I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video.
I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the unremitting wonderment of Steven Spielberg (whose film this purported to be, to any undiscerning patron). Stronger too than another “Steven Spielberg” movie that wowed me soon after; Back to the Future, which I did see on the big screen. But, deft as he was, Robert Zemeckis’ filmmaking lacked the same gleeful irreverence (one thing both Gremlins and Back to the Future have in common is the Universal backlot set, however).
Back to the Future was released almost exactly year after Gremlins in the UK. It’s easy to forget this was a time when Hollywood movies rarely had day-and-date releases across the Globe. In Britain, in particular, there was a thinking that we didn’t go to the movies in the summer so we would wait six months as a matter of course. It would be another five years before British movie summers began to mirror American ones (even then, it took Die Hard until February 1989 to come out so missing a Christmas tie-in; what were they thinking?)
It was Dante’s cartoonish flair and disrespect for the rules of storytelling and, indeed, the fourth wall that distinguished him from his peers (he may have seemed “mentored” by the “Spielberg presents” approach, but the cheerful black heart of Gremlins is one Spielberg could never have countenanced, for all his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom darkness). Innerspace, released a couple of years later, crystallised the sense of manic abandon I found so attractive in Gremlins, and from thence I would seek out each of Dante’s (increasingly rare) new pictures and savour them; even the lesser ones.
Because Spielberg name became so ubiquitous as a producer (it was attached to any Amblin-bannered release, of which Gremlins was the first), the lustre of his presumed badge of quality quickly wore off. But there was a brief period, mid-‘80s, when his chaperoned fare was a big deal and for good reason. In retrospect, his role as a family blockbuster entertainment machine had peaked just as he was selling himself as a brand. However ill-equipped, Spielberg was attempting to spread his wings and tackle serous, adult, fare to prove he wasn’t just a nerdy kid made good. E.T. was the peak of his a near-decade long wave of success, during which his Midas Touch and glowing-finger-on-the-pulse approach was near infallible (sure, there was 1941… )
As if in recognition of this, 1984 saw the release of Spielberg’s first sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and it was the first time he showed his vulnerability in relation to a tried and tested formula. Sure, maybe he wasn’t suited to straight comedy. But he knew his action-adventures. Right? Yet Temple, entertaining as it is in parts, was slightly off. The pure cinema vibrancy of Raiders had given way to something heavier, slightly stodgier, and less sure of its self. Maybe it was just a result of director and producer being in difficult personal places at the time, but this was where “brand Spielberg” eclipsed the director himself. As it would for the next few years. Gremlins, despite being guided by Spielberg (who came up with several key changes to the plot that emphasise, if nothing else, his keen sense of the recipe for success), wasn’t expected to become a breakout hit. Sure, there were hopes, but it had a macabre, jet-black, streak of comedy running through it, and it might not be to all tastes.
I doubt that Spielberg felt he was being usurped by his “protégées” but it was probably a useful defence that he was moving onto the likes of The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, where box office wasn’t necessarily its own reward (but of course, that instinct is infused in his being). But for me, while his name spelled a form of quality, I was beginning to pick out the stylistic and emotional streaks that made him a less-than perfect filmmaker. There was sentimentality infused in E.T. that would increasingly become his Achilles heel, and neither Dante nor Zemeckis appeared to be overtly afflicted by such a disposition. Indeed, Dante seemed to be actively pushing against it (as the queasiness of the “Why I don’t celebrate Christmas” scene in Gremlins suggests; we aren’t sure quite how to respond. With Spielberg there would be no doubt whatsoever).
The summer of 1984 remains a high-water mark in terms of box office. Four pictures made today’s equivalent of $300m+. The sure thing was Temple of Doom, but it grossed $60m less than Raiders. Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters led the way, proving wildly successful. One established Eddie Murphy as the one of the decade’s biggest movie stars. The other confirmed the wayward Bill Murray as the driest wit alive, even if it was the merchandising that sealed its appeal. Merchandising that would have made Spielberg drool. And no doubt did. Gremlins brought up the rear, hitting fourth place, biting at Temple’s ventricle-plucked carcass. Warner Bros’ decision to release such an unashamedly festive tale in the height of summer looks like lunacy (although Fox would pull a similar feat with Die Hard a few years later). It was intended for winter, but the studio pushed the production forward when they realised they had no summer contender. Perhaps the "suggest, don't show" advertising campaign succeeded in whetting appetites for something special. It opened the same weekend as Ghostbusters, making its success even more remarkable.
