Ever since Herschell Gordon Lewis sent horror audiences reaching for their barf bags with 1963’s Blood Feast, blood and guts have been a prevailing staple of fright film culture. Lewis will be one of the first to tell you that his movie is a trainwreck, as are its follow-ups Color Me Blood Red and Two Thousand Maniacs. Lack of critical acclaim aside, however, the films clearly drilled into a meaty, pulpy nerve that manifested itself in greater extremes throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the 1980 classic Friday the 13th and the arrival of special make-effects guru Tom Savini.
Ever since then, many gore lovers have grown doubtful as to whether it is possible to tell a terrifying tale without throwing in buckets of blood and the occasional bit of nudity.
But we’re here to tell you that not only is it possible to make a great PG-13 horror flick, there are already at least 15 films that have risen to the challenge. Here ya go.
15. The Ring
VHS had not officially gone the way of the dodo when The Ring arrived in theaters, but it was falling out of favor due to a new-fangled tech called DVD. In the 2002 example starring Naomi Watts and directed by Gore Verbinski, the film’s starring format was still very much recognizable to general movie audiences, and it succeeded in scaring the pants off them. We’re not sure if the same will be true when Rings hits theaters later this year, but we digress. In the film, the VHS technology is only part of the story.
When Rachel (Watts) discovers a link between a videotape and a mysterious series of deaths, where the victims die within seven days of watching it, she begins to think supernatural forces are at work. The Ring works because it relishes each moment of suspense, preferring to focus more on what may happen than the actual payoffs. It also “cheats” by playing the creepy-little-girl-with-Cousin-It-hair card.
14. Drag Me to Hell
If there is anything scarier than creepy little girls—sorry Ring—it’s creepy old women that look like they’ve clawed their way from the depths of Hell itself. Director Sam Raimi taps into that original Evil Dead magic, but cuts back on the grue. Still, in doing so, he proves that you don’t need rape-y trees and pencils to the achilles tendon to give audiences a jolt.
Drag Me to Hell keeps audiences invested with its ticking clock plot motif, a likable leading lady in Alison Lohman, and the always-spooky Lorna Raver as the main human baddie, who curses our heroine when she—Lohman—picks her banker job over basic human compassion. It’s one weak moment for an otherwise sweetheart of a girl, but it comes with long-lasting consequences. In three days, sweet Alison, demons will come and drag you to Hell. Literally. Get ready.
Damn old women!
Insidious is a film rich with creepy imagery, well-timed jumps, and an oddly coherent plot that centers around the phenomenon of astral projection. When their child slips into a coma, a family fears that he is being kept in another world called The Further by evil spirits.
Yes, we know there have been a couple of by-the-numbers sequels at this point, but Insidious was a new experience when it dropped in theaters circa 2010. Rather than making you cringe at each imaginative and grotesque kill, it staved off the building wave of torture porn and kept focus on creating suspense, spooky characters, and, of course, plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments.
Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell—who were pretty much responsible for torture porn with their hit film Saw—flex their storytelling muscles showing that they could recreate the appeal of their nastier film and land it with general audiences. Job well done. Chapters 2 and 3? Not so much.
You’ve got to admit it: the groans just came out involuntarily when hearing that Reba McEntire would be making her big screen debut in a 1990 horror oddity called Tremors. What did this twangy southern country music star know about killing monsters?
Turns out, quite a bit, as evidenced in this little snippet of awesomeness, which, as a YouTube commenter amusingly points out, seems like the final boss scene of every video game ever.
Tremors tells a simple story of underground burrowers that have a taste for human flesh. The only people who can stop these snakelike creatures are Reba, Michael Gross, Fred Ward, and—who else?—Kevin Bacon.
What we loved about Tremors is that it never takes itself seriously, and the creature effects are practical and solid. It also refuses to take the easy way out keeping gore to a minimum and relying mainly on its sense of humor and characterization to flesh things out.
11. The Uninvited
In 2009’s The Uninvited, two sisters are reunited after one returns home from a mental health facility following the death of her mother. The two girls quickly take a disliking to their dad’s new wife. When our heroine starts to have disturbing visions of her mother, she begins to think that stepmom is somehow responsible for mom’s death.
