The popular notion that a horror movie must have an “R” rating to be entertaining or scary is a fallacy, and here are some iconic films that prove it.
Who doesn’t love boobs and blood? Surprisingly, the answer is not all horror fans — at least not all-the-time. There are some very popular horror movies that do not use the traditional “R” rating horror approach for roping in horror fans. Instead, they use a different approach that changes the focus from boobs and blood to scares and storyline.
The master of the scare without relying on an “R” rating has to go to M. Night Shyamalan. He has cranked out four awesome horror/thriller genre movies: The Sixth Sense (1999), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), and The Happening (2008).
The Sixth Sense is a ghost movie that uses subtle scares. Signs explores the terrifying possibilities of an alien invasion. The Village centers around a society that has become so corrupt that it must regress to a simpler time, where there was no technology and the community relied upon itself. And in The Happening, we find out what happens when nature turns on man.
There are no brutal kills in these movies, no cussing or nudity, and no over-the-top blood or gore. The fear comes from the tension he builds and the subtle cues — loud noises, quick movements, putting things in place that the viewer is not expecting. And the formula works.
Here are six more examples of great Horror movies that didn’t need that hard “R” rating to find their place among the genre’s most impactful, memorable, and truly frightening films.
Poltergeist is a great example of a film that delivers scares in a subtle but effective way. The movie does an impressive job taking ordinary things and making them scary in a way you wouldn’t normally expect — a television with no reception, an oversized man showing up at the door to ask questions, an unusual tree.
The film then takes it a step further…playing on the innate fears of many viewers and amplifying in a way that truly terrifies. A perfect example is when the buried bones come to life and try to kill people or, everyone’s personal favorite, the creepy clown doll that comes to life and becomes the literal thing hiding under the bed. These scenes were absolutely terrifying at the time.
The Ring (2002)
The Ring is essentially a revenge tale. It turns a young girl, who died tragically, into a zombie ghost. But we never actually see her kill anyone. Instead, the film cleverly puts her in places she should not be, letting us hear the victims’ screams, and the viewer fills in the blanks. There’s no blood — just wide eyes filled with terror. But it’s extremely effective and chilling. And by having the girl crawl her way out of the television, in what has become one of the most iconic visuals in horror, the writers make the vengeful spirit even scarier by showing how unstoppable she truly is.
In fact, Japanese Horror (also known as J-Horror) is renown for its ability to create genuine fear by focusing more on psychological horror and bone-chilling tension. This formula has proven very successful when repurposed for American audiences, as with The Ring and The Grudge (another film that uses revenge as a driving force).
Flowers in the Attic (1987)
While revenge can be a great catalyst for horror, so too can betrayal. When a writer takes something that should be sacred, like family, and turns it against the protagonists(s), there is nothing more horrifying. Flowers in the Attic plays on our fears by exploiting the idea that you can’t trust anyone — even those who should love and protect you the most.
In the story, we experience the ultimate betrayal. A mother not only leaves her children to die, but she is complicit in their attempted murder. In the end, we learn she is willing to kill her young children for money. The fact that the children are so young and innocent, so dependent on the love and care of their mother, makes the story all the more tragic…and truly horrifying.
Cat’s Eye (1985)
If Poltergeist wasn’t enough to scare a child from wanting to go to bed, then it’s quite possible Cat’s Eye did the trick. This anthology horror film was directed by Lewis Teague and written by the master of horror himself, Stephen King. It comprises three stories “Quitters, Inc.”, “The Ledge”, and “General”. The first two are adaptations of short stories in King’s Night Shift collection, and the third is unique to the film.
It’s that third story that really made a significant impact. It dealt with a troll that would come through a hole in the wall at night and try and suck the air from a sleeping child. For a child, the idea that something could sneak in, in the middle of night, and get you while your parents and pet are home as protectors is absolutely terrifying. No blood and no death, yet the threat of both is enough to make the formula work.
Jaws plays on a few primal fears that humans have had since the beginning of time. First, there’s the fear of being eaten alive. Second, there’s the fear what could be living in the ocean — the fear of what’s lurking beneath the surface that we can neither see nor control. Finally, anyone who has ever spent time in the ocean has faced the lingering fear of a rogue shark.
Capitalizing on all these natural fears is a a big part of what makes Jaws so effective as a horror film. But Spielberg takes it to another level. He uses music to elevate the tension in the scenes, tipping off the viewers that the shark is present. Although the film does show some death and blood, the focus is more on the suspense than the actual kills. In fact, all four of the movies in this series have a rating no higher than PG-13. Yet, for many, at least the first film is widely considered one of the scariest and best horror movies of all time.
When a Stranger Calls (2006)
When a Stranger Calls essentially keeps the battle between a girl and an unseen predator. The film is a remake of Fred Walton’s 1979 horror film of the same name, which became a cult classic for its legendary opening 20 minutes, now consistently regarded as one of the scariest openings in horror movie history. The remake extended that opening scene of the original to a feature-length film.
The movie doesn’t give a reason for why the man is tormenting the girl, which really fuels our ultimate fear of becoming a victim for no reason. There are some kills, but the real terror comes from the way the killer toys with his victim — stalking and scaring her through a series of phone calls that become increasingly menacing. There’s no nudity and no bloody, gory kills. But the horror is real as a result of the way the director uses suspense to keep the stakes high and the viewer engaged.
Many other notable movies have become horror classics with only a PG-13 or even PG rating, including Cloverfield (2008), Alien vs. Predator (2004), Gremlins (1984), The ‘Burbs (1989), Salem’s Lot (1979), Critters (1986), The Others (2001), Monster Squad (1987), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Haunting In Connecticut (2009), The Mothman Prophecies (2002), Tremors (1990), The Birds (1963), Arachnophobia (1990), Congo (1995), and Insidious (2010).
What is important to note about the movies mentioned above is how the writer or director was able to change the formula for what works in a horror movie. When a kill was made, it was never over the top or excessive. Foul language was used at minimum. Scenes are more suggestive than overtly sexual. While many great horror movies do give us lots of nudity, language, and gore (and they sometimes work really well), it’s not a requirement to make a truly impactful and scary horror film.
The movies discussed above, and so many others, prove that scares and kills can come in many forms — and still be as effective as a gory and sexy slasher.