Film ratings are a many-headed beast. On one hand, it does help audiences know in advance if a film will be suitable for their families and effectively prevents younger kids from seeing any type of content they want. But many, rightfully so, find rating systems to just be a new form of artistic censorship. And that’s not a point to take lightly. When a film’s success is predicated on if it gets a large theatrical run, but due to the MPAA it gets a rating that effectively moots their distribution, it can tank a film. Not to even mention the fact that film rating advisory boards routinely will demand creatives cut their films in order to maintain a rating that will get the most audiences in, namely PG-13 (invented in the mid-80s to bridge the gap between PG and R), whether that best services the plot or not. So while we may have been expecting crunching bones and torn flesh in a summer blockbuster like The Meg, due to the desired PG-13, we have a neutered gigantic shark.
But that is not to fly the rallying cry that PG and PG-13 are bad. On the contrary, the confines that the ratings can sometimes give to the creatives results in a storytelling challenge, “how do we say this without showing that.” And, like in the case of the torture porn films of the early 00s, sometimes this excised footage was just too long and its removal actually improves the flow of the whole film.
And as we’ve seen with certain newly released films, like A Quiet Place, just because horror isn’t R does not mean that it is somehow a lesser movie, as made evident by the following films as voted on by Chris Coffel, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, and myself.
10. Burnt Offerings (1976)
One of the prototypical haunted house films of the 70s, Burnt Offerings is a slow burn psychological horror directed by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows and Trilogy of Terror fame. When the Rolf family are offered a massive house for the summer at a bizarrely affordable price, they don’t ask questions. While the spooks are understated, red flags abound, from wickedly grinning chauffeur, to the ailing old woman shut up in mansion’s attic. Starring Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Bette fucking Davis, Burnt Offerings totes suitably creepy photographic edge, charmingly stagy acting, and an unnerving sense of restraint. Indeed, what makes Burnt Offerings so creepy is that it feels in line with un-cinematic accounts of paranormal activity. It slinks, lurks, and bides its time. Unlike other entries on this list, Burnt Offerings isn’t scary for what it shows, but for what it doesn’t. – Meg Shields
9. It’s Alive (1974)
Larry Cohen movies aren’t PG for the most part, so this oddity about a monster baby killing people being acceptable viewing for the whole family is a rare gift indeed. Whether it should be is debatable, but I support the decision. Like most of Cohen’s writer-directorial efforts, it’s a wild and wacky ride with some biting commentary about the society at large, a perfect combination of silliness and smarts. Few filmmakers have a worldview that’s as forward-thinking and on point as Cohen does, and anything unleashed during his prime is well worth hunting down. – Kieran Fisher
8. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
An anthology film based on a network television show was never going to get an R-rating, but the various filmmakers involved here don’t need one to deliver scares, thrills, and weighty doses of fear. From the opening jump scare featuring Albert Brooks as a monster (he wouldn’t return to those roots until Drive in 2011) to the more existential dread of karmic punishment to the pure shit-your-pants terror experienced by John Lithgow at 20,000 feet in the air, the film delivers fun, thrilling, and frightening horror beats without the need of an R. – Rob Hunter
7. Gremlins (1984)
The Mogwai Gizmo is cute as shit, that’s just straight facts. Because of this, Giz is partly to blame for the family-friendly vibe of Gremlins, aided by the remarkable trio of Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, and Chris Columbus. But what far fewer remember is how the creatives didn’t just wear their 50s horror influences on their sleeves but rather crafted them perfectly around this compact story of a town overrun by little monsters. The most unnerving shot in the film is the simplest. After watching our boy Stripe take a plunge into the Kingston Falls YMCA, we cut to a shot of the horizon. A jet black starless night sky slowly begins to be populated by one Gremlin, followed by another, then more, until a mob of Gremlins are climbing over themselves to make their way into the heart of the town. Like any pest, they are far more terrifying in numbers which isn’t to denigrate Carlo Rimbaldi’s iconic, snarling creature design but rather it enables the Gremlins to fully realize their maximum potential. – Jacob Trussell
6. Race With The Devil (1975)
