Upon recent viewing of Gremlins, I was reminded of the glory of ’80s “family” films that did not shy away from violence and gore. Let’s be honest, life can get downright scary and to have films reflect that sentiment allegorically not only allows the young audience member solace in knowing they are not alone in the mess we call life, but in teaching where one can recognize familiar struggles they can also make light of them.
At the time of the release, while enjoying box office success the film did receive its share of criticism at the breadth of violence. “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’?”
Due to these criticisms and the growing dialogue about violence in film, Spielberg aligned with MPAA head Jack Valenti and pushed for a tougher rating system. While it can be seen easily as a PR move on behalf of Spielberg, what they came up with was a new rating between PG and R, one in wide use ever since, PG-13.
Ben Brock writes: “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….
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.”
Read more of Brock’s excellent article here.