Movie fans know that there is often a difference between that which we see as “the best” and that which we designate our “favorite”. This entry in the project fits into that category of “favorite” without necessarily being the highest quality or most distinctive of the year. That’s right, here we are, almost halfway through the year, and the Oscar bait pictures are still months from arriving, but we have arrived at my personal “favorite” film of the year. I took more pleasure from seeing this movie a half dozen times in the summer of 1984 than any other film I saw, and I have watched countless times since, and I continue to enjoy the spirit, and cleverness with which it was made. On the nostalgia front, this picture touches a lot of memories from 1984, that I also count as important.
Gremlins is mayhem unleashed, sweet turned to sour, and somewhat deconstructive of the horror movies it most resembles. Along with “Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom”, “Gremlins is responsible for the PG-13 rating and is guilty of creating a shift in marketing that will effect films for the next thirty years. To begin with, this movie was marketed as a family movie with a bit of an edge. Look at the poster tagline “Cute, Clever, Mischievous, Intelligent, Dangerous”. Four of the five words suggest a barrel of fun, only one of them comes close to signifying that there is a strong horror element in the movie. Above the title is the name “Steven Spielberg”, whose most recent released movie was the worldwide blockbuster and family favorite “E.T.”. The Indiana Jones movie was opening just days before this so there was not any sense of dread prior to that. The image has a shy creature peeking out of a shoebox. There are holes in the top for it to breath and it has cute little fingers and fuzzy arms. It looks like an odd animal that a kid might have found and brought home to make a pet out of. Sure there is some suspense and a little nervousness, but how bad could it be when the colors of the poster are the same as “E.T.” and it it brought to us by that nice Mr. Spielberg? Well it’s a lucky thing that Spielberg was involved, or it might have been a lot darker.
Christopher Columbus, who later directed the Home Alone movies, wrote and directed Mrs. Doubfire, and directed the first two Harry Potter films, wrote a nasty little script that intrigued Steven Spielberg, but ultimately required several revisions to be made into something marketable. In Columbus original story, Gizmo turns into Stripe. The decapitation that takes place is of the Mom, not a Gremlin, and worst of all, the dog dies. There was no way that it would be anything but a horror film which would significantly limit it’s chances to make money. Many of these changes were a direct result of input from Spielberg on the script and direction of the movie. As dailies came in and the first shots of “Gizmo” became moments of aahs from the executives, the idea of ancillary products started coming up and after what had happened with “E.T.”, no one wanted to leave money on the table.
The movie certainly feels like a magical Spielberg type picture at the beginning. Inventor Rand Peltzer, is strolling through Chinatown, looking for a market for his latest invention and many something special for his kid’s Christmas gift. He ends up in a basement curio shop and discovers a creature that sings and that he feels his son would love. The old man who owns the shop refuses an offer, but his grandson is not as discriminating as to what he sells or who gets it. The kid sneaks the animal out and delivers it into Pelter’s hands along with a set of care-giving rules:
1. Keep him out of the light. Sunlight will kill him.
2. Never get him wet. (We will of course discover why)
3. No matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.
Simple you think, but naturally rules are made to be broken and it is demonstrated again how man, and in particular Western Culture, are not to be trusted.
After this prologue, the town of Kingston Falls is introduced. It is the epitome of every small town in a Warner Brothers film from the thirties, forties or fifties, only in color and feeling just a bit out of time. Everyone seems to know each other, the local bar is beloved by all, there is a single movie theater and the town is dominated by an evil developer along the lines of Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, which is playing on the TV in a couple of scenes in this movie. Mrs. Deagle is a combination of Margaret Hamiltion and Edward Arnold; self centered, cruel and indifferent, and mean just to look at. In fact a picture of Edward Arnold, the well known character actor who played so many conniving characters in the thirties that it is hard to count, is used as a portrait of Mrs. Deagle’s late husband. This is a movie made by people who loved old movies and wanted to work in the Golden Era but will settle for setting their film in that milieu.
Billy Peltzer is a young man of college age, probably a lot like George Bailey, who stays at home to help his family rather than go off to college somewhere. As he runs late to work he greets people on the street, including Dr. Moreua . The theater is playing a film that has the false title that was used to keep “ET” a secret while in production. The radio station is advertised with a familiar color scheme and a D.J. bearing a hat and whip. This movie is full of allusions to other movies. Billy already has a dog as a pet and it gets him into trouble with Mrs. Deagle. Just wait until this new pet arrives, it should be loads of heartwarming fun, not.
