An endless string of media pundits (myself included) has bemoaned the ubiquity four-quadrant thinking. Surely you’ve noticed how movie studios will go well out of their way to provide nothing but bland, safe, PG-13-rated teen entertainments, while courser and more sophisticated films for adults will either be relegated to indie houses, shunted off to only L.A. and New York, or, at the very best, released during the so-called prestige months of November and December. I read a recent article on Salon, declaring that what we once called “film culture” is pretty much at an end, as heavyweights like Kurosawa and Bergman are dead, and film festivals no longer provide the pop culture buzz they once did. These days, casual film observers are using words like “marketing” and “franchise” (words once reserved for studio execs and advertising people), and they root for franchises the same way they root for sport teams. These days, films seem like, more than ever, a mere business. The notion of film as art has been slowly vanishing into a black hole of CGI animals and superheroes.
And it’s not just the art films that are suffering. A lot of the so-called “edgier” films are now being made soft for middle-ground teen audiences. This means that all those fun, gritty, sexy, gory horror and exploitation movies have been, over the last decade or so, been excised of their boobs and blood. This means we horror fans have had to suffer through a steady string of PG-13-rated horror films that, while occasionally creepy, don’t provide the shocking punch that a good stabbing and a plainly trashy sex scene can.
Luckily, as William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I discussed on our last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, there are occasionally films like Joe Dante’s The Hole, which seems to get the notion of PG-13-rated films just right. It’s a rather entertaining horror flick about kids, and manages to be more about kids’ fears and the way kids relate, rather than contrived shocks or toothless, bloodless “boo” moments. Joe Dante, stalwart that he is, has proved how to make a horror film for kids, and make it good.
True, the world is sadly populated by R-rated films that are squeezed into ill-fitting PG-13-rated suits; on the show I mentioned films like Bring it On and Coyote Ugly, two jiggle flicks if ever there were, and both disappointingly missing bare breasts. The horror genre has had its unfortunate streak of flicks like The Mothman Prophecies, Shark Night, or even Red Riding Hood, which all would have benefitted greatly from a welcome injection of good old-fashioned R-rated blood ‘n’ guts. And nudity. But, very occasionally, you’ll find a perfectly decent horror film that is not rated R, and still manages to be scary and creepy on its own terms. There are ways to make exploitation movies for kids. And while it’s a delicate balance, it can be done. Indeed, I’ve scoured my brain (which is a frightening place), and culled up some of the more decent horror flicks you can enjoy (and be scared by) when you’re 9 or 13, and not have to worry about your parents finding out that you watched it.
(This pertains, by the way, to films released with the PG-13 rating, and not older films that would have received a PG-13 rating today. Jaws, for instance, is out. True, this limits the list to movies made after the mid-1980s, but that’s still a large enough well to draw from).
The Ring (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2002)
I haven’t seen the 1998 Japanese original, but I am strangely fond of the 2002 English language remake which is, by all accounts, largely identical to its source. The Ring is a film that banks more on mood, and less on blood and violence. There are a few scenes of mutilated human faces, and those few shots are notable and scary, but the bulk of the film wrings its creepiness from a slow pace, scary music, and a scary atmosphere. The film follows a young mother (Naomi Watts) and her investigation of a mysterious VHS tape that seems to mysteriously kill anyone who watches it – but only seven days after the fact. It’s eventually revealed that the tape was psychically imprinted, and seems to be haunted by a mentally disturbed dead girl. I love the disturbing abstract imagery on the tape, I love the creepy squealing noise it makes. The Ring did launch a very unfortunate trend of J-Horror remakes in America, some of which may be mildly notable, but the film itself still creeps me out despite myself.
Tremors (dir. Ron Underwood, 1990)
An awesome and clever monster flick, Tremors is about a small mining town that is beset by a mysterious species of enormous subterranean worms (nicknamed “graboids”) who have been burrowing up to people and killing them with their tendrils. For one, the monsters are cool and innovative, and the bulk of the film is devoted to figuring out how the monsters operate and how they can be stopped (it turns out they are blind, but can hear your footsteps on the ground above, making you easy to follow if you’re walking or making noise of any kind… yipes). I liked the scene where Kevin Bacon and his two compatriots have to stay on top of a string of boulders to avoid being grabbed. For another, though, the film is just well made. It has a wicked sense of humor, a light brisk pace, and some interesting characters to make sure you actually care about who gets killed. The monster is scary, but I don’t recall any outwardly gross kills. Tremors proves that a great monster can go a long way.
