From Under the Shadow to A Quiet Place (2018), here are some of the best PG 13 horror movies.
We all want to have a light scare every now and again: not too spooky, but not too easy either. Luckily for all of us, there is a whole film genre that caters to this craving: the PG-13 horror film. Created after controversy surrounding Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom being released with a PG rating, the PG-13 label, created for the sole purpose of films that were neither too light, nor too scary, was born. There have been a number of brilliant PG-13 films over the years. These are the films that deliver shrieks of laughter and screams of terror in equal measure. Whether by blockbuster directors or relatively unknown names, these films always have us on the edge of our seats.
Today, we count down some of the most memorable ones and have a look at what makes them all spectacular: the jump scares, the humour, and most of all, the horror, the horror!
15. 1408 (2007)
Not even a lackluster performance from John Cusack could stop this Stephen King short story from becoming a jaw-dropping PG-13 horror movie. This film twists and turns, delivers scare after scare, while also incorporating a dash of heartfelt moments.
The premise is simple: there is a room in a hotel, a room that claims the lives of anyone who sleeps within it. The manager claims that no one ever lasts more than an hour before their minds succumb to the malicious force the residence puts onto it. Staff avoids the room, though they never provide an explanation for the presence that inhabits the space; the viewer is encouraged to make up their own mind as to what might be causing the supernatural happenings within those walls.
14. Happy Death Day (2017)
Who doesn’t like Groundhog Day (1993)? Better yet, who wouldn’t want to see a modern day spin-off of Groundhog Day plus a horrifying murder plot? This was the question that Happy Death Day (2017) answers to great effect. From Blumhouse Productions, this film follows the story of Theresa who is murdered the night of her birthday. However, she wakes up immediately to the sound of 50 Cent’s catchy tunes.
Drawing inspiration from the deep ocean of slasher films, Happy Death Day succeeds on a number of levels. It brings in laughs, it delivers screams that made the teen-slasher sub genre so well established, and it makes the best use of its plot description by exploring all the ways one might engage with this predicament: streaking on campus? Why the hell not.
13. Disturbia (2007)
When we talk about PG-13 horror films, it’s important to recognise a reoccurring trope in the genre: teenagers discovering either supernatural events or unsolved murders. Disturbia features a young and popular Shia LaBeouf, who is under house arrest for assaulting a teacher. He enjoys his free time as any teenager would, but after the internet and television are removed as viable options, the only outlet for his boredom is spying on his neighbors. He becomes convinced that one of his neighbors is a psychopathic killer, though, no one believes him of course. This film did an excellent job at appealing to the hearts and minds of every teenager in the audience: there is romance, thrills, and a redemption arc to boot.
12. The Woman in Black (2012)
Featuring some of the best Gothic horror since Guillermo del Toro left the scene, Daniel Radcliffe stars in this film as Sam, a widower set on retrieving documents from a spooky mansion. He learns it is possessed by the malicious ghost of a scorned woman who is taking the lives of the children from the nearby village.
This film exhibits some of the best work in cinematography in recent years, as the camera sweeps across the house and demands that the viewer hold their breath in terrified anticipation. We just know that there is going to be a heart-stopping moment any second, but that doesn’t stop the goose-bumps from forming. Though not a film that will garner many laughs, it succeeds almost entirely due to the maintained level of suspense and dread.
11. Insidious (2010)
When I was a teenager, everyone told me not to watch Insidious (2010). “I didn’t sleep the night after I watched it,” my friend confessed. After having watched it, I can certainly admit that it is one of the more terrifying films on this list. Demonic possessions are never fun and games, but the lore the creators behind this film made is something else. James Wan managed to immerse the audience with a tightly-wound story that is noticeably inspired by Poltergeist (1982). However, Wan makes good use of upgraded technology, as well as the costume and makeup department – the demon on the wall lives on in my memory as one of the most frightening depictions of an evil presence in cinema history.
10. Under the Shadow (2016)
While I haven’t seen many Iranian films, this brilliant PG-13 horror feature from debut director Babak Anvari follows a mother who is left with her daughter in Tehran as they suffer more and more artillery fire. As this external threat pervades their surroundings, a malevolent, internal threat looms. An entity has found a way into this mother’s house and could take her child away from her at any moment. Though clearly taking inspiration from Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), this film stands out for its connection to cultural and oral forms of storytelling, particularly Iranian folklore. If you want a scary film that also teaches you about recent history, this film is a safe bet.
9. Before I Wake (2016)
Mike Flanagan has made a name for himself creating some of the most entertaining horror films of the last 20 years. With films such as Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, he gained recognition for making tense, horrifying films that had a penchant for the supernatural. With Before I Wake (2013), Mike Flanagan made a PG-13 horror film that features much more heart than it does laughs.
With a touching performance from Jacob Tremblay, this film demonstrates the horror of disease and the lingering effects of grief on a young child. It has enough wonder and amazement to catch the attention of any teenager going into this film, with scary moments that will absolutely keep that attention in a tight grip.
8. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Sam Raimi made a name for himself with the Evil Dead films as an eccentric filmmaker with an eclectic style and slightly bizarre sense of humor. After directing Spiderman films, Raimi came out with his first horror film in recent years: Drag Me to Hell (2009). With an emphasis on gross-out humor and supernatural horror, this outing from Raimi managed to garner laughs and shrieks from those I watched it with. This film demonstrates how effective Raimi’s style is for the comedy horror genre: he likes to have fun with his films, and if you take it too seriously, you’re missing the point. This movie is an example of how you should sit down with a bowl of popcorn and laugh in between the shouts.
