In 1984, the movie industry would be changed forever in a way most of us don’t think about anymore. In a one-month span, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins were both released to theaters. They were both massive successes, ending up just behind Ghostbusters as the top box office draws of the year. Steven Spielberg, who was the most powerful director in Hollywood during the decade, had a hand in both films, directing Temple of Doom and executive producing Gremlins.
There was just one big problem with this success. Both films were rated PG and many parents complained about the amount of violence their kids had unexpectedly been exposed to. Because of this, a new rating was born. In 1984, the MPA (Motion Picture Association) created the PG-13 rating, which created a safe place for films that weren’t family-friendly but weren’t exactly so violent and profanity-laced to receive an R rating either.
‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ Was More Violent Than ‘Raiders of the Last Ark’
In 1984, the movie rating system was a little simpler than it is today. There was the G rating for general audiences. Most of your animated kids films and Disney pictures fell under this. There was PG for Parental Guidance suggested. Some scenes here might be considered a little too violent for small kids, and it was up to parents to decide if this was something they wanted their children to see. Then there was R, which restricted anyone under 17 from watching a movie in a theater without a parent or guardian with them. This rating was reserved for more adult fare with profanity and/or sexual scenes. There was the little-used X rating as well (which became NC-17 in 1990), but there was nothing to cover the wide ground between PG and R. It could be tricky for some releases. Jaws, for example, another Spielberg film, was rated PG, but with its intense and scary scenes, and a few bits of gore, it’s really pushing those boundaries.
In 1984, Steven Spielberg pushed a little too far. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released on May 23, 1984, was the follow-up to 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had been rated PG. There are a few disturbing images in that movie, such as the face-melting scene, but the violence was minimal and scenes like the one just mentioned were so unrealistic that there weren’t any complaints. That changed with Temple of Doom. It’s darker in tone, and a little more serious compared to the fun serial adventure like the first film. There’s more violence as well, but it’s one scene in particular that crossed a line for many on what young children should be seeing.
During one moment of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, there is a sacrifice scene like few moviegoers had ever seen. Much of the film involves the Thuggee cult. The part of the movie that would help to change history involved the Thuggee high priest, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), sacrificing one of his people. This is not a quick flash of violence, but more than two minutes of a scene so disturbing that it would even leave some adults uncomfortable. During the sacrifice, a scared-looking man is bound. Mola Ram touches the man’s chest. In a highly realistic bit of visual effects, his hands go into the sacrifice’s chest, and Mola Ram pulls out his still-beating heart. The man is then very slowly lowered into a pit of swirling lava and fire, screaming the whole way. When his body hits the flames, we see it happen and his screams of sheer pain intensify. Jaws has nothing on that.
‘Gremlins’ Was Not the Cute Kids Film Parents Thought It Would Be
On June 8, just a few weeks after Temple of Doom arrived in theaters, Gremlins premiered. The film’s marketing didn’t show off the scary creatures, so when parents took their children to the movie, most expected something akin to another Spielberg film, E.T. The trailers hinted at something a little more sinister, but how bad could it be?
Gremlins is pure fun but also pure chaos that is nothing like E.T. Gizmo might have been impossibly cute, but the hellions that popped out of him were nothing but mayhem, especially when they eat after midnight and become scaly, sharp teeth, devilish-looking beings. Their high jinks aren’t simple. One kills a teacher and stabs him with a syringe. Others attack a man dressed as Santa Claus. Mean ol’ Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) is sent flying out of her second-story window to her demise. Gremlins themselves are stabbed to death multiple times, decapitated, and blown up in microwaves. Some parents felt tricked. This was not the heartwarming Christmas movie they were expecting.
Steven Spielberg didn’t direct Gremlins. That honor goes to Joe Dante. Spielberg did help to craft its tone though. Ironically, the original screenplay by Christopher Columbus was a hard R horror movie, but Spielberg suggested that it be toned down to be more fun and family-friendly. Apparently, not everyone appreciated his efforts.
Steven Spielberg Helped Create the PG-13 Rating
Movies had been pushing the boundaries more and more throughout the 70s and into the 80s. The time had come to do something to warn parents about films that were a little too dark and violent for kids. It was Steven Spielberg of all people who is credited for creating a new rating for films in between the wide gap of PG and R.
In a 2008 interview with Vanity Fair, the interviewer asked Spielberg what age he let his kids watch Jaws.
“I haven’t shown Jaws to my 10- or 11-year-old, and I won’t. I showed Jaws to Sawyer when he was, I think, 13. Because then they use the argument, ‘Dad, I was bar mitzvahed last week. Everybody said today I’m a man, and you still won’t let me see Jaws?’ Sometimes the kids outsmart me. It is PG, but that was before the PG-13 rating. Today Jaws would obviously be PG-13. Just because of the menace, the feeling of it, even more than the blood.”
The interviewer then brought up Temple of Doom ushering in the PG-13 rating.
“The story of that was, I had come under criticism, personal criticism, for both Temple of Doom and, you know, Gremlins, in the same year. I remember calling Jack Valenti [then the president of the Motion Picture Association] and suggesting to him that we need a rating between R and PG, because so many films were falling into a netherworld, you know, of unfairness. Unfair that certain kids were exposed to Jaws, but also unfair that certain films were restricted, that kids who were 13, 14, 15 should be allowed to see. I suggested, ‘Let’s call it PG-13 or PG-14, depending on how you want to design the slide rule,’ and Jack came back to me and said, ‘We’ve determined that PG-13 would be the right age for that temperature of movie.’ So I’ve always been very proud that I had something to do with that rating.”
Very quickly, the MPA (then known as the MPAA) put the PG-13 rating into effect. The first movie to get that distinction was Patrick Swayze‘s Red Dawn, which came out on August 10. The rating was quickly accepted and understood by the general public. The next Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, released in 1989, would be slapped with a PG-13 rating, as would Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch the next year. The rating has gone on to give us some of our biggest box office hits of all time, with the last Star Wars trilogy, Marvel movies, the Avatar films, and Titanic all rated PG-13.