Dante hasn’t experienced a comparable hit again. It gave him carte blanche on Gremlins 2: The New Batch, much to Warner’s doubtless chagrin. The original’s unrepentant twistedness (although most of the violence is inflicted on the gremlins themselves) is, along with Temple’s extracted beating hearts, credited with the introduction of the PG-13 certificate. While Gremlins received a PG in the US, it was condemned to a 15 in the UK (Temple survived with a PG thanks to a few significant edits). When Gremlins was rereleased in the UK in 2012, it tellingly received a 12A.
It would be difficult to countenance that the violence of the picture is really the cause of the um-ing and ah-ing of the censors and classification boards. There is little on screen. It is surely more about the unrepentant, remorseless, delight the movie takes in the activities of its creatures, and the lack of moral coding with regard to the carnage they unleash. If we can agree Mrs Deagle deserved it, did the hapless schoolteacher (sure Mr Hanson embraced animal experimentation, not too far from the name-checked Dr Moreau; and perhaps he was fated to die as the movie’s singular African American)? Yet it was apparently the exploding gremlin in the microwave that pushed the MPAA’s boundaries (because kids might imitate the action with their pets? It’s difficult to see how a rubber monster erupting in green goo would really seem like too much).
Chris Columbus’ inspiration was non-specific noises in his loft, but gremlins themselves are traditionally of the variety cited by Mr Futterman (Dick Miller). The “gremlins in the works” of mechanical failures, and specifically those of planes during WWII, had manifested on celluloid on the year before. Director George Miller called the shots on a malignant demonic creature that starts tearing apart an engine on poor John Lithgow’s flight in Twilight Zone: The Movie (the pre-production/development schedule of Gremlins was so extended that Dante had time to film a – different – segment for it, and the picture was released before Gremlins was completed; a poster of the film is found on Billy’s (Zach Galligan) bedroom wall). Columbus script was much, much, nastier than the movie Gremlins became, although it was always intended as a black comedy. It is perhaps a little difficult to believe, since as a director Columbus has identified himself with toothless family fare from Home Alone to the first two Harry Potters. Spielberg liked the script, leading to his contributions to The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes, but as a writer Columbus hasn’t generally fulfilled his promise (Christmas with the Kranks?!)
Despite an essential clash in terms of filmmaking approach (maudlin sentiment versus goofy meta-textuality), Dante and Spielberg appeared to agree that the concept needed softening. Or perhaps Dante came in with that message already impressed upon him. Certainly, I can see he didn’t need much persuasion; the tone of Gremlins is demonstrably his rather than his producer’s. Spielberg had also considered Tim Burton, at that point a feature virgin, and chose not to take the risk. The picture might have worked with Burton, but I doubt that it would have been as energised and it would definitely have lacked Dante’s gift for exaggerated social commentary. Spielberg liked The Howling, and had perhaps seen the earlier Piranha as something of backhanded compliment. Accordingly, the fruits of Dante being attached to Gremlins had already borne the aforementioned Twilight Zone vignette (the anthology boasted a Spielberg segment, easily the weakest of the fourt).
While I rag on Spielberg for the way he fell from being a great maker of through-and-through cinematic entertainments into one straining for a depth his intellect (and his emotional shallowness) could never allow, respect is due for the way he intuitively understood certain essentials with Gremlins. He realised, perhaps not immediately but soon enough, that Gizmo (who wasn’t named in Columbus’ screenplay) should not transform into Stripe, as intended by the writer, but rather remain a constant throughout the story. Gizmo was cute and audiences would identify with him. Whatever hell this decision may have put the filmmakers through (Chris Walas had not designed the Mogwai with an extended appearance in mind, and the challenges in getting the puppet to work saw the crew nurse an increasing desire to torture the little darling – as would be seen further in Gremlins 2), it was a stroke of genius. Audiences adored Gizmo; I was just one of millions who wanted a Mogwai (again, the second movie takes swipes at the merchandising bonanza he announced, but even upfront Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is considering the money he can make from something so cute).
That said, and knowing what I know in retrospect, I don’t think the “close-up” big head puppet Gizmo (which forms the basis for the sequel’s design) is as wonkily cute as the main prop. As an aside, such is the cruelty of siblings, I “reliably” informed my younger brother that Gizmo failed to survive the picture, which had the effect of making his heroism and survival at the end all the more gratifying. This was another point where Spielberg held sway, suggesting that Gizmo, rather than Billy, needed to engineer Stripe’s demise as he was the hero. Again, it’s a perceptive reasoning on the part of the ‘berg. Billy and Kate (Phoebe Cates) are no more than the “straight men” to the bedlam that breaks out in Kingston Falls. In addition, it’s appropriate that Hyde (the Mogwai) should persevere over his Jekyll (the gremlin).
