Now, most of the time the issue is like the example I gave – a film is edited down to get a more commercially friendly rating, or the studio demands that it be suitable for that PG-13 rating right from the start. However, there are a few examples of a movie that probably SHOULD be PG-13 but in fact is rated R. In at least one case below, the studio actually DEMANDED an R rating in order to attract the same audience as the filmmakers’ previous movie, and in others the director simply didn’t have the clout to argue his point when he actually had a PG-13 in mind. And then sometimes I have no idea what they were thinking. So here we go: six R rated horror films that should have been PG-13!
(NOTE – I didn’t even bother to look pre-1984; I’m sure there are a few R rated horror movies from back then that would get a PG-13 today, however that rating didn’t exist at the time.)
1. The Good Son
(Rated R for acts of violence and terror involving a disturbed child)
Esther the Orphan, Joshua, Damien, Jamie from The Pit... these killer kids actually KILLED folks, and relished in their R rated freedom. Macaulay Culkin’s Henry, on the other hand, shoots a dog off-screen and throws a dummy off a bridge, causing a major accident (one that has no injuries, as a newscaster helpfully points out later on). Oddly the rating doesn’t even mention the only actual harsh moment in the entire movie, when Henry tells his cousin (Elijah Wood) “Don’t fuck with me”. So why is it an R? Well, the studio was afraid of kids seeing the heroic Kevin McCallister in such a scary role, so the rating was just there to keep them out. Sorry kids! Better to just throw on Home Alone 2 again and watch him laugh as he beats two grown men over the head with paint cans and wrenches (and even electrocutes one) as they continue to pursue him sans any sort of lasting injury, than let them see him smoke or talk tough.
2. Army Of Darkness
(Rated R for violence and horror)
Possibly one of the lamest calls in MPAA history (look at that “descriptive” rating – can you be any more vague?), Sam Raimi’s comical and adventurous ode to (PG-rated) Jason and the Argonauts style flicks and The Three Stooges was actually handed an NC-17 at one point, before Raimi made a few cuts. However, Universal apparently wanted a PG-13, and cut it even further, but ended up with an R anyway. But all they probably would need to do today, post Spider-Man, is tone down Ash’s language a bit (no real loss – 99% of the lines that get repeated ad nauseum by this movie’s fan-base are profanity-free anyway), as the violence is cartoonish and the movie as a whole only has one real scare scene, and the scene in question (when Ash beheads the witch inside the pit) isn’t even gory in the director’s cut version (not even an impact shot! Just some black goo hitting the wall). The rest is like a kid’s version of (the PG-13) Lord of the Rings, with Ash battling goofy skeletons and little miniature versions of himself. The punchline, of course, is that a now powerful Raimi was able to get a PG-13 for Drag Me To Hell, which was far more violent and even kind of disturbing at times (poor kitty).
3. The Frighteners
(Rated R for Terror/Violence)
Much like Raimi, Peter Jackson was not yet a big name when he made this comical ghost tale for Universal, and wasn’t able to win the battle to get the PG-13 he thought the movie deserved. Whether it was the reason that the movie tanked or not, I don’t know, but when you sit down for an R rated Peter Jackson horror movie, you expect a certain level of splatter and violence, and that’s just not what anyone involved had in mind. If there was ever a movie that deserved another submission to the MPAA, it’s this one – is there a statute of limitations on their rulings?
4. Lake Placid
(Rated R for violent creature attacks and related gore, and for language)
I haven’t seen this one since theaters, so maybe my memory is wrong, but I don’t recall it being particularly gory, and again – Jaws is PG when the R rating existed (and before Spielberg was SPIELBERG), so I’m sure a PG-13 would have made more sense. The film is often listed alongside horror/comedies like Tremors and Gremlins – which are PG-13 (well, Gremlins is PG but it CAUSED the PG-13 rating along with Temple of Doom), so it sort of sticks out by being R. And it’s more for the language than the movie’s carnage (only two deaths), as this was the first in a long, horrible line of “Betty White has a sailor’s mouth” movies. I’ll get into it more later, but as long as they’re leaving the violence/gore alone, I think replacing a few lines of dialogue to earn a lower rating, in most cases, is perfectly acceptable – no one shows up for a horror movie to hear the profanity.
5. Dead Silence
(Rated R for horror violence and images)
Universal again! What the hell is with these guys? And has “images” ever been so laughably used in a rating? The culprit here was, oddly, a newfound appreciation (and healthy box office) for R rated horror movies, kicked off by James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s first Saw film. So, hoping to cash in on both the trend and use “From the creators of Saw!” in their marketing, Uni actually INSISTED on an R rating, even though Wan/Whannell intended their film to be a PG-13 tribute to the creepy and atmospheric Hammer and Italian films of the late 50s and 60s. So there are some worthless late-game additions of bloody corpses and ripped out tongues, but nothing about the concept or 99% of its execution is R-rated. And thus, swayed by the marketing and the rating, folks went in expecting another Saw, only to get a lot of shots of puppets looking at people. Not a perfect film, but an underrated one, and the studio’s unusual enforcements are almost entirely to blame for its failure. Wan had the last laugh, however; his return to ghostly fare with this spring’s Insidious got the PG-13 he wanted, right around the time Uni balked at a 150 million Mountains of Madness movie starring Tom Cruise and directed by Guillermo Del Toro… because they wouldn’t make it PG-13 Sigh.
6. Paranormal Activity
(Rated R for language)
Unlike most of the movies on this list, Paranormal Activity didn’t tank – the R rating certainly didn’t hurt its box office performance (though I guess we can assume it may have made even MORE money with a less restrictive rating). But really, it’s just the language that gave the movie its rating, and that’s an area where the MPAA’s guidelines need work. If you think about it, the historical comedy/drama King’s Speech and the “scariest horror movie of the decade” Paranormal Activity got their R ratings for the same “fucking” reason.
Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the movie should have been edited to be PG-13, but there’s a backlash toward the film among some folks who went in expecting R rated horror and just got two people who need a thesaurus. In this case, it’s just a shame that the MPAA has conditioned folks to believe that an R rated movie sort of fires on all cylinders and thus an R rated HORROR movie should offer up the gore (and maybe some nudity!), something Oren Peli perhaps should have considered when directing his (improvising) actors. It’s one thing if its Clerks and folks are talking about fucking or telling customers to fuck themselves for half the movie, but when it’s just “What the fuck was that?” type stuff, I think a PG-13 is acceptable. The irony with this movie is that there are some folks who believe it to be PG-13. Platinum Dunes’ Brad Fuller recently told a fan over Twitter that the reason they’ve been having trouble getting certain projects going is because the studios are once again focusing on PG-13 movies “like Paranormal Activity” (he was corrected).
Of course, the MPAA vs. horror battle has been going on for years and likely always will, and until they come up with some sort of standard (and allow filmmakers to use precedent), there will always be problems, albeit usually in the “NC-17 or R” realm (an issue that makes even LESS sense to me than anything mentioned above – if you’re 17 you can drive a car, months away from being able to go to war… but you need to be protected from Jason Voorhees taking a weedwhacker to Bernie Lomax?). So the examples above just further illustrate that their system is broken – just not always in the ways you’d expect.
Brian Collins counts the number of ‘fucks’ in all R-rated horror movies ever day over at Horror Movie A Day.