The natural response to hearing horror movie and PG-13 in the same breath is, most likely, skepticism. How scary can a movie honestly be when its rating is only a single step above Scooby-Doo? There’s not much blood. Minimal swearing. No severed limbs. Yet, there’s a treasure trove of films that make up for what they lack in R-rated horror tropes by doubling down with many, many scares. You see, PG-13 is not a death knell for a horror film. In fact, it opens up a wide berth of creativity in order to deliver scares without resorting to the tried and true of the slice and dice.

Signs (2002)

Signs 2003

It’s Mel Gibson in a film that’s scarier than his real-life antics, if you can believe it. Gibson plays Graham Hess, a widowed former man of the cloth who lives in a farm house with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), son Morgan (Rory Culkin), and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin). One day the Hess’ find large crop circles in their cornfield, which they first attribute to local vandals, but learn the truth is much scarier. Crop circles have been appearing globally, and with them visitors that appear to be aliens. Director M. Night Shyamalan is exceptional at wringing terror out of tension, with the claustrophobic feeling of the family in the basement, barricaded against the aliens, a master class in fearing the unseen. The ending is a little convenient (unless you subscribe to the theory that the aliens are actually demons), but the movie delivers a good jump or two.

Arachnophobia (1990)

Image via Buena Vista Pictures

Jeff Daniels as Dr. Ross Jennings. John Goodman as exterminator Delbert McClintock. A whole spitload of a new breed of deadly spider, with an unknown, fatal toxin, that has taken root in the town of Canaima, California, killing a number of townspeople and ready to take out more. Be honest – you were convinced at deadly spider, weren’t you?

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

An anthology film based on the book series by Alvin Schwartz, with four tales weaved into the story of a girl, Stella (Zoe Colletti), who finds a book of horror stories written by a Sarah Bellows, who committed suicide years ago after being accused of witchcraft and using it to kill the town’s children. It would seem, however, that Sarah is still writing stories, as the four tales are new stories that are appearing on formerly blank pages… and being used to take out Stella’s friends one by one. It’s a stunningly chilling film, unsurprising given Guillermo del Toros involvement as writer and producer.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

A teenage girl screaming on the ground
Image via Screen Gems

What happens when an exorcism results in the death of the one being exorcised? That’s what happens in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a horror film that rises above the genre to include thought-provoking questions about faith and the powers of darkness. Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) performs an exorcism on a young girl, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), which tragically ends in her death. The priest is arrested for murder, with lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) defending her client in the face of his seemingly unbelievable claims of the truth.

Lights Out (2016)

Image via Warner Bros.

Lights Out was first released in 2013 as a three-minute short film, one that used its time effectively to a genuinely terrifying ending. The short went viral on Vimeo and YouTube, which caught Hollywood’s attention, with Warner Bros. and horror-auteur producer James Wan winning the battle for film rights. The fact a film was made based on a short, viral clip isn’t surprising – this is the Hollywood that made Machete off of a fake trailer in Grindhouse, after all – but the fact that the film is excellent most certainly is, with a vengeful spirit, somehow linked to their mother, terrorizing a young woman and her brother. She can only be seen when the lights are out, by the way, hence the name, and if you’re thinking “why don’t they just have the lights on then?” they did think of that, only “Diana” cut the power to their house. No plot holes here, just move along.

Insidious (2010)

Image via Universal Pictures

Speaking of James Wan, Insidious is a testament to just how talented the filmmaker is. It is a horror film that’s truly unique and undeniably scary, as good as Wan’s The Conjuring. Young Dalton Lambert (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma after seeing an evil entity, with no explanation as to why. Shortly afterwards, supernatural things start happening around the house, prompting the Lamberts to move to a new home. Guess what else was in the moving van? Yep, the move doesn’t stop the paranormal activities so psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) is brought in to help, and she informs the parents that Dalton has the ability to astral travel, only now he is trapped in “The Further,” another dimension where a number of tortured souls walk aimlessly. This prompts dad Josh (Patrick Wilson) to use his own forgotten abilities to astral travel to save Dalton. Just a great film, with a terrific closer that sets up the slightly better (in the opinion of the author) Insidious 2.

Mama (2013)

Two children sitting on floor drawing on the wall.
Via Universal Pictures

When even the radio spots promoting the film send chills down one’s spine upon hearing a child’s voice simply say “mama,” you know it has to be good… and Mama is. Five years after his brother kills a number of people, including his ex-wife, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) takes in his two nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), who spent that time alone in a secluded cabin in the woods. Well, “alone” may not be the right word. How about spent that time with a long-time deceased mother’s creepy spirit in a secluded cabin in the woods. Even in death, Mama’s looking after the kids she claimed as her own, and isn’t all that keen about Victoria growing closer with Annabel, with fun and frolic falling closely behind.

A Quiet Place (2018)

A Quiet Place (2018) (1)

A Quiet Place succeeds on a number of levels. It’s the film that proved John Krasinski is more than just Jim from The Office. It’s yet another example of the exceptionally talented Emily Blunt‘s undeniable skill as an actress. It’s a film with little dialogue, and a knockout performance by deaf actress MIllicent Simmonds. Most importantly, it’s scary as all hell. Krasinski pulls out all the stops and more here, with every creak or whisper fraught with the terror of a monster hearing it. Two scenes in particular make the movie an absolute must-see, both with Blunt’s Evelyn Abbott front and center: the first is where Abbott has the misfortune of stepping directly onto a rusted nail, barefoot, while the second is Abbott giving birth in the bathtub while monsters are in the house. Blunt shows the pain and the terror through her face and eyes, desperately needing to scream but knowing she can’t. It’s an amazing performance that should have garnered Blunt more awards than the lone Screen Actors Guild Award for supporting actor she got.

Poltergeist (1982)

Heather O'Rourke in 'Poltergeist'
Image via MGM

“They’re here.” Two simple words, spoken by young Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne, signaling the evil spirits have arrived in the Freeling home. If you thought hearing “mama” was creepy (see above), then you’ll dirty your drawers with these words. The paranormal antics are innocent at first, but slowly grow into something much more sinister, culminating in Carol Anne being taken into a spiritual realm. Poltergeist had home buyers insisting on background checks to make sure there wasn’t a burial site on the property, and, paired with the IT miniseries of 1990, led to the ostracization of clowns for thousands of children. And adults.

Cloverfield (2008)

The monster wreaks havoc on New York City

Armed with a revolutionary, game-changing promotional campaign, Cloverfield roared – literally – onto the scene in 2008, a film that took advantage of the found-footage craze of the time. It was akin to watching a Godzilla film from the viewpoint of a citizen in the city Godzilla was ripping apart. Okay, a Tokyo citizen, happy? The found-footage element works incredibly well, adding a sense of realism to the events of the film that isn’t often found in the horror movie genre. And seeing the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling down the street is worth the price of admission alone.

1408 (2007)

1408 Movie

Gee, a cynical, skeptical writer who goes around debunking so-called supernatural phenomena travels from L.A. to New York to spend one night in room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel, which is reportedly cursed. There’s no way that can go sideways for writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack)! Imagine his surprise when there is no “reportedly” about the room at all, and the horror in realizing that he may not even make it through to the morning. Based on a short-story from Stephen King, 1408 delivers the scares.

Drag Me To Hell (2009)

Image via Universal Pictures

Sam Raimi sure does love the dead dragging around the living, eh? Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at a bank who refuses a time extension on a loan to old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), placing her with the prospect of losing her home. Bad call, Christine. Now the old lady’s placed a curse on her that will see Christine dragged to the very depths of hell in a few days, days filled with terror as she waits. Seems a little excessive. Couldn’t Ganush just write a sternly worded letter?

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