A Yuletide-themed horror-comedy, Gremlins continues to endure as an eminently popular holiday mainstay, and it’s easy to see why. In 1984, Steven Spielberg was primarily associated with three things: Jaws, E.T. and tremendous box office receipts. Executive produced by Spielberg, Gremlins is fundamentally a merger of all three, and it was one of the first movies to be made by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company. It was released on the same weekend as the original Ghostbusters, and fast developed into somewhat of a phenomenon during its theatrical run. A kids Christmas film which pushed the envelope of what was allowed within the confines of PG-rated family entertainment, it became a hit, grossing in excess of $140 million at the American box office. Gremlins is not perfect, but it’s entertaining B-grade fun which has stood the test of time.
In Chinatown, ambitious but incompetent inventor Randall Peltzer (Axton) buys a cute, furry little creature known as a “mogwai” as a Christmas present for his son, Billy (Galligan). Randall is given strict instructions relating to the creature, which he imparts onto Billy: do not give it any water, do not expose it to sunlight, and absolutely do not feed it after midnight. Affectionately calling the mogwai Gizmo, Billy is at first overjoyed by his new pet, but the all-important rules are soon broken. Before long, more mogwai are spawned and they are accidentally fed after midnight, transforming them into dangerous green creatures determined to wreak havoc. On Christmas Eve, the town becomes overrun with nasty gremlins, and it’s up to Billy, his girlfriend Kate (Cates) and Gizmo to find a solution.
Gremlins was written by Chris Columbus, and it was actually his very first script to be produced. In the years since, Columbus became a big-time director, with films like Home Alone and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to his credit. Surprisingly, the first act of Gremlins feels somewhat like a Charles Dickens story. We’re introduced to Billy’s gruff old neighbour Mr. Futterman (the legendary Dick Miller) who hates everything foreign and drives a tractor. On top of this, there’s an evil, rich old lady who delights in evicting families and generally acts like Ebenezer Scrooge. The set-up begs for a Christmas miracle, but we get something else entirely. It’s a sly subversion of the typical feel-good formula, with director Joe Dante plunging the story into the realm of dark comedy and horror.
The biggest fault of Gremlins is one of tone. Dante attempted to mix humour and horror, but he’s only moderately successful. Too often, the two tonal extremes cancel each other out – the film isn’t scary enough due to the humorous touches, and the comedy is only sporadically effective because the violence and gore is too vivid. Certainly, Gremlins is fun throughout, but numerous moments are too uncomfortably mean-spirited. To the credit of Dante, though, when the film works, it really does work. The fact that he doesn’t treat the material as an outright parody is commendable, and the film actually contains a handful of effective dramatic scenes. In one scene, for instance, Kate is drawn into telling Billy a tragic story of what happened one Christmas when she was a little girl. It was a ballsy move to include pathos but it works, thanks in large part to Phoebe Cates’ well-judged performance. Meanwhile, Zach Galligan is charming as Billy, and he carries out leading man responsibilities with utmost confidence. Gremlins also features Judge Reinhold in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo role, and a young Corey Feldman playing Billy’s young friend Pete.
As perhaps to be expected, Gremlins is a pretty dumb movie. You will have to accept the fact that, while the gremlins are rampaging, nobody grabs a gun or a baseball bat until the closing minutes of the film. Moreover, the mythology behind the mogwai is half-baked, leaving numerous questions unanswered. For example, the mogwai cannot be fed after midnight or else they turn into vicious gremlins, but from midnight until when? Plus, what is it about light, water and food that affects these things? And why don’t the gremlins take full advantage of the situation and crazily reproduce to the point that they could take over the entire world?
Executive producer Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over the film. By this stage in his career, he had the power to get ample funding for his projects, hence Gremlins was produced for a decent sum. As a result, it contains a number of still-impressive special effects. The gremlins benefit from creative design and competent cinematic techniques which bring them to life, courtesy of effects technician Chris Walas (The Fly) and his talented crew.Gremlins contains several stand-out scenes which nail the intended tone of campy lunacy, including a bar sequence featuring gremlins lampooning typical human behavioural traits: they imitate drunkards, card players, muggers and dancers. It’s glorious stuff. Plus, the main theme by Jerry Goldsmith is one of the most memorable pieces of music from the era.
In final analysis, it’s hard to dislike Gremlins. It has a flawed script at its foundation and it’s too dark at times, but the film remains a frequently enjoyable alternative holiday film, especially when Dante revels in the campy possibilities of the premise.