What usually illustrates the horror genre is three things: blood, guts and gore. It seems like an impossible feat to remove these things, but nothing garners more money than a PG-13 rating rather than an R. Is that the only reason PG-13 horror movies are made, or is it for accessibility reasons?
A PG-13 rating for all genres implies that teens can go see racier movies without adult supervision or that parents feel a little more okay taking their kids to movies, which can result in a bigger box office. It’s actually rare for an R movie to supersede the top box office spot from movies with other ratings. We are going to go back to the beginning of the rating’s history and how PG-13 horror began before starting in on the money effects.
The Beginning of the PG-13 Horror Flick
The PG-13 rating is a recent addition, with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being the first movie that had people questioning its PG rating. Apparently, ingesting monkey brains and watching a dude’s beating heart get ripped out was too intense for younger audiences. The majority opinion however was that it didn’t deserve an R rating. Therefore, the MPAA compromised on an in between rating. Later that year Red Dawn became the first movie to receive the PG-13 rating. More movies started adopting the rating to avoid giving their movie an automatic R.
The first horror movie to garner the PG-13 rating was Night of the Comet, a brilliant zombie satire released in 1984. With some scares and very little gore, this one has became fairly popular with its home video release. Having this film the standard for PG-13 horror should’ve led this genre to a good start, and instead, it allowed for some shoddy–yet comedic–excuses for horror. While there were some cult classics such as Little Shop of Horrors and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the introduction of the PG-13 rating also gave us flops such as the Troll franchises and the Critters franchise.
No big names took on the PG-13 challenge, surprisingly. That is due to theater culture in the 1980s. Most theaters were still showing one movie at a time. Big names such as Cineplex and Regal were just getting started. It was extremely expensive to run a multiplex. Finally, the video store was extremely popular and would be until streaming was established. Therefore, there was no box office “risk” in making an R-rated movie. That changed in the 1990s, when most major cities had a multiplex in town and the movie industry started to churn out content a little faster.
The shift in theater culture
The 1990s brought us amazing films varying all genres, and many enjoyed them in the theater. It’s not that home video wasn’t popular, it still reigned as the most accessible way to see new movies. The film industry’s advertisement tactics shifted towards pushing a theatrical run. Especially with film epics such as Titanic and Jurassic Park, a theatrical screening was the “right way” to see these movies. This is when advisory ratings became correlated with box office.
In the 1990s, there are only three R-rated movies in the top 20 films by box office, and among those 20, there is only one horror film. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was the 7th highest grossing film of the 1990s and remains the 2nd highest grossing horror film, only second to the 2017 adaptation of It. This formed an equation for many studios that PG-13 horror makes more money than R horror. While that is true on paper, The Sixth Sense was an anomaly that was high grossing and also critically acclaimed, as it is well written, directed and acted. We cannot say the same for the majority of PG-13 horror in the early 2000s.
The Race for Box Office Success
Not all hope is lost for 2000s horror. In fact, a large chunk of films are actually good movies. A favorite of mine that I watched as a starter horror film is The Others, which kicked off the decade in such a brilliant way (imo, it has a better twist than The Sixth Sense). We also have The Exorcism of Emily Rose, an amazing court thriller with horror sprinkled here and there. However, this was also the decade of half baked remakes of Asian horror. This is a highly hot take, but The Ring and The Grudge do not even touch their original content in regards to quality.
These movies became so popular because they were accessible through their PG-13 rating. They tamed down the original story. In regards to these film, it is purely the look of them that makes them so appealing. Everyone was a sucker for blue filter, as it made films seem edgier than they were. With a few exceptions, a lot of the films followed the same format and all were met with moderate box office success, however the quality became more and more diluted. They also became more predictable, which many filmmakers combatted with spurts of creativity, as discussed in my former article Creative Kills: What Makes It Pop. All of this regurgitation and financial strife of the R-rated film escalated once streaming services quickly replaced the video rental shops in the later 2000s, which came to a glorious head in 2010.
The Renaissance of PG-13 Horror and its fall
PG-13 horror changed forever in the year 2010. Before this year, PG-13 horror felt like a normal R-rated horror film. Instead it turned it down a couple notches. In 2010, James Wan shook up what it meant to make a PG-13 horror film with Insidious. Insidious remains one of the greatest horror films of all time, because it is still effectively scary, but it is a film without gore. PG-13 horror seemed very half and half, toning down how scary it was to stuff in mildly horrific images. This film is nothing but scary and competes with the R-rated classics of the 80s and 90s. This allowed for a lot of other films to come out of the woodwork as the decade went on.
James Wan went back to his R-rated roots however with The Conjuring, which with its financial success spawned a whole franchise. As I stated earlier, It: Chapter One is the highest grossing horror film of all time, which is another R-rated success. Once more, PG-13 horror lost its quality when R-rated movies actually started garnering financial success. Still, the movie industry makes half baked PG-13 horror films for a quick buck. Non-restricted films allows teenagers and such to go see a scary movie. A crowd looking for cheap thrills (not so cheap anymore, given theater prices) doesn’t necessarily care about the quality of the film. Cheap jumpscares usually leads to a pretty penny.
Despite all of that, we are still in a sort of PG-13 horror renaissance. A Quiet Place is one of the most financially successful horror films, and its sequel was just as successful and critically acclaimed. However, the R-rating does not damn a movie’s box office anymore. Most of the time, an R-rating is due to language more than anything, except for horror films. Most horror fans willingly seek out something not tamed down. That leaves the question open as to what happens to what we know as starter horror. Will we have new horror films we can show younger audiences to get them started? Perhaps not, but there are plenty past starter horror classics. I much rather rewatch those rather than watch the film industry continue rehashing them.