The Bloody Good Horror Crew goes at it on a new topic every Friday afternoon, we call it the "Hack-Off". Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments.
This year marks the 24th anniversary of the unveiling of the PG-13 rating. It may surprise some, but prior to 1984, a film submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America either received a PG rating or an R. That might seem pretty extreme, especially when one looks at the difference between those ratings today, but it took two films, and one filmmaker, to finally send Jack Velenti and Co. over the edge, and lead them to bring PG-13 into the movie going lexicon. The movies: "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Gremlins." The filmmaker: Steven Spielberg. It seems the MPAA just didn't know what to do with scenes of mystics tearing out people's still beating hearts, or scenes of animatronic gremlins being blown up in microwaves. From then on, films that would have fallen somewhere in the massive gray area between PG and R were allowed to be given a PG-13 or "Parents Strongly Cautioned." Fast forward two decades and
one might even be able to make the argument that Spielberg and his cronies made a film like "Prom Night" possible...
But I won't make that argument here. Instead, we're going to talk about some of the few, the proud, the PG-13 horror films that we're happy to admit we watched. When I think of PG-13 horror, I tend to think immediately of "Dawson's Creek"-horror—those soapy, melodramatic horror movies about outcasts getting revenge or fantasy-related weirdness. These are films like "Blood and Chocolate" or "The Covenant." And while the majority of PG-13 horror tends to fall into that late-middle-school-early-high-school age bracket, that shouldn't preclude these films from, you know, actually being scary. Usually it does, unfortunately. The two main exceptions that jump to mind though are "The Ring" and "Cloverfield." For me, both of those films rank among the most truly frightening theater going experiences I've had. Of course, I would posit that the movie going atmosphere had a lot to do with that in both cases. It's rare that I see an R-rated horror film these days in a theater that's really packed, but in the case of these two PG-13 films, the theater was full if not sold out, and both films kept everyone in a hushed silence that would occasionally be split by crowd-wide jumps. What about everyone else? What PG-13 film helps wash the taste of a neutered "Prom Night" out of your mouths? Has anyone else found themselves connecting with a PG-13 film solely because the audience was into it?
Am I the oldest person here? I’m 29. I remember the growing up in the early part of the whole PG-13 era and man, it was manna from heaven. PG-13 movies in the 80s could show tits, used the word fuck liberally and often put kids in dangerously awesome situations. Take, for example, what I consider to be the best PG-13 horror film ever, The Monster Squad. Sure, it wasn’t “scary” per se, but, when you were sitting in the theater as ten year old watching a fat kid (like me!) pump a shotgun and take a monster out with a head-shot, it was a triumphant kid movie moment. Not only PG-13 horror movies, bit just about all PG-13 movies in the 80s were great—they treated kids like mini-adults and gave them real films.
PG-13 horror didn’t become synonymous with “pussy” (and not the good kind) until after the whole post-Scream wave of teeny-bopper slashers were released in rapid succession. It was obvious that studios were no longer trying to entertain, they were trying to reach a demographic. It’s the same reason why Doritos Cool Ranch chips are now called Doritos Extreme Baja Blast Cool Ranch to the Max chips. Horror, especially PG-13 horror is nothing more than a marketing tool to make a quick $20 million opening weekend. And, like Doritos, even if you like a PG-13 horror film, it’s never filling and will probably just give you gas. Let’s be honest: The Ring and the Grudge are not remembered because they are “good” films, they are remembered as being different and the first wave of the Asian remakes released into the sea of teeny-bopper slashers. They are really not that good.
Now, we are in the midst of the “remake” craze, so when a utterly shitty film like Cloverfield comes along, our first instinct is to think it is utterly awesome, but future showings, I believe will prove what crap it is. It’ll be like saying “Hey, at the time, it was the best case of painful diarrhea I had. I didn’t bleed out my ass as much.” Sorry, but diarrhea is still diarrhea.
So, to answer you question, yes, once PG-13 horror was an awesome experience. But now, it’s just a sad commentary on the fast food state of horror.
