You’re probably familiar with GREMLINS (and if not, where the Hell
have you been?), one of the greatest Hollywood blockbusters of the
eighties, as well as a signature film by the sometimes-great Joe Dante.
It may not be perfect (far from it, in fact), but remains a classic of
mirth and menace.
GREMLINS, the inaugural release of Amblin
Entertainment, was one of the biggest hits of 1984. That’s despite the
fact that its advertising campaign was hopelessly misconceived,
suggesting a slightly darker variant on E.T. rather than the intense and
subversive horror comedy it was.
The film was one of two Steven Spielberg productions
released in 1984, the other being INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.
Both were derided for their high violence quotient, with GREMLINS in
particular singled out as “too intense” for children (speaking was one
who was a child when it was first released, I say bullshit to that). The
result was the creation (in the U.S.) of the PG-13 rating. Another
innovation brought about by GREMLINS was that it was Christmas set yet
released in June, which began the odd Hollywood trend of releasing
Christmas themed blockbusters in the summertime (as was the case with
LETHAL WEAPON, DIE HARD 1 & 2, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, EXECUTIVE
Inevitably a GREMLINS 2 followed in 1990, but it wasn’t
nearly as successful as its predecessor. Since then the prospect of a
GREMLINS 3 has been broached numerous times, but has yet to come to
The small-time inventor Randall Peltzer is in Chinatown
looking for a Christmas gift for his “teenage” son Billy. Here Randall
happens upon what appears to be an ideal gift: a cute furry creature
called a Mogwai that comes with three hard-and-fast rules: don’t get the
thing wet, avoid exposing it to bright light, and never, ever
feed it after midnight.
Randall takes the Mogwai back to his home, located in a
picture-postcard small town where Billy (who seems considerably older
than the teenager he’s supposed to be) supports his parents by working
in a bank. Billy immediately cottons to the Mogwai, and names it Gizmo.
He also gets it wet, of course, which causes five more Mogwais to sprout
from Gizmo’s back. These new Mogwais, however, are extremely mean and
rambunctious, led by an evil figure with a white Mohawk that Billy dubs
Stripe and his brood waste no time stirring up trouble
by tangling Billy’s dog in Christmas lights and eventually tricking
Billy into feeding them after midnight. This causes them to develop
slimy exo-shells that break open on Christmas Eve, unleashing nasty
green critters Billy dubs Gremlins. One of them kills Billy’s science
teacher while several others are massacred by Billy’s mother in her
kitchen. Stripe, for his part, heads to the local YMCA and dives into
the swimming pool, multiplying into dozens more Gremlins.
All sorts of mayhem ensues, with Billy and Gizmo hiding
out in Billy’s gutted place of employment together with his pretty
co-worker Kate. As the Gremlins rage outside Kate regales Billy with a
horrific childhood memory that explains why she hates Christmas: on
Christmas Eve years earlier her father disappeared, and she and her
mother didn’t find out until a week later that he was lodged in their
chimney, having broken his neck while attempting to climb down it.
Shortly before dawn the Gremlins retire to a movie
theater showing SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. This offers Billy an
ideal opportunity to kill them all off, but there’s still the problem of
Stripe, who always seems to elude his human tormentors…
That this is a Steven Spielberg production is evident
in the many in-jokes that pop up throughout the film, such as a movie
marquee listing the original titles of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD
KIND and E.T. and a mid-film “Phone Home” reference. Spielberg’s
influence is also evident in the Frank Capra-esque small town nostalgia
and the sickeningly cute Gizmo, who was initially supposed to transform
into the evil Gremlin Stripe but on Spielberg’s orders was kept in his
initial Mogwai state.
Yet Joe Dante’s more subversive sensibilities
ultimately win out. Note how the small town setting is beset with
unemployment and the relentlessness with which many of the characters
are killed. Dante is also careful to provide a wealth of endearingly
quirky touches--a shot of a framed picture being displaced during one of
the killings, animated Gremlin shadows projected on a movie screen,
Billy’s dog running away from the melted remains of a Gremlin--that give
the film a personality of a sort one rarely sees in Hollywood
The script by Chris Columbus, alas, is serviceable at
best. It’s a widely known fact that Columbus’s original draft was far
nastier and more problematic than what ended up onscreen, and many of
the problems of that early draft were never completely ironed out. This
is evident in the contrast between the film’s best scene (the justly
famous Gremlin kitchen massacre) and its worst (the cartoony tavern
sequence with Gremlins break-dancing and interacting with tiny props).
Of course there are bits in which such diverging sensibilities combine,
as in Phoebe Cates’ sublime “why I hate Christmas” monologue, which can
be viewed as something of a dry run for the dark humor of
which appeared two years later.
Also worthy of mention are the Chris Walas designed
animatronic Mogwai and Gremlins, surely the most impressive cinematic
creatures since the glory days of Ray Harryhausen. Dante shows real
fearlessness in the way he so brazenly displays the critters throughout
the film, and his faith in the abilities of his special effects
technicians was (for once) fully rewarded.
Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment
Director: Joe Dante
Producer: Michael Finnell
Screenplay: Chris Columbus
Cinematography: John Hora
Editing: Tina Hirsch
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday, Frances
Lee McCain, Dick Miller, Keye Luke, Judge Reinhold, Glynn Turman, Don
Steele, Corey Feldman, Scott Brady, Howie Mandel