I have long felt that the script to Gremlins is possibly the dumbest ever developed into a major motion picture, even dumber than the other scripts that launched Chris Columbus’ wildly successful career (Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes). And despite that, it’s pretty watchable and weird, wild mess of Spielbergian cutesy-family stuff with Joe Dante’s black humor.
Let’s get the dumb out of the way first. The premise: Inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) stumbles across a cute little fuzzy creature called a “mogwai” that he sorta steals from a Chinese junk shop to take home to his son Billy (Zach Galligan) for Christmas. The grandson of the mogwai’s real owner (perennially blind Chinese guy, Keye Luke) exchanges the creature for a couple hundred Reagan funbux and offers three warnings:
- Don’t expose it to bright light.
- Don’t get it wet.
- And never, never feed it after midnight.
There’s dumb fun: Like, we’re going to suspend our disbelief about these creatures that not only exist unknown in the world, but that a father takes home to his son as a gift with no one raising an eyebrow as to the whole “Hey, shouldn’t we have heard about this before? Isn’t this an important scientific discovery?”
Then there’s “the audience is dumb. So dumb, in fact, we’re going to put the plot right up front, all the points therein and ultimate resolution.” It’s like Chekov’s Gun For Dummies: The rifle isn’t just hanging on the wall, it’s hanging on the wall surrounded by neon flashing lights that say, “Hey! This gun is going to go off and accidentally kill his late mother’s beloved chihuahua!!”
Maybe it’s just me. It pissed me off greatly as a kid. It didn’t bother me much now, but if anything on review—and I haven’t watched this since its first release—I’m convinced that the things that makes the movies work were unlikely to have ever been in the script, and were the work of Joe Dante, of whom I used to be quite a fan. He had a way of turning dubious material into darkly fun romps (as in Pirahna, The Howling, and even Small Soldiers).
There’s a lot of fun stuff here. The feel-good Christmas aspect of the movie takes such a sharp turn south on the appearance of the actual gremlins. The first person to encounter the gremlins is Billy’s mom and she in turn: blends one, stabs another hard enough to pin it down to a bread board (though it’s still moving afterwards), and nukes a third in the microwave. (This is an under-rated performance by Frances Lee McCain and blow for kick-ass moms everywhere.)
This was the first PG-13 movie after Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom compelled the MPAA to create the rating in the first place, and while it’s wildly over-the-top violent, it’s, y’know, puppets. Much like Doom, this is EC horror comics, grade-school level violence that is meant to be enjoyed like a roller coaster ride. Sort of like the disaster movies we’ve been seeing, the point is to have fun with all the death and destruction. (The Boy queried, “Would you call this fun-house horror?” I would indeed.)
After the gremlins emerge, it’s set-piece after set-piece, most of which don’t really make a lick of sense—like, how do the gremlins manage to force Phoebe Cates to serve as bartender?—and which are completely devoid of moralizing, as well. Sure, the evil Ruby Deagle (Polly Holliday, who should’ve been sued along with Columbus by Margaret Hamilton for stealing her Wicked Witch act) meets her fate, but so does the largely neutral Murray Futterman (the great Dick Miller, who appears in all of Dante’s films). And even if Futterman is evil (he does have a “Nixon’s The One” poster hanging up), his wife seems nice. And the school teacher (“Another black nerd!”, noted the Barbarienne, remembering Theo from Die Hard) only drew a little blood in the name of science.
No, there’s no morality play here. It’s just random mayhem, like, Phoebe Cates’ Best Christmas Speech Ever:
The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney, his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.
It’s horrible and funny, and she recites it as Billy is picking through the rubble of his ruined house.
But you have to be able to laugh at darkly chaotic events and the movie shows the warring that went on behind the scenes between Spielberg, Columbus and Dante and the studio—but also amongst themselves as the movie has a hard time settling on its tone. This is understandable, and probably best exemplified by Jerry Goldsmith’s score.
The Gremlins main theme itself is spot on: A macabre pre-Elfman tune, eminently whistleable suggesting that mischief is afoot one could imagine hearing outside a funhouse. Some of the other aspects—a heroic passage, and a more schmaltzy one—don’t seem quite on the mark, probably because those sentiments aren’t really captured in the film.
The puppets are pretty darned good although I find Gizmo a little creepy at this late date. The stunts and SFX are kind of impressive for a family-oriented dark comedy. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates (I had no idea who she was at the time) are likably bland, which is very appropriate.
It’s pretty much the same fun watch today as it was 35 years ago. Enough to where it’s easy to look over the monumental dumb.