The 8 Ball: The Top 8 PG/PG-13 Horror Films
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
Horror month gets its final week here at 8-Ball Headquarters, and this week we’re backing away from blood and guts a bit. Ouija opened in theaters this past weekend to nearly $20 million dollars and the #1 spot, proving why studios keep making them despite a generally poor reputation. It’s easy to spend a relatively small amount of money on a horror film, keep it bloodless and put it out for a wider audience; if hardcore horror fans dislike it, well they still have all the teens who can’t get into the “real” horror films to cash in on. But not every PG-13 horror film is bad. Many films have effectively scared audiences without having to rely on extreme on-screen violence, nudity or profanity and this week we’re going to look at the best examples of that, with the greatest horror films that avoided an R rating.
Caveat: For the purposes of this list, I was only considering films that fell under MPAA auspices. This means that a lot of foreign films didn’t necessarily get considered, as they don’t often get submitted to the MPAA. It also means that films that fell before the creation of the current ratings system in 1968 didn’t get considered for the list, as they operated under an entirely different set of rules. As for content, I focused specifically on films that weren’t marketed as horror comedies or family-friendly films such as Ghostbusters, The Monster Squad, Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas and such. Those sort of fall into their own genre and the point of this list was finding films that were built toward older audiences but still escaped the R rating.
• Signs (2002)
• The Others (2001)
• The Woman in Black (2012)
• The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
• 1408 (2007)
First up on our list this week is the film that essentially kicked off the Asian horror remake craze in The Ring. Gore Verbinski took Hideo Nakata’s creepy 1998 J-horror film Ringu and transported it to America, keeping the story essentially intact but using American stars. While the original is arguably the better film, it doesn’t qualify as it was never rated and Verbinski’s film is still incredibly creepy. This is one of the first films of the twenty-first century that showed you didn’t need a ton of blood and nudity to make a really good horror flick, instead focusing on the disturbing imagery in the video tape and the creative concept of the source material (itself based on the Koji Suzuki novel). This film may have lost a little bit of impact due to the wave of imitators that it spawned; the concept of the onryo–embodied here by Samara–was diluted when you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one. But judged on its own merits it stands tall and Verbinski effectively uses mood and cinematography to build a sense of fear. The substandard sequel can be ignored but this one is quite good and I know still know people who can’t watch this film because the video itself creeps them out so much.
Sam Raimi’s return to horror was highly anticipated by many, though a collective groan was issued when it was revealed that it would be through a PG-13 horror flick. By 2009 audiences had been drug through a large parade of poorly-conceived teen-oriented horror films from The Haunting in Connecticut and Prom Night to When a Stranger Calls, Darkness Falls, The Mothman Prophecies, The Haunting of Molly Hartley and more. But we should have known better than to doubt Raimi, who proved that no tree rape was needed in order to make a fun, thrilling and sometimes legitimately creepy horror film. In Drag Me to Hell the set-up is fairly simple, with the opening scene establishing the Lamia before we settle into the story of a good girl who decides to be assertive at the wrong moment and angers a gypsy, who sets the Lamia on her trail. Raimi takes the same sort of glee in tormenting Alison Lohman that he did with Bruce Campbell two decades earlier, and Lohman proves incredibly capable as a horror actress. Many are surprised this is a PG-13 film because there are some gross-out moments, but they aren’t so extreme as to turn squeamish people off. Meanwhile Raimi uses simple but effective techniques to establish most of the terror. I loved this when it came out and it’s still a great little horror flick.
Insidious is the most recent example of a truly great horror film, and one that surprised people with how good it ended up being. Until this film, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s resume had several lackluster entries like Dead Silence and Death Sentence which made people wonder if the Saw creators had lost their touch. When Insidious was announced as a PG-13 film, many of those fears amplified. But the two proved all the doubts completely false as Insidious was a return to top form for both men in their respective roles as director and writer. Whannell’s script of a family plagued by a demonic entity that has an interest in their comatose son is much smarter than most would give a horror film credit for. Most significantly, it conjures up actual characters instead of the one-dimensional cutouts that horror often settles for. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne both deliver good performances as the married couple and neither of their characters is dumb in the way that horror parents tend to be. Wan makes this film legitimately creepy and scary without resorting to torture porn instincts; the film is largely bloodless as befits the rating but it doesn’t skimp on the scares. This was a film which proved that Wan was capable of far more than he had shown us at that point, a point he has since proven with the R-rated The Conjuring as well. This is a good, old-school fright flick that happens to have a very creepy demon right at the center.