Our first glimpse of the new pet, called a Mogwai, comes when Rand arrives home and tells Billy his present cant wait until Christmas. The mystery up to this point has been played well, and when Billy first opens the box the Mogwai comes in, everyone gets a little jump scare and then a great big “aaww”.
When we get to see “Gizmo”, as he has been named by Rand, he is adorable. Giant bat like ears, huge eyes, covered in fur not unlike a small dog, and he has a cute little vocal sound that endears him immediately. “Ka-ching” go the cash registers as a million plush toys are ordered instantly. Sure we know some trouble is coming but how bad can it be, did you see “Gizmo”? Well get ready folks because this movie takes a dark turn pretty quickly.
A small acident reveals why you don’t want to get a Mogwai wet, they multiply in water. Before the Peltzers know it, they have a half dozen little guys to keep track of and take care of. The new ones do not have the temperament of “Gizmo” and in fact, the leader “Stripe” seems to be “Gizmos” evil twin. Still, how can a bucket-load of cute, create anything too problematic for us to think about? Rule two has been broken, let’s not forget about rule number three. Billy doesn’t forget but the Mogwai have their own agenda and inevitably, someone is having an after Midnight snack. That’s the moment that everyone should be shifting in their seats. Nothing has prepared us for the scary stuff that is to follow. Early audiences did not know what to expect and as a result the surprise was great. My wife and I went to a sneak preview of the film a week before it was to open. Remember, there was no internet, no spoilers, and no images of the Gremlins at this point. There is a long build up to the reveal of the creatures in their post pupae form. I saw “Alien”, so when I saw the chrysalis stage I knew it was going to be bad. I sat in the secondary Chinese Theater and wondered if anybody who had brought their kids was having second thoughts at the moment. I was perfectly fine with the turn the movie was taking, but I was an adult who made a conscious choice. When the first Gremlin is revealed in full, it was startling and when we see how viscous they can be, it is disturbing. I’m all in but I could understand why someone would choose to be out at that point.
If “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” brought us to the edge of acceptable PG fare, “Gremlins” pushed us over that edge in a key scene right after they hatch. Billy’s Mom discovers that the gremlins are loose in her house, and she goes on a crusade to defend her home. Francis Lee McCain, who was Ren’s Mom in Footloose, and Gordie’s Mom in “Stand By Me”, and Lorraine’s Mom in “Back to the Future”, has her greatest Mom role in movies here. She goes commando on the Gremlins and it was a gruesome sight.
Household appliances become tools for ridding the house of unwanted pests in her hands. Before the gangsters in “Kick-Ass” used an industrial sized microwave on a rat in their organization, they were schooled in the process by Mrs. Peltzer in this movie. We knew what kind of damage some of Rand’s inventions could do to fruit and coffee, it took a pretty desperate or sick mind to use a mixer on a gremlin. Let’s just say that orange juice has got to be easier to clean up than gremlin guts. Mom is also handy with a knife. Earlier we saw how she managed an onion for the family dinner, she takes the concept of a paring knife to new limits. When the gremlins do get the upper hand on her, Billy steps in and that sword that kept falling off the wall every time someone came in the front door is now so much more useful than as a wall decoration. The result is a holiday yule log that is probably going to give you nightmares. This sequence was the welcome mat for the new PG-13 rating. Indy set the table, but “Gremlins” served the entree. It was a tasty dish but probably best kept away from the little ones.
Admittedly, the film calms down a lot after this sequence. The comedy elements do reappear and there is plenty to laugh at. The gremlins let all kinds of mayhem out on Kingston Falls. Mrs. Deagle gets hers in a grim bit of humor and the poor neighbors the Futterman’s, survive somehow after their American made snowplow gets infested with gremlins imported from the Orient. The town is over taken at first with equipment that suddenly goes haywire, but we know what is really happening. Traffic lights don’t sync, brakes fail and chair lifts turn into catapults. Billy’s love interest Kate is overwhelmed with a dangerous crowd of customers at the local tavern. No server was more entitled to complain about being “slammed” than she was. Kate gets rescued by Billy and Gizmo and then shares the most grotesque Christmas story you are likely to ever hear. The studio wanted that section cut out, Spielberg did not like it either but he told director Joe Dante, that it was his call. As a result, the most horrifying thing people will remember about this movie is not the stand made in the kitchen but the sad tale of how a nine year old little girl learned that there is no Santa Claus.