Arachnophobia (dir. Frank Marshall, 1990)
1990 was a good year for this sort of thing, I guess. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Arachnophobia is a lighthearted-yet-scary monster film about killer spiders that is less reminiscent of the giant spider invasions of the 1950s, and more of the playful 1980s kid-monster films like, well, Gremlins. Arachnophobia, which is a very simple story about a rare foreign spider that mates with an American spider, precipitating a spider invasion of a mid-American town, seems to have a tone that is rarely struck in most movies. It’s spooky and playful. Whimsical and horrifying. Dark and light. And yet, it works. Somehow, it strikes the right balance, making for a family horror film that everyone can be creeped out by. It must have been a nightmare for the people who made the film’s previews, as I recall several different TV spots, each accentuating a different facet of the film. One was a family film. One was a comedy (John Goodman plays a comedic exterminator). One was a horror film (Julian Sands gives several grave speeches about the creatures). Any film that has both John Goodman and Julian Sands is doing something interesting.
Critters 2: The Main Course (dir. Mick Garris, 1988)
So there’s this scene in Critters 2 wherein a bunch of little monsters (foot-high extraterrestrial furballs with razor teeth) are trapped in a burning barn. To escape, the monsters, who can trundle like hedgehogs, all stick together in one enormous ten-foot-high ball, and roll through the wall of the barn, attacking the human onlookers. As they roll over their victims, they chew through them, devouring as they go. They roll over one guy, and, in a moment, he is reduced to a bloody, still-quivering skeleton. I saw this scene on network TV when I was 10 years old. It scared the jeepers outta me. Critters 2 is hardly what I’d call a cinematic classic; it’s more ridiculous than engaging or creepy (indeed, it’s a sequel to a Gremlins rip-off), but it’s surely an entertaining film, following as it does a race of shapeshifting alien bountyhunters who are hunting down the title’s monstrous little carnivorous imps. Leaving behind any atmosphere or character, the film goes for fun. And, when you’re 10, it succeeds with flying colors.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
One of the hardest things for fledgling film lovers to accept is the idea that the business side really matters. Once you’ve become accustomed to the idea of treating motion pictures as an art form, you tend to develop blinders to the fact that it’s also an industry. These two factors are at constant war with each other, but not because one is “good” and the other is “evil.” This isn’t The Lord of the Rings, it’s The Incredible Hulk, an internal struggle as opposed to an external one. Until the day comes when producing and distributing a motion picture costs next to nothing, these two elements of the industry will be stuck with each other. Every film is both a work of art and a commodity. The balance is all that matters. Some films are more artistic than commercial, some are more commercial than artistic, and a few… a happy few… are both in equal measure. Here we find the domain of Jaws, The Exorcist and, just to cover the films that are just as crappy as they are unpopular, The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
And here we find, in theory, the PG-13 horror film. The basic idea of a PG-13 horror film is that a movie can be both widely commercial, catering to just about every member of the audience, and also scary. There’s nothing terribly wrong with this idea in principle. It’s almost noble. But it’s also intrinsically limiting. Horror is based on the unknown and, when all else fails, the extreme. Dedicated horror fans have become so accustomed to ultra-violence that a PG-13 rating has become code for “nothing to see here, move along.” And sure enough, there have been plenty of PG-13 horror movies where that description more than applies. Where the need to be commercial has seriously outweighed the film’s a capacity to scare, or even truly entertain.
The heyday of the PG-13 horror film, like all horror trends, is behind us but, like all horror trends, it lingers on. The most recent example, Joe Dante’s The Hole, happens to have done it right. It’s entertaining and scary in equal measure, appealing to those who like horror movies and those who want more mainstream entertainment. Unfortunately it can’t be very commercial, what with a theatrical release limited to five theaters. But it did raise the question on this week’s podcast, as Witney mentioned, of what makes a good PG-13 horror movie. A question I’ve already answered. It can’t be an R-rated movie that’s been neutered down for mainstream acceptance. It has to embrace the rating for all of its possibilities, and with that in mind I present a series of PG-13 horror films that really work under those parameters. These movies manage to be good-natured fun while embracing horror themes, or are legitimately frightening thanks to a storyline that doesn’t require any blood or nudity. I’m going with some of my favorites here and leaving off a few classics, particularly Gremlins (which was PG) and Gremlins 2 because I don’t want this to sound too much like a Joe Dante love-fest.
