Few filmmakers have done more to help children cultivate an appreciation for being scared than Steven Spielberg. Not only did he make one of the scariest PG-rated movies ever with “Jaws,” he also was largely responsible for the genesis of the PG-13 rating in 1984. Coming under fire from angry parents over “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins,” he personally suggested to Jack Valenti that the MPAA adopt a rating between PG and R, “because so many films were falling into a netherworld … of unfairness.”
Since its inception, the rating has been a mixed blessing. While it has allowed older children and teenagers to broaden their filmic horizons and develop an appreciation for genre filmmaking, it also has served as an unfortunately irresistible temptation for number-crunching studios who feel that increasing the size of their potential audience is more important to their bottom line. “Robocop 3,” “Aliens vs. Predator,” “Live Free or Die Hard,” and “Terminator Salvation” are all examples of disappointing PG-13 entries in formerly exclusively R-Rated franchises.
The horror genre in particular has suffered at the hands of this phenomena. But the existence of the PG-13 rating itself is not the problem. No amount of blood or nudity could turn “The Stepfather” remake into a good movie. In fact, it is very possible to make entertaining, and yes, frightening horror movies and to prove it, I have compiled a list of top 10 horror movies that received the dreaded PG-13 rating specifically.
Because it’s PG-13 only, this list excludes horror movies released before 1984, such as “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” from 1978, the aforementioned “Jaws,” the original “The Haunting,” etc. It also does not include some notable films I feel like could be contenders but that I have not yet seen including “Cloverfield,” “I Am Legend,” “Lady in White,” and “Willard.”
10. Arachnophobia (1990)
Spielberg served as the executive producer of this film, and while it it isn’t as strong as the pre-PG-13 combo of “Poltergeist” and “Gremlins,” which he also helped make, this horror comedy starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman works extremely well particularly because the threat is so grounded in reality. These aren’t the giant, man-eating spiders of “Eight-Legged Freaks,” or the rampaging tarantulas of “Kingdom of the Spiders,” but instead deadly variations of everyday domestic house spiders. And somehow, that’s even scarier.
9. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
This was the first and only film written and directed by the Chiodo Brothers, previously best known for the “Large Marge” transformation in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.” Despite possessing an irrepressibly goofy charm, it still manages a few scares, particularly for the younger viewers who want to work their way up to scarier films. How scary can it really be when it’s about aliens who happen to look like clowns who travel in a spaceship that looks like a circus tent and who capture and devour humans by trapping them in cotton candy cocoons?
8. The Gate (1987)
This kids-versus-demons movie served as Stephen Dorff’s screen debut and is often unfairly maligned or passed over in favor of the kids-versus-classic-monsters movie also released in 1987. While “The Monster Squad” is better overall, it’s also a comedy first and a horror movie… third, barely disqualifying it from this list. “The Gate” is legitimately scary, which is particularly rare for a film with such young protagonists, regardless of rating. Whatever you do, don’t play those heavy-metal records backwards!
7. Critters (1986)
It is claimed the original script for “Critters” pre-dated the production of “Gremlins,” but there can be little doubt its success helped get this and similar “little creature” movies such as “Ghoulies,” “Munchies,” and “Beasties” made. “Critters” is the best of all of them, and the original in particular is a lot of hilarious and creepy fun, alien bounty hunter and all. Like most monster or alien invasion movies, this takes place in a small town, mainly because it’s more convenient but in the case of “Critters” at least, it also goes a long way to adding character to the film. This was the debut of director Stephen Herek, who followed up with “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” but has yet to make another film as fun as either of these two.
6. The Ring (2002)
Just about the only worthwhile American remake of a Japanese horror movie, “The Ring” is an effective, slick, and expertly crafted horror movie that uses atmosphere and dread to great effect. It also manages the rare feat of being better than its rather boring source material. It may have helped unleash the glut of nonsensical and disposable J-Horror remakes like “Pulse” and “One Missed Call,” but don’t hold that against it. There’s no denying its effectiveness; there are moments of this movie that are so striking, they stick with you even years after seeing it. What’s most surprising about this film is its director Gore Verbinski had never worked in horror before (or since, which is really a shame).
5. Night of the Comet (1984)
Part B-movie satire, think of this movie as “Valley Girl” crossed with “Dawn of the Dead.” One of the first horror movies ever released with a PG-13 is also one of the most memorable, featuring Catherine Mary Stewart, best remembered for “The Last Starfighter” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.” It tells the story of two army brat sisters who accidentally survive a catastrophic event that turns most of the world into zombies. As they struggle to survive, they find they do have direction … towards the mall. “Night of the Comet” may be overflowing with 80s cheese, but it doesn’t stop it from being boundlessly entertaining. There’s also a lot of great ideas, including ones that would be recycled by “28 Days Later” and other zombie films to come.
4. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Despite M. Night Shyamalan‘s infamous steady decline in quality, his breakout hit still stands up as a fresh and daring ghost story impeccably told. The best part is just how well the movie works upon repeat viewings, even with foreknowledge of its widely spoiled twist. Shyamalan returned to horror with “Signs” and to a lesser extent with “The Village.” While both have their merits, “The Sixth Sense” is his strongest entry in the genre. There are strong and heartbreaking performances throughout, and there are no weak links here. Haley Joel Osment is perfect as the boy who can see dead people, and Bruce Willis gives one of his best and most controlled performances as the psychologist who tries to help him make sense of his gift.
3. The Others (2001)
Similar to “Critters” being produced on the heels of the success of “Gremlins,” “The Others,” starring Nicole Kidman, was dismissed by some as an attempt to exploit the success of “The Sixth Sense.” And while the comparison will probably always haunt it, time has shown that “The Others” is the more beautiful and ultimately stronger of the two films.
2. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Sam Raimi started off as a horror director with the “Evil Dead” series, but it was a long road back to the genre that launched his career. A refreshing change of pace from the increasingly bloated “Spider-Man” films, “Drag Me to Hell,” gave Raimi a chance to have fun again, and an opportunity to prove that effective PG-13 horror is still possible. The manic energy and comedy of “Army of Darkness” is thankfully present, but so are some tremendous scares.
1. Tremors (1990)
This fondly remembered monster movie succeeds largely thanks to the undeniable chemistry of Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon as two down-on-their-luck handymen struggling to make ends meet in the middle of nowhere. They are all set to leave the small town once and for all when giant subterranean creatures alter those plans. While not the scariest PG-13 horror movie, only people allergic to fun can possibly resist “Tremors.”