Directed by: Joe Dante
Written By: Chris Columbus
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Dick Miller, and Corey Feldman
Reviewed by: Wes R.
"You do with mogwai what your society... has done with all of nature's gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready."
So, how does a film written by the guy who directed the first two Harry Potter films and Home Alone come to be reviewed on a website devoted to horror movies? Well, for one thing, it’s directed by noted horror and old time sci-fi movie lover Joe Dante, who also directed the fantastic Jaws rip-off, Piranha as well as the werewolf favorite, The Howling. It also features horror alumni like Corey Feldman, Dick Miller and Zach Galligan. Most importantly, though…as a holiday movie, it carries a mischievous streak just as prominent as the stripe of hair in its lead villain. In addition, it gave birth to a whole slew of horror movie ripoffs. Ghoulies, Critters, Hobgoblins, Munchies, Troll, Spookies, and Elves are just a few of the films released in the wake of the gigantic success that was Gremlins. Do you hear what I hear? A horror comedy classic, that’s what.
Billy Peltzer’s father Randall (Hoyt Axton) is an inventor, always looking for the next big idea to hopefully make him and his family wealthy for the rest of their lives. Looking for the perfect Christmas present, Randall drops by a small curiosity store in Chinatown run by an old Chinese grandfather and his grandson. While there, he spots a truly unique gift opportunity…a cute, furry pet that can whistle in tune. However, the grandfather says the pet requires too much responsibility and that it is not for sale. Disappointed, Randall leaves the store but isn’t gone two seconds before the grandson sneaks out into the street with the furry Mogwai pet. Selling it to him behind his grandfather’s back, he warns Randall that you must follow three rules…you can’t feed it after midnight, you can’t get it wet, and you can’t expose it to light. Simple enough, right? Well, it’s not too long until the family is charmed by the pet and not much longer than that before they break the rules…causing the Mogwai to mutate, producing a literal army of small, menacing monsters that wreak havoc in the town.
In the realm of yuletide horror films, Gremlins is easily the most accessible to mainstream audiences. It’s light and comedic tone make it perfect for family viewing. However, the fact that it is practically impossible to find on TV during the Christmas season year make it somewhat of a misfit toy. I applaud the filmmakers for making a rather unconventional holiday film, utilizing the monster movie sub-genre. After all, they could have just as easily set the film around Billy’s birthday instead of Christmas. The blood and gore level is pretty much limited to nasty things happening to the gremlins themselves. Their bodies are pretty squishy and especially messy when placed in microwaves, juicers, etc. The whole film has this great feel of a monster movie from the 1950s. Right down to even Billy taking one of the mutant Mogwai to one of his teachers for analysis (mirroring the heavy science emphasis on horror films of earlier eras). The visual effects are dated, but honestly, I couldn't imagine the gremlins looking or moving any other way. A CGI sequel or remake (as has been discussed at some level) would just feel...wrong.
Jerry Goldsmith’s music is perfect for the film, further adding the feeling of early monster movies to the proceedings. 80s synth mixed with the crazed frenzy of a score from a 50s monster movie is probably the most accurate description. Though, there are moments that evoke Danny Elfman's work...and this was before Elfman even really got started. By far, one of Goldsmith's most unique and original scores. The non-score moments also shine, giving us a number of memorable holiday favorites. From the opening title sequence set to Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, you know right off you’re watching a Christmas film. Other moments utilize Christmas songs in more sinister ways, much like in Tales from the Crypt. For instance, there is a particularly tense and effective sequence set to Bing Crosby’s haunting Christmas epic, “Do You Hear What I Hear”.
From the wonderfully witchy neighbor, Ms. Deagle to the foreign products-hating neighbor played to the hilt by Dick Miller, the film is filled with great character actors doing what they do best...creating memorable characters. Phoebe Cates proves yet again that her girl-next-door charm is almost unbeatable amongst the brat pack type crowd of her 80s contemporaries. Zach Galligan's work can't be overlooked here either, of course. She's so adorable and he's so hapless that when Billy finally stumbles out a date invite and she accepts, we really cheer for the guy. Galligan would later go on to genre fame in the Waxwork films, but not much else unfortunately. The true stars of the film, however, are the loveable Gizmo (voiced by Deal or No Deal host Howie Mandel) and the carnage-loving gremlin leader, Stripe (voiced by Transformers voice actor, Frank Welker). Stripe is pretty much the leader of the gremlins solely because he has a thick stripe of white hair forming a wicked 80s mohawk do. Of course, he's also the meanest of the bunch as well, even going so far as to shoot and kill his own kind if they get too out of line.
The script by Chris Columbus is fairly clever, showing a subtle edge that isn’t usually associated with projects executive produced by Steven Spielberg. Like many other films, it has that happy-go-lucky, cheesy 80s charm that so many other comedy and horror favorites of the period contain. The film also contains a message about man’s responsibility to nature, but is never too preachy. For all its cute and cuddly "awww!" moments, the film does have a bit of a mean streak. The gremlins, after all, don't just create havoc...they do indeed kill people. Quite a few, actually. More than I remembered that they did before sitting down to watch the film for this review. Joe Dante, an avid fan of 50s B-Movies, shows us the kind of true cinematic panache that makes fans wish he were still actively working in the genre. When he dabbles in other genres, the results are mixed. When he puts his mind to working even if only slightly in the horror genre, the results are usually great. Gremlins is without a doubt, his masterpiece.
The film has seen three legitimate DVD releases, the last of which was a full-blown special edition packed with a behind the scenes documentary, deleted scenes, and two different audio commentary tracks. Audio and video of the disc are pretty decent but could probably benefit from a high definition remaster on BluRay. Until that time comes, this is definitely the best release of the film thus far. Gremlins is a fantastic entertainment. Even though it’s not intense, dark horror, it’s certainly not your typical syrupy sweet holiday film. Not only does it pay homage to the great monster movies of the 50s, but it serves as a fun holiday classic in its own right. Yeah, you could watch Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night again...but come on, give Gremlins the holiday props it deserves. This is a fun movie that is worth every horror and non-horror fan's time. By all means, Buy it!
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