7. The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan created an entire career for himself with this film. With some of the best twists in cinema history, The Sixth Sense was a masterpiece in the art of leaving your entire audience speechless. Though the twist is very well-known at this point, it doesn’t diminish the huge cultural impact this had at the time.
The film succeeds on a number of levels. It both communicates a heartfelt story about a boy who is struggling with the immense weight of his supernatural gift, as well as weaves a suspenseful narrative that doesn’t reveal the best part until the very end. Telling a story like this requires momentous skill and insane restraint.
6. Gremlins (1984)
What’s scarier than Christmas? Little reptilian gremlins getting wet on Christmas, that’s what! With an ominous opening, as well as a multi-layered critique on our consumerist values, Gremlins provides both scares and food for thought. It has all of the necessary ingredients for this film to become a cult classic as well: an implausible set-up, a dramatic finish, and infinitely quotable lines: who doesn’t remember the first time they heard ‘never feed it after midnight’? The script is packed full of foreshadowing; just the kind of thing a young teenager loves.
Written by Chris Columbus, this film can be seen as part of a slew of films produced by Steven Spielberg in the 1980s with a particular aesthetic style, as well as Poltergeist (1982) and Back to the Future (1985).
5. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
This is a horror film which has equal handfuls of both claustrophobic paranoia and supernatural horror. John Goodman’s performance alone is enough to make this film a PG-13 at the very least: he provides the tension and suspense that flow through the entire film as we are never quite sure if we can trust his character, Howard. Is he insane, lying, or both? Or does he actually know what he is talking about?
The film provides an intriguing look into the psychology of “preppers”, those people who are quietly preparing for the end of the world. What does the effect of a “survivalist” mentality have on small group dynamics? How does this pessimistic thinking affect your ability to trust those around you? This film examines that in terrifying detail.
4. Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Comet (1984) stands out as one of the quintessential PG-13 horror films. It has humor, scares, and of course, mutant zombies. After everyone is evaporated by a comet (besides those who were able to find shelter lined with steel), Reggie and her sister band together to survive the wasteland which their home has become.
This is the kind of film which has the capacity to make you laugh, cry, and scream. Featuring moments of desperation and loneliness, as well as moments capable of giving any twelve-year-old a nightmare, there is plenty here to come back to over and over again. Besides, the 80s vibe is indescribably enjoyable; why don’t we bring back those haircuts anyway?
3. The Birds (1963)
Hitchcock is known as the king of suspense. In 1963, he came out with one of his most suspenseful films to date: The Birds. Set on an island in California, we watch as our protagonists slowly fall victim to incessant bird attacks. While PG-13 did not exist at this time, modern censors give this classic a PG-13 rating. The film is neither too gory nor too light; Hitchcock relies purely on the power of suspense. He makes use of all of his filmmaking prowess to make this movie a riveting watch; who else could make a flock of crows nerve-wracking?
While it is easy to dismiss this film as antiquated and deride the special effects as looking ridiculous, it is important to note the historical impact this film had. For 1963, the special effects were very impressive, so much so they were nominated for an Academy Award and terrified audiences at the time. Directors to this day still cite this film as one of their influences, with both Guillermo del Toro and John Carpenter stating it had a big impact on their conception of horror cinema.
2. A Quiet Place (2018)
After making a name for himself as an actor on The Office (2005-2013), John Krasinski directed one of the most suspenseful and thrilling horror films in a long time. They never speak about the origins of these alien creatures. In fact, the family rarely speaks at all. This is the land they have come to inhabit: one of quiet and desperation.
The opening scene, the fact the film never stops being tense, and the story between Lee and Regan that acts as the heart of the film: this film is peak PG-13 horror. The pounding score for this film gives the narrative the edge that keeps you coming back for more again and again. The sequel is just as riveting and with a third on the way, it could end up as one of the best horror trilogies ever made.
1. Arachnophobia (1990)
This very well might be my favorite PG-13 horror movie of all time. It has everything you could possibly want out of a cult-classic horror-comedy: laugh out loud moments, ridiculous characters, unavoidable jump scares, and murderous spiders the size of your head!
Jeff Daniels provides a great performance as the leading man. Though, there are so many great characters in this film that you’ll struggle to pick your favorite. John Goodman offers another amazing supporting role – “Always nice to meet a colleague.” The laughs keep on coming, but the jump scares are all that separate them. Arachnophobia (1990) also features the most suspenseful shower scene since Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho (1960); a murderer wielding a knife or a venomous spider crawling onto your head, which would you choose to fight when you have shampoo in your eyes?
The PG-13 horror film became a staple of Hollywood cinema in the early 80s, and from the films on this list, it is clear that this genre and the love people have for it is not going anywhere any time soon. With more and more great PG-13 horrors being released each year, I’m sure we will be back in no time for another look at the horror movie genre. Be sure to look at Warm Bodies (2013) and Lights Out (2016) for other great films that didn’t make this list.
Stephen King’s work is often turned into PG-13 horror movies and two directors on this list have worked with his material. Check out this list to look at Stephen King’s adaptations ranked.
Growing up in the west of Ireland, I am passionate about films, writing, reading, reviewing, photography, and scriptwriting. I co-host a podcast called ‘The Monochrome Picture Show’ where we talk about classic and contemporary films.