You know the current movement in the horror community with the mantra “Make Horror R Again”? There was a time when the line that separated the PG and R ratings was far less precise. The 1970s and the 1980s were a very unique time to be of a formidable age. Typically, everyone’s parents came from a time when all the debauchery happened in real life on the down low, and everything on television and in the movies were glossed over depictions of suburbia and master bedrooms with two single beds. By the time the 1970s rolled around and the turmoil and disenchantment of politics and Vietnam set in, films got darker, grittier, and edgier. The MPAA rating system wasn’t ready, and it would take a good fifteen years for them to catch up. Couple that with parents who were not savvy with the contemporary pop culture and smoked unfiltered cigarettes with the kids in the car and the windows up, and you get a Molotov cocktail of relaxed parental supervision and a grab bag of unexpected sex, nudity, gore, and violence with anything that might be labeled “PG”. So here are just a few surprisingly PG horror films.
CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS
See the poster art with the beanie and the balloon? What about the whimsical looking guy in the coffin chumming it up with the rotting re-animated corpse? Well, that guy just happens to be a Manson-type cult leader who performs a Satanic ritual that brings the dead back to life. Said dead then begin to devour the flesh of the cult members. This was directed by Bob Clark (credited as Benjamin Clark) who would also direct the R rated classic BLACK CHRISTMAS. I love Bob Clark and this film. I saw it on local TV (another very subversive instrument of youth traumatization), and it might as well have been made by the Devil. It terrified me, and it still stands as a masterwork of low budget horror.
This one had the sure fire casting of an actor that a previous generation might remember in a more wholesome incarnation. Chuck Connors was THE RIFLEMAN for five seasons back in the late fifties and early sixties. It was kind of like a western version of Andy Griffith with Connors as a single father dispensing wisdom to his young son. Parents wouldn’t hesitate to buy a ticket or rent this one from the video store. It has the Rifleman in it. It must be family friendly. Ironically, sometimes even provocative poster or box art wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Connors happened to be one of many stars who formerly had very high profile roles and then later embraced horror and genre cinema roles in the twilight of their careers. In TOURIST TRAP, Connor is a mannequin-loving psycho that stalks nubile young women. No advice dispensed here, only the business end of some telekinetic crazy. The playful elements of the Pino Donaggio score might lull anyone into thinking this is PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE, but it’s closer to HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES.
THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD
Can anyone imagine a world where a decapitated head on a platter could get a PG rating? THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD didn’t just get near it, it owned it. Technically, its original rating was GP. GP stood for “General Audiences, Parental Guidance Suggested.” Thanks to that very confusing acronym, it was revised to PG about a year after this film’s release. I can’t say enough about this one. Who doesn’t love the British Horror anthologies? With vampires, witchcraft, and murder, it could only be considered family friendly by bringing the family closer when the kids sleep in their parents’ room for about a week after watching it.
DEATHDREAM (aka DEAD OF NIGHT) is another Bob Clark film and probably his most unsung horror entry. The poster art might lend to a movie about assassins, beautiful women, and intrigue, but in reality it’s one of the most creative zombie films ever made. When Andy dies it Vietnam, his parents are grief-stricken. His mother literally wishes him back to life. Both are shocked to see him arrive at their door shortly after. There’s only one problem- he’s homicidal and slowly decomposing. DEATHDREAM is a nice companion piece to Stephen King’s more contemporary and R-rated PET SEMATARY. With the resonating themes of war, loss, and the finality of death, it could be a downer for family movie night.
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM
I have to include INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM because this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I guess seeing a pagan high priest rip a man’s still beating heart out of his chest, and then lower him into a Hell-like fiery abyss for the sake of human sacrifice might have pushed it. The mid-’80s were the turning point in ratings and censorship as high profile parents like Tipper Gore demanded that potentially adult material should be rated as so. The very first film to be rated PG-13 was the Matt Dillion comedy THE FLAMINGO KID. The very first film to be released with a PG-13 rating was the John Milius cold war classic RED DAWN.
I really don’t know if we were any better off after that. It seems that PG lost its luster and was relegated to THREE MAN AND A BABY and a few outlier Olsen Twins movies. Now PG-13 isn’t the unpredictable bad boy that a rogue PG film once was. It’s just not as much fun, much in the same way that downloading music from Napster for free was way more exciting that buying it legit now. On the bright side, without that ambiguity, I or anyone else that writes or podcasts about the films they still love would never have been able to con their parents into letting them watch anything without that iffy “PG” seal of approval. My sons wanted to watch SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 3 a few months ago, and I had forgotten about the nudist colony scene. I checked the rating of PG prettily hastily, and inadvertently exposed my younger son to his first unsanctioned view of the female anatomy. PG-13 has made me way too comfortable.