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.

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