Birthed in 1984 in the aftermath of upset parents seething from the surprising dark and disturbing aesthetics explored in such PG-rated movies as “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins”, the ratings board decided to come up with a middle ground between the all-ages and mature ratings, which is known as PG-13.
At first it was an interesting compromise, yet over the years it became the bane of existence for most serious film fans as studios relied heavily on the rating to put wider audiences in seats for action and horror movie spectacles. Specifically, it was used in genres that best suited R-rated territory, resulting in several watered down, neutered experiences in name of the almighty dollar.
Still, over the years, there have been occasions where the rating did just the opposite, pushing the boundaries to such extreme conditions that one would be amiss that it actually could’ve passed with the rating at all. Let’s delve into those rare and surprising mature occasions.
10. Sucker Punch (2011)
Before Zack Snyder was polarizing DC fanboys with his output, he had a pretty decent track record of hits (“Dawn of the Dead”, “300”), which led to him getting the chance to make this fever dream passion project.
Centered around the concept of a group of attractive women kicking stylish ass in a number of video game-like scenarios, the film had all the elements for being an enjoyable guilty pleasure to watch with the lads. However, Snyder took his first (and one wishes last) screenwriting credit and managed to make the plot so painfully pretentious and self-important that this surefire slam-dunk became a grating chore to sit through.
Still, one thing no one can fault Snyder for is the slick and effective action scenes, and although this film piles them on ad nauseam with little viewer involvement, the scenes on their own are exciting, inventive even, with a no-holds-barred viciousness mixed into its fantasy elements that push its PG-13 rating to the limit.
Credit goes to Snyder for executing insane amounts of grisly, limb-chopping violence, featuring everything from stone samurai to nazi cyborgs, yet without ever spilling a drop of blood.
9. Fire In the Sky (1993)
This underrated ‘alien abduction’ chiller is another example of films in the early 90s randomly using the PG-13 rating. For the most part, the rating fits the film as we chronicle the disappearance of blue collar worker D.B. Sweeney and the ripple effect it has on his community. Things play as a pretty straightforward TV mystery, with the friends going under investigation for murder although they claim differently.
Yet with the giant revelation in the film’s third act, the film changes gears and delivers the most harrowing and horrific cinematic deceptions of alien abduction. It’s easily the stuff that fills up nightmares and was concocted from several alleged real-life accounts of said events, making it feel unique and ‘alien’ compared to any other similar scenes.
Even if it’s just the one scene, one really questions how this scene did not justify an R-rating. Even the infamous probe even makes an appearance, and yet regardless, it got a pass.
8. The Dark Knight (2008)
The ‘Batman’ series had certainly hinted at R-rated territory in the past. “Batman Returns” (1992), Tim Burton’s bug-nuts gothic nightmare, certainly got close, with its pitch-black flavor and rough scenes involving mild bloodletting (e.g. Selina Kyle’s disturbing resurrection), yet it had one foot in the fantasy world which the ratings boards tend to be more lenient toward.
Christopher Nolan’s rebooted series, however, was much more set in a grounded reality, one where Heath Ledger’s iconic take on the Joker (who emerged in its iconic second entry) lent itself to an incredibly disturbing effect.
Ledger stole the movie with his humorous yet chilling portrayal of the infamous villain, and several scenes involving him certainly push the content to the limit. Take your pick – the one where he tortures a bat-follower to death, or makes a gangster swallow a pencil through his nose, or a helpless prisoner carry a bomb inside his stomach; or worst of all, where he instigates half of Aaron Eckhart’s face melting off.
Nolan was clever enough to imply and never blatantly showcase these intense scenes, but along with a handful of grim thematics, the film certainly feels like it has one foot in R-rated territory, regardless of how much you do or don’t see.
7. Taken (2008)
This late-00s action/thriller surprised audiences on a number of fronts – it was a low-key European production that became a mammoth pop culture success; its aged lead actor (Liam Neeson), known for respected dramatic work, was resurrected into our generation’s biggest action star; and in a decade whose action films were plagued either by wire-fu or nauseating shaky-cam, the film was a refreshing back-to-basics approach to the genre, aping the no-nonsense savagery of 70’s vehicles from the likes of Bronson or Eastwood.
Yet the most surprising element was the fact that the whole affair was rated PG-13. Viewer would be pressed to assume that “Taken” would earn an R rating, as Neeson’s ex-CIA man and his ‘special set of skills’ chomp through the Parisian skin-traders in a relentless sea of broken limbs, excessive bullets, sharp objects, and most disturbingly, a prolonged DIY electrocution interrogation.
How did they get away with it? Well, no blood spray and curse words were enough to make it just skim by for the 13-year-olds. It’s crazy how in this day-and-age, with some clever planning by the filmmakers, a film can pass by that is blatantly an R-rated affair.
6. Tremors (1990)
Ron Underwood’s cracking cult classic featuring giant slugs terrorizing a Southern town really elevates itself from its C-material with a knowing script, cool creature effects, and a stellar central duo of Fred Ward and a (young) Kevin Bacon, although Michael Gross’ gun-nut steals the show (and kept the franchise alive via a slew of endless straight-to-VHS sequels).
The film easily falls into a group of other great homages to B-movies of yesteryear that were coming out at the time, yet “Tremors” was less kid-friendly with plenty of gnarly monster effects and death scenes; Victor Wong’s grisly homage to Robert Shaw’s demise in “Jaws” stands out as particularly violent and shocking.
Yet, in the early days of PG-13, this all passed with the ratings board, perhaps since tonally it didn’t take itself seriously and was all done in good fun. Still, you can bet your bottom dollar that nowadays this would be stamped with an R rating, no question.