30 years ago, Steven Spielberg—still some way from his 38th birthday—was at the height of his power. He had invented the modern blockbuster in “Jaws,” re-invented the old-school adventure in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” perfected the family movie in “E.T.,” united all these things for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and founded an immensely powerful production company, funding and steering innovative, horror-flavored projects like “Poltergeist” and “The Twilight Zone”—and something called “Gremlins,” a project Spielberg had bought and then given to a promising director of comic horror called Joe Dante, because the maestro himself was busy with “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
The “Gremlins” script, by a young writer named Chris Columbus, was exactly the kind of thing Spielberg had made work so well so far. He had perfected a certain tone: family-friendly because it was also family-frightening. And you could be sure his movies were being seen by families: all of his big hits—including “Jaws”—had been released with PG certificates. 1984 was a time before the existence of the PG-13, when an R rating meant limited commercial prospects and was something studios did their best to avoid. Meanwhile, the huge range of content covered by the PG meant you could show kids a film where, say, a formerly adorable but now malevolent creature is rammed into a microwave and gorily exploded. And, clearly, audiences wanted to see it.
That said, there were limits. Early versions of the script had more mayhem from the transmogrified gremlins than just behaving unacceptably during a screening of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (a movie whose tone—think of the scene in the haunted forest—still defines the scary family film). They were also going to eat the hero’s dog and kill his mother (offscreen) and throw her severed head down the stairs (onscreen—you can read more about these edits in our “Gremlins” piece from a couple of years ago). Some of these darker elements, it was decided, had to go. But the kitchen scene, with the blender and the microwave, stayed in, and became legendary. Meanwhile, Spielberg was shooting another PG movie in which a man’s beating heart was ripped out on screen. What could possibly go wrong?
‘Temple of Doom’ came out in late May 1984, and “Gremlins” two weeks later, on the very same weekend as “Ghostbusters.” They’re similar films, sharing a particularly spooky kind of bizarre but domestic horror: the microwave in “Gremlins” has a mirror in the “Ghostbusters” fridge which is literally a portal to hell. “Ghostbusters” took first place at the box office over “Gremlins,” but both were huge hits, as was ‘Temple of Doom’: they ended up being the US’ 2nd (“Ghostbusters”), 3rd (Indy) and 4th (“Gremlins”) highest grossing films of the year (“Beverly Hills Cop” just barely beat “Ghostbusters” to the top spot).
“Gremlins” was overshadowed to a certain extent by “Ghostbusters,” but it’s a brilliant film, full of weird, witty and malevolent touches, like the scene in which the newly evil-ified gremlins torture and torment Gizmo, who has retained his innocence, by suspending him from a wall and throwing darts at him. The absolute weirdest and yet moving moment—possibly the funniest, possibly (if you’re a kid) the most upsetting—is Phoebe Cates‘ lengthy speech about how she knows Santa isn’t real: because her father died trying to climb down the chimney and surprise her one Christmas, and they only found him days later when the whole house started to smell. The studio tried to get the speech removed from the film, but Dante—backed up by Spielberg—insisted on it, saying it epitomized the tone of the whole film. And it does.
After the rewrites and the fights, Spielberg must have known the “Gremlins” release would probably be controversial, but he soon had a perfect storm on his hands. ‘Temple of Doom’ had been a financial hit but critically controversial, creating concern about the violence, and, to a lesser but more deserved extent, its racial politics (see our recent appreciation). Some reviews were actively censorious: one announced that letting a child see the film “would be a cinematic form of child abuse.” (“Gremlins” too has occasionally been criticized on racial grounds, something Oli’s piece above notes).
Anyway, into this mess dropped “Gremlins,” which received largely good reviews, but which was also accused by TV Guide of being “cynically aimed to draw an audience of small children who would no doubt be terrorized by this myth-shattering film.” Vincent Canby in the New York Times asked, “will children cheer when Billy blows up the Kingston Falls movie theater, where the gremlins, now resembling an average kiddie matinee crowd, are exuberantly responding to ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’?”
Canby conceded that Cates’ Santa speech was hilarious, but the damage was done. Steven Spielberg, hero of the middle-American multiplex, was suddenly Steven Spielberg, monster under your kids’ beds. That the kids probably loved the movies in question wasn’t the point.
