PG-13 is an odd rating. It was born in 1984 out of necessity; the chasm between what constituted a PG film and an R one was just too great. Look at POLTERGEIST, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, or even GREMLINS — there had to be a better way to prepare parents for what they were about to show their children.
As time went on, however, PG-13 films took on a certain stigma. Being that they were often assigned to genre movies, it came to represent the kind of storytelling that couldn’t bring the goods. These were the movies made for high-schoolers, the ones that couldn’t surprise with a gush of gore or a depth of evil.
But that’s a cynical point of view. Sure, some PG-13 horror movies lack grit, but a good filmmaker takes it as a challenge. A good filmmaker can create a distinct, terrifying vision by favoring atmosphere and character over the shock of a sliced throat or mid-coitus kill. Often, PG-13 horror movies have to try harder, and are thus better films.
Here’s 13 of our favorites.
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)
A surprise in a dozen different ways, this sequel to 2014’s underwhelming OUIJA upped the ante in every way. Genuine pathos, vibrant characters, and pulse-pounding scares ensured the movie’s central gimmick never once upstaged the action. And, through it all, Mike Flanagan relies on striking visual cues and uncanny images (like the one above) to achieve scares rather than grimaces.
DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
Sam Raimi directed this cult gem, which follows a young woman’s attempts to evade eternal damnation after getting cursed by a gypsy crone. There’s plenty to wince at here; worms and creepy crawlies abound, and the gypsy’s ghoulish hauntings can best be described as stomach-churning. But there’s a playfulness on display that lovers of Evil Dead will instantly recognize, not to mention some visual effects that would impress even the queasiest of audiences.
THE LAST EXORCISM (2010)
Found-footage horror lends itself to ambiguity and obfuscation, so it’s odd how most still end up with an R rating. Too often, that R is unnecessary, a result of potty mouths or quick splashes of gore. The Last Exorcism, the story of a phony exorcist who finds himself faced with a case that’s all-too-real, navigates its horror well, oscillating between the demonic voices and contortions you’d expect from an exorcism flick and the uneasiness that accompanies the film’s backwoods locale. Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell’s expressive performances say more than a pile of intestines ever could.
Spiders are terrifying, but they aren’t particularly violent. They can be; Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND contains the most sickening spider-centric scene I’ve ever seen. But, truly, it’s more about their look and texture, as well as the sense that one could be crawling on you at any given moment. And that’s what ARACHNOPHOBIA does so well. It’s also incredibly approachable, with the film’s central family exuding a Spielbergian comfort and a memorable cameo by John Goodman as a brawny exterminator.
THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987)
Why hasn’t anyone remade this yet? Not that I want a remake, necessarily, but the idea is so simple, effective, and, for a studio at least, synergistic. How is that reboot of the Universal Monsters going anyway? Because MONSTER SQUAD would fit right in. It’s also the perfect gateway horror movie, the sort of thing that’s just frightening enough to make a pre-teen thinking they’re watching something they maybe shouldn’t be.
FIRE IN THE SKY (1993)
For a long time, FIRE IN THE SKY doesn’t feel like a horror movie. Even though it’s about an alien abduction, it’s more concerned with the town’s response to the abduction, as well as the PTSD suffered by Travis Walton, the abductee. FIRE IN THE SKY becomes a horror movie, however, once we’re shown what Walton believes happened to him on the alien spaceship. It’s all goo and gadgets and bulbous, black-eyed aliens that long haunted my dreams. That it’s supposedly based on a true story makes it that much more unsettling.
KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988)
I was actually surprised to hear KILLER KLOWNS was PG-13. I remember being a child and finding it wildly, thrillingly violent. And it is, but that violence is couched so deeply in the film’s bottomless pit of gags, jokes, and references that it’s sorta impossible for it ever be truly disturbing. Scary clowns are all the rage these days, but they’re all aesthetic and cackles. These clowns, with their cotton candy cocoons and squirt guns, are the real deal.
THE FINAL GIRLS (2015)
A heartfelt throwback to the slashers of yore, THE FINAL GIRLS follows a group of modern-day horror fans as they break through the screen and into the world of their favorite gorefest, CAMP BLOODBATH. Despite taking place in the world of slashers, however, the film dials back the bloody stuff to explore themes of motherhood and loss. It’s a surprising, effective pivot that still leaves room for genuine scares courtesy of the camp’s masked killer.
THE SKELETON KEY (2005)
Another great gateway horror movie, THE SKELETON KEY distinguishes itself with its Bayou setting and use of voodoo. Strong performances from Kate Hudson and Peter Saarsgard pair well with a plot that revels in suspense as much as scares.
TREMORS is awash in guts. Luckily, they’re worm guts, which are a lot funnier to see splattered than a person’s. TREMORS’ humor is key to its success, and though it’s particularly garish in terms of its puppetry and visual effects, the kills themselves are actually quite subdued. It’s much more horrifying to imagine what those worms do to you under the sand than it is to see someone trapped in the phalanx of snakes creeping from its maw.
THE OTHERS (2001)
Subtlety wasn’t a staple of horror around the turn of the century. There was a showiness in terms of both gruesomeness and special effects. That’s what made THE OTHERS stand out. Where many of its contemporaries were overcompensating, THE OTHERS embraced restraint. Alejandro Amenábar’s slow, dreamy movie relies almost entirely on atmosphere and the uncanny performances of his cast to achieve some genuine shivers.
THE RING (2002)
One of the most influential horror movies of this century is also one of its most accessible. Gore Verbinski’s adaptation of the Japan’s RINGU is slick, confident, and just mean enough. Outside of one heartstopping jump scare early in the film, THE RING thrives mostly on rising waves of dread and, in the video at the center of its narrative, a sense of the uncanny. It’s freaky stuff and it felt like the perfect bridge between the atmospheric horror of THE OTHERS and the more fast-paced fare of the era.
One of the most surprising things about CLOVERFIELD is that we never really see just what exactly happens to its characters. It’s a violent movie, but mainly in terms of its tone and pace. When it comes to the fates of its characters, we’re left with only a vague idea. That vagueness is key to the film’s appeal on a grander scale, too; we’re watching this beast destroy New York City, but we don’t know the hows, whys, or whats. In Cloverfield, it’s all about what we don’t see.