Saturday, June 13, 2009

Teenage Wasteland

Like many a diehard horror fan, I tend to let out a snooty scoff when a darkly lit trailer ends with the ominously voiced narrator slowing down to deliver a PG13 rating. I haven’t been 13 for some time, and even when I was, you could usually bet a few plastic rings and JNCO jeans that my allowance was funding films like Now and Then while my screams were hurled at Scream. Buy-and-switch sneak-ins were simply the norm, especially during the mid-90s, before studio heads discovered the market for young teenage thrillers.  

A few Screams and R.L. Stine novels later, producers wised up. Today, one can usually count on finding some form of horror  on the big screen and more often than not, it’s trimmed down to lure 14 year-old boys whose mothers have better things to do than escort them to an R-rated movie. It’s hard to imagine an AMC theater without mildly risque comedies and blue-hued remakes of Asian cinema, but the American PG13 rating is barely legal itself, having only been instituted in 1984 following the intense PG violence of films like Gremlins and Temple of Doom. (Parents, take note: just because Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is rated PG does not mean it was the inspiration for Toy Story). Tobe Hooper famously tried for a PG with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which seems laughable amid the rampant meathooks and cannibalism. In actuality, there’s little blood and no nudity, much like the inappropriately haunting PG rated classic Tourist Trap and today, both would most likely earn a PG13.

I bring this up in part as a response to the surprisingly lackluster opening weekend of Drag Me to Hell, the rare horror film that earned an incredible 86% positive critical rating (courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes) but garnered a mere $15.8 million at the box office. Were audiences were turned off the the unRaimi-like teenage-baiting rating?

Drag Me to Hell is not a masterpiece, but in my opinion, it should serve as a template for the potential of PG13 horror. Raimi doesn’t need the R because the film works with carefully orchestrated scares, subtle black humor, and perfectly timed cuts. You know, the way a traditional little horror movie is supposed to be.

Since the success of The Ring and the juggernaut that is Saw, American studio horror has, in a sense, been divided into hardcore Rs (Hostel, Halloween  ) and glossier PG13 (Prom NightThe Fog). While there are plenty of nonformulaic gems nestled into the PG13 category, I confess to having a genuine bias towards films that seemed marketed and made for the mall crowd.

But as Drag Me to Hell reminds me, PG13 doesn’t have to mean neutered. Older classics like Jaws and The Haunting hold up because the scares aren’t dependent on the spillage of human innards (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as anything by Romero and its timeliness today proves). The Others and The Sixth Sense are prime examples of how ghost films do fine with showing less, while the bubblegum goofiness of Eight Legged Freaks gives you Starship Troopers violence without the boob and blood. Meanwhile, a piece of dreck like Captivity tried to capitalize on filmgoers tiring of CW network pretty boys and girls getting mildly injured by inserting over-the-top gore scenes that would make Jigsaw blush.

Personally, I’ll always heart an R-rated film that uses its freedom wisely. I admire the recent home invasion flick The Strangers for accepting an R despite limited violence that could easily have been edited down and I’ll cry the day Final Destination or the Chucky series starts to let 8th graders inside. But in the wake of such cinematic puke like Black Christmas 06, sometimes, a tamer, more disciplined PG13 like The Uninvited doesn’t look so deplorable. I’m the first to rail against something like a Hannah Montana headlined Battle Royale remake, but  ultimately, in the right hands, a good film can always be made.

Share your thoughts (or rants) below. I’m especially curious to hear about secretly good PG13, irresponsibly tagged PG film memories of the past, and your verdict on Snakes On a Plane’s R rating concession. 

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