The Gate (dir. Tibor Takács, 1987)
On the surface, The Gate is remarkably similar to The Hole. A group of kids discover a doorway to Hell in their backyard and accidentally unleash horror onto their house. Unlike The Hole, however, which had a hopeful message of overcoming your fears, The Gate is a mean little bastard of a movie. Stephen Dorff, impossibly young, suffers through a series of monster attacks from stop-motion animated monsters who engage in transformations that give most R-rated horror films a run for their money. But it gets the PG-13 anyway thanks to a goofy sense of humor (the sheer number of coincidences needed to raise the armies of Hell gets a big laugh) and an ending in which everything surprisingly turns out mostly okay. Still, this is The Hole’s evil twin, and if you have any affection for Joe Dante’s latest (assuming you were able to actually see it), and haven’t seen The Gate, this is your assignment. Pronto.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (dir. Stephen Chiodo, 1988)
For years now, horror movies have taken advantage of the fact that clowns are scary. But that doll from Poltergeist and even Tim Curry in It can’t hold a candle to the Killer Klowns from Outer Space. This over-designed frightfest from the Chiodo Bros. – the visual effects team behind Critters and Team America: World Police – begins when an unidentified flying circus tent lands on the outskirts of town, and monstrous clowns begin assaulting the populace with man-eating shadow puppets and cotton candy guns. The costumes for the clowns are such outrageous grotesqueries that only their ridiculous weakness, bopping them on the nose, keeps the Killer Klowns from Outer Space from entering the echelons of the scariest movie monsters ever made. Some scenes, like one in which a clown shoves his fist inside a victim’s spinal column and uses him as a ventriloquist’s puppet, are so bizarre and disturbing that you’ll be surprised the film warrants a PG-13 rating at all. But the MPAA has spoken, and declared that your kids are allowed to see it. Alone. For some reason. Good luck to them.
Troll 2 (dir. Claudio Fragasso, 1990)
There are lots of entertainingly bad films out there, but few are so legendarily awful that they inspire critically acclaimed feature-length documentaries about just how much they suck. That’s the case with Troll 2, a sequel (in name only) to the also crappy 1986 PG-13 horror movie Troll. An unsuspecting family travels to the town of Nilbog – I’ll give you a moment to decipher that ingenious anagram – and find themselves besieged by burlap-clad monsters intent on transforming them into plants. The crappiness of Troll 2 is justifiably legendary, thanks to an unforgettable scene about “pissing on hospitality” and every other scene besides. The horror genre is one of the great beneficiaries of movies that are so bad they’re good, and Troll 2 is certainly the best of the PG-13 variety. Watch this one and then catch Best Worst Movie, the documentary about its production, eclectic cast and crew and it’s implausible popularity (directed by Michael Stephenson, who co-starred in the original movie as a lad), to help explain why you enjoyed yourself so much.
Fire in the Sky (dir. Robert Lieberman, 1993)
Here’s a movie that became a bit of a legend in my elementary school. Fire in the Sky is a PG-13 film about alien abductions, but director Robert Lieberman lets the story play out like a serious drama about nobody believing the heroes. Was it a hoax? Was Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) really abducted? By the time the film finally gets around to showing you exactly what happened, according to Walton at any rate, you’ll be so freaked out that it won’t matter. Lieberman creates a truly harrowing alien environment that plays off of all the so-called “true” stories you’ve heard about aliens and gives you the worst case scenario. The scariest part is that Travis Walton was a real guy, so by the end of the film, where his story has been nightmarishly realized, you’re almost ready to believe him.
Drag Me to Hell (dir. Sam Raimi, 2009)
Spider-Mandirector Sam Raimi got his start with the low-budget, ultra-violent horror film The Evil Dead, but after he completed his superhero trilogy for Sony, and had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, he made a PG-13 horror movie to cleanse his palette. But he knew exactly what he was doing. A good old-fashioned demonic curse movie, Drag Me to Hell stars Alison Lohman as a meek banker who finally stands up for herself, only to discover that her confidence has enraged a gypsy witch who curses her to be dragged, literally, to Hell. Raimi’s trademarked, enthusiastic directorial style makes even the quietest scenes pulse with suspense and terror, and that’s before the film’s centerpiece – one of the most terrifying séances ever filmed – kicks in. The final twist is a little obvious, but the inevitability only gives the film that much more of a punch. Drag Me to Hell proves that just because it’s PG-13 doesn’t mean it can’t also be completely f*cked up.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
The Sixth Sense