As evidenced by the recent news that 20th Century Fox' franchise reboot of 'Alien' is likely to be rated PG-13, any announcement that a horror film is going to be rated PG-13 typically has fans sharpening their pitchforks and igniting their torches. It doesn't matter whether it's a break with franchise tradition, as will inevitably be the case with this new 'Alien' film, or a tiny indie flick, the sentiment is that if anyone is going to be making a real horror movie, the only honorable thing to do is shoot for the R. Anything less is seen as a sign that a movie is going to be making sacrifices left and right to appeal to a wider demographic.
And while any film fan worth their salt would much rather see an R-rated 'Alien' film than anything else, the truth is the PG-13 rating isn't the curse of death many make it out to be. Sure, it limits the amount of profanity, nudity and gore that a filmmaker can show, but such limitations shouldn't be seen as deal breakers. Just because a film received a PG-13 rating does not mean that it was made for 13-year olds, and to that end here are a number of examples that prove when a horror movie is done right, it doesn't matter what the rating is.
[Note: This list shouldn't be taken as a definitive list of the Best PG-13 Horror Films of All Time, it's merely a list of reasons to be optimistic for a PG-13 'Alien' prequel.]
Sure, 'Alien' can easily be labeled a sci-fi film, but at the end of the day it's just a haunted house movie set on a space ship-- and there is nothing about haunted houses that screams an R-rating. There are a fistful of movies that could take the place of 'The Others' on this list, but as far as creating a chilling, lurking in the shadows, whats-going-to-happen-next atmosphere goes, Alejandro Amenabar's 2001 film nails it.
As frightening as an 'Alien' film needs to be, it's still got to have a certain level of spectacle on display, which is fine because impressive creature work (be it practical or digital) doesn't need to have any kind of a rating attached to it. The content only becomes questionable when said creature is tearing into some humans, but even still some clever lighting and coy camera work can certainly imply more than it needs to show. Just take a look at the scenes in 'Cloverfield' involving the smaller beasties. Those scenes (and the subsequent bodily explosion of a character) are no less intense because the movie is PG-13.
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It may not be a horror movie, but few films of any classification of the last few years have boasted as curious and pervasive a sense of dread as Alex Proyas' underappreciated sci-fi thriller, 'Knowing.' Proyas doesn't need profanity to express character frustrations, nor does he need hardcore effects to craft memorable scenes. All you need is a high concept idea and a calm head about how to fully realize it.
'I Am Legend'
It's certainly easy to pick apart the problems 'I Am Legend' has (its inclusion on this list is primarily why it's not considered a definitive Top 10 Best), but if it does one thing thing right, it's creating an effectively doom and gloom scenario for its character to live in. As with 'Cloverfield' and 'Knowing,' so long as the production design team is competent, the walls don't need to be painted red with blood in order to create a dire situation.
'The Last Exorcism'
'The Last Exorcism' is a perfect example of the fear people have that a PG-13 effectively declaws a film that should otherwise be R-rated. Having been produced by Eli Roth and having the word exorcism in the title, horror fans assumed this would be a hardcore movie. So when Lionsgate announced they were releasing it with a PG-13, horror fans threw their arms up. And then the film came out and it was still creepy as hell with a number of cringe-inducing scenes.
As it turns out, the filmmakers even thought they were making an R-rated film. It wasn't until they submitted it to the MPAA that they realized that it could be released PG-13 without the producers making any changes to it. So if demonic possession, self-mutilation, and more that shouldn't be said for fear of spoilers doesn't warrant an R, an alien running a ship killing people should be able to get away with plenty.
Moving past the recent spate of M. Night Shyamalan hate, 'Signs' is just a flat out eerie movie about aliens. Granted it doesn't really have anything near the same agenda as an 'Alien' film should have, but it's still a very effective blend of sci-fi and horror that feels in no way compromised by the rating it has.
'Carriers' is a sorely underseen post-apocalyptic movie about a virus that has killed off most of the human race. It's full of dead people and people that look like they shouldn't be alive, yet it does all of this without having to rely on gobs and gobs of the red stuff. It's all about the fear in the eyes of the characters when they find themselves in nightmarish scenarios. And that's really all 'Alien' needs to be intense. If we see the fear and determination in everyone's face as they try to fight for survival, our imagination will fill in all of the gaps the special effects department can't explicitly show.
Here we have another haunted house movie (in this case it's just a haunted hotel room) that thrills without the need for nudity or splatter. What separates '1408' from the previous PG-13 haunted house flick on this list is that most of its suspenseful scenes take place in well lit rooms. Now, that's not to say that Fox' new 'Alien' should take place entirely under bright lights, but it would be interesting to see it try to build tension without having everything take place in dimly lit corridors. Plus, if they can top Samuel L. Jackson's perfect F-bomb droppage in '1408,' then they're already off to a good start.
Here's a fun fact: 'Poltergeist' is rated PG. Granted, it was made two years prior to the creation of the PG-13 rating, but even if it had been made a few years later, there's no extremely horrifying content in it. It's simply a case of having a great story and a great cast with which to tell it. As long as we're invested in the people, the rest will take care of itself.
'Fire in the Sky'
Even including all four of the 'Alien' films, no film has ever created a more disturbing encounter with an extraterrestrial than 'Fire in the Sky.' And, you guessed it, it pulled off dragging a person through a ghastly spaceship filled with all manner of revolting biology and getting probed in the most unsavory of ways with a mere PG-13. Sure, 'Fire in the Sky' is a little lighter on the bloodshed than an 'Alien' film is bound to be, but if the story Damon Lindelof is writing is going to explain the Space Jockey from Ridley Scott's first film (this alone should be more of a warning sign than the PG-13 target), then they can point to this as precedent for how to make the hull of an alien spaceship more terrifying than the pits of hell.