The film has two climax sections, the first of which is a delight for film lovers. The hundreds of gremlins that at at large are collected in a single spot for the purpose of watching a movie together as the dawn gets ready to arrive. It’s here that we learn that there is something that humans and gremlins can agree with, Disney’s “Snow White” is wonderful. There have been so many visual jokes up to this point, it is hard to imagine what else they could come up with but when you look at this audience, you can see where the crew could be inspired.
This film was made without the use of computer effects. There is one brief stop motion animated sequence and one animated shadow clip. Otherwise, everything you see was done on set with puppets, remote controls, marionettes and other tricks of the trade. Bladders were filled with air, holes were cut in the floor and cable ran everywhere. Gizmo was the biggest problem because originally he was not in the second half of the picture so they had to invent ways to make his face, body and other characteristics work. The backpack idea helped but it was apparently quite frustrating. The Special Effects guys must have taken great pleasure in shooting this scene, a chance to reek vengeance on the bane of their existence. The creativity of this movie is amazing. They had to find a new solution to a new problem on a daily basis. Actors had to wait for the dolls, puppets and assorted cables and limbs to be matched up and made workable. It’s a little like Bruce in “Jaws” without the ocean.
The dramatic confrontation between Billy, Stripe and Gizmo takes place in Montgomery Ward’s, a department store chain that had thrived for a hundred years but did not make it out of the 1980s. The second time I saw the movie was with a couple of friends who were crying in our beer because the Lakers had just lost in the NBA championship to the Celtics and it was too painful for that to be the end of the evening. Since there was a late show, I was able to convince them to choose this film. My friend Rick, was not a fan, and when Stripe showed up with a chainsaw, he was done with the movie. I’m geeking out while he is just groaning with disapproval. Clearly “Gremlins” is not for everyone. It was the second biggest moneymaker of that summer, but in the eighteen weeks it played in theaters, it was never the top film of the week. No one at Warner Brothers was complaining, they were busy counting the money.
On July Fourth there was a newspaper ad featuring Gizmo with the flag, a shot from the movie, with. the tagline “Gizmo, Stars and Stripe”. I could not find that ad but I did find a couple of other tie ins to the year that were kind of enjoyable. Here in Southern California, 1984 was the year of the Olympics. Here is a promo ad that plays off of that coincidence of timing. The idea of the Gremlins swimming and multiplying in the Olympic pool should have found it’s way into the sequel somehow. The film also got one last chance to make some money before the end of the year. Remember, it’s a Christmas film. I think I’ve watched it every Christmas since it came out, and the first time was in a theater. Take a look at this promo. Doesn’t the thought of Stripe coming down the chimney shout Christmas to you? Another reason I remember the movie and the times so well is because I had interviewed for a position at one of the colleges I was teaching at. I was sure I had nailed the interview, and with confidence that I would soon be employed full time, I splurged and bought a Stripe Doll and a Gizmo plush. Of course I did not get the job (that year. The next year I did), and somewhere in the garage is a box with both of those toys still in good shape.
“Gremlins” is the movie that encouraged me to write the only fan letter I ever sent. It did not go to one of the stars, or the director or the producer. I wrote to the great Jerry Goldsmith, who composed a cacophony score that sounded ominous and circus like all at once. The soundtrack that I own is mostly the song score with pseudo pop songs that they hoped would become hits. The main theme however is on the LP and it was the only thing I copied onto cassette to listen to in the car. I believe this is the only film he scored that he actually appears in.
The film is rich in movie references and it is covered in the traditional Spielberg look and themes, and yet it subverts all of that and makes guys like me happy. Happy to live in a world where a guy like Hoyt Axton got to play the dad; where Chuck Jones shows up and comments on comic book drawing; where Keye Luke parodies the Chinese caricatures he was trapped in playing most of his career; and where crazy, inventive artists can make urethane and polymers and fur, come to life to scare us and make us laugh.