1. Mama (2013)
It’s a rare thing when a PG-13 horror movie actually stands out for its ability to evoke fear. The rating was invented in response to authentically chilling movies like Poltergeist and Gremlins, which lacked the gore or nudity to earn an R, but still clearly weren’t the all-ages fare suggested by their PG ratings. But over the years, the rating has come to mean “embarrassing compromise,” at least in the world of horror; in a genre that’s particularly vulnerable to formula and low but very specific audience expectations, garnering the compromise rating usually means the filmmakers had to water down their content for a young audience, and the results are often halfhearted, vapid, or muddled. Not so the recent ghost story Mama, which pours on the shocks and shivers by giving audiences plenty of face time with the wizened, twisted titular monster, which adopts two young girls and becomes murderously jealous of anyone else who gets near them. It keeps the language clean and the violence more suggested than seen, and given the child protagonists, there isn’t much focus on sex. Instead, the attention is all on atmosphere and dread—and eventually, grief.
2. Lady In White (1988)
Writer-director Frank LaLoggia made this low-budget indie ghost tale in upstate New York, with a story based on local legends he heard while growing up in the area. Set in 1962, it’s about how a 9-year-old (Lukas Haas), as a result of a Halloween prank, encounters the ghost of a murdered little girl. The brave, resourceful boy then sets about trying to solve her murder so she can find peace and be reunited with her dead mother. With its nostalgic, small-town glow and Haas’ terrific central performance, this gore-free film reclaims the horror movie for kids looking for a good scare—though it has moments that could even give adults a jolt, especially when Haas learns that the most dangerous monsters aren’t supernatural.
3. The Last Exorcism (2010)
Virtually all the good material in the found-footage horror film The Last Exorcism comes before any scenes that threaten to push it to an R rating. As one in a long line of movies about spine-wrenching demon possession, The Last Exorcism is no great shakes, but in a rare occurrence for a found-footage-style film, the mundane scenes are the ones that really work. Before a charlatan preacher (Patrick Fabian) discovers that the latest in a series of phony possessions and exorcisms is actually real for once, he proudly regales the camera with outrageous tales and tricks of the trade. And even when he does encounter a real monster, he goes through all the cheesy staging without missing a beat, setting up a tense, funny juxtaposition between the harmless situation he assumes and the alarming one, about which he’s oblivious. Only in the shocking business does the film struggle to deliver.
4. Cloverfield (2008)
The J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield seamlessly mixes the found-footage horror genre with the giant-monster genre, putting a new spin on both, and giving audiences a ground-level look at the confusion and terror on the ground as a Godzilla-esque creature lays waste to Manhattan. When the film first came out, the reaction was mixed—a secretive marketing campaign got people in the door, but with a wide variety of expectations. Many of those expectations weren’t met by the actual film, when compared to the film some people were anticipating. Seen again, a few years down the road, it’s a remarkably polished movie that holds together as the fake-artifact it pretends to be, but it’s also intensely frightening, as the annoying protagonists lurch from one half-glimpsed terror to the next, barely finding a chance to find their feet before some new threat looms. It’s a panting, breathless movie, impeccably crafted to give viewers the sense of running for their lives in a place where any safety is temporary.
5. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Before M. Night Shyamalan devolved into hysterical self-parody, he proved himself to be a master of mood, tension, and atmosphere with The Sixth Sense, a fright flick about the tense relationship between a boy with a curious gift (Haley Joel Osment) and a psychologist with a dark secret (Bruce Willis). The film suggests Shyamalan (a filmmaker we all once were foolish enough to imagine was destined for greatness) learned all the right lessons from the atmosphere-heavy/violence-light films of Val Lewton and the spooky twisting and turning of The Twilight Zone. Nearly everything about The Sixth Sense has been reproduced to the point that it’s kitschy, but at the time, Shyamalan proved it was possible to make a genuinely terrifying film with little actual violence or profanity.
6. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Here’s a clear case of a director modifying his natural instincts for ratings purposes. Given the story of a gypsy curse that unleashes the forces of hell on a mousy loan officer, the Sam Raimi of 20 years earlier would have unleashed the geysers of blood that coated 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. Instead, the Hollywood hitmaker behind the new Spider-Man movies opted to make Drag Me To Hell every bit as bugfuck as Evil Dead II, but he replaced the blood with general intensity, often in the form of breakneck camera moves. Even so, the lack of blood in sequences like one in which the gypsy woman attacks the banker (Alison Lohman) teeth-first in a parking deck does nothing to blunt the impact of Raimi’s style of slapstick horror. It cleverly abides by the letter of a PG-13 rating while ignoring its spirit.
7. The Ring (2002)
For a lot of American filmgoers, The Ring served as the first mainstream, accessible look at the J-horror tropes that have since been co-opted time and time again: the jerky, unsettling erratic movements; the dripping, rotting ghost with the curtain of slimy wet hair; the discordant soundtrack; the implacability and inevitability of evil. Those tropes have never again been as effective, largely because The Ring uses them so effectively. Director Gore Verbinski runs The Ring like a tight ship, moving briskly from setting up the urban-legend story about a mysterious killer videotape to showing (just for a fleeting, shocking second) its fatal handiwork, then cycling back to the setup part with new victims, so viewers can spend the whole film anticipating what awaits them. The film—one of the few cases of a foreign-film remake that’s smarter, meaner, and more effective than the original version—has its share of jump-cuts and sudden shocks, but it’s most effective at evoking breathless, choking dread.
8. The Others (2001)
Unlike many of the films on this list, the question about The Others, Alejandro Amenábar’s superb throwback to classic haunted-house movies, is not what was compromised to get a PG-13 rating, but why the board rated it so severely. Based loosely on Henry James’ novella The Turn Of The Screw—the same source material that inspired the gorgeous 1961 horror film The Innocents—The Others was rated PG-13 for “thematic elements and frightening moments,” meaning it has no coarse language, no violence, no nudity, or anything else that might get those red pens a-markin’. Using a dark, ornate mansion as a primary setting, the film effectively exploits every shadow and floor-creak it can muster without going over the top. It’s a lesson in the horror fundamentals by a filmmaker who seems to have studied The Haunting like the Torah.