11 Scariest Horror Movies Rated PG-13 (And Lower) Ranked
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There is a great tradition of scary stories for kids. We might think of literature aimed at younger audiences as funny, heartwarming, moral, and safe, but horror enters the stories we read from an extremely early age and has done so for hundreds of years. Many of the classic fairy tales that we all grew up with are, at heart, blood-thirsty and pretty disturbing--and in many cases, they've been softened for modern audiences from their more frightening original visions.
It's a similar story on the big screen. There is something about a young person's imagination that can make horror far more potent than it would be for an adult, taking scary characters and scenes at face value in a way that older, more cynical and knowing audiences do not. The results are some truly memorable movies.
Horror that can be watched by younger people has inevitably changed a lot over the years. Many modern PG-13 rated horror films would've easily been rated R a couple of decades ago. And conversely, before the arrival of the PG-13 in 1984, scary films like Jaws and Poltergeist were released with PG ratings. It was the outcry at the PG given to Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the summer of 1984 that led Steven Spielberg (who produced the former and directed the latter) to suggest that the MPAA adopt an intermediary rating, which they did within a few months. "I created the problem and I also supplied the solution," Spielberg once said in an interview.
Horror at PG-13 (and PG) means delivering the the genre in a different--and often equally effective--way as R. Explicit gore and brutal violence is out. Instead atmosphere, tension, and suggestion can be relied on for the frights, as well as good old-fashioned monsters. These films often have a more fantastical quality--unsurprisingly, there aren't many PG-13 rated slasher movies--and are as much about giving the audience a good time as they are scaring them witless. But that's not to say the best PG-13 horror movies are in any way compromised, and often linger in the mind longer than their more gory R-rated counterparts.
The Guillermo Del Toro-produced Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark is now in theaters, and it shows that horror aimed at a younger audience is still being made. It's an adaptation of the Alvin Schwartz books, and in his review, GameSpot's Rafael Motamayor described it as a "great gateway horror movie for kids to get terrified and then hooked for life to the genre." So here's some other great gateway horrors that both kids and adults can get scared to...
11. The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
It's strange to think of this now, but there was a time in '80s when Disney was struggling to find a core audience. The studio's wave of hugely successful animated family films had largely dried up and so it started chasing an older teen audience with PG-rated films such as The Black Hole, TRON, The Black Cauldron, and Dragonslayer. The Watcher in the Woods was one of these oddities. It's a gothic horror story of an American family who move into a British house on the edge of a creepy wood, and although a bit dated now, remains a surprisingly spooky and atmospheric experience. The Watcher in the Woods movie had a troubled production and the ending was reshot to soften it, and like most of the darker Disney movies of this era, it was a commercial failure. But it remains a fascinating example of what could've been an entirely different direction for the House of Mouse.
10. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Sam Raimi delivered some very R-rated movies with The Evil Dead films, but Drag Me to Hell showed he could still deliver the scary goods with (a bit) less gore. There are certainly moments when Drag Me to Hell pushes the boundaries of PG-13--and there's a stronger version on the DVD and Blu-ray--but for the most part the emphasis is on fun scares and dark comedy. Alison Lohman plays a loan officer who is cursed by an old lady after she refuses to give her the money to save her home, leading to a series of uproariously funny and skillfully delivered frights. Just don't show it to any cat-lovers in your family.
9. The Witches (1990)
Like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark author Alvin Schwartz, Roald Dahl wrote children's books that weren't afraid to terrify. The Witches is one of his darkest kids novels and the film version is every bit as gloriously spooky--even though the new happy ending meant the author disowned the final film. An orphaned boy finds himself at the same hotel as a witch convention and discovers their evil plan to turn all the children in England into mice. Director Nicolas Roeg--who proved his genre skills with the '70s classic Don't Look Now--understands that kid-centric horror can be every bit as a weird and unsettling as that for grown-ups, and is helped by a wonderfully over-the-top performance from Anjelica Huston as head witch Eva Ernst.
