Raise your hand if you remember your mother or father letting teenaged you go see any movie… if it was rated PG? We see you. And you. And, yeah, you, too. Of course, what Mom and Dad didn’t realize was that, back in the day, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Hollywood cranked out movies that pushed the envelope all the way to the edge. Some directors would even nudge scenes into hard-R territory just so they could still get away with something after the MPAA demanded that they trim an offending spurt of blood or dismembered body part. And this, not surprisingly, occurred regularly with horror films released around Halloween. Steven Spielberg finally went too far in 1984 with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating, though the history books note that Temple of Doom won a PG rating and Red Dawn earned the distinction of being the industry’s first PR-13 release just a few months after Temple of Doom opened. Anyway, with Halloween 2020 nearly upon us, Fatherly is here with a look at six of the scariest PG/borderline R-rated horror movies ever made.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
So bad it’s almost good, Burnt Offerings stars Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, and Burgess Meredith. Plus, there’s a creepy limo driver, some killer foliage, lots of frightful screaming, and an atmospheric Gothic house. It’s in that house of horrors that an evil entity in a room upstairs terrorizes a couple and their kid who just wanted to have a nice vacation. It’s pretty silly stuff, with lots of jump-scares and in-your-face (ears?) musical cues, that the cast and director Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Trilogy of Terror) try to play straight. You’ve been warned!
Burnt Offerings is streaming to rent on Amazon Prime for $3.99.
Jaws, from a very young Steven Spielberg, is the ultimate killer shark movie. It’s scary as hell, but if you watch it closely, it works so brilliantly more by creating a sense of dread than by actually depicting on-screen grotesque violence. Part of that was the result of Spielberg’s directorial acumen and restraint, and part of it was the result of difficulties with Bruce, the mechanical shark, which required getting creative on the fly. And when Spielberg did reach for the big scares — Ben Gardner’s severed head, Bruce’s vicious attacks – those delivered, too, quite viscerally. Plus, Spielberg added quick glimpses of nudity. By any standard, then or now, this one should be rated R.
Jaws — and its questionable sequels — area all streaming for free on HBO Max.
Gremlins is as scary as it is cute and funny, and it’s pretty damn cute and funny. The film, produced by… say it with us… Steven Spielberg, apparently was right up there with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in compelling the MPAA to devise the PG-13 rating. Humans die here, sure, a couple of them horrifically, but it’s the gremlins whose demises induce shrieks. Lynn Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) is a one-woman wrecking crew during the bat-shit crazy and intense scene in which she mutilates one gremlin in a blender, stabs another three times, and blows up a third in a microwave oven. Lynn also figures in another terrifying sequence in which a gremlin-infested Christmas tree attacks her. And, the villainous Stripe gets his comeuppance at the end, as he literally melts before moviegoers’ eyes, screeching and gurgling the whole time.
Gremlins is streaming for rent on Amazon Prime for $3.99.
OK, so how the hell is this one rated PG? The combination of director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and producer Steven Spielberg (who directed more of Poltergeist than anyone knew at the time) breathes life into this creepy movie that doesn’t shy away from showing its spooks and specters. The tree attacking Robbie (Oliver Robbins) is shockingly realistic, the clown is freaky AF, and the skeletons popping up left and right are truly disturbing, especially during the extended pool sequence. But it’s the squirm-inducing face-peeling sequence (which follows an equally nauseating steak disintegration) that should have garnered the film an R rating, and we mean a hard R.
Poltergeist is streaming on Netflix.
It’s Alive (1974)
It’s Alive ranks at the top of B-movie legend Larry Cohen’s resume, ahead of The Stuff and Q. It’s a mutant baby flick – cue the freaky puppet! — with some memorable kills. Cohen smartly milks a milk truck sequence in which the baby attacks a delivery guy in his vehicle, with glass bottles crashing and milk spilling out onto the street, followed by blood that blends in with the milk. But it’s the baby’s brutal birth, with blood everywhere and deafening screams, that tests the PG rating. Couple all of that with a deft performance by John Ryan as the sympathetic dad and a wild score by Bernard Hermann, and you’ve got a memorable shocker of a movie.
It’s Alive is streaming for rent on Amazon Prime for $2.99.
Legend of Hell House (1973)
The great Richard Matheson (Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) scripted this British horror outing based on his own novel, and it’s a terrifying doozy. Basically, it’s a straight-up haunted house flick bolstered by solid acting (most notably Roddy McDowell), great sets and costumes, and a jangly, unnerving score. Worth noting, though, is that there’s actually very little gore. Instead, director John Hough (Escape to Witch Mountain) amps up the dread, which surely secured the film its PG rating. Still, you’d expect an R for any film with a dialogue exchange such as this: Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt): “What did he do to make this house so evil, Mr. Fischer?” Benjamin (McDowell): “Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?” Ann: “How did it end?” Benjamin: “If it had ended… we would not be here.”
Legend of Hell House is streaming on Shudder.
Runners-up: The superlative 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the ultimately lackluster 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes are both additional prime examples of relying on tension vs. gore to secure a PG rating versus the dreaded R.