Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Corey Feldman, Keye Luke
Twisted, scary and unorthodox: Gremlins is the ultimate festive palate cleanser.
“Yeah, I know, who hasn’t got a story to tell?” says Randall Peltzer (the charming Hoyt Axton), coming in at both the beginning and end of the feature to offer a warm narration. He’s right though – why should we partake in this tale amidst the wonted seasonal efforts? Well, Joe Dante’s film (with executive producer Steven Spielberg) isn’t like the rest. It’s definitely a Christmas effort, but unlike the family-friendly aura so common around the holidays, Gremlins is dark, twisted and downright scary at times, even 34 years after its release. Fall in love with Gizmo, cower from Stripe; this is a timeless, idiosyncratic bedtime story.
Randall wanders around the murky, red-lit world of Chinatown, his towering stature sticking out amidst the busy scene (a little bit of juxtaposition for the impending thrills in suburban America). He’s ushered down into a cobweb-ridden antique shop, greeted by owner Mr. Wing (the presence-absorbing Keye Luke). He’s looking for a present to take home to his son, but he’s also trying to sell something himself – he’s a bit of an inventor, you see. His “illogical, logical” product is the “Bathroom Buddy”, which speaks for itself. This is the first in long line of references to the capitalist-conquering nature of the west, but his sales spiel isn’t eye-rolling – there’s a gentle dose of slapstick and self-aware goofiness consistent with all of Randall’s inventions in the movie.
“What is that?” he asks, upon hearing mysterious sounds in the background. We catch our first glimpse of the “Mogwai”, its silhouetted ears moving with its swooning whistle. Of course Randall wants him, but “Mogwai not for sale”, Mr. Wing says. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t somehow get the cute little bugger. But before Dante really gets down to business, writer Chris Columbus delivers the three of the greatest Chekhov Guns in cinema: “Keep him out of bright light, don’t get him wet, and whatever you do, never feed him after midnight.”
These three conceits are a delicious time-bomb (best not to think of how Mogwai wash or how their bodies actually know it’s midnight). Before they explode, we need to be acquainted with the playground; there’s the townsfolk you would expect, such as the sneering, pantomimic old woman, the subtly racist but kind-hearted neighbour (“God damn foreign cars!”), and the boyish lead (Zach Galligan as Billy) with a girl down the street to win over (Phoebe Cates as Kate). In this regard Gremlins is both a ingeniously original work and a tribute to well-established traits of other stories, wearing them with pride as it subverts its genre.
Billy is bowled over by Gizmo immediately, as is anyone with a heart. The puppetry and technical know-how behind him is extraordinary, seemingly managing to make him appear to be a real, breathing, living creature. Dante and other members of the crew have famously said how much they actually hated the little guy due to the frustration of operating him, but the result was an 80s icon (I still have the same Gizmo toy I bought when I was eight-years-old).
Billy goes through the careless motions and eventually, there’s a litter of Mogwai running around, led by the ferocious Stripe (because of the mohawk). Gizmo remains unaffected, but his relatives are entirely different beasts; simply, they’re monsters. Dante, who displayed a real B-movie streak in the original Piranha which continued right through to 1998’s underrated Small Soldiers, has nasty, devilish fun with his new beings. Billy’s mum memorably fights off a bunch of them, shoving them in blenders and microwaves and whatnot in a hilariously gory flurry of kills. It is at this point, Gremlins switches genre, from child-friendly fare to frightening horror flick.
The craft behind the film is deserving of praise; Dante’s direction is impassioned and rambunctious, aided by the wacky eye of cinematographer John Hora (watch out for the fluorescent pool scene). Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a not-often mentioned work, which is criminal, as his Gremlins theme is the stuff classic compositions are made of. Columbus’ script taps into coming-of-age tropes, but at one point, in the most fantastic, off-kilter moment of dramedy you’re likely to experience, gives Kate a harrowing story to recount for Billy – no spoilers, but you’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen it.
The final stretch of the film is a full-on descent into monster-mayhem. We watch in awe as they completely wreck a bar, enjoying an extravagant night of boozing and playing cards, before heading to the cinema for an impromptu, feisty performance of Snow White. They could be interpreted as many things, a representation of the hysteria of capitalism, perhaps? Or, if nothing else, uproarious, riotous, murderous villains that you’ll find even more captivating with every croaky “yum yum”.
By the rather poignant end, Gremlins is guaranteed to have left a mark. It was criticized for its violence back in the day, alongside similarly uncharacteristically extreme Indiana Jones prequel, Temple of Doom. Consider whether your children will be able to handle it before putting it on perhaps. If they can, they’re in for a wicked treat. Just remember, check all the cupboards and under the beds, “you never can tell – there might just be a Gremlin in your house”.