The movie works well with the supernatural but also does a fine job of bending and intertwining reality with what (could be) the tortured thoughts of a mentally disturbed young woman. The twist ending may not trick all of you, but it is certainly well-executed and serves as an appropriate climax. You don’t feel cheated, and with a film like this one, you very much could have.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the source material for this film—A Tale of Two Sisters. If you just got to have a harder edge to your horror, that’s probably the route that you want to go, but it works just fine in the Americanized PG-13 dosage.
Strangers trapped on an elevator begin to suspect that one of them is a killer. Meanwhile a detective harboring a past tragedy that cost him his faith begins to think that perhaps the “killer” on board is something more sinister. By the time M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) lent his name to this production, which was aptly directed by John Erick Dowdle, fans had a right to be skeptical.
If you hated M. Night for The Happening, The Village and Lady in the Water, then you probably prejudged this thing as a piece of crap. If you still loved M. Night after those previously mentioned atrocities, you probably thought it to be a cheap horror flick that he had very little to do with outside of slapping his name on there as a producer.
In both cases—provided you were willing to give Devil a chance—you would have been pleasantly surprised to see an effective little shocker that has something to say beyond M. Night’s trademark—and usually annoying—twists.
9. What Lies Beneath
Audiences too easily dismiss What Lies Beneath when speaking of the great Harrison Ford films that are out there beyond Indiana Jones, Star Wars and his Jack Ryan movies. This is an old school type of horror film that plays with our expectations while telling a compelling husband-and-wife drama that is expertly interlaced with ghostly visions of a dead young woman, who is haunting the couple’s home.
Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) doesn’t try to zigzag too much in the storytelling and instead relies on the strengths and weaknesses of his characters to tell a simple tale of flawed human relationships at the intersection of the supernatural. The film sets up its scares very well, but gets enough juice out of the writing and its stars so that cheap horror gimmicks aren’t necessary to keep us invested. We definitely wish that this was more of the norm for horror films.
8. The Woman in Black
The Woman in Black is a fresh adaptation of the terrifying Susan Hill novel, and it tells the tale of a young attorney (Daniel Radcliffe), who while on assignment to settle an estate, tries to unravel the mystery of a vengeful ghost and the dead children she leaves in her wake. This film from the new Hammer Studios plays out much like a classic Hammer film before the legendary production house went full bore into nudity and violence throughout the 1970s.
Given the nature of the subject matter—dead kids—there are certainly things here that you don’t wish to see, but most of the mayhem stays off-screen. The titular “Woman” is unsettling not because of gruesome makeup or actions that we see replicated in full detail, but because of her blank slate look onto which we project the story’s horrors directly from our imaginations. Chilling from beginning to end.
7. The Final Girls
Any time that someone tells us it is impossible to make an effective PG-13 Friday the 13th, we hold up The Final Girls as a winning argument otherwise. The 2015 horror comedy has a hilarious young cast and a smart script that plays gleefully within the conventions of the 1980s campfire slasher film that flicks like F13 and The Burning helped to create.
The movie works because there is an actual story under all the conventions, parody, and tamed-down horror movie sexuality and violence. It centers on Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga), who loses her former scream queen mom (Malin Akerman) in a tragic car accident. A couple of years pass, and Max is goaded into going to see her mom’s seminal horror achievement, Camp Bloodbath, at the local movie house.
Through a supernatural series of events, Max and her friends are thrust into the film, giving the grieving young woman a chance to reconnect with her mom. Well, not her mom, but her mom’s character from the film.
Along the way, the two begin to form a bond that only ratchets up the tension when—Highlander-style—they discover that per the rules of horror movies, there can be only one Final Girl. What follows is a funny, touching, sweet and at-times scary movie.
6. The Sixth Sense
We’ve given M. Night Shyamalan a lot of grief for The Village and everything that came after it—who hasn’t?—but it’s hard to argue against the quality of his breakout film The Sixth Sense. While similar twist endings had been done before in better films—see Don’t Look Now—it’s clear that Shyamalan has a love for the old school supernatural suspense genre.
