Ed. note– I saw GREMLINS in the theatres in 1984. Fortunately, I didn’t have the worst sunburn of my life while watching it. Even more fortunately, I wasn’t watching GREMLINS 2.– P.F.
THE HOWLING has always been my favorite Joe Dante flick, and that likely will never change. But I can’t fault anyone whose favorite from his catalogue is GREMLINS. Bringing his subversive wit and anarchic glee to small town America, Dante released cutesy fuzzballs, green monsters and Dick Miller upon the world in a movie that is both funny and horrifying. It’s his most popular release, and I can’t find fault with that.
GREMLINS begins with Rand Peltzer trying to buy a gift in Chinatown for his son Billy. When Mr. Wing refuses to sell him a Mogwai, his grandson sneaks the little critter outside and makes the exchange. In voiceover, he explains to Rand the three rules: 1. Don’t get them wet. 2. Don’t feed them after midnight. 3. Don’t expose them to sunlight. This being a movie, each of these will happen despite the warning. It results in multiple Mogwais, who transform into a multitude of Gremlins. Chaos ensues in the Rands’ small town, as the Gremlins wreak havoc on Kingston Falls, and Billy, his girlfriend Kate and first Mogwai Gizmo do their best to stop them.
GREMLINS is a wonderful movie from start to finish. Dante’s depiction of a small town, shot on the Warner backlot, totally captures the essence of Frank Capra’s America. Kingston Falls sets the perfect backdrop for the Gremlins, who are out to destroy it. The characters have a certain quaintness and innocence to them (and did even in 1984, when the film was released) that permeate the film and make it easy to root for Billy, Kate and Gizmo. As Billy, Zach Galligan is the All-American Boy, and Phoebe Cates as Kate is perfect as the Girl Next Door. Together they have a chemistry, and their budding romance feels real. Even Gizmo, not a native, exudes a natural virtuousness. Dante coaxes nice performances from the entire cast, creating a homey atmosphere that I surmise is the reason why the flick is so popular, despite its horrific elements.
And it’s definitely a horror movie. Though the Gremlins’ acts of violence are toned down considerably from the first draft by Chris Columbus (no Mom’s head rolling down stairs), they are menacing little monsters. They bite and rip and claw through everything in their way, and one even brandishes a gun. Their leader Stripe has a mean streak a mile wide, even if his Mohawk is a lot narrower. Make no mistake: they want to kill everyone whose path they cross. Chris Walas’ practical effects impress, both in the gruesome monstrosities of the Gremlins and the cuddly Gizmo. Look at the various facial tics of all the creatures, and you can see just how much attention to detail Walas provides to his creations.
X Marks the Oscar: GREMLINS was the first full film that Dante used composer Jerry Goldsmith. They would collaborate right up to the composer’s death. Goldsmith, of course, won an Oscar for my favorite horror film, THE OMEN.
As this is Dante, there are plenty of jokes to go along with the horror. For a horror comedy, it’s not on the wicked level of RE-ANIMATOR, but it’s very funny in spots. Mrs. Deagle’s demise in particular still makes me laugh, and tell me honestly that you don’t chuckle at a Gremlin’s feet sticking out of a blender. There are references to Dante’s earlier flicks (my favorite, a smiley face from THE HOWLING stuck to a fridge), and to film history, including an appearance by Robby the Robot. When left to his own devices, Dante can go overboard with this stuff (see: LOONEY TUNES BACK IN ACTION. Oh wait. Don’t.), but fortunately he doesn’t let his film geekdom overrun the flick.
GREMLINS created its fair share of controversy back in the summer of 1984. Rated PG, GREMLINS and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM engendered the MPAA to create a new rating to bridge the gap between PG and R. My 11-year old nephew could definitely handle this flick, but our Puritanical society didn’t want Hollywood corrupting the youth of America, and so the PG-13 was born. And then there’s Kate’s story of why she hates Christmas. It’s the film’s darkest moment, and it sent Warner Bros. execs into fits of apoplexy. It was gutsy for Dante to refuse to remove it, and for exec producer Steven Spielberg to back him. A 12-year old version of Big Evil, I was shocked by it when I first saw it, and it’s still effective.
GREMLINS on the whole is still effective. It’s the essence of Dante, the film most representative of what his films, and in turn his life, are all about. The Gremlins are the perfect anarchical creatures for Joe to play with, and he does them justice. The movie is so much fun, and manages also to deliver on the horror.
There’s only one flaw I find with GREMLINS, and it revolves around Rand Peltzer. Hoyt Axton is fine enough in the part, but the script sets him up as a failed inventor, and shows several of his malfunctioning inventions throughout the film’s first half. So the most fantastical element in the movie is when he pulls out $200 in cash and offers it to Mr. Wing for Gizmo. He’s carrying more than two bills in his jacket, alongside his faulty Bathroom Buddy, which he fails to sell to Wing. This guy owns a house larger than my childhood home, and my dad was a union carpenter making good 80s money. Nobody ever mentions this, but leave it to me to be the outlier who finds it the film’s sole fault.
Three decades, GREMLINS is still Joe Dante’s most popular film, the high point of his career and the film that best represents his love of film. I’ll always prefer THE HOWLING, but GREMLINS comes in a very close second. It’s a subversive American classic.