It almost seems strange to think that there was a point when M. Night Shyamalan was considered one of the top directors in Hollywood. The man who would become synonymous with the phrase “plot twist” has long since worn out his welcome, but in 1999 he was brand new and The Sixth Sense put the movie-going world on notice. Shyamalan’s tale of a young boy who sees dead people and the tortured child psychologist who tries to help him through it is the modern-classic example of a film that strongly relies on mood and suspense over jump scares and gore. It is one of the truly rare films in the horror genre to be nominated for Best Picture thanks to several elements: a smart script with one of the most well-known twists of modern cinema, the brilliant performances of Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment and Shyamalan’s effective direction. This isn’t a high-octane horror film; it’s slow and builds its sense of dread. Even the few times that something approaching a jump scare pops up they aren’t out of nowhere and aren’t treated like such. Shyamalan may have quickly lost his step following this, Unbreakable and the lesser (but still decent) Signs, but those ones stand just fine on their own.
The Grudge is a film that I think received too much unfair criticism piled against it. Takashi Shimizu’s remake of his own Japanese film came out right in the middle of the J-horror remake craze and was unfairly lumped in with lesser efforts. It was also inevitably compared to The Ring and deemed to be inferior, a position I strongly disagree with. The Ring creeped me out but it never truly frightened me, while The Grudge was a rare horror film to give me nightmares as an adult. There are reasons for that, mostly related to the ghostly Kayako and her terrifying staircase walk and guttural croaking. But even outside my own fears, I simply think it’s a more effective film at building on the themes that would create horror. Shimizu resisted the urge that Verbinski succumbed to in moving the setting to the US; instead the director keeps the film in Japan which made it scarier for Americans. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Karen finds herself in an entirely strange land with unknown customs and Shimizu is very effective in exploiting that to keep us uneasy. It also adds an element of mystery to the source of Kayako and Toshio’s life beyond death which effectively raises the suspense and the stakes. The effects in The Grudge are quite…well, effective in keeping things scary and the performances are solid through and through. It’s perhaps a little too twisty but it remains one of the rare horror films that I can put on and be legitimately freaked out by.
No movie emotionally scarred me as a child quite like Poltergeist. And I’m not even remotely joking there. This is the movie that (along with It) can be credited with most of my very legitimate case of caulrophobia. (Related side note: Ryan Murphy, I hate you for this season of American Horror Story.) And really, can you blame me? That thing is freaking terrifying. It seems insane to think that Poltergeist wasn’t an R-rated film in the era where PG-13 didn’t exist, but yes this is in fact a PG-rated horror film. That right there is proof that PG films can have teeth–or could, once upon a time. This set a lot of the template for a modern haunted house film and it did so without needed to stoop to levels that would make the ratings board sneer. This has so many iconic moments, from Heather O’Rourke’s ominous “They’re here” to Zelda Rubinstein’s great work as Tangina and so on. Sure, the movie has no absolutely level of subtlety to it, but it doesn’t need it. In fact, keeping it low-key would have likely hurt the film and going crazy gives it a demented genius that sticks with you forever.
I went back and forth a little on whether to include Gremlins, because there are those who consider this more kid-oriented. Then I rewatched it and realized that this is probably a pretty messed-up movie to show kids. It’s quite violent and probably would scare the crap out of most kids. (Disclaimer: I do not have kids so if I’m off-base, I’ll admit to being wrong on that.) For adults though, it is a fantastic horror film that contains just enough comedy to make it really fun. This film essentially gave birth to the PG-13 rating along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which were deemed too violent for kids but not so bad that teens wouldn’t be able to handle them and the outrage that came from moviegoers led to the middle of the road step. Joe Dante made his best film yet here with a great story, memorable scenes (microwave, anyone?) and some really good performances to boot. Gizmo and Stripe are absolutely iconic among horror beasties and helped Gremlins attain its status as one of the true mainstream horror greats of the 1980s.
How Jaws avoided an R rating, I’ll never know. It makes absolutely no sense to me how this terrifying and shockingly violent film flew underneath the MPAA’s radar; it may be one of the clearest examples of the MPAA’s inconsistency as a ratings board. But it is in fact PG and that makes it the greatest non-R-rated horror film of all-time. Some might question the horror element but it fits all the proper hallmarks; that the titular shark is a natural creature in nature doesn’t make it any less terrifying than supernatural monsters. From the sharp script by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (adapted from Benchley’s own book) and the pitch-perfect direction of Steven Spielberg to the great performances, the still-astounding animatronic shark…this is the movie that just about has it all. It’s insanely quotable and a lot of fun while still holding to the highest standards of filmmaking. I daresay there won’t ever be a PG or PG-13 horror film that tops the bar set by Jaws.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.