Gremlins (1984)

Director: Joe Dante

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday, Frances Lee McCain, Judge Reinhold, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Keye Luke, Howie Mandel, Frank Welker

New pets really should come with instructions. Even then, I fear, these guidelines would inevitably be either misunderstood or ignored completely. Then comes the overfeeding, the sour disposition towards other animals, and the general terrorization of the neighborhood. The small, furry creatures known as Mogwai are no exception, as one small town in “Gremlins” finds out, as the taking in of one of these creatures requires unique responsibility. The world’s worst inventor, Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) tries to sell one of his latest malfunctioning creations to an old man (Keye Luke) who has a shop in Chinatown. There, Randall finds a box containing a creature called a mogwai. There are three special rules to follow when handling a mogwai:
1) Keep them out of the light, as it will kill them, 2) Don’t get them wet, and 3) Never feed them after midnight.

There’s a problem with rules 2 and 3, and it is that they are unfortunately vague. Had Randall been told why mogwai should never be allowed near water or why they can’t be given anything to eat after 12:00 AM, a lot of what happens next could have been avoided. Randall’s reason for wanting the mogwai (which the old man refuses to sell, but the grandson does behind his back) is to give it to his son, Billy (Zach Galligan) as an early Christmas present. Billy is your typical wimpy teenager, working a boring bank job that is as thankless as it is boring. Sometimes, it’s even abusive, especially when the meanest old lady in town, Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday, doing her best Margaret Hamilton impersonation) comes in to make a withdrawal, all the while bullying Billy about his dog. He tolerates it, as the job does mean spending time with Kate (Phoebe Cates). He’s not the only one who feels that way. Their co-worker, Gerald (Judge Reinhold), has his eye on Kate, too. Sorry Gerald, but she’s not interested. Probably should stick to fantasizing about her removing her bathing suit in front of you while you’re doing your business. Oops! Right actors, wrong movie. But “Gremlins” is all about making references to other movies.

For the record, appearing in “Gremlins” are: The theatrical poster for “The Road Warrior” (1981), a poster that is a play on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981),  TV presentations of “To Please a Lady” (1950), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), Robbie the Robot from “Forbidden Planet” (1956), a reference to the hiding of a certain extra-terrestrial among a pile of toys in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) (which this time includes an E.T. doll), and a marvelous setpiece inside a movie theater playing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). We even get cameos from Steven Spielberg and animator Chuck Jones!

Inevitably, the rules for the mogwai are broken, although mostly by accident. The one that Billy receives is named Gizmo (on account of the father being an inventor), and this cuddly creature is voiced by Howie Mandel. Billy’s friend Pete (Corey Feldman) is the one who accidentally spills water on Gizmo, creating five new mogwai. FELDMAN! One of the new mogwai has a strip of white hair on his head, which earns him the name of Stripe, voiced by Frank Welker. If you watched any cartoons that have been made since 1969, the odds are good that you’ve heard Welker’s voice on several occasions. Remember, there’s still that 3rd rule, and the new mogwai trick Billy into feeding them after midnight. Afterwards, with Stripe as their leader, they change into the Gremlins. Chaos is the name of their game.

Like the Gremlins themselves, the movie assumes different forms. It can be at times a black comedy and a horror movie. The scene where Billy’s mom (Frances Lee McCain) is attacked by the newly transformed Gremlins starts out like a slasher movie chase sequence, but isn’t played entirely serious. Some of the Gremlins’ deaths in this movie are enough to break the tension and make you laugh out loud, particularly in this scene when Billy’s mom fights back. The same can be said for when the Gremlins take out a few of the movie’s secondary characters. “Gremlins” also has a truly awkward moment when Kate finally establishes why she doesn’t share everyone else’s Christmas spirit. It’s a scene that executive producer Steven Spielberg didn’t like (which I kinda agree), but also didn’t press Joe Dante to cut it out of the movie. As serious as this moment was, the original version of the movie (written by Chris Columbus) was much creepier. For one, the character of Stripe was originally supposed to be what Gizmo transforms into upon eating after midnight, but it was decided that audiences might react negatively to seeing Gizmo turn against Billy. Good call. We’d be venturing into “Old Yeller” territory if they went there.

“Gremlins” created quite a legacy for itself. The box office dollars it earned rained down on Hollywood like water spilled onto a mogwai, spawning both a sequel and several knock-offs, most of which are terrible. I still haven’t seen “Gremlins 2: The New Batch.” It’s just one of those movies which I keep meaning to get around to, but never have. In 1984, along with the Spielberg-directed “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Gremlins,” rated PG, was a movie that blurred the lines between the existing PG and R ratings to the point that the PG-13 rating would be created later that same year. I’ve never been one for the schmaltzy Christmas movies of yesteryear, so I’ll always admire “Gremlins” for being the kind of movie that puts a dark spin on everyone’s favorite holiday.

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