The Following Has Been Rated: The Case for PG-13 Horror

Several months ago, Blumhouse Productions surprised horror fans with an early Christmas gift. On June 13, Blumhouse announced that not only were they producing a Black Christmas remake, but they were releasing it later this year. Slasher film fans widely regard Bob Clark’s Black Christmas as a precursor to Halloween and the subgenre. Though a 2006 remake has built somewhat of a cult following, most fans of the original consider it inferior. After its first trailer release, the Black Christmas remake undid some of its early good will. Specifically, the trailer seemingly tipped off a major twist, a growing trend in movie marketing.

Then, on November 13, Bloody Disgusting revealed that the MPAA assigned a PG-13 rating to the remake. Both the 1973 original and the 2006 remake were R-rated movies. Not surprisingly, the MPAA rating sparked an online debate about the appropriateness of a PG-13 tag for the remake, and PG-13 horror more generally. But how much does the rating really matter? Since when did good horror become defined by an R-rating?

PG-13 Horror Debate Much Ado About Nothing

Horror is many things. Yes, it’s often visceral and disturbing by necessity. And it’s hard to image the genre without splatter films, like The Evil Dead, and their over-the-top gore. But even these horror ingredients don’t require an R-rating. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell didn’t suffer from a PG-13 rating. Neither did the original Poltergeist. Both movies are still roller coaster rides of ‘gag out’ moments. What makes a film disturbing isn’t solely limited to the physical. In spite of its subject matter, David Fincher’s Se7en didn’t actually show much violence on the screen. You never see ‘what’s in the box’. The criteria for what constitutes as scary is so wide as to defy easy categorization. The Ring, Insidious, and The Sixth Sense are just a handful of genuinely scary genre classics that avoided an R-rating.

Hammer Films illustrates the diminishing returns of adding graphic violence for the sake of an R-rating. After dominating horror for over a decade, the British studio was struggling to remain relevant. Specifically, as Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre carved out new genre ground, Hammer’s Gothic horror felt increasingly dated. To keep up with rivals’ edgier content, Hammer began introducing more explicitly graphic and sexual content. The studio’s Karnstein Trilogy with its lurid lesbian vampire scenes still under-performed. More recently, Rob Zombie’s trademark Grindhouse gore didn’t make his Halloween re-imagining any better.

Do Some Horror Movies Need To Be Rated-R

Certainly, there is a case to be made that some horror movies need to be Rated-R. Artistic discretion and subject, for instance, should dictate the craft. It’s hard to imagine a David Cronenberg-inspired ‘body horror’ film with a PG-13 rating. For this subgenre, the bodily destruction and mutilation is central to the themes and, thus, essential. These are movies intended to elicit discomfort in watching the loss of control over one’s body. In other words, there’s a method to the madness. In addition, horror has always been a transgressive genre. Love them or hate them, films like Salo, A Serbian Film, Martyrs, and The Exorcist intended to push boundaries.

And the slasher revival of the late 1990’s was more slasher-lite as compared to the movies released in the era’s ‘golden age’.

But does a slasher movie necessarily have to be Rated-R? Neither John Carpenter’s Halloween nor Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have much graphic violence. And the slasher revival of the late 1990’s was more slasher-lite as compared to the movies released in the era’s ‘golden age’. Scream 2 and 3, Urban Legend, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Cry Wolf, Valentine – none of these slasher movies were released with an R-rating. Though elaborately staged death scenes characterize the slasher movie, it’s also defined its focus on jumps and ‘stalk and chase’ scenes. In other words, an R-rating isn’t a pre-requisite for a slasher movie.

Black Christmas Remake Faces Specific Challenges

Recently, Black Christmas screenwriter April Wolfe responded to the PG-13 rating controversy on her Twitter account. In her November 13 Tweet, Wolfe wrote:

“Here’s the deal: We wrote it with an R in mind. When they did the test screening, was clear that his movie needed to available to a younger female audience because the subject matter is timely. Also I want to indoctrinate girls into horror. Doesn’t make it any less vicious!” (@AWolfeful).

Aside from the fact that it’s unfortunate Wolfe has to defend a movie no one has seen it, she makes a good point about ratings and a film’s intent. Quite frankly, the horror genre needs movies made specifically with different audiences in mind. No one would complain about producing more PG or PG-13 horror for younger audiences. If the genre is going to continue to thrive, we need young audiences to buy into into.

But Black Christmas faces the prospects of backlash from toxic fanbases specifically opposed to Wolfe’s gender focus. Based on its trailer and marketing material, the remake is looking to distinguish itself from Clark’s original by subverting gender expectations. This is a good thing. We’ve already seen Clark’s take and have a massive catalogue of slasher movies with traditional ‘Final Girls‘. As Wolfe points out, this particular take distinguishes it from its predecessor. Additionally, a different gender slant positions the remake to have a reason for existing. Horror often works better when it speaks to current social anxieties and ills.

PG-13 Horror and a PG-13 Black Christmas Can Work

Yes, a PG-13 Black Christmas can still be a good horror movie. We already have Bob Clark’s Black Christmas with its disturbing phone calls and ‘Billy’ mystery. Re-visiting that story didn’t work so well in the 2006 remake. Good remakes should re-interpret classic movies, not repeat them. And horror can and should be socially relevant. In fact, cutting social commentary is equally, if not more, transgressive than graphic violence. Unfortunately, the recent Star Wars and Ghostbusters movies show how toxic fandoms sometimes respond to change. Hopefully, this isn’t the case next December 13th when Black Christmas hits theaters. Horror fans should be happy that we get one more theatrical horror release before the year closes out.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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