Columbus’ original script also included such jarring gems as the gremlins killing Barney, the Peltzer pet. I’m all for bad taste animal humour in movies, but it would have been outrageous to do anything nasty to Barney; Mushroom, the canine performer, is consistently stunning to watch. As Dante observed, he treated the puppets as if they were real, and his reactions lend enormous production value in terms of verisimilitude. As scripted, the gremlins also cut off mom’s head; unfathomable in anything outside of a slasher movie. Ironically, it’s Lynn Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) who is given the movie’s most rousing and extended sequence of gremlin slaughter. She may be the most kick-ass mom in American movies (who I can think of off-hand). There was also a plan to have the gremlins eating McDonalds customers rather than burgers, which might have elicited a few yuks but is also perhaps a bit on-the-nose. And, since we don’t see gremlins eating anyone (biting chunks out of them, maybe) it would have been tonally askew.
Nevertheless, it’s the tone of the movie that caused so many nervous parents, much more so than anything physically seen on screen. Critics passed comment (notoriously Leonard Maltin, who gamely appeared in The New Batch, in a sequence where he succumbs to a gremlin attack) and parents hadn’t bargained on the horrors these little horrors would get up to (and were correspondingly alarmed how their delicate little horrors might respond). I recall (even though I’m sure I had already read the novelisation) finding the shifts of gear a little bewildering on first viewing; I think this was partly because the suggested tone (and the advertising) emphasised the gremlins’ mischief making rather than their deadlier qualities. And, if this possible – we see only two definite victims – slaughter arose from the negligence of the Peltzer family and Gizmo himself, did they really deserve a happy (or, at least, bittersweet) ending?
Dante cites this tonal uncertainty as intentional and I am now so familiar with the movie that, for the most part, I find it difficult to identify what it was I ever found a little “off”. That is, with the exception of Kate’s story about why she doesn’t like Christmas. This is where Kate explains she has not celebrated Christmas since she was nine years old, when she and her mother discovered their missing father had broken his neck and died while attempting to climb down their chimney dressed as Santa Claus. Warners didn’t like it. Spielberg didn’t like it, but he wasn’t going to force Dante to change it. Dante stood firm. He expressed the view that it encapsulates the horror and comedy of the movie, a point where you’re not sure whether you should laugh or take Kate seriously.
I’m not wholly won over by Dante’s argument, in part because the scene is set up by an extremely awkward segue (“Now I have another reason to hate Christmas…”) suggestive of plain old bad writing (which I’m sure he’d argue is partly the point). But it no longer stands out the way it did when I first saw the movie. And the macabre sincerity certainly does tread the line Dante identifies (which is why the impromptu piss-take of the scene in The New Batch is so funny). It also highlights that Kate isn’t the best served of characters; it’s her only noteworthy scene. One can get all postmodern about this, of course. She and Billy are typically sincere movie teen protagonists (of the ilk who might be found in a typically sincere Spielberg movie), and there’s a sense both that Dante is swiping at that, and that for much of the time they are just typically sincere movie teen protagonists (again, come the sequel and Dante has let Billy and Kate in on the joke). It’s a thin line. Dante indulges a borderline piss-take of Capra movies, with Kate’s earnest proclamations about the death rate at Christmas (“When everybody else is opening up their presents, they’re opening up their wrists”) and extending to her activism in the deleted scenes (the discovery that Mrs Deagle intends to sell a whole raft of land to property developers, typically fiendish behaviour one would expect from a 1940s movie), but as a whole (as lovely as the then Ms Cates is in the movie) these tend towards the corny rather than witty (in contrast to the joy with which Dante destroys a wholesome American town).
Mr. Wing’s Grandson: First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it'll kill him. Second, don't give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.
Of course, Dante arms himself with a distancing and remove from reality as soon as the grandson of Mr Wing (Keye Luke, Number One Son in the Charlie Chan movie series, plays the elderly gentleman) instructs Rand Peltzer in the three classic rules (don’t expose them to bright light, don’t get them wet, and no matter how much they cry, no matter how much they beg, never feed them after midnight). To make sure the audience is clear on these instructions, they’re delivered twice in 10 minutes (they’re also on the movie posters, which helps). They’re rules that bend the credulity of even those raised on the cloudy logic of classic fairy tales, but there is a genius appeal to them for the same reason. The interrogation Billy receives in Gremlins 2 (“What if you fly through a time zone?”) is richly warranted. And Dante lends the opening scenes a magical charm, with the soothing, cautionary voiceover from Rand (this is a story told in retrospect, already a bedtime tale; the narration was a late addition, but it makes perfect sense) and the use of slow motion.
