Sense of Wonder: Barking at PG-13 Horror

signs.jpg

SIGNS – an example of a PG-13 fright flick.

In an interview at the MTV Movies Blog. author Clive Barker lets us know he does not object to remakes of HELLRAISER and CANDYMAN – as long as they are not PG-13.

“It’s one of the most disgusting developments in the last few years,” Barker said of toned-down horror. “The whole notion of a PG-13 horror movie to me is a contradiction in terms. It’s like having a XXX Disney picture. It doesn’t work.”

To some people, a hard “R” means gore for the sake of gore, but Barker disagrees. “To me, you don’t have to throw blood around in every scene, but there has to be a sense — and this is not my quote, it’s Wes Craven’s quote. Wes says that ‘When you go into a horror movie, you need to feel that you’re in the hands of a madman.’ Now what madman makes a PG-13 picture, right? Your horror-movie madman…doesn’t neaten up all the edges and make it all nice for mommy.”

“I realize why the studios do this,” he added. “They do it because they want to bring in younger audiences and make more money. But they don’t make better movies.”

I’ve dealt with this whole “PG-13 vs R” debate before (Are Horror Critics Blinded by Blood?), but it is worth revisiting because I am saddened to see Barker jump on the bandwagon. In an era filled with ultra-lame R-rated films like MIRRORS, THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING, why would anyone waste his time vilifying the PG-13 rating as if it were destroying the genre?


Although Barker derides the PG-13 Horror Film as a disgusting recent development that just doesn’t work, he certainly must know that horror films have been made for decades without hard R-rated gore, and many of them have been quite successful, both commercially and critically (THE SIXTH SENSE is one obvious example).  The only thing “recent” about the PG-13 phenomenon is that back in 2000 some moral guardians took Hollywood to task for marketing their R-rated movies to under-aged viewers. The accusation was that ad campaigns were tacitly designed to lure younger teenagers into sneaking into movies that they were technically not supposed to see unless acompanied by a parent.

Well, guess what? Hollywood, that wretched hive of scum and villainy, responded by making PG-13 horror films targeted for teens under the R-rated age of 17. In other words, they did what they were supposed to do, finding a marketable niche and filling it fairly instead of hoping that their customers would somehow find a way to buy tickets to restricted movies.

For some reason, the hard-core horror nuts see this as a bad thing. I don’t. And let me relay a little anecdote to tell you why. Long ago, I attended a double bill of HALLOWEEN II and STRANGE BEHAVIOR at the local multiplex. The theatre had four screens: three of them were showing R-rated titles; one was showing a G-rated kid flick. Three junior high school girls – too young for R movies – reluctantly brought tickets to the kid flick and then sureptitoiusly snuck into the horror movie double bill. Unfortunately, they were not discrete: after STRANGE BEHAVIOR, an usher noticed them and ushered them out, so they did not get to see the film they wanted to, HALLOWEEN II.

Think about that for a minute. If you’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, you don’t have a car and you can’t just drive to the next theatre if there’s nothing playing at the one where your mom left you off. You’re stuck. The only ticket those girls could purchase was for a film that had no appeal for them; there was no middle ground, no other option. Nothing. They wanted to see a scary movie, but society – or at least the MPAA (with an assit from the theatre usher) prevented them.

That is not right. There is a an audience of younger viewers who enjoy the thrill of terror. There should be horror films for them, and those films have to be rated PG or PG-13. There is no reason for Clive Barker or anybody else to indulge in moral posturing about this; it is a fact, and as Christopher Lee said in HORROR EXPRESS, “There’s no morality in a fact.” Should young fright fans just have the door slammed shut in their faces so that the Gods of Gore can feel comfortable in the purity of their blood-bath approach to horror?

I suspect the real reason that Barker (and the anonymous poster at Geeks of Doom who linked approvingly to the Barker interview) objects to PG-13 horror is that it undercuts the point he is trying to make. For all the press and fanboy love extended toward R-rated torture porn, the only successful franchise to arise out of that sub-genre is SAW and its sequels. In general, this stuff simply doesn’t sell. In fact, it is dwarfed by the success of PG-13 horror films like THE RING and THE GRUDGE, and let’s not forget that M. Night Shyamalan’s much-touted first R-rated thriller THE HAPPENING came nowhere close to recreating the monster success of the more subtle SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS. Not to mention so-called “action” and/or “science-fiction” films like I AM LEGEND and WAR OF THE WORLDS, which terrify audiences by the truckloads without subjecting them to gore or convincing them that they are in the hands of a madman. Does Barker really mean to say that none of these films “work”?

The enemy is not the rating; it is the factory-like approach to churning out franchise filler like cheeseburgers – something as true for R-rated horror as it is for PG-13 remakes like PROM NIGHT, ONE MISSED CALL, THE EYE, and SHUTTER.

None of this should be taken to suggest that PG-13 films are inherently superior to R-rated films; that would be as crazy as the opposition’s argument. There is more than one way to skin the proverbial screaming victim; both shock and subtlety have a place in the genre, and films are always at their best when the full range or artistic expression is available to them, instead of being forced into an arbitrary formula (such as “gore equals good”).

With that in mind, I have a challenge to Barker and his blood-stained cohorts. One of my favorite films is THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, in which Danish film-maker Lars Von Trier challenges his older colleague Jorgen Leth to remake a short film (”The Perfect Human”) five times, each time with a different challenge or “obstruction.” The joy of FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS is watching Leth perform a sort of cinematic jiu-jitsu, taking each of Von Trier’s obstructions and turning it to his advantage. The wonder of Leth’s creative success is not merely that he neutralized the impediment; rather, he used it in a positive manner to achieve something he would not have done otherwise.

A PG-13 rating can be a bad thing but only when it is imposed upon a film that was conceived as an R-rated effort. But there is no reason why a film cannot be designed to terrify within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating. Sure, certain options are off the table, but is Barker realy saying that ther are no talented people who can (as Leth proved was possible) meet that challenge and triumph over it?

So, how about it? Barker, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja, and the rest of the Splat Pack. You love the genre, I know; and you’re not afraid of a challenge (I hope). Why not, next time out, wrack your brains for a way to make a good PG-13 horror film. Not because there’s anything wrong with R-rated horror but just because it would be an interesting artistic challenge and might galvanize you into doing something a little different. At the very least, it would be a novel experiment, which might even generate a little publicity.

And what’s the worst that could happen? You get something like ALIENS VS. PREDATORS instead of ALIENS VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM?

NOTE: Updated to correct spelling.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

2 Responses to “ Sense of Wonder: Barking at PG-13 Horror ”

  1. Steve, EXCELLENT summation of this whole situation. I will take the original Psycho (which would be rated pg or pg-13 today) ANY day over those r-rated gore-fests. Movies like The Others, Blair Witch, and 6th Sense show that you can make a FAR more effective (frightening) movie by showing LESS. On the other hand, the original Saw really worked for me also — I believe it’s the best horror film of the last 10 years — you just have NO idea what is coming next in that film, and a true sense of horror is felt throughout. The gore is necessary to tell the story in that case.

  2. Thanks, Ray!

    I forgot to make one point regarding Barker’s rhetorical question, “Now what madman makes a PG-13 picture, right?”

    My response would be: a subtle madman. Someone who lures you in and ratchets up the suspense while you’re off-guard.

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