What he’s made here is a film with modern sensibilities that would have been equally at home during the 1970s upswing in cerebral horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. It helps that Bruce Willis is phenomenal as the out-of-typecast psychiatrist, who is trying to help a young boy deal with his disturbing visions and communiques with the dead. Of course by now, most of you reading this know how it shakes out. Still, it’s a testament to The Sixth Sense that we’re sitting here talking about it 20 years later without giving away the ending.
5. The Others
Like The Sixth Sense before it, The Others loses something once you know the big reveal at the end. It’s not the type of film that you would want to watch over and over again. However, if you’re going in cold for the first time or if you’re the type who forgets everything about a movie several years after seeing it — what a flick!
Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) has two creepy kids (strike one), who begin to think the spooky house where they live (strike two) is haunted (strike three). As viewers, we’re forced to live with these paranoid little munchkins and to traverse all the same dimly lit rooms and hallways as our heroine until the film draws to an admirably unexpected conclusion.
Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky) does a great job of building tension and making you wait for payoffs a little longer than you’re comfortable with, but in the end, it’s all worthwhile.
4. The Grudge
The Grudge benefitted with a close enough landfall to the 2002 American version of The Ring that it escaped being designated as over-saturation when it came to Hollywood remaking foreign imports. Made just two years after the previous film, this Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring vehicle further helped ingrain Asian horror into the American marketplace. The plot centers on a young nurse who takes a job in Tokyo only to fall into the crosshairs of a curse that causes people to die in a fit of rage.
Once again, terrifying kids are the order of the day, as anyone who has seen this film can attest. The Grudge series—American style—would eventually pump out two more sequels before audiences caught on to the fact that there was only so much you could do with the concept. This is one franchise that could have benefitted from upping the ante on gore, but what we ended up with in that original was good solid suspense, and we wouldn’t change a thing.
3. Tourist Trap
Some might consider Tourist Trap a bit of a cheat, since it technically was a PG-rated horror film, but that was only because the PG-13 hadn’t been invented yet. Watching it today, you get a real sense of foreboding, and the collection of mannequins are so creepy we just can’t see it being classified in the same boat as The Secret Life of Pets.
That said, there is very little objectionable content beyond the eerie imagery and suggestive actions. The young cast includes Tanya Roberts of That ’70s Show, as well as Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, and Robin Sherwood. Of course, you cannot speak of Tourist Trap without also acknowledging the scenery-chewing performance of Chuck Connors—the MLB/NBA star-turned-Rifleman.
Cloverfield is a film with a lot of problems. For starters, the handheld video gimmick is absurd in the context of the narrative, but it’s also extremely off-putting if you laid out your $10 to watch a movie rather than someone’s shot-on-an-iPhone trip to Afghanistan. We definitely know what director Matt Reeves was gunning for with the newsreel/found footage style, but it doesn’t always make for a particularly enjoyable film.
Even so, Cloverfield certainly had moments that worked, and as it sucks you further into its events of the story, you start to feel the hopelessness of the situation in a visceral way that few films are able to create for their viewers. By the time the creature shows itself, we were fully invested in what happens next, even if our eyes would do the occasional roll at the fact that these idiots are still holding the camera.
Mama isn’t a badly reviewed film judging from the 6.2 it received over at IMDb and the “certified fresh” rating it got from Rotten Tomatoes, but it certainly doesn’t get enough credit in the horror community. As a suspense-driven shocker, it delivers the goods. The film once again relies on creepy kids—seeing a pattern here?—to sell many of the scares, but the plot is what we found so compelling.
After two little girls are kidnapped and nearly murdered by their father, they are saved in the nick of time by a dark and mysterious force they start to call “Mama.” Bad news for the aunt and uncle who take them in and start trying to fulfill parental roles. Mama isn’t ready to give up custody, and what happens next makes for a chilling and effective horror film even if there isn’t much going in the head explosions department.
And we’re done, readers. We know some of you only accept your horror R-, NC-17, or Unrated, but occasionally, you should take a step back and appreciate a scary movie for what it doesn’t show you. The 15 flicks presented here are great examples, but now let’s hear from you. What PG-13 horror movies do you think delivered? Sound off in the comments section.