There’s a lot to be afraid of in the world of horror. Vampires, werewolves, and undead monsters are just the tip of the iceberg; mad cannibalistic killers, rage churning viruses, and behemoths from the deep help keep up the mass. Talk of these things can be found throughout the internet in the vast plethora of horror discussion boards. Not yet mentioned among these fear-inducing monstrosities is one diseased abomination that always sparks up a fuss. This is one topic that consistently rears its blistered and scabbed head on every board, at least every third or fourth page, for everyone to sigh and shake their head at in exasperation as they realize this is one fear, one outrage, that seemingly will not die!
This is PG13-ification!
Fairness first; it’s not true that all PG13 horror films are bad. The Ring was arguably the first film that started the U.S. Asian remake craze, and for the good reason that it actually is an extremely well executed horror film. While M. Night Shyamalan has his detractors among the horror community, few will argue that The Sixth Sense was not a powerfully done ghost story even at its teen-friendly rating of PG13. The Grudge is also spoken of with mostly a positive air, and Disturbia has found some solid support as well.
What is it then about the rest of the lot? Why are the films listed above the exception rather than the rule? The root of it is obvious, and we can all chant it together – money. The makers and distributors of films want to make money, and lots of it, and for many of them it is the making of money that is the focus and not the making of movies. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that more theater attendees will generate more cash. A lower rating, allowing more people into the theater, means a bigger bankroll. The math is simple.
While the desire to generate revenue is understandable, the end product we keep getting is not. PG13 horror films are some of the most loathed and despised of the entire industry, especially by fans of the genre. The filmmakers set out to make something clean and scary, and somehow churn out bits of dribble like The Covenant, Blood and Chocolate, or the infuriatingly bad Van Helsing. They lance and squeeze to ooze out the first Aliens vs. Predator, Skinwalkers, and horrible remakes such as The Fog. Over and over these movies come out like rabbit punches to the kidney, sent low, hard, and grabbing at your wallet like a mealy-mouthed orphan with a debt to pay. They’re insipid, banal, and represent the complete dumbing-down of a story in order to appeal to what the filmmaker’s think is the target audience.
This leads us to the truer cause of the badness of all of these films: the approach. If you look at the few exceptions of good PG13 films, you’ll realize that all of them were made with the intent of simply creating a good scary film. If you look at the bad ones, you’ll see that they were instead tailored and crafted for a specific rating. The differences in these approaches are enormous. The filmmakers who churn out so many pounds of PG13 offal are making the mistake of catering to the rating and the stereotypes behind it rather than simply trying to make a good film.
Filmmakers targeting a PG13 audience typically make the gross and fatal mistake of assuming all teenagers are stupid and small-minded, and thus they must keep the film downgraded to some basement level wit that they hope will appeal to this supposedly ignorant and pimply lot. A film like The Covenant makes the assumption that all teens must fantasize about being one of these big hunky moody guys with wow-wee powers. The fact is it would be much more fun to be an awkwardly dressed normal guy who creeps up behind one of these posturing jackasses and smacks them in the back of the head with a rock. Teens will agree with me, too. Go ahead, do some mass marketing research, and you’ll find I’m right and owe me a taco for the tip.
The first rule that any filmmaker creating a PG13 movie needs to realize is this: In general, teenagers like the same things that adults do. Just because you’re stripping out torture scenes and shaking boobs doesn’t mean you need to turn off your brain. Make the damned thing smart, with a point, a purpose, and something to say besides “Buy Verizon”. Keep it smart, and you’ll actually make an impact with the younger generation and earn some good reviews, revenue, and respect to boot.
Another fatal faux pas is that teenagers do not like to be patronized by seeing actors struggle to act cool by using modern teen slang and other topical references. It is a painful thing to have to listen to teen slang drivel that was written by some gray bearded adult. Keep the dialogue organic, natural, and without strain. Never, in any circumstances, try to appeal to teens by over-using their slang or other fly-by-night fashions, or it will immediately jump-the-shark and leave you looking like a 40-year-old dancing the Macarena at her daughter’s prom. It’s embarrassing, and you’re only going to drive the teens to drink to numb the pain of gross humiliation.
The world of the R rating has a profound advantage when it comes to horror. The genre is built around shock, and for obvious reasons most things shocking push a PG13 rating right to R. What a good PG13 horror film then needs to do is to build itself around contextual horror, a solid plot, and bits of clever humor. Keep the thing smart, don’t dumb a single bit of it down, and you’ll suddenly find yourself with something that both teens and adults will love in the theater. It’s not impossible.
PG13-ification is a phenomenon that is here to stay. Filmmakers will continue to produce stupid films that they hope will appeal to people they assume to be stupid. The twist of the dagger is that the damned things often make money, and the filmmakers use this bank roll as some sort of twisted bit of justification for pummeling us with nonsense. What they don’t realize is that they could create a PG13 horror film with greater longevity and sustain, something that could remain in the social consciousness longer than three weeks at the local mall, if they only worked to cater to the film, and not to the rating.
Editor’s Note: At the time of this writing the PG13 Prom Night remake (review here) has raked in $22.7 million its opening weekend while the far superior R-rated The Ruins (review here) has made squat.
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