Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Glynn Turman, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Polly Holliday, Keye Luke, Judge Reinhold, John Louie
(out of 4)
I’m sitting there, taking in the clumsy opening and voice-over narration, watching the cheesy stock character introductions, wondering what exactly is so good about this Joe Dante/Steven Spielberg collaboration called Gremlins that I haven’t seen since I was a kid. Take the scene in the bank, where we meet Billy (Zach Galligan), who thinks nothing of bringing his dog into work with him. The hated witch Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday, playing the movie’s equivalent of Mr. Potter) arrives, threatening to have Billy’s dog put to sleep for destroying an expensive lawn ornament of hers. The predictable wacky hijinks ensue, as the dog gets loose and knocks Mrs. Deagle down – hey, it’s wacky, syrupy family fun. Billy’s mom is your 50s household mom (watching It’s a Wonderful Life on the television), his dad (Hoyt Axton!) is an unsuccessful inventor always trying to sell his shitty inventions (more than one scene will feature a “Peltzer” brand appliance malfunctioning in its own wacky way, causing the expected mess), and he’s sweet on town girl Kate (Phoebe Cates) who is smart enough to reject the advances of banker asshole Gerald Hopkins (Judge Reinhold). One day, Mr. Peltzer is peddling his wares in Chinatown when he comes across an underground shop run by a peculiar old Chinese man (Keye Luke) with a beard and a fake eye. There he discovers a very strange little animal that would be perfect as a pet for his kid, but the old man won’t sell (“With Mogwai comes much responsibility”). Fortunately, the man’s grandson recognizes the need for money (the kid is sufficiently Westernized) and sells the cute little critter for $200. The Mogwai (Mr. Peltzer calls him “Gizmo”) comes with three important rules: 1. Keep him out of bright lights. Sunlight will kill him. 2. Never get him wet. 3. Never feed him after midnight. (The first obvious question is: isn’t it always after midnight? The next question is: is that midnight Eastern Standard Time?)
It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the characters in Gremlins didn’t break all three rules, through some combination of laziness and/or stupidity. But here’s where things get interesting – the adorable Gizmo (who can sing and even pronounce a few words) multiplies when you spill water on him (thanks for that, Corey Feldman), but the new Mogwai aren’t so nice. They even trick Billy into feeding them after midnight, which causes them to undergo metamorphosis. Out of the cocoons come the gremlins – nasty creatures with a predisposition towards bad manners, property destruction, and (usually) killing people. They’re mean little buggers with an ingrained knowledge of electrical engineering, which allows them to do things like modify traffic lights to cause accidents, or sabotage the mean Mrs. Deagle’s motorized chair to blast itself out her second story window (with her on it, of course). But what’s most fascinating about Gremlins is not the complete destruction of a Frank Capra fantasy, or as Ebert put it, the “devouring of decades of defenseless clichés,” but the ability for the gremlins to be stand-ins for the “other” or maybe just the worst aspects of human nature.
As a violent kids fantasy and as a parody, the movie is skillful – credit Dante more than Spielberg on this one. (See: Piranha). Chris Columbus deserves a mention for the script, which apparently was much more violent at first. The kitchen scene – where Mrs. Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) violently dispatches gremlins using a blender, microwave, and kitchen knife, while shouting “Get out of my kitchen!” is a funny metaphor for the housewife defending her “turf” while simultaneously answering every kid’s questions about what would happen if you microwaved the family pet. I think what finally changed my mind about Gremlins was the scene in the movie theater, where hundreds of them gather for a viewing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Billy tells Kate “they love it!” Take a look, also, at the gremlins’ bad behavior at the neighborhood bar – smoking like fiends, drinking to excess, cheating at cards, shooting each other, generally causing chaos wherever they go. What’s sticky about the film is how you can interpret the little monsters in so many ways – I personally saw jabs at the middle/working class. I got to thinking about it because everyone in town is hurting financially – Randall Peltzer is almost always on the road, trying to make money on shoddy products, a woman and her family are behind on rent, Mr. Futterman (the great Dick Miller) lost his job at the factory and constantly complains about the bad quality of foreign products. So seeing gremlins get wasted at dive bars and then indulge in junk food while watching a Disney film had me comparing them with the bourgeoisie. But they don’t have to be. They could be standins for white America’s fear of minorities moving in – after all, Gizmo comes from Chinatown and ultimately returns there. Is this a thinly veiled allusion to a “Yellow Peril”? Or – are the gremlins another version of rebellious teenagers (spawned from the cute and well behaved Gizmo, before “puberty”)? The gremlins are nebulous enough to represent almost anything.
The rest of the movie is good enough – the puppet effects and gooey transformation sequences are top notch, thanks to the efforts of Chris Walas. The death of the gremlin leader Stripe (that little punk!) reminded me of the effects in the ending sequence of The Fly, which came out a few years later. The movie’s skewering of Christmas and family fantasies is good, even if certain parts don’t quite fit – Kate’s monologue about why she hates Christmas wasn’t funny enough or disturbing enough for me – it kinda sits there in the middle, awkward zone; also, Judge Reinhold’s character was unfortunately butchered in the editing process. I also don’t feel that the film is particularly scary, but Gremlins is what it needs to be – a subversive kids flick. Parents freaked out at the time – this was one of the movies that led to the PG-13 rating, but honestly this movie has nothing even close to the heart-ripping scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It does, however, feature mystical puppet creatures running loose on “Bedford Falls”, giving Norman Rockwell nightmares, and offers up a wealth of references to everything from Warner Brothers cartoons to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Forbidden Planet. If the movie tends towards xenophobia, it helps balance things by taking shots at Western values and our obsession with consumption. After all, daddy Peltzer names the creature “Gizmo” and wants to sell him as a pet. Later, the old man from Chinatown will berate him for letting Gizmo watch television (at one point, Gizmo gets inspiration from a Clark Gable movie). The irony of “Gizmo” taking part in a climax in a store’s toy department might have been lost on everybody who found him cute enough to go out and purchase Gizmo dolls for themselves. OK, well the little guy is cute. Gremlins is followed by a sequel, which came 6 years later and is crazier and more satirical.
- Bill Gordon