There are times when parental guidance just isn’t enough. It could be cuss words, it could be a flash of pubic hair in a non-sexual context, it could be the heart ripped out of a terrified villager by a pagan priest. (It happens!) Whatever it is, there are plenty of movies out there that, should you decide to hit Wikipedia afterwards, will surprise you with its green light of a PG rating by the Motion Picture Association of America.
The MPAA (which features a surprisingly thorough website for a group all about covering things up) has been slapping labels on movies since 1968. Its roots go back to the 1920s and the so-called Hays Code, which gets its name from former U.S. Postmaster General and Presbyterian deacon Will Hays, who was hired by Hollywood to prove it wasn’t run by a cabal of filth-mongers surreptitiously promoting moral decay. (That Hays was connected with the complex Teapot Dome scandal didn’t seem to be an issue.)
The four buckets in which to carry films made sense for decades: G for kiddie fare and X for smut on the far ends, with R for “movies for grown-ups” and PG for “should be fine for most kids, but heads-up somebody might get shot, or you might see two people fooling around in bed.” Parents could see a PG-rated flick and rest easy knowing they could bring both junior and grandma without much fuss on the ride home.
Then came the late 1970s and early 1980s. Society was changing, man, and with it came movies that maybe weren’t quite R-level, but sure as hell weren’t PG. This gave birth to PG-13, the category with the highest market share today.
The first PG-13 movie was the paranoid right-wing adventure pic Red Dawn in August 1984. The first PG-13 movie I was allowed to see in theaters, well before I was 13, came out a few days later: the sex comedy The Woman in Red. And let me tell you, my parents should be arrested.
Here, then, are 13 movies that definitely needed that PG-13.
This quintessential class-clown picture is perfect viewing for 13-year olds. But anyone younger is pushing it. Aside from the cussing (no F-bombs, but a lot of everything else) and some race-based humor that, at the least, could benefit from some context for clueless kids, there’s a protracted blow-job gag that’s surprisingly over the line for PG.
There’s also, during a scene of pandemonium, a shot where, for no reason at all, a woman with large breasts stands naked in front of the camera, bounces around for a fraction of a second, then leaves. It’s not even a clever sight gag, it’s just tits. As it happens, the woman was Kitten Natividad, the Mexican-American actress, model and one-time partner of mammary-obsessed auteur Russ Meyer.
Prostitution may be the oldest profession, but that doesn’t mean you need to expose your youngest to it right away. “She’s his temporary girlfriend,” my mother explained, when I asked why the drunk-off-his-ass Dudley Moore bringing a woman in spandex to a fancy restaurant was such a big deal. “And he’s just happy,” she said when I asked why he kept laughing. I was a dumb kid.
In a classic scene, Sir John Gielgud, who won the supporting actor Oscar for his role of the sarcastic butler, waits until his rich snot employer goes to bathe before stage-whispering, “perhaps you’d like me to come in there and wash your dick for you,” much to the surprise of the audience expecting a PG film. After a beat he adds, “You little shit.” I repeated this a great deal as a youngster, much to the consternation of my parents.
One of the best sword-and-sorcery flicks ever, this movie absolutely scared the shit out of me as a kid. I wasn’t naive enough to think that enormous winged beasts were really going to swoop down and attack me in my suburban New Jersey neighborhood, but the “moments of peril” (as warning labels would now put them) are pretty intense. The POV shot of the village virgin shackled to a tree as an enormous, scaly creature blasted her with a fireball was definitely too much.
It’s weird how memory can alter things. I could have sworn that there is a flash of pubic hair in this movie. The internet, however, tells me this isn’t so. (The internet also says they are called “The Berenstain Bears” so who are you going to believe?) But there definitely is a shot of Peter MacNicol’s rear and a quick shot of Caitlin Clarke’s underwater breasts. That part I liked! Not sure how my parents felt.
As a very little kid, my cousins and I knew about “the two curses.” They were words we knew from the movie Grease that we were allowed to hear, but not say. They were “shit” and “tit.” Someone ruled we were still allowed to see this movie (and my older sister played the record constantly) despite these words featuring in the song “Greased Lightning.”
What’s funny is that all the other risqué content in the song zipped past me. The automobile in question was a “real pussywagon” and, in turn, “the chicks’ll cream.” That’s quite something for a Sha-Na-Na-styled ditty. Watching this dopey movie as an adult, I was shocked to learn how much of its plot focused on broken condoms.
The Ice Pirates (1984)
A comedy to some, absolute horror to a young boy. The Ice Pirates was a zany space adventure in which water is a precious commodity, and Robert Urich, Anjelica Huston and Ron Perlman zip around the galaxy having interstellar escapades. Somehow they end up captured on a planet where prisoners are turned into servant-eunuchs. This involves a Rube Goldberg-esque Ford assembly line of castration that now I realize is funny, but as a little kid gave me, I’m not joking, multiple nightmares.
Also in this picture: space herpes.
Most histories of the MPAA’s decision to create the PG-13 rating cite two summer films from 1984, both emerging from Steven Spielberg’s production shingle Amblin Entertainment. One was Gremlins, and the censors were totally wrong there. Gremlins rules, and kids should totally see it. Especially the blender scene.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, however, is completely effed up. Beyond the gross-outs (eyeball soup! chilled monkey brains! some secret lever covered in repulsive bugs and guano!), there’s the central premise of a village in which all the children are kidnapped and sent to work in a cave. Above all, of course, there’s Mola Ram’s human sacrifice.
