Before I review Gremlins, let me explain how it came about that I’ve waited this long — nearly 30 years — to see such an iconic film of the 1980s, especially considering how that’s my decade of choice. In the mid-80s, I was a young kid in grade school. My brother was in middle school, and if I recall the VHS release date correctly, my sister was not yet attending school. At any rate, my brother was home sick one day, and I was not. My mother decided to rent a movie to entertain my siblings, and Gremlins was the choice. No doubt Mom thought it would be a cutesy little film; you can see Gizmo peeking out of the box on that poster, after all. The gremlins proved to be a bit scarier than Mom anticipated, leading her to cover my sister’s head in a blanket — my sister says it was an afghan and thus not terribly effective for this purpose. At any rate, with one small child already nightmare bound, Mom wasn’t going to replay the video for me, nor rent it again at a later date. So I had a Gremlins-free childhood, and with one thing and another, there were always other films to grab as an adult.
I was talking with my siblings about this on Thanksgiving, and later that evening after everyone had gone home, I found myself perusing the movie channels. Looking ahead on the schedule, I found that Sundance was just about to air Gremlins. Well, I can take a hint.
Which is more than Hoyt Axton can do in this film.
Hoyt Axton plays Randall Peltzer, amateur inventor. One night in late December, he’s walking around in Chinatown trying to peddle his wares and to find a Christmas present for his son. (It’s unclear which Chinatown this is, but considering Peltzer is shown to travel a lot, it’s presumably not one attached to his home town, which seems relatively small.) In a basement antique shop, Mr. Peltzer finds what seems to be the perfect gift for his animal-loving son: a small creature called a Mogwai. It’s cute and furry, and reasonably intelligent for an animal, able to communicate in simple English. He talks the owner’s son into selling it to him, and he takes it home to give to his son as a pet. But he is warned that there are three rules to follow in caring for a Mogwai. First, don’t expose it to bright lights, particularly sunlight, which can prove fatal to it. Second, don’t get it wet, nor give it water to drink. And third, never feed it after midnight.
Despite Billy (Zach Galligan) arguably being the most responsible person in the household — he works as a bank teller and is mentioned to be supporting his family — the inevitable happens and the Mogwai, dubbed “Gizmo”, gets wet. This causes duplicate Mogwais to spawn off of his body, and they are more aggressive than the original. Afterwards, they trick Billy into feeding them after midnight, and this results in their metamorphosis into full gremlins. The gremlins are just like the modern folklore describes them; they are violent, cruel, and prone to acts of destruction.
And can’t hold their liquor.
Soon the town is overrun, and Billy and his girlfriend (Phoebe Cates) have to try and eliminate the gremlins while safeguarding their loved ones. Why Billy doesn’t bring his mother (Frances Lee McCain) along is unclear, as she demonstrates early on that she’s the most efficient gremlin-killer. But Billy and Kate make for a decent protagonist duo, even if Phoebe Cates is just a little bit flat in her acting. It helps that Gizmo, created with animatronics, is a convincing and emotive character. His expressions go a long way toward making him more believable, and this in turn makes the gremlins more believable; there’s a slight sense of unreality when there’s a horde of them jumping on a man (one can tell there’s green-screening going on), but otherwise the gremlins are as convincing as they need to be. The quality of the creatures may be due to the film’s pedigree. It was directed by Joe Dante, a veteran of b-grade horror films, and produced by Steven Spielberg — and thus having access to the resources necessary to make a bunch of miniature monsters look natural.
They’re also quite entertaining. Even though they’re the villains of the piece, their mischief provides a lot of the humor in the film. This is humor of a dark nature, watching the little green maniacs causing destruction of property and occasionally loss of life through their actions. The filmmakers even get the audience to cheer for the evil little buggers at one point as they deal karmic retribution to an old lady who is somewhere between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Wicked Witch of the West. The one real criticism I have of the film is that at several points it interrupts the action to show Billy’s father at an inventor’s convention. While an establishing shot to show where he is once the action gets started might be necessary, the rest is not and just slows the film down. Fortunately the rest of the movie makes up for it.
It’s a funny film, and has a decent amount of comic adventure to it. The creatures were believable enough to make it exciting, and several of the gags got me to laugh aloud. It was well worth the wait.