Are horror movies getting too watered down?


The horror genre is supposed to take risks, make us uncomfortable, and be completely fearless. For some reason, most of today’s horror films don’t seem to do any of those things, and they feel far too safe.

What Happened?

What the hell happened to movies? This is a question I’ve continually asked myself over the past several years. It seems like all Hollywood produces anymore are superhero/CGI spectacles, YA adaptations, and animated family films.

The biggest issue is that Hollywood has virtually eliminated mid-budget films for adults. I’m not talking about stuffy, highbrow entertainment either. There was once a time when you could see mainstream adult films at the multiplex on a weekly basis.

Today, Hollywood has adopted an assembly line mentality; if something is successful, they want to keep making the same thing over and over again.

All genres have been adversely affected by this mentality, but none more so than horror. The root of the problem is the PG-13 rating. As a horror fanatic, I find PG-13 horror movies to be completely deplorable.

If I had to a watch a PG-13 horror movie in the theater, you’d have to strap me in the chair and force my eyelids open, like Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange as he underwent the “Ludovico Technique”.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Clockwork Industry

In the 90s, almost all horror movies were rated R, whether they were gore fests or psychological/supernatural affairs. By the late 90s, the notion of PG-13 horror began to take hold. One could argue that the jaw-dropping success of The Sixth Sense validated PG-13 horror. It also signaled a huge paradigm shift in the horror genre as we entered the 2000s.

In the 2000s, we began to see an influx of (mostly) supernatural PG-13 horror movies. Their success often eclipsed that of their R-rated counterparts; as a result, we got to a point where at least half of all mainstream horror films were rated PG-13.

I long for the days when you could rely on horror for a little of the “old ultraviolence.” More than anything, I long for the days when horror was completely fearless.

Take The Exorcist, for example. This is a film that contained some of the most shocking images and scenes ever committed to celluloid, most of which had nothing to do with gore. Fast-forward 30 years, and movies about exorcisms, such as The Last Exorcism and The Exorcism of Emily Rose carried the PG-13 rating, and they couldn’t be more innocuous.

It’s sad that a film made in 1973 is so much more shocking, powerful, and ambitious than one made today. The disparity in quality and audacity between The Exorcist and the exorcism films of today is a microcosm of the overall regression of cinema (especially horror) as a result of the PG-13 rating.

But a Movie’s Rating Doesn’t Matter

There’s a couple prevailing arguments that people love to make when trying to defend PG-13 horror movies.

The first argument is that horror movies don’t need blood and gore because the images your mind will conjure up are far more horrible than anything you can see on the screen. The fallacy of this argument is that film is a visual medium; movies are supposed to show us something.  What’s the point in watching a movie if it’s going to cut away when something horrible happens? Sure, my imagination can probably lead me to visualize something far more horrible than what a film can create, but I’d rather spend my hard-earned cash on something I can actually see.

I watch violent horror movies, so that I can enjoy the artistry and the sleight of hand that goes into staging a death scene. Special make-up effects are true works of art that deserve to be created for and exhibited on the screen.  With the advancement and proliferation of CGI, makeup effects have become a lost art.

The other argument is that as long as the story is strong, it doesn’t need to be R-rated.  This is another defense that I vehemently oppose. There are instances where a movie would be severely damaged without certain R-rated elements regardless of how strong its story may be. Again, would The Exorcist work nearly as well if you excised all of the R-rated material?  I think not.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Watering Down of Horror

Another issue is that many of the R-rated horror films produced today are insipid, vanilla affairs.  Films such as The Conjuring and Sinister are what I call “fake R-rated horror movies.”  If you watch these movies, they literally have nothing that warrants an R-rating.  They are simply a deluge of jump scares, loud noises, and CGI apparitions/creatures. These films are slick, toothless affairs designed to appeal to the largest audience possible; as a result, they are a complete bore.

When we get movies that have the potential to reach a level of creative success, they tend to fall victim to studio meddling.  Jordan Peele’s decent, but overrated Get Out is a prime example of the studio meddling that is the downfall of so many potentially great films.  In Get Out’s original ending, our African-American protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) was to be apprehended and incarcerated for slaughtering the affluent white family who lured him into their home and attempted to use his body for a bizarre brain transplant.

Unfortunately, test audiences didn’t approve of Get Outoriginal ending as it was too depressing; as a result, the ending was re-shot with the comedic, crowd-pleasing bit that made the final cut. Get Out’s original ending would have been one of the most powerful statements about race in America by a horror film since the ending of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living DeadInstead, we were given a “cute” ending that undercut the robust social commentary of Peele’s original vision.

At the same time, I’m not looking for pretentious avant-garde horror films, such as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! or Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (or his current shocker The House that Jack Built).  I’m looking for a happy medium.

The ideal horror movie is John Carpenter’s The Thing. Carpenter’s film is one that deftly combines nail-biting suspense, stunning gore/makeup effects, deliberate (yet impeccable) pacing, and a bit of a downbeat ending.  It is an uncompromising masterpiece of horror.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

A Grim Future

Sometimes, I wish I could partake in a reverse “Ludovico Technique.” I would like to be strapped into that chair with my eyes forced wide open so that I could endure an endless loop of PG-13 horror movies, superhero movies, CGI spectacles, and animated extravaganzas. Instead of revulsion, I would love for these images to evoke feelings of ecstasy so that I could be conditioned to enjoy today’s cinema.

Unfortunately, that’s all fantasy. The sad truth is that people want safe, cookie-cutter entertainment as evidenced by the boffo box office figures of 2018’s PG-13 horror and superhero movies. Those who share my distaste for these types of films seem to be out of luck. Hollywood is going to keep churning them out, and we are going to keep suffering.

Next: Return of the Living Dead: Subverting archetypes takes brains

Do you agree that today’s horror films are too watered down? Conversely, do you feel that horror is on the right track and that PG-13 horror movies get the job done? Please let us know what you think in the comment section below.