Dante also makes it clear that this is a “movie” world, with its stereotypical patrons of Chinatown. I note that Wikipedia cites criticism of the movie based on the idea that the gremlins were intended to suggest African Americans, but this seems like an absurd stretch based on grasping at a few of the scattershot zeitgeisty elements Dante has his creatures mimic. More valid would be argument that Keye Luke portrays a classic stereotype Chinese person; there’s even a crashing cymbal on the soundtrack when Rand refers to a “bad case of dragon breath” (imagine how it would look if Jon Pertwee had been cast as Mr Wing as rumoured on the internet; to be honest, I take that with a pinch of salt). Then, as mentioned, the movie’s only African American character Mr Hanson (Glynn Turman) is one of only two certain deaths at the claws of the gremlins (Spielberg reportedly requested his demise was toned down; a face full of syringes became one protruding from the arse). Since the other death is the “She had it coming” Mrs Deagle, it doesn’t look too good.
Along such lines, one might argue that Mr Futterman – who looks like he and his wife, played with disarming dottiness by Jackie Joseph, are certain wallpaper paste when his snowplough smashes into their living room – is rewarded for his rampant xenophobia with a prize role in the sequel (of course, it’s Dick Miller; he has to be in a Dante movie!) Admittedly, I have never managed to pick out the radio show moment at the conclusion of the movie confirming the Futtermans’ survival; they were definitely intended to die but Dante recanted as he thought this was a little extreme.
Dante makes it ever clearer that he has in mind a caricature of small town America when we are introduced to Kingston Falls, to the strains of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) sung by Darlene Love. Later, he will explicitly link the movie to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart lives in Bedford Falls). It’s a movie that, for all its dark desperation, ends on a note of shameless sentiment and hope (why else would it have become such a classic?). Dante establishes a instantly recognisable backdrop of pantomime villains (Mrs Deagle, essayed with unabated misery by Polly Holiday, is the owner of a houseful of cats named after different monetary currencies). Who can resist a cackle when Belinda Balaski’s impoverished child complains, “Mommy, I’m hungry” after Mrs Deagle has denied them a stay on their rent? Traditional values are seen clashing against the march of “progress”. In most cases, the implication is that this is wrong. The capitalists at the bank (where Billy and Kate work) are idiots or arseholes; Judge Reinhold’s scenes as Gerald mostly reside on the cutting room floor, but it’s a shame to see that, if there’s one character that deserved to a nasty demise, it wasn’t him. In a few swift lines Gerald emphasises everything objectionable about callous ‘80s Reaganite values; “By the time I’m 30 I’ll be a millionaire”.
Futterman puts his finger on the idea that technology is unreliable/a bad thing, but he also highlights the dark side of small communities; a dislike or hatred of the other, the unknown. We like Futterman because Dick Miller plays him, but he’s a straightforward bumbling bigot. Rand Peltzer meanwhile is constantly attempting to come up with the next big technological advance, but he’s a resolute failure (is this because he prizes personal glory, rather than any statement about progress?) Most tellingly, Gizmo the innocent is a square-eyed zombie, easily influenced by TV and movies and inspired to acts of derring-do by them. Mr Wing chides his addiction to television, yet it perversely saves the day when the Mogwai takes the wheel of a toy car.
Mr Wing: You teach him to watch TV.
But any commentary on the usurping status of technology is more of an aside than a tract. When Mr Wing delivers the final verdict on a society that destroys more than it creates (“You do with Mogwai what your society has done with all nature’s gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready”), it could be read as one against the encroaching cocoon of the technological world But it appears more directed against our moral deficiencies as a whole. Even then, Mr Wing’s platitude is not really the meat of Dante’s dish. It’s a flavourless moral required to make the spicy nastiness more palatable. A more consistently presented and related idea is that of entropy; it informs the modus operandi of the gremlins, who mess things up, and the failures of Rand’s inventions and Mr Futterman’s foreign machines. But still, it’s the satirical barbs that fuel the director. As much as they hit the target, they are accompanied by a “But it’s actually great, isn’t it?” revelry in the madness.
The gremlins are basically us: western society (or, more specifically American society). In that sense Mr Wing has spelt it out, Easily distracted, wasteful, morally suspect (at best), debauched, addictive. They’re the ultimate consumerists, because their appetites are unquenchable. All that’s missing from the movie is a scene at the mall (presumably Kingston Falls is too small for such an edifice, and perhaps Dante thought it would tread too closely on the heels of Dawn of the Dead). It’s almost an hour before the id of Gizmo is unleashed, and Dante reveals himself as a master of the build-up; the prism most clearly refracting the gremlins as us is the scene in Dorry’s Tavern, with Kate the hostage hostess to a glut of insatiable creatures. This is where the inventiveness of Dante and his puppeteers is really shown off. He encourages them to improvise and keeps the best bits.