As the leader of the Thugee cult (they don’t sound nice!), Mola Ram would put a guy in a cage, chant, plunge his hand into the freaked-out dude’s chest, yank out his still-beating heart, then send him down into gurgling lava. Then the heart in his hand would burst into flames. All while John Williams’ terrifying music blared!
My maniac parents took me, age nine, to see this on opening day! I hadn’t even yet heard what the scary parts were from other kids; I was the one who had to tell them! Anyway, it definitely messed me up. The movie also is astonishingly racist, but I didn’t know that then.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
It’s not just seeing Spock as a bad guy. The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is truly terrifying.
The Cold War classic, updated for the shaggy-rug 1970s, really taps into the vice-grip of nightmare logic where one day you wake up and everyone has been replaced by conspiring shapeshifting aliens. The transformation scenes are just bursting with wet, grotesque slime (and eerie white hair), but one sequence, in which Donald Sutherland takes a gardening tool to the skull of his embryonic doppelgänger, is full-on Friday the 13th-level gore. It’s truly shocking this was only PG. I don’t think it should be PG-13, I actually think it should be R. (Bangs gavel!) The unnecessary nudity in the final climactic battle only adds to it.
Never Cry Wolf (1983)
This pre-Disney Renaissance picture comes from a weird time in that company’s history, to be sure, but families usually could feel secure in knowing that the stamp of the mouse meant smooth PG sailing. Never Cry Wolf pushed that a little.
This naturalist’s tale, based on a true story, blew some minds when the lead dude (Charles Martin Smith) drinks a lot of tea and then takes an enormous whizz around his camp to mark his territory. Hilarious stuff. Later he goes swimming and, in a brief flash, you actually see his rear end and his schlong. In retrospect, this was likely the first schlong I ever saw that wasn’t mine or my father’s. Charles Martin Smith, we share a great closeness!
Another Spielberg production and perhaps the film that brought more terror to the 1980s than anything else. Despite its PG rating, I didn’t see this movie in theaters. But my older sister saw it at a friend’s on VHS and just her descriptions kept me up at night. It’s not just that it’s a movie meant to scare kids, it’s a movie about kids being scared!
Its brilliance is in turning the everyday stuff from a suburban home into instruments of terror. The unlucky Freeling children are tormented by evil trees, by clown dolls, by walking, rancid meat! Skeletons in the pool? Agggh! Then the little girl gets captured by the TV? This was before flatscreens — it could happen! True insanity that kids could have been dropped off at the mall to see this.
Look, few kids or even teens were itching to see Milos Forman’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel about gilded age New York. But let’s say some parents couldn’t get a sitter and dragged junior to the multiplex. They’d be surprised, I think, by Elizabeth McGovern (just 19 when she shot it) and her extended nude scene as “Girl in the Swing” Evelyn Nesbit.
The sequence begins rather saucily, with McGovern scamping around full-frontal with Brad Dourif. (I mean, who can resist B.Dou!) Soon lawyers issuing papers barge in and the scene plays out as drama, but funny, because the girl is nude. (And the lawyers think she’s a dunce who cannot read, but she proves them wrong.) The thing is: The scene lasts forever. This isn’t a flash of nudity like Dragonslayer or Never Cry Wolf, this is an entire sequence that goes on and on and on.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
We need to talk about Indiana Jones twice? Yes, yes we do. Because Raiders, which is still the greatest action picture ever made, really did a number on any kid who saw it in the theater.
I was terrified from the very first scene, but my older sister tried to convince me to take my head out of my hands when the Hovitos were chasing Indy to his plane. (“It’s not scary; it’s like the headhunters chasing Gilligan,” she said.)
All bets were off by the snake pit though (and all those skeletons), and certainly by the big ending where the Old Testament God killed the Nazis by having beams of light shoot through their torsos, their heads explode and their faces melt. Even my sister kept her eyes shut, but, so she’d say, just because Indy told her to.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
A giant F-bomb in one of the first scenes. A boner joke. A blow-job joke. More than one roofie joke. The panties of an underage girl held aloft like Simba. A close-up of a high school girl’s breasts in the shower with a BOINGGGG sound effect. 1984 was another world.
There’s also a lot of casual homophobia in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, some truly reprehensible Asian stereotypes and the implication that dating a white girl dating a black guy is “gross.” This movie had a tremendous impact on 1980s culture, and not all of it was good.
Watership Down (1978)
A cartoon about little fuzzy bunnies! Yay, right? Uh, no. Watership Down is a terrifying film in which rabbits are ripped to shreds, gassed and suffer hallucinogenic visions of creeping death. As a group of rabbits flee for a promised land (one can easily interpret this film as an allegory for Nazism), they face one catastrophe after another. There’s even flies buzzing around one injured rabbit, if my tormented memory is correct.
The film does, however, have some very 1970s, vaguely “indigenous-inspired” mythology and imagery, which I always found comforting as a kid. Maybe I didn’t mind all the Leporidae destruction because I had really bad allergies.