Gremlins, Poltergeist and The Exorcist: Age Appropriate?

Gremlins came out when I was 10.

My parents were Daily M*il readers (it’s okay, they’ve stopped now. They probably got sick of me complaining endlessly about it from the age of about 15 onwards) and so the first time I ever heard about the flick was from a manufactured moral outrage piece in the summer of ’84, full of details based entirely on a very bloody early draft (which you can find on the ‘net if you look around enough) and bearing little relationship to the finished film.

Gremlins UK Quad

It sounded horrible. The M*il editorial rolled out a list of atrocities (including Mum’s head getting cut off and the dog getting killed) which I couldn’t reconcile with the fluffy picture of Gizmo sitting beside the article. The easily horrified 10 year-old me contented himself with being a bit horrified, and then forgot all about it.

Autumn rolled around, and something odd started happening. Merchandise for the movie began turning up in the shops, and didn’t seem to fit the content that I’d read about in the ‘newspaper’ over the summer. The toys were clearly pitched at my age-group. I thought they looked interesting and fun, but the bleak horrors detailed in that first Daily Mail article also gave them a whiff of darkness, of forbidden fruit. I thought, in other words, that they looked awesome.

Various tie-in books appeared on the shelves at the same time, and I read all of them. From the ‘storybook’ aimed at 8 year-olds through to the George Gipe novelisation clearly pitched at adults, I picked up each one and read every word. I bought every gum card. I knew absolutely everything about Gremlins, every plot twist and every special effects technique, by the time it got slapped with a 15 certificate by the BBFC. Fascinatingly, they have recently released the documents leading up to this decision at this link here.

I taped Film ’84 the night that Barry Norman reviewed the film, and the two short clips that he screened that night were my only window into the movie for the best part of a year. I watched those clips again and again (“Come on Barney, be a good dog”) until the tape was stretched and warbling, but couldn’t see any more as the BBFC had decided that it needed to be kept from me.

It was nearly a year before Gremlins was released on VHS, as was the custom in those days. By the time I finally got to see it, I had reached the dizzying age of 11. A mere few months later, my parents bought me an ex-rental VHS of the movie for my 12th birthday, on the basis that I’d been renting it nearly every weekend and the steep tag of £55 for the ex-rental tape would actually work out cheaper in the long run.

It is, of course, the movie that defines me more than any other. You seen my chapter of Nazi Zombie Death Tales? Well, yeah, the Gremlins influences run deep in that one. The mix of horror and comedy is a constant in everything that I do.

Devil Spider

The BBFC downgraded Gremlins to a 12a last month, meaning that if it were released at the cinema today a 10 year-old could see it accompanied by a parent. 29 years after the flick hit the cinemas, of course, I have a different perspective on it. I’m a parent myself, and I can easily imagine the shitstorm that would have hit the BBFC if they’d graded it PG in ’84 (the only other option realistically available, as it was still 5 years before even the mandatory 12 would be introduced). It’s not just the violence, needless to say, but some of the other wonderfully dark shit too; I wouldn’t want to be the parent who had to comfort a crying 6 year-old after discovering the truth about Santa via the less-than-comforting medium of Kate’s gloriously horrible speech.

Regardless, I’m certainly glad I got to see the flick at 11. If I’d been kept away from it until actually turning 15, I think the impact would have been slightly dulled. There are certain flicks that you need to see at certain ages for maximum impact. In fact, I was discussing this on Twitter the other day with Danbo12, who asked whether Poltergeist would live up to his expectations (he’d never seen it). I was about to answer an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when I paused; all of my experiences of Poltergeist are filtered through having first seen it in my early teens. Poltergeist taps into the fears of a child rather beautifully; it sums up the fears of the thing under the bed or the scary shadow outside the window better than any other flick I can think of. Approaching it for the very first time as an adult, having left those kind of fears behind and moved onto more tangible concerns, I suspect that it might underwhelm.

The same thing works in reverse for The Exorcist. I know that the last time it was re-released at cinemas, there were certainly a considerable number of teens and yound adults guffawing at the screen and generally screwing up the experience for everyone. It would be tempting to write this off as whistling past the graveyard; as the behaviour of young people very enthusiastically showing off how scared they weren’t in order to look tough. There’s probably a bit of that, true, but I think there’s something else too. For a teenager, The Exorcist simply isn’t a particularly scary movie. The horrors of the movie are pitched squarely at the fears of the parent not the child, and as those under 25 are notoriously bad at empathy (for various interesting biological and evolutionary reasons that I won’t go into here) they’re likely to come out of it pretty unscathed. Show the flick to a 40 year old with a kid approaching puberty, however, and I think you’d fairly quickly kill the idea that the flick has lost all its power over the years.

It’s all interesting stuff. The film we’ll be shooting later in the year, Evil Apps, has two 19 year-old protagonists. It’s a film about technology, social networking and the way we communicate. Having leads much out of their teens would have made no sense whatsoever. You can see me talking about Evil Apps towards the end of the live show embedded below.

I have worried about it, though. If I bring the sensibilities of the things that scare me now and apply it to a film with two teen leads, am I going to be able to make those things translate? Teenagers and 20-somethings are generally a hell of a lot less concerned about where the social networking yellow brick road is leading us than those who grew up in a pre-internet age are, so am failing to target the concerns my own target audience? Will the young leads put off the audience with whom the concerns of the script might otherwise resonate?

I hope not. I hope that the script will tap a common sense of unease for both age groups, and even if it doesn’t there’s a beauty of an exploding head in it.

Right, I’m off to complete my collection of Gremlins bubblegum cards. Tooth decay has no age limit.

4 thoughts on “Gremlins, Poltergeist and The Exorcist: Age Appropriate?

  • March 4, 2013 at 6:21 pm
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    Age appropriate? Just entertain me! If you get an opportunity have a look at Joseph Kahn’s Detention. I f*cking loved it. Very funny and aware. It looks like it should be teen slasher but it’s infinitely smarter and more interesting. To under sell it it. It’s a John Hughes, time travel, slasher flick.

    Kahn himself has said it’s for this generation of constantly connected young people. I say not, they’re largely far too dumb and self interested to give it the attention it deserves. Grown-ups will get it cause it rewards your attention.

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  • March 4, 2013 at 7:12 pm
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    TF Simpson is nine and a quarter. In the past 18 months or so he has watched all five Planet of the Apes, all four Critters and all four Tremors (and Gremlins). Plus assorted crap like Megashark vs Giant Octopus. All of these are 12 or 15 but there’s nothing in any of ’em that an intelligent eight-year-old can’t cope with – provided they watch with an adult who can explain stuff. Most of the time, 15 certs relate entirely to swearing, and he hears worse than that in the playground.

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  • March 5, 2013 at 10:08 am
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    Great blog, Patch! From what I can remember, sneaking into 15s and finding people with law-night Betamax recordings of age inappropriate movies was a large part of my childhood!! Gremlins was a favourite, maybe it was the humor which balanced out the horror?!…

    http://www.doronklemer.wordpress.com

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  • March 6, 2013 at 1:33 pm
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    Brilliant article Pat, very interesting stuff, and cheers for the mention!

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