Gremlins may well be the most sheerly outrageous movie of this about-to-be-busy summer season. It’s a giddy, frenetic horror/fantasy stuffed with jokes, frights, and hyperactive little creatures called gremlins.
In the opening scenes, in a rundown store in Chinatown, an inept inventor (Hoyt Axton) picks up a cute pet for his son. He is sold the creature with a warning: Never let it in the sunlight, never get it wet, and never—ever—feed it after midnight.
Of course, all those things will happen to the adorable fuzzball. It gets wet, which causes it to multiply. Then the offspring are accidentally slipped some fried chicken after midnight and they experience a transformation. When they leave their cocoons they turn mean and set out on a rampage of dirty tricks.
Before long, the small-town setting is overrun by the beasties, and it’s up to Axton’s son (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend (Pheobe Cates) to try to beat the little monsters.
From the basic outline, there’s no way to convey the madcap high spirits of this tale. Director Joe Dante has created a fantasy small town that exists as a kind of movie memory: He’s given it the flavor of It’s a Wonderful Life (which plays on a TV screen at one point) and the fairy-tale atmosphere of The Wizard of Oz (Polly Holliday plays a hissable bank owner as the Wicked Witch of the West).
The look of the movie is sitcom-ordinary, but Dante pushes things into high gear when the gremlins get loose on Christmas Eve. The mayhem that results is scary, funny, and absurd. It’s also ferociously imaginative. You can picture the filmmakers sitting around cooking up ideas: “Wouldn’t it be wild if the gremlins did this—and this, and this?”
It’s at this point that Gremlins jettisons any sort of realistic underpinnings, but the film is just too fast and clever for that to really be a problem. Besides, the whole idea of gremlins is that they’re bugaboos who get into the machinery and make mischief, so it’s fitting that the movie starts going crazy when they take over the screen. (The gremlins were created by Chris Walas, who deserves star billing.)
The screenplay was discovered by Steven Spielberg when he was looking for someone to write the script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Spielberg, who is credited as executive producer, may have seen the opportunity to do a flip side of his E.T., and probably jumped at the chance to do something less sweet. Choosing Dante to direct—he’d made the witty horror films Piranha and The Howling—was a brilliant stroke. There isn’t a lax moment in the film.
Dante is a sharp satirist and a very able conductor of action. There’s not a whole lot of emotional depth among the people onscreen, but that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s a bright, noisy funhouse, and Dante is the gremlin behind the camera—throwing everything he can think of into the mixer. Except that, unlike the gremlins, there’s a method to Dante’s madness, and somehow the finished product emerges as both efficient and stylish.
First published in the Herald, May 1984.
That screenwriter was Chris Columbus, who went on the bigger things. I’m not sure what I was thinking in proposing that Gremlins had anything like “realistic underpinnings” to begin with, but so be it. Of course Gremlins 2 pushes even more into the realm of satire, and ought to be better known. I go on more about Joe Dante’s movies in a piece at the Crop Duster.