There were concerned murmurs in certain parts of the horror community a few days ago, when Sam Rockwell described the upcoming Poltergeist remake (in which he stars) as "more of a kids' movie". This got me thinking about a few things; specifically whether or not the original Tobe Hooper flick could be considered to be a "kids' movie" too.
That original film was rated PG by the MPAA on original release in the USA, but slapped with an X by the BBFC when it came out in the UK (nowadays it's a 15). Clearly, those two classification bodies couldn't quite decide what they were dealing with either. Was this a family-level film with some scary bits, or a full-tilt horror flick from which children should be protected at all costs? In 1982, the MPAA didn't have the option of a PG-13 rating as a middle option, but the BBFC did have the AA (which barred anyone under 14) but opted instead to go for the X (barring anyone under 18).
Aside from the actual content of the movie (the face-ripping scene still seems remarkably strong meat for any kind of PG rating, although I guess Raiders of the Lost Ark had melting faces and exploding heads in the same year, and that secured PG on both sides of the pond), I think there's another interesting point about what is considered 'age appropriate' at the heart of Poltergeist. Specifically, that it clearly is 'for kids' in the sense that the scares within it are specifically designed to freak out the young.
A while back, I was asked by a horror fan who had never seen the movie whether it would live up to his expectations. I was about to answer an enthusiastic 'yes' when I paused; all of my experiences of Poltergeist are filtered through having first seen it in my early teens. Poltergeist taps into the fears of a child rather beautifully. It sums up the unknown terrors of the thing under the bed or the scary shadow outside the window better than any other flick I can think of. Approaching it for the very first time as an adult, having left those kind of fears behind and moved onto more tangible concerns, I suspect that it might underwhelm.
The same thing works in reverse for The Exorcist. I know that the last time it was re-released at cinemas, there were certainly a considerable number of teens and young adults guffawing at the screen and generally screwing up the experience for everyone. It would be tempting to write this off as whistling past the graveyard; as the behaviour of young people very enthusiastically showing off how scared they weren't in order to look tough. There's probably a bit of that, true, but I think there's something else too. For a teenager, The Exorcist simply isn't a particularly scary movie. The horrors of the movie are pitched squarely at the fears of the parent not the child, and as those under 25 are notoriously bad at empathy (for various interesting biological and evolutionary reasons that I won't go into here) they're likely to come out of it pretty unscathed. Show the flick to a 40 year old with a kid approaching puberty, however, and I think you'd fairly quickly kill the idea that the flick has lost all its power over the years.
So, why do we protect kids from movies that are concerned with things unlikely to scare them in the first place, yet often show them movies that are specifically designed to scare them shitless? Granted, I'm over-simplifying the issue (there's certainly content in The Exorcist that you might rather that little Timmy didn't see for reasons other than whether it might scare him or not) but we do certainly seem to be happier exposing kids to terrors that are specifically designed to resonate with them than those that aren't.
On a similar front, the director of the recent Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death has criticised the BBFC for giving that flick a 15 rather than the 12a that was granted to its predecessor. Granted, that 12a made the first movie the most complained about movie of 2012, so you can hardly be surprised at the BBFC for perhaps being a little cautious with the Radcliffe-free sequel. I haven't seen that flick yet, so don't feel qualified to comment, but some of the poster imagery certainly seems to be playing the 'scare the crap out of the kids' angle to the max.
I'm sure we'll get to dance this dance once again when that pesky Poltergeist remake actually hits cinemas, of course. It's one thing to make a film aimed at kids, but its quite another to get a certificate that lets them watch it.