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 Christmastime 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 DECISION, etc).
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 fruition.
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.
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 blockbusters.
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 BLUE VELVET, 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