Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is out this Friday, and like many Guillermo del Toro-affiliated projects, it contains monsters galore. But will the fact that it’s rated PG-13 affect its fright factor? We’ll have our review up soon, but in the meantime, here’s some solid evidence that you don’t always need an R rating to terrify an audience.
After the disappointing Glass, M. Night Shyamalan has (once again) fallen out of favor, but all his later flailings can’t diminish this early-career entry, which is still probably his best film. The rare horror entry to receive a Best Picture nomination (as well as a Best Director nod), The Sixth Sense was a box-office hit that resonated with audiences because of its carefully-crafted tale of loneliness and grief, elevated by some outstanding performances (we all remember the understated Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment’s “I see dead people,” though Toni Collette is the true MVP) and some genuine frights. Back in 1999, the twist at the end was so effective it demanded multiple viewings, just so you could go back and spot the clues you might have missed the first time, when your main order of business was hiding your face from the next menacing ghost.
The superior effort among Hollywood’s short-lived but robust obsession with remaking Asian horror movies, The Ring made a convincing case that seemingly innocuous things like long black hair and videocassettes could inspire endless nightmares. Though its set-up is still a little silly—how do so many people just happen to keep watching that damn cursed film that’ll kill you in seven days?—director Gore Verbinski’s moody execution, helped along by a cast headed up by Naomi Watts and Daveigh Chase (as Samara Morgan, the pint-sized gothic terror), made The Ring scarier than it had any right to be.
Who needs the addition of blood-gushing elements that might earn an R rating when you already have nail-gnawing levels of tension dripping from every frame? John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place—about a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world alongside alien invaders that kill anything that makes a sound—actually has more dialogue than you might expect, as well as some extremely traumatic situations that would normally involve lots of noise, like an agonizing childbirth scene. There’s obviously no word on whether or not the sequel will also be PG-13, but given the massive success of the first film, it seems likely Krasinski will stick to his winning formula.
Though he’s obviously the OG scoundrel, Harrison Ford doesn’t play actual bad guys very often. That alone sets Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 supernatural thriller apart from other movies of the time period (like the R-rated Stir of Echoes, and even The Sixth Sense) about ghosts who haunt someone specifically because they think that person can help bring their killer to justice. Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer play empty-nesters whose tastefully posh Vermont life is upended when she realizes that her husband’s been hiding a few intense secrets; her detective work is helped along thanks to some enormous hints dropped from beyond the grave. Zemeckis, whose list of well-known projects also includes the ghoulishly creepy Death Becomes Her, knows how to turn the screws in ways that are tasteful but still deeply unnerving.
Kids who are allergic to sunlight. Servants who act unnecessarily spooky. A rambling old house that’s surrounded by mist and filled with strange noises. And a high-strung woman (Nicole Kidman) who might be losing her mind...if she hasn’t already. The Others, which was written and directed by Spanish-Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar, came out in 2001, and unfortunately its big last-act reveal made some viewers at the time deem it to be a Sixth Sense copycat. While the movies do share some themes, The Others is a period piece that relies heavily, and effectively, on a single eerie setting, and draws in some intriguing elements of vintage spiritualism—post-mortem photography, a memorably grotesque medium—that lend it even more atmosphere.
The fact that this found-footage movie—about a group of New York City friends struggling their way through a massive monster invasion—manages to keep its language clean enough for a PG-13 rating is kind of a miracle. But the lack of people yelling “What the fucking fuck?” every minute doesn’t detract from the power of Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams’ simple yet effective creature feature, which spends time making sure you get to know its characters before it puts them through hell. Though the vaguely interconnected follow-up films have poked a little deeper into Cloverfield’s mysteries, this first film never really explains what’s going on, meaning the audience is just as confused and shocked as the people reacting in “real-time” onscreen.
Before Andy Muschietti turned his attentions to the decidedly R-rated antics of Pennywise in the It films, he made this chilling feature (executive produced by Guillermo del Toro) that expanded on his own short film. A bewigged Jessica Chastain plays a woman who finds herself caring for her boyfriend’s young nieces, long thought dead but recently discovered living in a near-feral state after surviving their father’s murderous rampage. It’s a heady situation even before you add in the witchy, furiously protective ghost that’s followed the girls out of the forest, and Muschietti handles all of Mama’s elements—including a historical tragedy that emerges as part of the story’s mystery—with fine-tuned precision.
Speaking of directors who’ve gone on to bigger things after breaking out with horror features expanded from their own short films...David F. Sandberg is now best-known as the guy who made Shazam, but don’t sleep on Lights Out. In fact, you might never sleep again after watching this one, which preys on the age-old fear of the dark by imagining a malevolent presence that can only strike when there’s no light. Sandberg’s original short is under three minutes long, so out of necessity the longer version endeavors to explain the ghost’s awful backstory, but most of the movie is spent white-knuckling it alongside the characters as they scramble to stay illuminated or else. It’s a gimmick, but it works.
James Wan—director of Saw, architect of the Conjuring universe, and the visionary who helped make Aquaman such a ridiculously fun spectacle—knows how to entertain, and that talent is on full display in 2010's Insidious, particularly if you interpret “entertain” to mean “scare the living daylights out of you.” This 2010 tale of a family (headed up by Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) who suspect their house is haunted—only to pick up and move and then realize, almost before it’s too late, that there are more layers of supernatural mindfuckery afoot—has since spawned several sequels that have explored its ever-expanding mythology. But the original’s twists and turns and tiptoes through the tulips are still the series’ best.
Despite the existence of an “unrated director’s cut,” the fact of the matter is that Sam Raimi—who made his name on the gory Evil Dead series—dove back into horror after his trio of Spider-Man movies, and the movie he made was PG-13. That said, Drag Me to Hell is anything but bloodless, as things go from bad to worse for ambitious loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman). Desperate to be promoted over her condescending co-worker, she decides not to help an elderly woman save her home...not realizing that the payback for her callousness will be a horrific and deadly curse. Drag Me to Hell was released in 2009, and capitalizes rather brilliantly on the lingering sting of the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s also a brutally hilarious, squirm-inducing throwback that makes us wonder when Raimi is going to get around to directing another scary movie.
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