We’ve already seen that the cute multiple Mogwai are much less innocent than the one who spawned them, playing on a mini arcade machine and vomiting at Barney. In the tavern they take on a scattershot rowdiness; propping up the bar, demanding more and more booze (one lies under an open beer tap), smoking multiple cigarettes at once, and shooting each other when the mood takes them. The sight gags are relentless and raucous, including a gremlin in a mac flashing Kate, one in drag, another in leg warmers break dancing and, very meta-textually, a gremlin-guided hand puppet “speaking” to another gremlin. Then there’s the gremlin hanging from a ceiling fan as it spins faster and faster out of control before flying off and into in a Coors sign; his legs extend outwards, Wylie Coyote style. Later, at the cinema, we see one casting about in surgical mask brandishing a large knife as flames engulf the building.
Mrs Deagle: Maybe I’ll put him in my spin drier on high heat.
Mr Anderson: That’ll do it all right.
Dante’s twisted approach to comedy is vibrant and colourful; it’s for good reason that he’s been compared to a live-action cartoon maker (at the climax, as Spike is dragged along behind a runaway chainsaw, a laws of physics defying moment in itself, he hits his head and the customary birdsong twittering sound is heard). The presence of Chuck Jones, and Billy’s aspirations as an artist, emphasise this. Dante also ensures the verbiage is as amusing as the visuals. Gremlins makes a virtue of the stereotypes it employs.
Mrs Deagle is so utterly evil, without any redeeming features, that any self-respecting audience member will cheer the little green demons on as they mess with her stair lift and send her flying into the middle of a snowy street (Dante cavalierly emphasises we aren’t supposed to care by inserting a shot of Mrs Deagle’s rigid legs sticking out from her prone chair). The horror of Mr Hanson’s demise has now given way to grotesque celebration. Their activities are queasy and unsettling but appealingly unfettered; the director nurses a lovely sight gag in the build-up to the Deagle home invasion as, hearing the sound of Christmas carollers, she answers her front door (fuming at the return of the singers she sent packing in a deleted scene). To her alarm, she is confronted by a gaggle of gremlins wassailing out of key.
Deputy Brent: My God, Frank. That was Mrs Deagle.
Dante includes a couple of dim-witted, inebriated cops as witnesses to the gremlins’ onslaught. As is essential in movies where monsters or aliens rampage, the authorities respond in disbelief to the boy who cries wolf. The rising panic of Sherriff Frank (Scott Brady) and Deputy Brent (a very young Jonathan Banks who, in contrast to his sinister hit man posturing in the likes of Breaking Bad and Day Break, essays a cowardly imbecile with superb comic timing) accompanies the increased mayhem on display. Their aghast bewilderment at the desecration of one of Christmas’ most sacred icons, Santa Dave (Joe Brooks) is priceless (“What’s that stuff they got all over him?”)
With far greater consistency than he displayed in The Howling, but with a similar visual palette, Dante punctuates any given moment of horror with comedy (and vica versa). Spike’s chilling victory over Billy, as he plunges into a YMCA swimming pool and the waters begin to bubble and steam and boil, is alleviated by the sight of the gremlin holding his noses as sinks to the bottom. The desperation of Billy and Kate upon discovering a cinema full of cackling monsters, a nightmare version of a movie visit where the a theatre full of kids just won’t shut up or stop eating noisily and slurping greedily, is thrown into relief when we witness the gremlins’ pleasure at the dwarves singing “Hi Ho!” in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s made even more mirthful by their inexact sing-a-long mimicry. The implication is that even the least understanding of us is hostage to undiluted Disney sentimentality. Moments later the terror engine restarts as Billy and Kate run for it, the reverse of the theatre screen becoming a mass of demonic shadows, like something from Quatermass and the Pit.
As noted, this was a period when creature design and prosthetics were at their zenith. Less than a decade later, the scales would tip decisively in the favour of CGI. But there’s a run from Star Wars to the mid-‘80s were monster makers were in seventh heaven, and the sheer quality and variety of designs during this epoch puts most efforts since to shame. Sure, the execution of the puppets is occasionally on the crude side. But it is never such that we as viewers are divorced from the action. Indeed, it’s far more of a problem to continually coast on weightless CGI inventions where no one is fooled into believing they occupy the same space as the physical actors. There’s a charm about seeing a throng of gremlins advancing down a corridor, by necessity shot only from the waist up. Or a multitude of stop motion creatures advancing from the darkness on a snowy street.
