins in a small town aptly named Cherry Falls. Starring Jay Mohr, Michael Biehn, Gabriel Mann, and the late Brittany Murphy, Cherry Falls is a fun, under-seen gem from the turn of the century that is finally seeing an increased popularity thanks to Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray (I even missed it upon its original release and only now just saw it for the first time). For the sake of anyone who hasn’t seen the film, spoilers will be kept to a minimum as the killer’s reveal, while not the most original plot development in horror history, still manages to surprise.
Cherry Falls was going to be distributed by October Films, a major U.S. independent film production company owned by Universal Pictures. After filming wrapped, Universal then sold its shares of October Films to Barry Diller in 1999, who merged it with Gramercy Pictures and renamed the new company USA Films. When this happened, all Hell broke loose.
At the time of Cherry Falls‘s impending release, the Senate was having hearings over sex and violence in teen films. It threw a spotlight on Cherry Falls and USA Films, being a new company didn’t want their first release to defy what the Senate said they should do. Thus the film was given a TV release as opposed to a theatrical release (though it did get released in some European theaters after selling to every major territory at Cannes), and all deleted footage was lost. With a budget of $14 million, Cherry Falls has the distinction of being the most expensive TV movie ever made.
The film was written by Ken Selden as a satire with plenty of comedic elements but was directed by Geoffrey Wright, who viewed it as a far more serious film. Wright kept much of the satire, but also increased the horror, removing much of the comedy from Selden’s script. This would ultimately hurt the film when put in front of the MPAA (Scream faced similar issues with its climax but the MPAA lightened up when director Wes Craven told them it was meant as a comedy), who repeatedly slapped it with an NC-17 rating.
Things got tense fairly quickly on the set of Cherry Falls. Given a 30-day time frame to shoot the film, Wright went over-budget and behind-schedule early on into the shoot. Selden points out that many scenes that he wrote weren’t even able to be filmed because of this (though the flashback to Loralee’s rape was added in by Wright) and scenes had to be rushed during filming since they had limited time and weren’t able to return to locations after they had left. This meant that many scenes in the final cut were the first and only take, which is actually pretty impressive. Selden politely notes that Wright had a very specific vision for Cherry Falls and frequently clashed with members of the crew, specifically cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who made a name for himself shooting films like Don’t Look Now and Candyman and now shoots films like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel). Wright admits to this in his commentary and even confesses to irritating actor Jay Mohr for demanding a flexible schedule from all of the actors. He even tells an anecdote in which Richmond walked off the set and didn’t come back for almost two days because Richmond thought he was using too much blood in one sequence. Wright’s commentary on Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray is quite fascinating and he does take responsibility for most of the tension present on the set.
In a post-Columbine world, the media eye was on violence in cinema. The late 90s and early 00s saw many horror films trimmed of much of their violence. This holds true for Cherry Falls as well, with nearly all of the death scenes lacking in the gore department. Wright himself admits that a very soft version of the film was released. Graphic shots were taken from the opening kill and a scene in which a deputy’s head is cleaved in half with an ax. Even the killer’s death by impalement is missing the shot of the actual penetration. Wright informs his listeners that all of these shots were filmed, but unfortunately had to be removed from the film to appease the Senate, the MPAA and USA Films.
While much of the violence had to be trimmed, the teen orgy ended up causing the most problems with the MPAA. After all, you can’t just show a bunch of minors having a sex party (well, you couldn’t in 2000 anyway). Interestingly enough, Selden wrote the scene to feature a “sea of white sheets.” In his script, which comes as an extra with the Blu-Ray, viewers wouldn’t actually see most of the orgy taking place. Instead, they would see the shapes of bodies moving under the sheets. When the killer is chasing Jody (Murphy) through the house, the audience would simply see the sheets with splashes of blood randomly appearing on them. Wright chose to go a more graphic route and show everything in plain sight, resulting in the film being given an NC-17 rating multiple times. Since Wright was obligated to deliver an R-rated film, nearly all of the nudity (mostly topless females) was cut from the scene.
So where is all of the footage that had to be cut in order to obtain the R rating? Wright insists that it still exists, stating twice in the commentary that studios never lose footage. They only misplace it. If this is indeed the case, then it’s quite possible buried below tons of lost footage in the Focus Features vault. If that is the case, Scream Factory couldn’t find it. There is still hope though. One day it might be discovered in the archives randomly, at which point Scream Factory (or another Blu-Ray distributor) can re-release the Blu-Ray with the uncut version. Selden rightly points out that Blumhouse could make the film today for $5 million and get by without any cuts. Maybe a remake is in order? The slasher genre could use a reboot and remaking Cherry Falls might be easier than finding that lost footage.