I know what you’re thinking…”Did this guy even have a childhood?” I was going to pick something scarier for my first crack at Late to the Party, but, dammit, I felt a sense of duty to finally check Joe Dante’s Gremlins off my list.
Gremlins is the type of gateway horror movie younger audiences might fondly remember as one of their first introductions to the genre. I was wondering if I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it as an adult. Then again, a good film doesn’t need nostalgia to hold up. I popped in the disc (Sorry, no VHS), and the menu screen appeared with Jerry Goldsmith’s zany carnival-style theme song playing in the background. I knew I was in for a wild ride.
Gremlins opens unexpectedly like a neo-noir detective film, complete with voice-over narration from a fedora clad man with an unbelievable tale to tell. Inventor Randall Peltzer discovers a strange little creature called a Mogwai in a mysterious back-alley shop, and buys it as a bizarre Christmas gift for his teenage son Billy. Randall warns Billy to follow three simple rules: Keep it out of the sunlight, keep it away from water, and never feed it after midnight. I couldn’t wait for them to break all three.
It was bewildering how incredibly nonchalant the whole family was that the father brought home an unidentified, Nobel Prize-winning species, and acted like it was a Pomeranian. But, hey, people were bringing home all kinds of weird creatures in the 80’s. It’s not long before things go awry, and the town is under siege by hundreds of evil gremlins. If only the mom called the authorities when she discovered a half dozen monster cocoons in her attic, instead of going back downstairs and baking Christmas cookies.
We meet some of the unsuspecting townspeople in the first act of the film. Most characters have poetic payoffs, like the miserable, old crone Mrs. Deagle, who receives a hilarious comeuppance (more on that later). However, some character arcs get thrown to the wayside. Billy’s young, arrogant supervisor Gerald Hopkins is competing for the affection of Billy’s crush Kate. Gerald oddly disappears part way through the film, but it’s not a major detriment to the overall plot. Kate is also thankfully not turned into a damsel in distress. Despite some missed character opportunities, Gremlins doesn’t bother getting bogged down in too many subplots when the pace picks up.
The film is presented like a B-movie creature-feature elevated by fantastic execution. Charming matte paintings are utilized for the aerial shots of the small town, while most of the sets appear to be classic Hollywood backlots. The practical effects have many clever details that will still blow people’s minds, even today.
The crew pulled out all the stops with slimy cocoons, pulsating furballs, and, of course, the incredible animatronics. Even as a grown-ass adult, I found Gizmo absolutely adorable. The gremlins lurking in various nooks and crannies were often accompanied by retro glowing green or red lights and rolling mist. Stripe’s gruesome death sequence resembles the final scene in The Evil Dead (1981) in the best possible way. All these little touches bring the film to life with incredible flair.
The level of mayhem in Gremlins is glorious. One would expect the film to be smaller in scale due to budget restrictions, but they went all out. The gremlins tear-assing through the picturesque town showcases their mischievous personalities, and the creativity of the film crew. Not only were they destroying the town, they were having fun doing it.
Dante lets us take a couple moments to soak in the chaos the gremlins are causing in a local bar and theater. The camera pans around to show them swinging from ceiling fans, playing cards, slamming drinks, and all other sorts of crazy shenanigans. One of the best scenes is when they show up on Mrs. Deagle’s doorstep dressed in caroling garb, and launch the crotchety, old bat out her second story window via stair lift chair. I was rolling with laughter.
Gremlins is a perfect mix of lighthearted 80’s adventure, with a dash of slapstick gore. This film could have easily been a cheesy disaster if it was executed poorly. It instead became a classic with something for everyone. Modern audiences often try to decide if a film like Halloween (1978) is still terrifying by today’s standards. Gremlins, on the other hand, was never meant to be terrifying. It was meant to be a fun adventure, with excellent practical effects. In that regard, it absolutely holds up.