PG and the Power of Nightmares
By Michael Koresky
An appreciation of a particular brand of youth-aimed terror that the PG-13 rating helped eliminate.
The only Hollywood movie I’ve seen at a multiplex this summer, The Shallows, features a central suspense sequence that concludes with a man crawling and grasping toward a camera placed almost at his eye level on the sandy beach. A slight shift in perspective and it becomes clear that as he pulls himself forward, away from the water and the threat of the mega-shark that has just given him quite a scare, the lower part of his body is not following the top. He has been chomped quite neatly in half. Never mind why the thoughtful fish has kept him in two perfect pieces after such a bite—it’s a nifty visual joke, a proper shock, a knowing nod to Robert Shaw’s demise in Jaws. But all I was thinking about in the moment were the two very young kids sitting a couple rows behind me, brought by their parents to an afternoon showing of this intense entry in the evil-shark horror subgenre. My friend and I had been aware of them coming in noisily while the coming attractions were running, and noted that it probably wasn’t an appropriate film for tots. Didn’t the parents bother looking at the film’s PG-13 rating?
It’s amusing to think that 41 years earlier, Steven Spielberg’s much gorier shark tale was traumatizing the nation without even this gentle Motion Picture Association of America warning. It was 1975 and the PG-13 rating was still nine years away from creation, the MPAA’s first change in sixteen years, instituted after outraged parents protested the 1984 summer releases of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, the former directed by Spielberg, the latter produced by him. Temple of Doom features a man getting his beating heart torn out of his chest while he watches. Gremlins delights in an elderly, disabled woman being tossed to her to death from a window after being jettisoned from an out-of-control motorized wheelchair. These came only two years after Poltergeist, written and produced (and, apocryphally, codirected) by Spielberg, the PG-rated summer hit in which, before a mirror, a man rips the flesh off of his face one stretchy, pulpy strip at a time; and three years after the faces of Nazis melt and implode in horrible close-up in the PG-rated Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s worth noting that these are perhaps not even the scariest moments in their respective films. Spielberg has so long been tagged as a gentle-souled magic-maker that one forgets how once upon a time he was American cinema’s primo purveyor of childhood nightmares—imagine the BFG blowing nothing but fear and horror into impressionable minds rather than sweet dreams and that should give you an idea of the exquisite terror those of a certain generation feel when they hear his name.
Nowadays, the PG rating, one P higher than a G, intimates a family film, not simply a title for which “Parental Guidance” is suggested. This was not the case in the ’70s and early ’80s.
Temple of Doom, the amped-up, disgusting, and energetically offensive follow-up to Raiders, functions as a ‘30s serial on speed, its exotic tortures, xenophobia and racism, and gooey gross-outs exaggerated for nearly comic effect. It’s a latter-day Mask of Fu Manchu, in bloody color, and Paramount and Spielberg’s ability to secure it a PG speaks to the only terror a Hollywood studio can feel: the possibility of lower box-office numbers (in this case, from disallowing kids and entire families to attend). The New York Times reported regularly on the controversy during that fateful summer in 1984; a May 21st article details the film’s many horrors, including not only the heart-tearing scene but also “the ghoulish remains of previous victims, the flogging of children, and the death of a caged man by immersion into a pit of boiling lava.” (Parents at the time didn’t seem overly concerned with the film’s depiction of Indian people as either bloodthirsty cult members or impoverished village mystics—one could only imagine the uproar being a little different today.) A call was made for an intermediate rating—“PG-2,” as Spielberg himself mused in the Times—and finally, in August, Red Dawn and Dreamscape became the first releases with the new PG-13 seal. No matter: so much wonderful damage was already done.
Spielberg’s movies were responsible for a sea change in the ratings board, but that’s only because they came in seemingly family-friendly packages. Nowadays, the PG rating, one P higher than a G, intimates a family film, not simply a title for which “Parental Guidance” is suggested. This was not the case in the ’70s and early ’80s. Between 1968 and 1984, there were many films that any right-thinking person would consider wildly inappropriate for children, and which slipped through the cracks because marketing them to youngsters would likely never have even been discussed. Take, for example, perhaps the most shockingly inapt PG-rated film of all time, the 1979 Tourist Trap, which is nothing less than a teen slasher, featuring a gallery of cackling, semi-living mannequins to up the trauma ante. The film is as confounding as its rating, mixing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a group of attractive young urbanites make the mistake of detouring to a creepy Hicksville…), Psycho (…where an apparently friendly but eccentric man with mother issues runs a gas station and museum…), House of Wax (…and turns out to be a serial killer who likes to transform his victims into waxy dummies…), and Carrie (…and he’s telekinetic?!). Per square inch, Tourist Trap may be less bloody than Temple of Doom, but there is a bound woman’s death by suffocation that’s about as disturbing as screen demises get. A score by De Palma’s regular composer Pino Donaggio and the fact that the film’s mannequins were designed by Texas Chainsaw’s special-effects guy Bob Burns only underline how far we really are from acceptable family viewing.
Despite its gruesome nastiness, Tourist Trap, at the very least, feels childish and single-minded enough to at least be comprehensible to the young mind. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, on the other hand, is a thoroughly adult film, not only for its haunting and violent imagery, but also, more importantly, for the sophistication of its allegory and milieu. A remake of Don Siegel’s classic catchall McCarthy-era sci-fi parable about the dangers of conformity (with the dirty Reds? Or the squeaky-clean suburbs?), Kaufman’s version takes aim at post-’60s bourgeois living, setting the story, ironically and brilliantly, in the supposedly anti-conformist paradise of San Francisco. Furthermore, the blossoming love story between the city’s Department of Health co-workers, played by Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, is too deeply felt and, in the face of multiplying emotionless pod people, too genuinely tragic to register with youngsters. Which is why they’ll probably best remember its un-PG shocks, such as the very real-looking and really repulsive image of Sutherland’s pod person face smashed open with a metal rake (“When that moment came, I winced, I clapped a hand over my mouth . . . and wondered how in the hell the movie had ever gotten its PG rating,” wrote Stephen King in his book Danse Macabre); the unsettling image of a scampering dog with a human head; a stark-naked and shrieking Adams; and, well, the scariest last shot in movie history.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is apocalyptic, sad, and sick-making on every level, but it has the power to move the viewer to extreme human empathy. This is crucial, and makes one wonder what children should see and shouldn’t. I’d certainly rather show my fictional child Kaufman’s very humane film than a seemingly family-friendly whitewash of history and human feeling like Forrest Gump, or a work of counterfeit uplift like the recent The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a rare PG-rated studio comedy. Today, kids are more apt to see violence on screen, but it’s so rampant and all-consuming and computer-generated that it has no weight, literally and figuratively. Like vitamins, a healthy dose of fear may be essential to kids’ growth. It’s not just that dangerous PG movies have gone away; it’s that movies of any rating, market-tested to within an inch of their relevance or interest, have become far less dangerous. PG wasn’t just a key for what your kids should or should not see, it was a measure of what was socially permissible, and as such it was so much more than a stamp on a movie poster. A rating ought to be an engagement in dialogue. It should be a way of building emotional capacity and shaping taste. And sometimes, just sometimes, it should be a private, unspoken invitation to watch mean little gremlins get stabbed, blended, or microwaved until they explode. •
Michael Koresky is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Reverse Shot. He is also the Editorial Director of Museum of the Moving Image, as well as the author of the book Terence Davies and the just-published Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us.