Instead of going on the offensive, or going to ground, Spielberg made a cunning move, the kind of cunning move that explains just how he got to be so powerful in the first place: he came out for tougher ratings. Not just in a well-timed interview or a carefully phrased press release: he phoned his good friend Jack Valenti, the head of the MPAA, and suggested a new, tougher rating that would sit between PG and R. As Spielberg said in one interview, “I created the problem and I also supplied the solution … I invented the rating.” Two months later, “Red Dawn” became the first movie to be released as a PG-13 (nonsensically, “Gremlins” didn’t even get re-rated: you could still see it playing as a PG in August of that year, next to the new PG-13s).
PG-13 was a rating that allowed more latitude than the PG—which now essentially denoted a kid’s movie—but didn’t put the film off-limits to large audiences the way an R did. And it had been created not by outraged moral guardians, but by the filmmaker of the moment, the one who caused the trouble in the first place.
The rest is history. The PG-13 rating was a cash-cow, box-office “hot sauce” (Spielberg’s words again): at the time of writing, 9 of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time are PG-13s (it was all 10 until “Frozen” happened). It was the perfect blockbuster rating: you could push the violence and destruction, swear once or twice, suggest some sexy stuff and still pack as many people as possible into the theatre. Win-win.
It was also the end of an era. Suddenly, making weird, kid-friendly, kid-frightening, adult-intriguing films wasn’t really possible; the arrival of the new rating had a chilling effect, and a kind of film that had been blossoming in the ‘80s suddenly died, becoming ghettoized as “for kids.” In 1982, Don Bluth‘s uncanny, unexpected “The Secret of NIMH” had been a box-office success and a critical darling; Bluth ended up working with Spielberg on the much tamer and less interesting “An American Tail” a few years later. The same year as “NIMH,” Jim Henson‘s “The Dark Crystal” was a weird, eerie all-ages hit; by the time the follow-up “Labyrinth” came around in 1986 no-one was interested, even with David Bowie‘s crotch doing its best, and the film was a financial failure. “The Never-Ending Story” appeared in theaters a couple of months after “Gremlins” and was met with confusion. Disney panicked and demanded extensive cuts to their “Black Cauldron” project, which would have been their darkest ever film; when it came out in 1985, the censored version was a box-office flop that left behind an intriguing suggestion of a much better, forever-lost piece of work.
Other horror, freed from the burden of worrying about the kids, could be much nastier (although there’s also an argument that since PG-13 debuted, more mature films have been watered down to earn the certification). Followers of “Gremlins” like “Critters” are more brutal but lack the keen edge of the bizarre. Great comedy-horror continued to be made throughout the ‘80s—the decade that brought you “An American Werewolf in London” and “Evil Dead 2”—but it was very much for adults.
Those who had worked on “Gremlins” went one way or the other: Chris Columbus had a 1985 kid’s hit with the sanitized “The Goonies,” while that same year Spielberg made “The Color Purple,” the first film in his later style of Oscar-friendly, grown-up worthiness.
Dante, meanwhile, has had an odd career, with its share of hits and flops and a consistent off-beat tone that sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. He made the 1990 sequel “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” which is nastier and significantly less interesting, and 1998’s “Small Soldiers”; a film mostly forgotten now unless you happened to be at the precise right age to see it on release. It was marketed weirdly and set off its own argument about violence in children’s films, becoming the only Dreamworks release so far to be a PG-13. It’s actually a clever little film about violence in kid’s films (and with several cheeky “Gremlins” references), but it cost Dante the chance to work in cinema for over a decade. He came back with “The Hole,” which we really wanted to like and basically didn’t.
Dante, Spielberg and “Gremlins” created—and if you haven’t seen this line coming, you haven’t been paying attention—a monster, in the form of the PG-13 rating. “Gremlins” feels almost unique now, the kind of film you wish there was more of—but it’s also the reason there aren’t any others, a victim of its own grotesque success. But perhaps that’s just as it should be: we go back to look for the mysterious Chinese place we rented the VHS from, and it isn’t there any more.