One of the finest of these early-80s Spielberg productions was Gremlins, a good old-fashioned monster movie that was just as funny as it was scary.
Gremlins begins with inventor Rand Peltzer trying to find a quick gift for his son Billy before returning home from a New York trip. He settles on a unique pet in a Chinatown curio shop – a cute, furry creature known as a Mogwai.
Before he leaves, he is warned by the shop’s owner that three rules must be obeyed by a Mogwai owner:
- Keep it away from bright light
- Don’t get any water on it
- Never, never ever feed it after midnight
Rand takes note of these rules and returns home with the Mogwai to his idyllic small-town home of Kingston Falls.
Rand’s gift is an instant hit: Billy loves his adorable new pet, naming it Gizmo and taking it everywhere he goes. Unfortunately, he and his friends also begin breaking the rules of Mogwai care.
When water is accidentally spilt on Gizmo, it causes him to multiply and produce a number of mischievous little brothers.
Among these is the mean-tempered ‘Stripe’. Soon enough, the new Mogwai get hold of some food after midnight and this causes them to change from cute fur-balls into nasty, scaly monsters dubbed ‘Gremlins’.
In a matter of hours, the suburban paradise of Kingston Falls transforms into a riot zone as the Gremlins multiply by the hundreds and overtake the town. Billy manages to escape the mayhem along with Gizmo and his girlfriend Kate.
Together, this trio has to figure out how to end the Gremlin menace before they escape the town and spread out into the rest of the world. This quest leads to a climax that manages to be amusing and horrifying all at once.
Gremlins is a delight of the most wicked variety, succeeding both as a horror movie and a sly satire of horror movies. Director Joe Dante, who had previously shown a gift for humour-laced horror with films like Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), juggled the chills and laughs with ease.
He often presented both at once, most notably the moment where Billy’s mother defends herself from a gremlin onslaught by using kitchen tools like the blender and the microwave as weapons.
In another great bit, the Gremlins overrun a cinema showing Snow White and end up singing along with the Seven Dwarves.
The film also benefited from a gifted and diverse cast. Zach Galligan made an appealing hero and Phoebe Cates blended toughness with vulnerability as Kate.
Ms. Cates also got to deliver an unforgettable monologue, wherein she reveals the reason she doesn’t like the holiday season.
Hoyt Axton was charming as the clumsy inventor dad, and Corey Feldman made an early appearance as one of Billy’s pals. There were also a number of funny bit parts: Dick Miller as a former army man whose fear of Gremlins came true in the worst way, and Polly Holliday (best known as Flo on TV sitcom Alice) as the mean-spirited millionaire who gets a memorable comeuppance.
And then there were the Gremlins themselves. These little creatures were marvels of film technology, truly coming alive for the viewers thanks to effective and imaginative design. They were created by Chris Walas, the same man who would later turn Jeff Goldblum into The Fly.
The Gremlins’ imaginative voicing came from the likes of Howie Mandel and Michael Winslow (the sound effects king from the Police Academy movies). Their humorous vocal stylings kept the Mogwai from being too cute and the Gremlins from getting too creepy.
When it was released in 1984, Gremlins became a lighting rod for controversy when it got a PG rating despite the intense nature of its scary scenes. In fact, the furore over this film and another Steven Spielberg production, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, led to the creation of the PG-13 rating.
However, this controversy also helped the film become a box-office smash: it made $150 million in the US alone and just as much elsewhere in the world.
So you shouldn’t feed a Mogwai after midnight. But when exactly does it stop being “after midnight” exactly? And what about if you were on a plane and you passed between time zones? And as for the stuff about not getting Mogwais wet . . . what would happen if it was a real humid day?
The holes in Joe Dante’s film are gaping to say the least, but to the director’s credit he points out the fact in the superb, homage-heavy 1988 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Frances Lee McCain
Mrs Ruby Deagle
‘Rockin’ Ricky Rialto