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How is THIS rated PG?
Depending on your worldview, 1984 is either one of the greatest years in motion picture history or it’s the year when the movies broke America. The one thing we can say with certainty is that it was not a good year to be part of the MPAA. 1984 changed the cultural zeitgeist.
Looking back on it now, I think “Gremlins” was Ground Zero, the picture that–for many parents, at least–went a bridge too far. Recall that the movie ratings system was barely 16 years old, created in 1968, and still had some kinks to work out, and by 1984 had finally settled on four classifications: G, PG, R, and the dreaded X. Sure, some PG movies, like “Jaws 2,” had tried to forewarn parents that the film contained scenes that “may be too intense for younger children,” but nobody ever read the fine print on movie posters anyways, so these warnings went mostly unnoticed.
“Gremlins,” on the other hand, should have come with red-colored flashing lights accompanied by police sirens during its opening credits. Theater owners may have done better to simply install “Stop” signs at their entrances.
“Gremlins” landed during a specific time and attitude in American history, during the breezy summer of 1984; a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam year when the children of the 60s were finally catching their breath, and not long after the late 70s had transformed a great bunch of them into yuppies.
Going in, parents who took their kids to see “Gremlins” that June were mostly peace-advocating holdovers from the 70s, some of whom were still a bit unnerved by their children seeing a beating human heart being ripped from the chest cavity of a screaming victim during May’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” also rated PG. Coming out, they were crusaders on a rampage.
If you’ve been told by modern-day film historians that the sight of a little gore was the cause of a national outcry that resulted in the creation of the PG-13 rating, you’ve been 100% misinformed, because this was the same generation who had seen “The Exorcist,” “Straw Dogs,” and “A Clockwork Orange” in theaters during their original releases, more than a decade earlier. They were, in fact, hardened and experienced moviegoers with thousand-yard stares at best, and exhausted world-weary survivors grown accustomed to societal upheaval at worst.
It was the scene in the kitchen–about halfway through the picture–with the exploding gremlin in the microwave oven that pushed this picture over the line and into the movie history.
“Gremlins” wasn’t examining current American values, the way those R-rated dramas for grown-ups were, but was instead a flat-out assault on the hard-earned respect which the 80s were now draining from them. “Gremlins” was marketed as a family film—Steven Spielberg-produced, no less–and one which was now coming after their children. Sound familiar?
Parents didn’t just feel duped, they felt they’d been sinned against. The outrage was instant, loud, and on fire. And as for the MPAA, its members may as well have sprouted horns, raised pitchforks, and exposed cloven feet. If you were a kid during of summer of 1984, it was all so creamily delicious.
I have never experienced an earthquake in real life, but I felt one that summer. Parents groups blocked the entrances of several theaters where “Gremlins” was playing as if to contain the evil within. Reporters tripped heartily over themselves, head over heels, rushing to cover the story. Editorials appeared in newspapers and on television. Preachers shouted about it from pulpits. Hollywood was out of control–still a familiar rant, even in 2023–and the Truth, for our children’s sakes, would be exposed. Video at eleven.
Three weeks later—on July 1, 1984–an era ended when the MPAA introduced an all-new rating: PG-13.
There were a few leftover blips. “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” raised eyebrows later that summer with Tanya Roberts’s excessive nudity, but quickly died on the vine. And Christmas saw Santa Claus being revealed as a serial killer in “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” always a fun time, but for most of us, the clock had struck midnight and the party was over. Going to see a PG-rated film became as exciting as showing the class your collection of dead mice, and it mostly still is. And that’s what makes seeing “Gremlins” nowadays so bittersweet–at least for me. From the very beginning, I know how this is gonna end. There’s no other way it can. It changes you. It should.
Nowadays, I sometimes amuse myself by seeking out YouTube reaction videos, especially the ones created by newer generations who weren’t around in 1984–like my editor, for example—and it’s their horrified expressions during the face-ripping scene in “Poltergeist” or Quint’s bloody death in “Jaws” which make the strongest impression (“How is THIS rated PG!?”), towering above everything else, and cements the idea why–now as then–the movies of the 70s and early 80s are still so creamily delicious.
JIM CARL is Senior Director of Film at the Carolina Theatre. He has been in charge of its film program since 1995. Some of his favorite Steven Spielberg movies include “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “1941.” He loves time-travel pictures and will watch anything involving UFOS, haunted shipwrecks, The Mandela Effect, or is set on an island, both fantasy and shark-infested. Some of his least-favorite Spielberg movies include “The Terminal,” “War Horse,” and the 2nd half of his remake of “War of the Worlds.” His least-favorite Spielberg movie of all time is “Hook.” He is a firm believer in the presentation of pictures that are fun and entertaining (and sometimes educational) and will book any movie he suspects will make money, even if he hates it, including “Hook.”