Gremlins attracts more clashing adjectives than any other blockbuster of its era: It’s both cute and disturbing. Clever, but also idiotic. There’s Christmas cheer, but it’s coated with the bubbling slime of Halloween. All this adds up to a movie that’s fun, but…weird. I grew up watching Gremlins, but I can’t say with certainty that I ever liked it. As an adult, I can admire its defiant indefinability more than the movie itself. The story runs on a heavy dose of Looney Toons anarchy, and for that, I’ll tip my cap.
The movie begins in a Chinatown antique shop. Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), a struggling huckster, shows up to peddle a few half-assed inventions. Rather than buying, Rand spots something he can’t refuse: An adorable, cooing mogwai, tucked into a little box. This creature looks like a shrunken Ewok, with big puppy-dog eyes and sprawling Yoda ears. Rand finagles a deal with the shopkeepers grandson, names him Gizmo, and takes the mogwai home for Christmas.
Adorable and seemingly benign, Gizmo makes the perfect gift for Rand’s son, Billy (Zach Galligan). With this gift, however, comes three crucial rules: Gizmo should never be exposed to bright lights, as they will prove lethal. He should never be wet, as this makes him spawn more gremlins. Most importantly, Gizmo cannot be fed snacks after midnight. (What about time zones? Daylight saving shifts? Who cares?!)
Of course, you know the characters will violate all three rules over the course of the movie. The second rule goes down first, resulting in gremlins multiplying like rascally tribbles. The creatures grow more mischievous in numbers, but they remain fairly harmless. When the third rule is broken, all hell breaks loose: The building horde of gremlins transforms into large, slimy, cackling demons.
Billy and his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) now fight a battle on two fronts: First, they must convince the skeptical townsfolk that gremlins exist. Next, they have to destroy these magical, monstrous creatures before they destroy everything in reach.
At this point, Gremlins pivots into all-out horror. The roided-out demons are frightening to behold, as is their spree of death and demolition. It’s no surprise that the MPAA reacted to this (and Spielberg’s equally gruesome Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) by creating the PG-13 rating. To parents of young children who see Gizmo on the poster and think of renting this film, let me issue a warning: Gremlins is pure nightmare fuel. Avoid it until your kids are old enough to reliably use profanity.
To everyone else, if you can vibe into this movie’s macabre sense of humor, you’ll have a decent time. The second half of Gremlins is a gory, devilish onslaught. Social satire blends with cartoonish violence to create a giddy, unhinged romp. The sequence in which the gremlins smoke and booze it up at a local dive bar must be seen to be believed.
That goes ditto for the film’s special effects. As expected, Spielberg and director Joe Dante spare no expense. The animatronic Gremlins are hideous and terrifying. Meanwhile, little Gizmo looks ready-made for Happy Meal boxes. The cuteness of the film’s mascot separates from the story’s violent tone like oil and water. It’s amazing that the clashing aesthetics of Gremlins work at all.
But work they do. Kind of. As with many of Spielberg’s lesser productions (including Hook, which we’ll cover for our podcast), it’s easier to admire the individual components of Gremlins than the finished whole: Gizmo is an incredible technical achievement. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is reliably awesome. I even like Galligan as the plucky dweeb who becomes the first line of defense. If the filmmakers could’ve pulled all this into something seamless, Gremlins could’ve been a wacky, hedonistic masterpiece. As is, it’s just a curious, cinematic oddity.
106 min. PG. Amazon Video.