My local movie theater – shout outs to Hollywood Theatre in Portland – hosts an all-night horror movie marathon every October just in time for Halloween. The movies are always a mystery, which is half the fun, and they’re presented in 35mm. The first year I attended the marathon it kicked off with 1975’s Race With The Devil. This was my introduction to this film and it knocked my socks off. This is a movie where Peter Fonda and Warren Oates go on a road trip in an RV with Loretta Swift and Lara Parker and along the way they witness a Satanic ritual that forces them into a race for their lives from a group of bloodthirsty Satanists. Is this the most awesome movie ever made? Maybe! It’s intense, it’s action-packed and it’s scary because hello, the Devil, and all while being PG. To be fair, this would likely be PG-13 today, but just barely. The movie has very little in the way of gore, some profanity and a brief glimpse of blurry nudity, but it doesn’t rely on those things. In the ritual scene, the film lingers for a bit and not everything is clearly in focus, causing the tension to build and the hair to stand up on the back of one’s neck. Or my neck at least. – Chris Coffel
5. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
The Legend of Hell House has two big mysteries: 1) what is haunting the Belasco mansion, and 2) how in god’s name did this film get a PG rating. The film sees a small group of paranormal investigators attempt to scale the “mount Everest of haunted houses”; a mist-swept, turreted manor with bad vibes to spare. As far as being not entirely kid-friendly, Hell House features sex, blood, and truly upsetting supernatural set pieces. But at the end of the day, atmosphere is everything. Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson’s soundtrack is a thumping, electro-haze, blurring sound effect and melody into something pulsing and otherworldly. Shadows mull and colours pop; drunken wide angles give way to garish zooms. Even at its campiest, the film is unnervingly earnest and visceral. A kid might not understand the details of the debauchery corrupting the house, but the terror of implication is primal, and the imagination plays tricks. – Meg Shields
4. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
In the 80’s Disney decided that it would be a good idea to give their young audience nightmares they’d never forget. And this was way before they ever hired Victor Salva to direct Powder. Something Wicked This Way Comes, along with Return to Oz, were the product of the studio’s decision to damage young filmgoers. it was a much more interesting time for their cinematic output. This movie — which is based on Ray Bradbury’s wonderful novel of the same name — is legitimately terrifying and doesn’t hold back when it comes to unleashing terror. The tale centers around a circus of the damned that’s come to a small town to claim more souls and it’s up to some youngsters to save the day. Some of the sequences — including a swarm of spiders invading a bedroom — are extremely unsettling as well. My girl Pam Grier also stars, and she’s flat-out sinister. – Kieran Fisher
3. Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist feels like a conundrum. For a film directed by the creator of Leatherface, featuring absolutely terrifying sequences of visceral (and gory!) horror that still manages to give chills, it’s shocking that it was only rated PG. Beyond that, for many 30-somethings, we were surprisingly allowed to watch it at a relatively young age, despite being forbidden from other horrors. Now that could partially be the work of Steven Spielberg who had yet to make an R-rated film. It could even be the wholesome family unit including two children that the younger audience could identify with. But rather than opting for a film that was family friendly with a dash of scares (like in ET) producer Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper opted to make a terrifying and gripping Horror-with-a-capital-H movie, that’s just barely for families. From the living trees to the melting faces, demon ghosts, and that fucking clown Poltergeist is riddled with more justifiably frightening set pieces that still have not lost their luster to this day. – Jacob Trussell
2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The Donald Sutherland o-face. I’m done. There is nothing scarier on planet Earth, and apparently nothing scarier in the cosmos. Humanity is lost. Our population supplanted for pod people. Veronica Cartwright is just looking to be mellow and blend in with her buddy, but it’s all for naught. They got him too and you’re next. The 1956 version is no slouch. Don Siegel captured the red scare paranoia raging through the nation perfectly. Kevin McCarthy embodied panic and the insidious terror of non-violent invasion. Philip Kaufman’s remake squats on the shoulders of the original, and the combined weight crushes down on our chest, wrenching out our last breath. We want to fight the good fight, but we suck at it. We’re doomed. – Brad Gullickson
1. Jaws (1975)
Anytime someone complains about a horror movie earning less than an R-rating their concerns can generally be shut down with any film on this list. The final nail in their argument, though, is the mere mention of Steven Spielberg‘s inaugural summer blockbuster. Not only does it deliver a little bit of nudity, some gore, and a few dirty words, but the film features some truly frightening and visceral sequences. People joke about it scaring them away from the water, but entire generations were confronted by that fear any time they stepped in the ocean. Hell, millions of people still think of it when swimming forty-three years later. No other film has instilled so much real-world fear, and it did it all with a PG-rating. – Rob Hunter