If I haven’t mentioned it before, I love Joe Dante’s films. They’re all unique and all somehow straddle the line between being mainstream pieces of cinema and anarchic bites against the very hand that feeds them.
Gremlins is a great example. On the surface, it’s a cute film for the kids, complete with a cute lead character (Gizmo the Mogwai), a Christmas setting and plenty of product placement. Bubbling beneath the artifice is a film brimming with darkness and doom, a world of slime-covered monsters, dead fathers in chimneys and a town packed with money woes and depression, a place where even the lead heroine claims that there are some folks who, when “everybody else opens up presents, they’re opening up their wrists.”
Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is an inventor who has great ideas that work great the first time, then start to fail. “Fantastic ideas for a fantastic world. I make the illogical logical,” he claims, but the majority of his inventions seem like more trouble than they’re worth. Like the Bathroom Buddy, a Swiss Army knife for those that travel often. Or the sound system he’s made from an artichoke. Or the egg smasher, mega juicer and super blender that turn every meal into a mess.
While on one of his many trips to try and sell his products, he goes to Chinatown in the hopes of finding a gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan, Waxwork). In a strange store, he discovers a small, furry beast called a mogwai (which is Cantonese for monster, one of the many in-jokes in a film nearly overflowing with them). However, the owner of the store, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke, “Number One Son” in the Charlie Chan films) refuses to sell it to him. However, his grandson has no such qualms, selling it with three rules: no bright lights, never get it wet and never, ever feed it after midnight.
Returning to the idyllic Kingston Falls, the mogwai is given the name Gizmo and becomes best friends with Billy. Billy spends his days working at a bank where his dog Barney (Mushroom the dog, who also was in Pumpkinhead) constantly runs afoul of the evil Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday, Flo from TV’s Alice).
One night, while hanging out with his friend Pete (Corey Feldman, The Lost Boys), a glass of water spills on Gizmo, leading to five more mogwai being born — an incident which causes great pain to the cute little creature. Whereas Gizmo is a cute little beast who loves to sing and make people happy, these mogwai are already evil before they eat before midnight — which they accomplish by chewing the power cord to Billy’d alarm clock fooling him into thinking its earlier than it really is.
Once they transform into gremlins, they become even worse. They murder Billy’s high school teacher, Mr. Hanson. Then, they torture Gizmo and come after Billy and his mother.
Pure chaos ensues, with gremlins being blended and destroyed by other methods, as well as gremlins killing townsfolk left and right. Soon, only Stripe is left, but he dives into the pool at the YMCA and creates a whole new army in an awesome sequence filled with smoke, fury and colored light.
Billy and Gizmo rescue his girlfriend, Kate Beringer (1980’s sex symbol Phoebe Cates, she of the rising from the pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) from a gremlin attack on a bar, after which she reveals why she hates Christmas: a long speech about her father dying inside the chimney while trying to be Santa Claus. This burst of pure bleakness stands in marked contrast to the comic chaos that populates the film.
Meanwhile, all of the gremlins are in a movie theater. “They’re watching Snow White. And they love it!” Billy exclaims. This is a scene where Dante reveals the true joy of watching a film, as the gremlins begin screaming “Heigh Ho!” the song of the Seven Dwarves. The theater is blown up and only Stripe survives, making his way to a Montgomery Ward where he tries to spawn another army.
However, Gizmo arrives in a toy car and opens the skylights, melting the villain.
Mr. Wing makes his way to Kingston Falls, where he takes Gizmo back, scolding the family that they are too careless and not ready for magic yet. However, he is happy to given the gift of one of Randall’s smokeless ashtrays and hints that Gizmo may return another day.
Gremlins was a spec script by Christopher Columbus, who heard an army of mice every night in his apartment and wondered what they would look like. In its original form, Gremlins was even meaner and darker than it ended up being. Billy’s mother is killed and her head flung down the steps, Barney the dog gets eaten and Gizmo actually becomes the monster, an idea that producer Stephen Spielberg vetoed.
I am always amazed at how many more genre films were released in the 1980’s. Gremlins proves my point — it came out the same weekend as Ghostbusters, but still was able to be the #4 movie of 1984, behind that film, Beverly Hills Cop and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The dark center of this film, as well as the gore in Temple of Doom, gave birth to the PG-13 rating, which was suggested by Spielberg as a way of dealing with the controversy of these two films. This is referenced in Gremlins 2 when a mother yells at Paul Bartel about the content of the film. During a screening of Gremlins, a mother really did scream at Joe Dante, walking out of the theater during the kitchen gore scene. The daughter ran away from the mother during the argument and hid in the theater for the rest of the film.
This is a film packed with references to other films, a hallmark of Dante:
In one scene where Randall calls home, we can see the Time Machine from the George Pal film disappear in the background while Robby the Robot says, “Sorry miss I was giving myself an oil job. This question is totally without meaning. Pardon me, sir, stuff? Thick and heavy? Would sixty gallons be sufficient? I rarely use it myself, sir. It promotes rust.” This dialogue always makes me laugh my ass off because it makes little to no sense and Robby says it with such gravitas.
The movie theater is showing A Boy’s Life and Watch the Skies, the original titles for E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Eddie Quist’s smiley face from The Howling shows up on the Peltzer’s refrigerator.
There are also cameos from Spielberg, composer Jerry Goldsmith and Looney Tunes creator Chuck Jones.
And man, I almost forgot that Dick Miller shows up in here, as he does in every Dante film!
Gremlins is packed with sheer joy, from its art direction to character design and devotion to showing just how messy the gremlins can get. Sure, it references It’s a Wonderful Life, but it also shows Invasion of the Body Snatchers as another film within the film. It’s a film worth watching any time of the year — in fact, it came out in the summertime despite its holiday setting.