8. The Gate (1987)
The Gate is less well-remembered than similarly-themed '80s kids fantasies like The Goonies or Explorers, but it's the most horror-orientated of the lot. A group of kids (including Stephen Dorff in his movie debut) discover a mysterious hole in their backyard, from which dozens of a tiny demons emerge. The small but terrifying creatures were created via ingenious trick photography, and the movie is really enjoyable, safe-but-scary gateway horror for aspiring genre buffs.
7. A Quiet Place (2018)
Last year's hugely successful A Quiet Place is a masterclass in tension, that transcends its gimmicky set-up (make a sound and a monster will get you). Director/star John Krasinski puts as much emphasis on the family drama as he does the horror elements, ensuring that the film has real impact as the stakes increase for the characters. Krasinski also proves again that suggestion is one of a horror filmmaker's most potent tools--for much of the film you barely see the monsters, but just knowing they are out there makes it all incredibly effective.
6. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The PG-13 rating can be a misleading one--just because the film lacks violence, gore, or very overt scares doesn't mean it's necessarily a movie for all younger viewers. The Sixth Sense is not a violent film but it remains a quietly terrifying experience, with some distinctly grown-up themes. Between the visions of the dead and the themes of suicide, loss, and abaondonment, M Night Shyamalan delivered a scary and emotional modern classic that certainly isn't for little kids, but is a thought-provoking watch for slightly more mature viewers.
5. Happy Death Day (2017)/Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Blumhouse Productions might be best known for R-rated horrors such as The Purge movies and Get Out, but it's also responsible for this pair of PG-13 rated horror comedy gems. They're a slasher spin on Groundhog Day, as student Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself trapped in a loop where she is brutally murdered every day. The movies are pretty gruesome at times, and in a different era probably would've been rated R. But the irreverent, knowing tone and wonderfully engaging performance from Rothe means that it's impossible to take any of it seriously, making them two of the smartest and most entertaining teen horror movies of recent years.
4. Insidious (2012)
Insidious is as close as modern horror has come to the rollercoaster scares of earlier classics like Poltergeist. James Wan's spookfest was hugely influenced by that earlier film, and while the PG-13 rating is well-earned by the number of jump scares and general spooky atmosphere, it's got a fun, old-school vibe that's a world away from Wan's debut horror hit Saw. Like many PG-13 rated horrors, it focuses on a family dealing with paranormal goings-on, as Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne fight to rescue their son from a scary, otherworldly place known as The Further.
3. Gremlins (1984)
Steven Spielberg had long been a filmmaker who pushed at the boundaries of what was acceptable with the PG rating--both Jaws and Poltergeist being obvious examples. In the summer of 1984, he released two movies that led to parental outcry and the swift formation of the PG-13. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom was a weird and dark sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, while the classic Gremlins--produced by Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante--was anarchic, hilarious, gory, and scary, and definitely not for young kids.
2. Tremors (1990)
Perhaps the best monster of movie of 1990s, Tremors is as much an action-comedy as it is a horror movie. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward play a pair of repairmen in a small Texas town who are forced to deal with giant ravenous sandworms (known as Graboids) who decide that the townsfolk would make a tasty dinner. Tremors might not be a gorefest, but it certainly doesn't hold back on the monster attacks, and the humour, thrills, and great characters make it is a hugely enjoyable experience that totally holds up today. Just skip the many, many sequels.
1. Poltergeist (1980)
Poltergeist is as scary as anything on the list--but it's also a movie in which no one dies and has a happy ending. Much has been written over the years about whether writer/producer Steven Spielberg left Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) alone to direct, or whether Spielberg was really the director in all but title. But either way, the result was brilliant melding of both filmmakers' styles--with Hooper's skills as a horror director balanced by Spielberg's love of magical fantasy and family stories set in suburban America. It's impossible not to root for the Freeling family as they fight evil spirits in their house and try to rescue their daughter, who has been taken by these spectral invaders. But while it's got some properly scary sequences, Poltergeist never stops being enormous fun, making it the perfect family horror movie.