Some films are not what they seem. Take "Gremlins" (1984) for example. It is the story of a small-town kid who acquires a strange creature that spawns a
pack of menacing green beings that terrorize the inhabitants of the cheery little area.
A silly idea, yes, but surely a fun one, and surely one to be cherished. It isn't technically a great movie, or even a very good one, but it doesn't mean to be. The genius lies in the modest scale of the film -- it isn't just a crude horror film with evil alien species (see "Critters"), but a tongue-in-cheek parody of the rest, that still manages to fit in a few thrills along the way as if by accident.
Thank Joe Dante for this movie. And thank him for providing us with magnificent and imaginative films over the years. He is one of cinema's great underrated directors, the man responsible for bringing other creatures to life very often, whether it is werewolves or small toys or Looney Toons.
The movie is centered around Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), the small-town kid mentioned above who is handed a Mogwai by his father (Hoyt Axton), who picked the puffy furball up in Chinatown during one of his routine salesman trips. Billy's father is a sort of failed inventor, reminding us of the frizzle-haired Doc Emmett Brown played by Christopher Lloyd in "Back to the Future," only not quite as eccentric. "Back to the Future" came out a year after "Gremlins," and the two are similar in the way they entertain -- silly little ideas that nevertheless become almost genius. Time travel was a myth before "Back to the Future," which turned it into an adventurous notion, a way of being able to transport people back in time to see their own parents. (H.G. Wells himself hadn't even approached these topics, and I can guarantee he would have never sparked a relationship between the sibling and his mother.)
"Gremlins" is milestone movie-making magic, a simple idea like "Back to the Future," stretched out into a bigger picture. I won't kid you -- it's not as complex as "Future" is, but it doesn't need to be, and certainly doesn't want to be. It relies on humor and charm, and it has plenty of it.
Billy works at the town bank, hounded by the city grouch (Frances Lee McCain) and threatened by the vice president (Judge Reinhold). His long-time sweetheart (Phoebe Cates) works there, too, and at the local bar, occupied by drunks at night (and on occasion some nasty gremlins). The town loon (Dick Miller) is convinced there are gremlins about, and soon he is right.
"Don't ever get them wet," Billy is more or less told by his father. "And don't feed them after midnight." (See if you can spot the huge flaw in that rule.) Well, the small little Mogwai, Gizmo (voiced in burps and small cutesy sentences by Howie Mandel), does get wet, and spawns a set of fellow furballs -- all apparently mean-spirited and vile. And after tricking Billy by cutting the power on his clock, they get fed after midnight -- and basically evolve overnight into a bunch of green, nasty little gremlins, all of which continue to spawn throughout the town and cause absolute chaos.
Will Billy defeat the gremlins, get the girl, and save the town? Take a wild guess.
Everything Joe Dante touches is usually magic. Even his live-action/animation film "Toy Soldiers" was a load of fun because of its charming disposition. Dante doesn't try to make his films anything other than what they are -- charming and wildly, wickedly funny -- and that is undoubtedly the key to the outrageous success of "Gremlins," one of the biggest box office moneymakers ever released.
I wasn't a huge fan of the sequel, even though I have it in my DVD collection right next to the original. It lost the darkness of campiness of the original and went for all-out laughs (many of which failed) instead of the laugh-out-loud laughs of the original, which were concealed within a film that actually made sense (in some ways) and still managed to be dark and fun. The sequel also introduced the mandatory Goofy Idiot Character. In fact, it had two -- a Donald Trump-like manager and a gremlin that more or less belonged in The Three Stooges, and definitely not in a movie about menacing creatures. In fact, another of the first film's highlights was the way it made its creatures dark, hurtful, and just plain funny. (People complained that the launching of Frances Lee McCain out a window was too much, but come on.)
As a whole, I didn't think that the sequel worked especially well. But it has as big a fan following as the original in some respects, for those who favor goofy, pointless cash-ins over original, hysterical movies.
I wouldn't expect many people to love "Gremlins" as much as I do, but its charm is certainly worth commenting on -- and so is its wicked humor. Dark, chaotic and pretty darn infectious, the film's sense of humor quickly kicks into boot even during the campy voice-over narrative. The whole film is campy. And unlike something like "Critters" (which I loathe), this film is endearing and fresh and funny and has a bunch of likable characters -- especially Gizmo, the favorite and most infamous little critter ever seen on screen, and Stripe, the lead gremlin whose unfortunate frying incident at the end of the film actually makes you sad. No sequel for that little creep.
- John Ulmer