Louis, I love ya buddy, but to call both "The Ring" and "Cloverfield" crap raises serious questions in my mind. Neither film needed swearing, ultra violence or even titties to be any good, and so in that sense they are certainly the exceptions to the rule.
I am pretty intrigued though by the history of the rating and the description of the early PG-13 films. I am too young to have seen those in the theater (although, curiously enough, not much younger than you) and I can say that it's pretty shocking the kind of stuff that you have to cut in order to attain the rating these days. I mean, I'm sure the average 13 year old could teach me a thing or two about the more offensive things in life these days, so the idea that you can't show a titty to a 13 year old in a movie theater is pretty ridiculous. That said, I think it's especially hypocritical that the sexual stuff is considered more taboo in cinema than the violence. I mean, there's an entire hack-off (and probably a podcast) to be had on that discussion.
But to get to the point, the best PG-13 horror film I've ever seen is probably "Cloverfield." You could see that movie and never once think about the rating, unlike something like "Shutter", where it was omnipresent in your mind the entire time. I mean sure a little more violence wouldn't have hurt the film's cause, but I was riveted from start to finish and am still confident that I won't see a better film this year, "R" rated or otherwise. So, that in itself pretty much says everything. PS, Schnaars, packed crowds are the first thing that will take me out of a film, so as I've said before, the fact that I was able to be freaked out through the crowd disturbances going on is also very telling.
Jon mentions that it could be said we have Spielberg and Dante to blame for today's showings of "Prom Night" and the like, but I disagree. These movies were cutting edge enough to force the ratings boards to come up with a new category and there's a lot to be said to that. I've mentioned it in the past on the podcast, but I place the blame on today's current ilk of milk toast PG-13 horror firmly upon the head of studio suits and the easy dollar. Sure, the ratings boards have tightened their grips and they get their panties in a knot over far simpler things. There is potential for good PG-13 horror; the blame comes from greedy studios and lazy film makes.
The big studios do not give two shits about the genre that we know and love. All they care about is the quick and easy dollar being lifted from the pockets of teens. As Louis mentioned, it's all about the quick 20 Mil on opening weekend. The teens are the group that are going to hit those theaters every weekend religiously; us old folk not so much. We have bills and such to worry about which causes our tastes to become more discerning. Some modern success prove that you can still make a good movie with the confining rating. We just need to get some more maverick film makers that aren't in the studios back pocket and are brave enough to fight for something original. And for fuck's sake the number one criteria is that they have to laugh at the idea of shoe horning a rated R genre flick from the late 70's and early 80's into the PG-13 mold.
Thinking more on that last line, it's the quick remake cash in that's the true evil these days, not necessarily the rating.
I want to talk a little bit more about "Cloverfield" (as if we haven't done enough of that already), because for me, this film gets at a point that Casey makes above. There's no rule out there that says that studios want to make crappy movies because those films lead to bigger scores or easier money. What studio suits want, by and large, is a film that will keep costs down and turn a buck on opening weekend. Now, those ingredients have, at least over the last couple of years, led to shitty films, but there's nothing to say that that has to be the outcome.
In "Cloverfield," what we had was one really creative bastard, J.J. Abrams, saying to the world, "Yeah, we can make a pretty badass PG-13 horror movie, and when we do, it'll make even more money." Abrams movie had a budget that was $5 mil more than "One Missed Call," another PG-13 J-horror remake from earlier this year, but "Cloverfield" brought in $28 million more in its opening weekend. I don't want to demean the role of clever (and sometimes annoying) marketing in making "Cloverfield" a hit, but that film is proof positive that cheap and PG-13 don't have to equal crap. The point that Casey makes is a good one, though I think it goes a little far, if only because the studios make the rules. They aren't coy about it either, they want to make money. That's fine. That's what corporations do. The key to success, and really Dante and Spielberg are perfect examples of this, is that you need filmmakers who are willing to work within that system, but also make GOOD movies. It's not impossible, it just hasn't happened all that often in recent years.