The design of the gremlins is at once familiar; scaly devilry with a leering grin impressing upon us that their intent is injurious. Their rasping, lecherous, vocalisations suggest singular, monosyllabic, intent. Which makes them wonderfully quotable (“Yum. Yum”, “Giiiz-mo”). As Machiavellian as they are, Gizmo is contrastingly cute-as-pie. Wide-eyed and large-eared, the colour of Spielberg’s cocker spaniel (a ploy to get him to approve the designs), his voice is quavering and vulnerable (“Bright light! Bright light!”); he soothes himself and his new owner with a serene humming lullaby.
Howie Mandel voiced Gizmo and, as with the puppetry, most of the lines of the creatures good and bad were ad-libs (Frank Welker was the lead Gremlin vocal stylist). A girl from composer Jerry Goldsmith’s temple rendered the sound of Gizmo’s musical soul. As I said, I think Gizmo is at his most irresistible when the scale puppet is being used; Billy bandaging his noggin, or fixing a Santa hat on his undersized head. Gizmo was naturally a tie-in product pot of gold (common with many, I have a battery operated Giz who sways from side to side as he hums his tune), and it’s a hard heart that can deny his lovability.
Dante and his crew’s hearts were well and truly hardened, however, since the creature was a complete pain in the arse to operate. His accounts of the trials and tribulations on the DVD commentary is most amusing, and provides an insight into the pleasure they took making him suffer (there was a “Horrible things we can do to Gizmo” list), most notably when he is fixed to a dart board and used by the gremlins as target practice (in the sequel he is tied to a railway track).
Elsewhere, Dante and his team invoke memories of the still-recent Alien with the cocoons that envelop the Mogwai following their post-midnight feast. When the cocoons split open (it’s a nice touch is having the cocoon at the school grow within the cage holding the Mogwai and buckling it) they’re as sticky and icky as the ones John Hurt et al came across. The other touchstone is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, of course. Dante overtly signals his deference to the 1956 original by screening it on Billy’s TV prior to the discovery of the cocoons. Kevin McCarthy still manages an appearance in a Dante movie even when he isn’t on the cast list! But the Body Snatchers referencing is only skin deep. Like Gremlins it deals with a town overrun, but the identity of the individual is not at stake, nor really are their beliefs (far more than Gremlins, Body Snatchers has proved a rich text for scholastic interpretation).
In keeping with the trends of the era, Gremlins is chock full of slime and grue. Any opportunity to disembowel or dismember the creatures (or set them on fire) does not go unvisited, climaxing in a (possibly) Raiders-inspired meltdown as Stripe dissolves mid-spawning in a blaze of sunlight. As endearingly silly as the popping balls of fur that signal Gizmo’s reproductive cycle are (visually suggestive of Star Trek’s The Trouble with Tribbles), so Stripe is seen with burgeoning foetal abominations across his back.
The set piece de resistance of Gremlins is probably Lynn Peltzer’s domestic destruction derby, as she defends her home against the half pint monsters. I’m not quite sure why Billy’s mom is making gingerbread men at Christmas (is this a US tradition I’m unaware of?) Dante expertly establishes an unsettling atmosphere when Johnny Mathis’ Do You Hear What I Hear? strikes up on the record player. Armed with a kitchen knife, she ascends to investigate Billy’s loft space only to discover empty husks. Returning to the kitchen, where noises are emanating, her first blood comes when she turns on the food mixer that a gremlin has stuck its head in. Gremlin guts are splattered across the units. Screaming, “Get out of my kitchen!” (a marvellous line, furiously delivered) Lynn frenziedly and repeatedly stabs another before blinding a third with flea spray and shutting it in the microwave oven (with impressively explosive results).
It is only at the end of her onslaught that a gremlin gains the upper hand, with mom entangled in the Christmas tree amid much heaving and thrashing. Cue Billy, entering the Pelzter abode and swiftly decapitating the fourth (as noted, a fate originally reserved from Mrs P). Dante has meticulously laid the groundwork for the employment of the sword; every time someone comes into the house it dislodges from its wall fixture. This is Chekhov’s Gun disguised as a sight gag. Appropriately the sole survivor, Stripe, blows his nose on one of the living room curtains before making a shattering exit.
