10 Truly Frightening PG-Rated Horror Movies

This shouldn't be news to anyone, but a film's MPAA rating has no real bearing on its quality. There are all manner of great to terrible movies rated G, PG, PG-13, and R. Still, this continues to get pushback from a vocal minority every few months. Most recently the furor was over Venom, which some fans insisted should have been R-rated and it represented something of a new contingent in the ratings war – comic book superhero fans who, buoyed by the success of Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017), now think certain characters can only work with an R.

It's a new argument for them, but it's one some horror fans have been fighting for decades.

In a nutshell, their position comes down to the belief that "real" horror movies need an R to cover the kind of content that "true" horror involves. Blood and gore, graphic violence, devastating trauma, raw intensity, nubile co-eds who shower at inopportune times – for some fans these elements are essential and incompatible with anything less than an R. The attitude is every bit as strong these days thanks in no small part to social media's wide reach, but it's one birthed in the mid-80s with the arrival of the PG-13 rating. Filmmakers and studios were suddenly given a bit more leeway in what they could get away with, but while it appeased many horror lovers (and even more parents) it also created the opportunity for fewer R-rated horror movies.

More accessible ratings mean a wider pool of potential audience members, and to that end the grumbles of horror fans have some merit. The PG-13 gave studios a path to lazy horror movies they know will draw in fans on opening weekend only to die a quick death when people realize they're both dumb and bloodless. A bad movie is a bad movie, but the addition of gore and other "extreme" elements can make the difference between enjoying the bad movie and feeling robbed.

I get it, but the blanket view that non-R horror movies are somehow lesser creations is a non-starter. There are numerous examples of PG-13 movies that deliver scares, gross-outs, and carnage, but even more relevantly, there are plenty of PG-rated movies that do so too. Non-kiddie PG horror is pretty much extinct these days, but for the twelve year stretch from 1972 to 1984, horror fans who could look beyond the rating had a lot to celebrate.

One of the earliest out of the gate, The Legend of Hell House (1973), remains a wholly terrifying film. The bare breasts and bloody deaths might make you wonder about its PG rating if you weren't so busy being frightened all to hell by its haunted house shenanigans. Classic EC Comics-inspired horror anthologies Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973) bring chills and inappropriate humor without the need of an R. Fans of animal horror –  back in the day, when real critters were used with abandon – found a home with legitimately entertaining and sometimes horrifying films like Sssssss (1973), Bug (1975), Grizzly (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), Orca (1977), The Bees (1978), Nightwing (1979), and Savage Harvest (1981). That last film, a favorite of mine, revels in some bloody and harrowing tiger attacks. And let's not forget Jaws (1975), a PG-rated movie that scarred generations of people into being afraid of the open water.

Satan himself dug his claws into audiences through PG fare like The Devil's Rain (1975), Race with the Devil (1975), and Amityville 3: The Demon (1983), while twisted killers made all the more frightening in their humanity terrified with their sadistic antics in The Psychopath (1973), Wicked Wicked (1973), Don't Hang Up (1974), The Premonition (1976), and Road Games (1981). Fans looking to be legitimately scared can still find satisfaction in Burnt Offerings (1976), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Salem's Lot (1981), and the endlessly brilliant Poltergeist (1982).

All of these horror classics (and not-so-classics) are rated PG, and there are plenty more that you definitely remember being scared or unsettled by including Ben (1972), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Car (1977), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and so many others. And then Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg terrorized a suburban mom, strung up a dog in Christmas lights, and blended a little monster into mush which changed the rating landscape forever by forcing the MPAA to squeeze in something new between the PG and the R. Gremlins (1984) remains an absolute masterpiece of horror/comedy, but it was the end of the PG horror movie renaissance.

The hundreds that hit screens from 1972 to 1984 are still out there and available, though, some more readily than others, and they're all worth the journey on both their own merits and to prove that PG-rated films can terrify, horrify, disgust, and upset every bit as well as their R-rated cousins. Anyone who suggests otherwise can be shut down with the mere mention of Jaws and Poltergeist, but there's more ammo to be had. You should honestly take my word for it, but in case that's too much to ask I've included a list of 10 less mainstream examples of PG-rated films that still manage to bring the horror-happy goods.

The Baby (1973)

This gross, absurd little movie feels like it's just a few trims shy of an R-rating, but the elements that made the cut are still enough to leave you reeling. A social worker visits a home belonging to a woman, her two sex-hungry daughters, and a twenty-one-year-old son who sleeps in a crib, wears diapers, and has never been taught a damn thing. Someone breastfeeds him at one point,the sisters feel like they've stepped right out of Big Bad Mama II (1987), and the ending lands with a big fat "eww." Is it a great movie? That's your call, but it's definitely a film that pushes the boundaries of what to expect in a PG movie.

Phase IV (1974)

There's nothing truly graphic in Saul Bass' sole directorial feature, but his clinically artistic direction paired with Mayo Simon's smartly emotionless screenplay work to create as harrowing a tale of humanity's impending demise as you're likely to find. Its sci-fi trappings tease a future scenario brought to the present by a very basic approach to nature's ultimate dominance over mankind. This is no alien force at work. They're insects who've shared the world with our kind long enough and are ready for a change. Far-fetched eco-horror? Maybe. Thought-provoking and harrowing in its implications? Definitely.

