(USA - 1984)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Judge Reinhold, Polly Holliday, Dick Miller, Corey Feldman
Genre: Comedy/Horror/Fantasy
Director: Joe Dante
Screenplay: Chris Columbus
Cinematography: John Hora
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith & Noel Regney
Runtime: 106 minutes

Steven Spielberg produced what, perhaps accidentally, would have specifically been the perfect riposte to his childish benign alien fantasy E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and generally to his clear-cut vision of the world. In particular, Gremlins opposes his black and white ideas about good and evil which he must consistently milk the audiences emotions over, even in “historical” situations where we are supposed to ignore the fact that millions were killed and instead worry about the lives of a few because he’s aggrandized them by making them his characters. Chris Columbus’ original script was much darker than Spielberg was willing to produce. Joe Dante wanted to go ahead with the key idea of having cute and cuddly Gizmo, E.T. minus the homely nature, turn into ugly malicious gremlin Stripe, but Spielberg overruled him because he essentially believed the kiddies required the huggable creature throughout.

In a sense Gremlins is about how children start off as adorable innocents but - especially in the hands of immature parents – become obnoxious troublemakers run amok by puberty. Gizmo may not be converted by the series of lapses and mistakes of the seemingly conscientious minded late teen caretaker Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), but he spawns aggressive offspring that give everyone trouble. The gremlins are anarchistic creatures who might enjoy breaking all the rules, but wouldn’t bother themselves with knowing them in the first place. They aren’t exactly monsters, but are too demented to simply be written off as mischief makers.

Quickly learning all human vices and pleasures while ignoring all codes of behavior and rules of conduct, the gremlins create their own little America: imagine an area run by a combination of Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil and an animalistic version of the Marx Brothers with a mean streak. Joe Dante was heavily influenced by the old Looney Tunes cartoons, eventually directing 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action though it was his worst film since the 1970’s as big budget Hollywood films had become so generic by then even the most personal of studio directors seemed unable to control more than getting some of his in-jokes included. In any case, his interest in the animation of people like Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Robert Clampett, & Chuck Jones (who has a bit part in Gremlins and animated the opening and closing segments in Gremlins 2) made him well suited to direct Gremlins, as Bugs Bunny had taken one on in Clampett’s 1943 Warner Brothers cartoon Falling Hare. Though not particularly linked, the gremlin was one of the only characters to ever outsmart Bugs: magnified in Gizmo’s relationship with them, he’s initially completely helpless in their presence, but his knowledge of how to deal with them grows over time. By Gremlins 2 Gizmo learns how to combat them by happening upon a Rambo movie on TV.

Gremlins also deals with the clash between the quaint neighborly America kids like Dante and Spielberg who grew up in 1950's became used to and the fast paced new technological America dominated by a few greedy rich people who care for no one and nothing beyond more money. Small town America is going through tough times with many honest hard workers losing their voice and leverage if not their jobs, thus maintaining their culture and way of life becomes nearly impossibly when the unscrupulous few are leveraging their power to get richer by hoisting their whims upon the desperate increasingly manipulable masses. The original can be seen as the small town apocalypse, while Gremlins 2: The New Batch is the resultant sellout to the impersonal big city.

One thing that makes Gremlins special is the audience’s relationship with them constantly varies. I could try a sports metaphor linking them to an out of conference powerhouse; we root against them if they are playing our team, but for them if they are playing a division rival of our team. But that’s not entirely true either. Their nature is so varying, with many situations seemed designed to place them as the stand-ins for various groups, ideas, and ways of life, we are unable to universally approve or disapprove of their behavior. The gremlins may appear to be good guys for turning this ever transitioning human world upside down, but even if we revel in them taking apart the billionaire’s skyscraper in Gremlins 2, their may be more designed to show us our own foolishness. This is a world where everything and everyone is corrupted. Even if Gizmo doesn’t turn ugly, he can’t survive without donning a bow and arrow. In a sense the reason Gizmo lives and E.T. dies is Gizmo is willing and able to adapt to earth’s ugliness. Still, part of us wants to indulge ourselves. Who hasn’t dreamed of doing whatever they wanted to? The gremlins lack either the ability or desire to hold themselves back, so their life is one of constant gratification, and that’s desirable to anyone.

I’d say Gremlins is one of the funniest horror movies (Judge Reinhold is at his best as Galligan’s smug and prudish superior at the bank, donning him “Captain Clip-on”), but it isn't limited to genre. It's not really horror as some of the scenes that would normally be played as such are instead provided to illicit chuckles, but it’s not simply a horror spoof or even a black comedy. In many ways it’s as much an out of control sci-fi fantasy. Though Dante is willing to make it at least as dark as Columbus scripted, while terrifying, more than anything else this is a hilarious satire that incorporates gag after gag about movies, backfiring technology, and man’s idea of order.

Chris Walas' special effects work is hard to top. The effects are so special because they never call attention to themselves, the tangible nature of the mogwai and gremlin puppets allowing for believable interaction with the humans and integration into their world. The Gremlins are in action for at least half the runtime, yet they never seem like anything less than a new breed of animal. Like a pet, each one has his own unique personality and some would do less damage if they were quickly condemned to the microwave.




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *