Summer Movie Showdown: "Gremlins" Review


Summer Movie Showdown: "Gremlins" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: June 8, 1984
Directed by: Joe Dante
Genre: Comedy/Horror

As a cultural phenomenon, the concept of the gremlin had to have developed sooner or later. Humans being human, it simply wouldn't have suited the increasingly technological world of the 1940s to go without an anthropomorphic troublemaker who is to be blamed for any mysterious malfunction. The term seems to have originated sometime around the beginning of World War II and gained immediate traction among the myriad engineers, technicians, and machinists of the age. It's difficult to blame them; after all, it's nice to have a convenient single-word scapegoat to kick around and to blame when things go wrong.

The idea of the gremlin became fodder for fiction writers with the publication of "The Gremlins," in 1943 and again the following year when Bugs Bunny battled one-and, unusually for him, lost-aboard a WWII-era bomber. Walt Disney was said to be interested in producing the first film version of the new mythology, but apparently nothing much ever came of it. The idea of making a live-action film that features these uniquely modern monsters would have to wait until some forty years after the term came into wide use.

It wasn't until the rise of quirky, cross-genre horror/comedies that the field would be ripe for "Gremlins." Indeed, not only were such films becoming common in the early 1980s, one of the premiere examples of the trend-"Ghostbusters"-was released the very same weekend as "Gremlins." This trend in American cinema would eventually burn itself out on "Arachnophobia," but for the early '80s, it was a real scream.

The story centers around an adorable little animal, called a Mogwai, that is intended as a birthday present for the teenage Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan). The gift, which originally came from a mysterious shop in Chinatown, comes with three warnings, or rules for care: never get it wet, never expose it to sunlight, and never, ever feed it after midnight. Of course, these rules are broken almost as soon as they're established, and havoc ensues. Sunlight, it turns out, kills them, which is actually a relief, since feeding them after midnight turns the little Mogwais into scaly, reptilian monsters with a mischievous streak a mile wide, and water makes them breed (via budding, for the curious).

What follows closely resembles the plot of "Rambo," minus the pathos. The gremlins cheerfully tear apart the town they're in and make all manner of trouble for the humans. Just when the audience is allowed to believe the outbreak has been contained, one of them falls into a pool or a fountain, and suddenly there are dozens more to deal with.

"Gremlins" was never intended to be made into a movie. The writer, Chris Columbus, wrote "Gremlins" as what's known in the business as a spec script. A spec script is really only meant as a kind of writer's audition. It shows that this writer knows how to script dialogue, create dramatic tension, and so on but will rarely get picked up and made into an actual film. In this case, however, the spec script Columbus wrote fell into the hands of Steven Spielberg, who was, by happy chance, in the market for an original screenplay to run through his still-new production company, Amblin Entertainment. According to Spielberg, "Gremlins" was the most original script he'd seen in years, and he knew he wanted it badly.

The cast of "Gremlins" is a curious inversion of normal Hollywood procedure. In the lead are three actors whom, with the exception of Phoebe Cates as Kate Beringer, nobody had ever heard of before, and from whom no one would ever hear again. The real star power is in the cameos and special appearances, and the credits read like a who's-who of early-80s comedic actors. There's Judge Reinhold, and there's Corey Feldman. Michael Winslow-who sinned in a past life and will forever be that guy from "Police Academy" with the funny voice-adds sound effects, and and Howie Mandel provides the voice of Gizmo the Mogwai! Suffice to say, the film is driven more by novelty and pacing than star power or screen presence.

"Gremlins" made for a fun romp through the dark night. Writer Chris Columbus later claimed to have been inspired to write the film by his experience living in an urban loft. He said that when night fell, what sounded like hundreds of mice or rats would come down from the roof and scurry over the rafters. Lying there in the dark and listening to them going about their business left him with this horrible sense of creepy creatures that are not actually evil, but more mischievous than anything else. Columbus tried to write this sense into his script, and it's also the overriding sense that director Joe Dante tried to preserve throughout the film. Unlike the pure horror films of the age-"Reanimator" comes to mind-"Gremlins" doesn't really want to horrify anybody, nor does it want to get cheap laughs. The film was made and released at the very peak of the horror/comedy trend and still rates among its best efforts.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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