Dead of Night (1974)

Director Bob Clark delivered more immediate horrors in his classic Black Christmas (1974), but genre fans would be foolish to discount the all-encompassing terror on display in his emotionally nightmarish tale of one soldier's return from war. The young man's rotting form and the ensuing carnage are horrific enough, but Clark mines the emotional trauma of grief as the power source behind his return to tremendous effect. It's made even more effective through Clark's not-so-subtle commentary on the deteriorating and damaged state of the young men returning from war forever changed. Tom Savini, himself a Vietnam veteran, provides the grisly effects.

One Dark Night (1982)

There's some familiarity to this tale of a teenager being hazed in her effort to join an exclusive clique – seriously, it has three members – by being forced to spend the night someplace spooky, but while Hell Night (1981, my favorite in the sub-genre) was slapped with an R-rating for bloody bits, scantily clad horndogs, and some intense scares, this chiller skated by with a PG. Sure it lacks bloodletting and only teases some sideboob, but after a creepy opening and a slow build-up of a second act, it unleashes hell with a mortuary full of floating, decomposing corpses trying to smother poor Meg Tilly and her friends. It's an intensely spooky finale.

Murder By Decree (1979)

Look, I love Bob Clark and consider him a national treasure, so yes, I am including a second one of his films on this list. What can I say, the man knows how to create and craft terrifying imagery and set-pieces. Here it's in the guise of my second favorite Jack the Ripper movie (where my Time After Time, 1979, fans at?!) as the slasher killer is hunted down by none other than Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and his pal John Watson (James Mason). It's a terrific thriller and mystery, but Clark delivers some truly horrifying sequences with the Ripper's murders thanks in part to his creepy AF eyes. If you thought the David Hasselhoff vs Jack the Ripper movie was scary you ain't seen nothing yet. (Yes that's a real thing.)

It's Alive (1974)

Like the film at the top of this list, the mere premise of this Larry Cohen movie should have landed it an R. Refusing to be born the traditional way, an infant comes screaming from the womb with claws, teeth, and a bloodlust that can only be satisfied through bloody murder. It's a creature feature made more disturbing as much through its visuals as through its thematic content that comments on things as diverse as the nuclear family and our over-reliance on prescription drugs. Yes, it's undeniably goofy, but it's more than a little unsettling at times too leading to an ending that asks us to confront our initially violent response to things we don't understand and fear.

The Other (1972)

Thomas Tryon's novel gets a beautiful and thoughtful adaptation from director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), and while it may seem sedate and slow to those not quite paying attention there are some monstrous things happening here. A child is impaled, a finger is severed, a baby is abducted and drowned, a woman is burned alive – it's a grim and grisly coming of age tale (of sorts) that's best known for its twist ending but survives on repeat viewings for its gloriously suffocating sense of madness. The ideas and actions at play here aren't exactly ideal for young minds, especially as one of their own is the increasingly insane culprit.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

The MPAA sometimes rates films harder for pure intensity and scenes of horror – basically, they're saying this is harrowing, heart-racing stuff so beware – but as with so many things that's a subjective evaluation. To that point, some people might find the thought of their room, their house, and their town being taken over by spiders to be utterly horrifying and possible traumatizing. 1990's Arachnophobia netted a PG-13 for such things, but this late 70s effort that uses far more real spiders in addition to a pervy William Shatner? It's PG. And not for nothing, but it also has the far more downbeat and nightmarish ending.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

I'm not one who typically says "How did this movie get a PG?" but if you'll allow me, how did this movie get a PG?! A thirteen-year-old Jodie Foster stars in a role every bit as adult as the one she played in the same year's R-rated Taxi Driver. There's a nude scene (once again via a body double, but still), but there's also the general themes at play here. Murder sits at the forefront, but a creepy Martin Sheen gives icky life to a hopeful pedophile whose lascivious interests in the girl are far from subtle. It's an unsettling watch guaranteed to leave you wanting a shower afterward, and it's more evidence that horribly inappropriate things can unfold under the cover of a PG.

Tourist Trap (1979)

Sure a trio of attractive young women go skinny-dipping during the day, but it's what comes next that will have you believing that PG movies can terrify and truly eff up your dreams. Chuck Connors plays a kindly shop owner/museum curator/wackadoo who invites folks into his mannequin-filled home and never lets them leave. The faux humans are creepy enough, but when he starts stalking them in various doll masks? Playing on the floor like a 6'6" child? Telling a bound and gagged co-ed that she should treat him right if she wants to be his wife? Moving dolls, mannequins, eyeballs, and limbs with his mind? Yeah, this movie is pure nightmare fuel.

It's the movie that matters, not the rating. This year's biggest horror hits range from PG-13 fare like A Quiet Place and Truth or Dare to R-rated movies including The Nun and Halloween, and while none of them are very good (yeah, I said it) they all found an audience of fans despite the rating differences. Each of them in their own way delivers atmosphere, scares, death, and misery – well, except for Truth or Dare which settles on being miserable – and they serve as reminders that a skilled filmmaker (along with writers, editors, cinematographers, etc) can deliver chills, thrills, and unsettling terrors in a myriad of MPAA-pleasing ways.