Not all of them, of course – "The Purge" keeps churning out sequels, and there's a "Texas Chainsaw" prequel planned for some time in 2016 – but discreet little PG-13 horror movies have been cropping up with surprising frequency at the local movie theater.
Last weekend's entry "The Darkness," where a family accidentally brings a dark supernatural presence home from the Grand Canyon, actually has a lower rating than the other wide release opening this week (George Clooney's R-rated "Money Monster.")
On one level, keeping the rating relatively family-friendly seems like a sure way to ruin horror movies. "The Exorcist" is rated R, after all, as is "A Nightmare on Elm Street" ("Friday the 13th" is actually one of the very few movies I've seen rated X). Revulsion is a common element in horror, and without the requisite amounts of violence, gore and generally shocking or depraved acts, how are you going to suitably horrify your audiences?
The problem is, the desire to puke isn't the same thing as fear. Watch enough shock-and-horror movies and you'll lose even that, leaving you to the point where even the most theatrical acts of violence leave you doing nothing more than wrinkling your nose. The “Saw” series is proof enough of that, slowly transforming from a grotesque, low-budget cash cow to ever-increasing disappointment. Apparently, there’s a threshold on how much torture audiences can take.
Which is why the pendulum (apologies to Edgar Allan Poe) is slowly starting to swing the other way. It’s harder to actually make people afraid than it is to gross them out, because you have to be careful how you set the tone. Stephen King once said that the monster people imagine in their head is always worse than anything an author (and by extension, a filmmaker) could actually show, and it's that state of tense anticipation that can sometimes freak audiences out the most.
The tricks filmmakers use to generate that tense anticipation, unsurprisingly, don’t necessarily require anything that would push a movie out of PG-13 territory. Jump scares are a classic trick, used by haunted houses and movies alike, but you have to time them just right or they start to lose their potency. You can play on universal fears, including the dark, strange noises, or, in the case of “The Darkness,” a person’s loved ones being in peril. The movie also turns a familiar, comforting space – the family home – into something dangerous, another reliable recipe to get audiences shaking in their shoes.
Most important of all, though, is the waiting. Everyone from the great Alfred Hitchcock to your local haunted house relies on this trick, letting audiences know that something terrible is about to happen but never telling them when. Even the most grotesque dead body isn’t as frightening as that breathless moment in the dark, when you know the crazed killer or deadly supernatural entity is waiting somewhere to get you.
Get the balance right, and you’ll leave audiences terrified without having to show much blood at all. The original "Poltergeist" was only rated PG, the original "The Ring" a mere PG-13, and many horror fans still consider both to be classics of the genre. Fear, it turns out, doesn’t have to be bloody to get the job done.