"Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror."
That's the decree that came from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) earlier this year for James Wan's hit new horror flick, The Conjuring, a '70s-set, based-on-a-true-story tale about a family besieged by the supernatural in their Rhode Island farmhouse. Though Wan claimed to have shot it with the intention of garnering a more box office-friendly PG-13, the ratings board had other ideas. R ratings can limit the potential audience for a film, so moviemakers often appeal the MPAA's decision or recut their work to try to change the judgment. But Wan and the film's producers saw the harsher rating as an opportunity instead of an obstacle.
Speaking to an audience at the WonderCon in Anaheim in March, The Conjuring's executive producer, Walter Hamada, said that the MPAA told them, "'It's just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.'"
No sex, no nudity, no profanity—just too scary. In one tidy sound bite, Hamada turned The Conjuring into the sort of movie that horror-loving teens essentially have to find a way to see. The film took the top spot at the box office this past weekend, earning an impressive $41.5 million—the best debut for an R-rated horror flick ever. One can only guess how many tickets to Pacific Rim, The Lone Ranger, or World War Z sold this weekend were actually for 16-year-olds sneaking into the screen next door to see just how scary too scary is.
But how terrifying is the film, really? Anyone who pays attention to ratings controversies, or who has seen Kirby Dick's excellent 2006 documentary on the MPAA, This Film is Not Yet Rated, knows that the ratings board is notoriously arbitrary and not prone to explaining their actions publicly. When Hamada says the association told the producers there was nothing that could be altered in the film to get it a PG-13, we have to take his word for it—or go see for ourselves, which is certainly what The Conjuring's producers were banking on.
But despite the narrative that has sprung out of all this, which is the sort of publicity that horror impresario William Castle would have killed for back in the '50s and '60s—"The filmed deemed too scary for teens!"—it's not like this is the first time a film has been rated R largely for the ambiguous "terror." Nor would it be the first time such a rating might be questionable.
In 1996, just before he was tapped to make the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson filmed his first sizably budgeted work for a major studio, the Michael J. Fox-starring horror comedy The Frighteners. Despite its light tone, a minimum of any significant scares, and the fairly cartoonish nature of the violence, it got saddled with an R rating for the same elements as The Conjuring: violence and terror. The Frighteners isn't nearly as frightening as, say, James Wan's last film, Insidious —which is cited for violence and terror in the MPAA's explanation, but also for language and disturbing images. Insidious, however, was only a PG-13.
Then there's Sam Raimi's goofy, slapstick Army of Darkness, which the MPAA seemed to really have it out for—it initially received not an R, but an NC-17, for nothing more disturbing than a zombie getting beheaded. Who knows what would happen if AMC's The Walking Dead was subject to weekly review by the board.
All of this raises a question: Just how can terror be measured? Short of hooking audience members up to an EEG and EKG and analyzing brain function and heart rate, or trying to monitor adrenaline production over the course of a movie's running time, how do you quantify the subjective quality of fear?
Here's one measure. Let me preface by saying that advance screenings of horror films are usually terrible, often having little to do with the quality of the movie itself. These promotional screenings, set up for the media to attend with a band of lucky moviegoers who've been given free passes to the early showing, highlight almost all the reasons many people hate seeing movies in the cinema. Even more than for any other genre, advance screenings of horror seem to give people license to try to prove to the world that they're not scared by yelling at the screen, laughing at wildly inappropriate times, and loudly attempting to predict to their neighbor what's going to happen next.
But here's what took place at the screening I attended last week for The Conjuring. Things started out with the usual chatter, but then something curious started to develop, gradually, as the movie went on. People largely kept quiet. There were startled screams, collective jumps and armrest-grabbing, and laughter at the needed comic relief that Wan provides throughout the film. But as the director slowly wound up the tension in preparation for the film's chaotic climax, there were moments where it seemed the entire theater was holding its breath. We were united in one feeling: terror.
Is it too scary for a 16-year-old to see without Mom or Dad? Probably depends on the teen, and I don't feel qualified to make that decree—I was watching R-rated films alone in my parents' basement on HBO and VHS before I was even technically allowed to go to a PG-13 film myself, and I don't consider myself any worse off for it.
But does The Conjuring deserve to be singled out as more intense than its peers purely on the basis of terror? (I realize the rating mentions violence too, but I doubt its violence would break the PG-13 threshold.) Others may disagree, but I'd argue the answer has to be yes.
Wan's approach to horror is resolutely old-fashioned, but finely tuned to maximize techniques we've already seen a million times before. When a character is locked goes into a darkened basement with only matches for light, we KNOW something is going to spring out of the darkness. When Wan leaves obvious room in the frame for something to pop up, or telegraphs the appearance of a ghoul by having a character look in terror before the camera actually shows it, it shouldn't be a surprise when he gives us what we expect.
Yet his ability to deliver thoroughly disturbing images without resorting to ostentatious gore or violence is something to marvel at. I'm fairly desensitized to this sort of thing—maybe that's the fallout of my teenage horror viewing—but my guts were wrapped up in knots and every follicle on my head sizzled with fear on multiple occasions. If the MPAA is looking for an objective standard for R-rated terror going forward, they might as well just add to the rating, "as scary as The Conjuring."