Lynn Peltzer is arguably better at close quarter combat than her son, who comes out on the wrong end of the climactic fight with Stripe. For a director more fired up by the comic potential in any material, Dante is remarkably proficient at action and suspense. He also understands framing and editing such that the puppetry and live action are married seamlessly. Spike shooting Billy in the shoulder with a miniature crossbow bolt, pummelling him with baseballs and then finally setting on him with a chainsaw (an invention of Dante’s a homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is a masterfully executed sequence. There are points along the way that still elicit a “How did they do that?” response, such as Spike riding a child’s trike, fully visible (on the DVD commentary, the slightly too effusive Walas notes that this was actually one of the easiest shots to pull off).
Being a Joe Dante movie, barely a few minutes pass without some form of movie referencing. The most obvious ones in Gremlins are the clips, all of which inform events in the picture; the small town setting (It’s A Wonderful Life), the strange chrysalises (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Gizmo’s inspiration as a racing car driver (Clark Gable in To Please a Lady; “It takes a certain kind of guy” is repeated on the soundtrack as the Mogwai races to stop Spike) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Dante isn’t above referencing himself either, as noted with the Twilight Zone: The Movie poster. Also seen, at the conclusion, is Lew Landers (Jim McKrell), the TV reporter in Dante’s previous feature, The Howling. There’s a smiley face sticker from The Howling stuck to the Peltzer fridge, lobby cards from the movie announcing that it is coming soon to the local cinema, and a Dante doodle of a piranha is on the table when a Mogwai is attempting to communicate with another in a box.
Elsewhere, the local cinema is screening A Boy’s Life and Watch the Skies; the working titles for Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg himself appears, driving by in a small buggy, at the inventor’s convention. When a gremlin cuts the telephone lines to the Peltzer home, it utters the immortal “Phone home”. In the department store, Spike pokes his head out from a shelf laden with Warner cartoons plush toys and an E.T. doll. Rockin’ Ricky Rialto’s billboard is in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Dorry’s Tavern a gremlin plays the Star Wars arcade game. The Mad Max 2 poster is one of several on Billy’s wall (Them! too). At the convention, the time machine from George Pal’s movie can be seen, and Robbie the Robot from The Forbidden Planet dawdles about uttering fuel-themed non-sequiturs (“I was getting myself an oil change”, “The question is totally without meaning”, “Pardon me, sir”, “Thick and heavy. Would 60 gallons be sufficient?” “I rarely use it myself. It promotes rust”).
Dante’s cast includes a number of regulars; Dick Miller, William Schallert (as Father Bartlett; Schallert would later memorably play Martin Short’s doctor in Innerspace), Belinda Balaski. There are cameos from Jerry Goldsmith and Chuck Jones. This was Corey Feldman’s break-out year as a child actor (he is Billy’s pal Pete, one of several kids in the movie showing remarkable immunity to Mogwai’s charms; a combination of being nearly bitten, a low boredom threshold and financial interests (in Mr Wing’s grandson’s case). His best moment comes as he cuts a telegraph wire supporting a hanging gremlin. The age gap between Billy and Pete is a signal that Billy himself was originally intended to be much younger (what self-respecting young adult has an adolescent as his best pal?) Dante praised Feldman for his natural reactions to the Mogwai, second only to those of Mushroom. Feldman would reunite with Dante in possibly the best film both have been involved in, 1989’s The ‘burbs.
Zach Galligan pulls off the fresh-faced innocent lead with naturalistic aplomb; he’s continued to work solidly (and he makes a very affable DVD commentary contributor) but, aside from The New Batch, not in projects with much of a profile (he would also crop up in the cheap-and-cheerful Waxwork movies). Phoebe Cates was already a name thanks to Fast Times at Ridgemont High; she would maintain a higher visibility than Galligan until she retired to raise her family (her other half being one Kevin Kline) in the mid-‘90s. Then there’s Judge Reinhold in a small role (still not massive even if his additional scenes hadn’t been excised), a guy who has since done unbelievably strange things to his face. He’d also shown up in Fast Times, but another film during the summer of ’84 made his name; Beverly Hills Cop, in which he played wide-eyed gun nut Billy Rosewood.
I have to be honest and say I’ve never been hugely keen on the Randall Peltzer subplot. I’m immune to the lovable loser charms of Hoyt Axton and his failed inventions. No doubt Axton’s ad-libbed riffs on the Peltzer Smokeless Ashtray and Bathroom Buddy went down well on set, but there’s a little too much indulgent whimsy for me in these scenes. I do like the self-effacing moment where he admits his coffee machine ain’t all that, but there’s one too many “How hilarious that this invention is completely shit” gags. Obviously Spielberg couldn’t get enough of hapless inventors and their creations, as Back to the Future would kick off with Doc Brown’s automatic dog food dispenser the following year. Axton was unavailable for Gremlins 2, which I’m not overly disappointed about (Dante said that Pat Hingle auditioned for Rand and was amazing, but he was too good and would have unbalanced the focus of the movie).
