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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In defense of PG-13 horror

By Kellina Moore

It’s nothing new to say that the scariest beasts are those left to the imagination: In the darkened corners of a room, on the ocean floor, in the vacuum of space — terror tends to lurk in the periphery, where it taunts us with what we don’t (or worse, can’t) know. There’s one unfairly maligned horror-movie feature that, when used wisely, can aid with such artful restraint: the humble PG-13 rating.

Since many horror nerds predicate their identity on being able to enjoy content that is too depraved for the general public, they tend to look down on the PG-13 scary movie, viewing it as watered-down or wimpy. These fans can tend to turn genre viewing into a sort of contest in which the one who can stomach (or even delight in) the most deviant content wins: You can’t call yourself a real horror fan unless you’ve seen “Salò”/“Cannibal Holocaust”/all three sequences of “The Human Centipede.”

Yes, it may be that one of the most powerful things the genre can do is subvert social norms, and it’s difficult to push boundaries when you’re pitching to a broader or younger audience. But it’s not impossible. Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” for instance, about a cursed loan officer, contains Raimi’s over-the-top camp sensibility, yet reels in some of his signature gore. It opts for softer gross-outs like bugs and vomit instead of heavy blood and guts, but it doesn’t sacrifice impact. I once saw a screening of it at MoMA that played like a metal show, with the film’s sound blasting from the speakers and squeals of delight jumping from the audience with each increasingly demented sequence.

The genre is a great tool for more than just provocation, though. The latest PG-13 horror from Blumhouse, “Imaginary” (now in theaters), experiments with just how little you can show while still provoking fear with the first teaser for the film, which prompts audience members to close their eyes and imagine visuals to accompany audio cues. The full film plays with the perception of things that are seen but not heard, or heard but not seen — a figure just at the corner of a frame, a child responding to the directions of a sinister imaginary friend that only she can see.

Gore Verbinski’s “The Ring” (2002), about a haunted videotape, is regarded as one of the best PG-13 horror films, and its most explicit image comes in the first 20 minutes. The rest of the movie relies on atmosphere to create tension, and does so stunningly; the soft static hum of an analog television, a fly plucked gently by its wings to bring it from inside a screen to outside of it. Even the film’s signature ghost is defined by what’s hidden: her long, dark hair pulled forward to shield her face.

Milder horror is also well suited to the horror-comedy subgenre. The classics (“Tremors,” “Death Becomes Her,” “Beetlejuice”) are born again in the new crop: “Happy Death Day,” “M3gan,” Rob Zombie’s take on “The Munsters.” The most recent of these, “Lisa Frankenstein” (in theaters), is a perfect example of tackling terrifying imagery with levity: The film lights up its murderous leads in shades of neon, a bloodied ax topped with a glittering ’80s bow. Like many others of the horror-comedy ilk, it’s able to explore darker themes — teenage isolation, sexual assault and death — with a wink, a dash of humor that makes the sharpness of these subjects more approachable, but doesn’t dull their edge.

But the paramount goal of PG-13 horror, and the reason it is often viewed with disdain, is to appeal to newcomers to the genre, namely teenagers. Seeing “Escape Room” in theaters, I imagined a younger version of myself enthralled by it, the same version too scared to watch other locked-room thrillers like “Saw” or “Cube.” We often view content marketed toward teens as juvenile or not for adults, but in doing so we abandon young viewers to wade through the schlock on their own. It’s time we stop asking for less PG-13 horror, and start asking for better PG-13 horror — no longer treating teenagers as the lowest common denominator.

The first horror movie I saw in theaters was the 2009 PG-13 remake of “The Stepfather” starring Penn Badgley. Is it a good film? Not by any means. But each tired trope was brand-new and electric to me at 13; a by-the-book shot of a darkened figure at the top of a staircase left me cowering in my Aéropostale hoodie. A decade and a half later, I have an insatiable hunger for that electricity, and I will reach farther to touch it. But I can still enjoy either side of the extreme, and all of the PG-13 along the way is what enabled me, and hopefully a future generation of horror nerds, to embrace more and more of the genre. Sometimes it takes practice and repetition to become brave.

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