Before and even after the creation of the PG-13 rating, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — the organization tasked with rating the age suitability of every major American film release — let more than a few risque images and topics slide, simply because the films didn’t deserve or often couldn’t afford to be labeled with the dreaded R-rating. Particularly throughout the 1980s, there were more than a few films that were surprisingly marketed to children with the MPAA’s tacit approval that featured a good share of frightening, violent, or sexualized images. Maybe it was just a simpler time then, but most parents will probably be glad these films aren’t being released as family-friendly entertainment today.
If you care at all about comedy, you’ve probably seen Airplane!, likely the greatest movie spoof of all time, a dizzying assault of clever, fourth-wall-breaking jokes at the expense of cheesy ’70s disaster movies that don’t let up for a solidly hilarious hour-and-a-half. The PG rating doesn’t seem totally unreasonable, in spite of that scene where the captain asks a little boy, “You ever seen a grown man naked?” until you remember the five seconds of screen-time wherein everyone on the plane freaks out upon hearing that the pilots are out of commission. Then, for only a brief moment, a completely nude woman, visible only from the neck down, runs across the screen, her assets jiggling all the while.
Equal parts fun and mean, Gremlins is the tale of a boy and his mythical new pet, which comes with a demanding set of rules. When he inevitably breaks those rules, the pet gives birth to a few doppelgangers that eat after midnight and transform into a pack of scaly, hilariously anarchic gremlins that run afoul of the entire town shortly before the holidays. Despite a family-friendly setup, the PG-rated Gremlins soon devolves into a series of delightfully inappropriate setpieces and revelations, from the boy’s mother killing green-blooded gremlins with kitchen equipment to his girlfriend relating the story of how her father broke his neck while climbing down the chimney dressed as Santa Claus and rotted there for a week before they found him. Family-friendly fun, right?
3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The second Indiana Jones film made plenty of money but raised lots of eyebrows for the level of violence depicted within a PG film, eventually contributing to the MPAA’s decision to create the PG-13 rating. Temple of Doom follows Indy and a pair of annoying stereotype sidekicks as they’re captured by pagan caricatures who make them eat monkey brains, use voodoo to turn them into entranced slaves, and literally rip out people’s hearts in front of them. Much of this isn’t outright violent but surprisingly scary for an adventure film clearly marketed toward children as well as adults.
4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg got away with a lot throughout the ’80s, simply because they had so much power within the industry that they were allowed to squeak a few questionable moments past the suits at the MPAA. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an obvious love letter to the golden age of animation, but Bugs Bunny cross-dressing aside, the old animated shorts rarely went as risque as Roger Rabbit. The film noir-animation mashup features lots of sexual innuendos and dark thematic material, including an onscreen death of a cutesy animated shoe, as well as a climax where the villain reveals his terrifying true form and a well-endowed animated femme fatale who probably made thousands of 11-year-old boys very confused.
The idea of a legitimate horror movie being rated PG seems ludicrous nowadays, but so it goes when the film was made in the 1980s and happened to have Spielberg’s name attached. Poltergeist isn’t an especially violent horror film, but it’s definitely scary and has more than enough disturbing imagery to warrant a higher rating. Highlights include implied ghost rape, a dead body surfacing beside a character in a murky pool, and a hallucinatory sequence in which one character peels away the skin of his face. Bring the whole family!
Ditto what I just said above, including Spielberg’s involvement. Jaws might not be the scariest or most violent horror movie, but it is still a horror movie at heart, one that doesn’t shy away from the bloody details of its climax. On top of the nightmare-inducing sequences of characters flailing about in an ocean of blood as they’re consumed by the titular great white shark, we see a major character we’ve spent a good chunk of the film with being eaten alive, his torso chopped in half as he wails and spits up torrents of blood. It’s a great scene, but it might not be the best thing to show a child just before bed or before a trip to the beach.
Ghostbusters is a lighthearted supernatural comedy starring a few Saturday Night Live alums. But it’s dealing in ghostly happenings, and the writers and director can’t help but include a few scary images sandwiched between all the one-liners, including a pair of demonic gargoyle statues, a possessed heroine, and a librarian ghost who goes berserk when patrons make too much noise. But the most inexplicably risque piece of film Ghostbusters snuck into a PG-romp has to be the pointless sequence wherein Dan Akroyd’s character receives implied fellatio from a Victorian-era female ghost. It doesn’t serve the plot, but it sure says a lot about what you could get away with in 1984.
8. Howard the Duck
Possibly the worst Marvel comics adaptation ever, Howard the Duck follows the titular hero, here a bland everyman instead of the sardonic wise-ass of the comics, as he stumbles out of his world and into our own, struggling to adapt and understand his newfound feelings about young Lea Thompson. Most of the worst scenes are ones that manage to be both sexualized and disturbing in one fell swoop, including a brief flash of a nude, well-endowed female duck, the villain’s slithering, wandering tongue, an implied anal cavity search, and multiple scenes where Howard and Thompson seem on the verge of consummating their relationship, despite the fact that it’s blatant bestiality. How did Howard the Duck manage a PG rating? A better question might be how it managed to get made at all.