To an extent, the horror genre has always been restricted by the kind of age rating it possesses.
While some go straight for extensive gore and violence with a strict R-rating, others tend to go for a PG-13 rating to include younger teenagers into their demographic. And while their audience might have expanded to include the 13-18 age group, it is undeniable that they’ve ultimately put themselves into a corner, limiting the amount of violence, gore, adult content and ultimately, scares that they can incorporate into their film.
With the likes of A Quiet Place and Truth or Dare in cinemas (both PG-13 films with varying quality), it might be time to question whether PG-13 horror films are a good idea.
In truth I never thought about how the age rating of a film could impact its effectiveness, but the amount of online comments that come as backlash to a watered down PG-13 horror has made me more open-minded as to the kinds of factors that can impact a good thriller.
The short answer is, they aren’t necessarily terrible.
It’s unfair to say that PG-13 horrors are always bad, because the fact of the matter is, they aren’t. There have been ample cases in recent years that have been able to make use of the age rating, for example the Insidious films, or even, more recently, A Quiet Place. These films are able to make an effective horror through the use of tension and developing atmosphere, and when you combine this with the directing and set design of the crew, a great cult classic is produced.
Instead of focusing on the sometimes excessive violence or gore porn, the producers can direct their attention to the construction of truly terrifying imagery or atmosphere.
And the fact is, not all films need throat-slashing monsters. While excessive violence works in certain slashers like Friday the 13th, other films simply don’t need to breach the limit. For example, a film like Insidious that heavily relies on a spooky atmosphere doesn’t need to have people with their eyes gouged out or legs chopped off.
Plenty of cult-classics have been able to tell a great story without violence, with the likes of Poltergeist, The Others or even Babadook. And even at that, the PG-13 rating doesn’t restrict violence, only over the top, insane gore porn.
A good horror film doesn’t need fountains of blood.
Sometimes, even obscuring the action can intensify the moment. Elision refers to the way a narrative hides or omits something in order to make it more mysterious.
When only given references or descriptions (instead of visual information), the audience is motivated to conjure up their own imagination to help fill in the gaps, which is by far one of the most effective techniques in horror, because the audience contributes their own interpretation of ‘scary’.
The monster in the dark is far scarier than the one shown in front of you.
A great example of this is Shakespeare’s play Macbeth where characters kill/are killed off-screen. The audience is merely given descriptions of the murder from characters’ recounts, and therefore engages the audience to imagine a horrific and gruesome killing without having to show anything.
Linking back to films, or to the horror genre more specifically, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a classic example of elision. In what may be the most iconic scene in all of cinematic history, Hitchcock never explicitly shows the stabbing happen in the shower. Merely close-up glimpses of obscure objects like a mouth, water running or blood. And yet, even today it’s still regarded as one of the most effective scenes ever in a thriller.
The limitations of a PG-13 film aren’t just restrictions. Evidently, there are myriad ways in which writers or directors can develop a great horror movie while adhering to the age rating.
Unfortunately, it seems that not all filmmakers are able to balance the PG-13 rating well.
More often than not, people aren’t able to walk the line between a good and bad horror film. For one, they have no commitment to the rating. Lots of recent PG-13 films have tried to push for more violence without breaching the rating.
Perhaps an example would be Blumhouse Productions’ latest film Truth or Dare. They try to incorporate more scenes of brutal deaths or gory violence, but often they’ll water it down by either cutting away to something else or even just editing it in post.
And quite frankly, often these deaths turn out to be more comedic than scary. If they had committed to maybe an R-rating, the movie would probably have benefited from it. But ultimately the concept of ‘truth or dare’ is specifically aimed for teenagers, and so I don’t see this film fairing well either way.
Another reason the PG-13 rating doesn’t work for the horror genre is the audience. Companies like to cash in on ‘recent’ trends that could help get more butts in seats. Take a look at the new Slenderman movie that’s half a decade late. Or even the supposed Five Nights at Freddy’s movie that’s coming out in a few years. Not only are they late trends, but they also have a short period of relevance.
When you try to incorporate modern trends like social media or apps, you have to accept the fact that the narrative will be marred by the expired relevance. Remember when Wish Upon used a Pokemon Go knock off as a plot point?
Ultimately it’s hard to answer the initial question.
While filmmakers have lots of options to create an effective film, there have been countless examples where they haven’t been able to gauge the line of what makes a good PG-13 horror movie. It’s not about trends or pushing the boundaries in regards to violence, but rather finding a way for the movie to work on its own merit.
As someone who’s a teen himself, I find great enjoyment when a good, well-produced thriller is made that can still be marketed to teenagers and adults. Too often has this genre of movies been affected by the audience or the age rating, and I think it’s about time that producers define the age rating by the movie, and not produce the movie around the rating.
Have a read of why we need more practical effects in horror, rather than CGI.