Also, a word for Don Steele whose unseen DJ cheerfully sporadically comments on the action. Rockin’ Ricky Rialto is set upon by gremlins (“Hey, you’re not a rocking ricky fan!”) but lives to tell the tale (“It’s been a rough night for Rocking Ricky, but he’s still on the air”).
Mr Wing: I warned you but you didn’t listen.
Dante, regular DP John Hora and production designer James H. Spencer (who had recently worked with Spielberg on Poltergeist) pool their talents to create one of the great Christmas movies (filmed in June). When Dante made the comment about laughing or taking the picture seriously he was also pointing to a movie that somehow manages to have its cake and eat it. Hora blends the picturesque Christmas card snow-capped setting with the controlled carnage of traditional horror lighting (from the bubbling nightmare pool to The Howling-esque attack on Mr Hanson in a classroom lit only by an unspooling film projector). Gremlins is both as sweet as the sight of Gizmo in a Santa hat and as sinister as Santa erupting in a convulsion of gremlins. Like Die Hard, the contrast between decidedly unfestive events and the yuletide season make for a curiously irresistible combination.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score expertly takes in these tonal gradations, and he is fully on board with his director’s playfulness. This was their first collaboration proper; Goldsmith was another alumni of Poltergeist but most significantly had scored the previous year’s Twilight Zone. He would become the director’s regular composer, and many of Goldsmith’s best late period scores are to be found on Dante movies. The fairy-tale strains of the opening sequence, and the (yes, I’ll use that word again) adorable Gizmo tune gradually give way to an altogether harder edged but vibrant tone, as the rocky synthesiser beats of the gremlin theme takes over.
Mr Wing: Perhaps someday, you will be ready.
It would be six years before a sequel to Gremlins arrived (two years too late, as Dante put it), one that distinctly underwhelmed at the box office thanks in no small part to the director eschewing the dramatic undertone of the original. He turned The New Batch it into a fully-fledged live action Warner Bros cartoon, one that sees the fourth wall as a repeatedly breakable fixture. But, looking at Gremlins again, I can see both why Dante resisted overtures toward a follow-up (with suggestions including gremlins in Las Vegas and on Mars; I’m not sure the latter wasn’t just Dante exaggerating for effect) for so long and how a more straightforward sequel would have been distinctly underwhelming (even those who aren’t fans of the approach taken to the sequel would be hard-pressed not to admit it did something wildly original). Gremlins relies on the freshness of alternations between the horror and comedy and there would inevitably be diminishing returns to the surprise factor of such a medley. I’m not saying it would have been impossible to repeat, but it would certainly have been difficult. You need only look at the lazy second time out for Ghostbusters, released a year before the Gremlins sequel and also attempting that horror/comedy brew, to see the kind of rote factory-farmed package Warners would probably have preferred.
It was fortunate that the studio lacked the confidence to go ahead with a sequel without Dante’s involvement. His sensibility is impossible to mimic. It’s one of the reasons the text adventure computer game of Gremlins proved an unexpected pleasure (at least, at the time it seemed in tune with the tone of the picture). If one typed in “Kiss gremlin” as an action, the game replied “How disgusting”. There are numerous sources of nostalgia for Gremlins; another is that it was one of the first sell-through movie titles I purchased (Back to the Future was the first); back then it was exciting to be able to buy a new (ish) movie for a tenner. Ah, the glorious quality of VHS video.
Gizmo: Bye Billy.
There have been increased mutterings regarding a prospective remake of the movie, which is one of those inevitabilities. Dante has been well aware of its likelihood for a while now, occasionally sagely observing that it would all be done with CGI (which would instantly detract from the spontaneity of the creatures’ antics) and sometimes offering his services should Warners be interested. I’d much prefer to see him given the reins of a Gremlins 3, but alas that’s never going to happen. More likely is the Robocop remake route, where a film that is so distinctive and smart and original is turned into just another generic movie product (admittedly, I’m pre-judging the Robo reboot from the trailers). As ever with seemingly sacrilegious remakes, we’ll still have the original, and all the players involved are to be congratulated on one of the seminal event movies of the ‘80s. Yes that includes the ‘berg, whose star moment came when Warners executives continually complained there were too many gremlins in the movie; the executive producer responded, “Shall we cut them out and call it “People”?” Gremlins is a rare case of razor-sharp satire and black wit not only making it into a movie with a significant (though not stratospheric) price tag but also being embraced by the wider movie-going public.