Score: 5 out of 5
One of the all-time classic horror-comedies, Amblin family adventure films, and holiday films, Gremlins is a movie that, if you grew up in the '80s, needs no introduction. I did not grow up in the '80s. I'd heard about Gremlins from people older than me, be they film critics or cousins of mine, but I never got a chance to see it until now. I was expecting a movie that was good, but perhaps looked back on with a bit too much nostalgic fondness by a generation that was blown away by it when they were kids and have cherished those memories for thirty years. I was not expecting to be just as blown away watching it now, in 2018, as those audiences must have been. This movie is the reason why a whole generation ranks Joe Dante up there with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as one of the filmmakers who crafted their childhood memories, even if his subsequent films, while good, never quite reached the heights he achieved here. It's a film that, while clearly leaning on the "comedy" side of the horror-comedy equation, still packs a surprising amount of bite behind its bark, such that I'm not surprised that parental outrage over it and other PG-rated films helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating the month after this came out (even with the fact that the finished film heavily toned down some of the truly disturbing content in the original script). At first, I wondered if it was gonna be too saccharine to live up to the reputation it had, but by the third act, those thoughts were gone from my head as the film took its final form as a monster movie that mixed childlike whimsy with pure mayhem to great effect. Gremlins is a classic that still holds up.
The film starts with Rand Peltzer, a struggling inventor whose creations are too gimmicky and finicky to bring him much success, visiting Chinatown to pick out a gift for his teenage son Billy. At a shop full of knickknacks, Rand finds a cute, cuddly animal called a mogwai that he thinks is perfect, with the shop's owner, initially hesitant to sell it to him, providing him with three rules after Rand gives him enough money to change his mind: don't expose it to direct sunlight, don't get it wet, and don't feed it after midnight. Unfortunately, Billy's friend Pete accidentally spills a cup of water all over "Gizmo", as Rand and Billy call it, causing it to spawn a bunch of new, meaner mogwai who turn into little hellraisers all over the house. Things escalate when these little bastards trick Billy into feeding them after midnight by tampering with his clock, at which point it's revealed that these cute, lovable, almost Pokemon-like creatures are merely the child stage of some far meaner monsters. As an army of gremlins wreaks havoc all over town, Billy, his co-worker Kate, his parents, and their neighbors find their lives turned into a living hell.
This is a film that very much skirts the boundary of what is considered acceptable in a family film. It is a slow-burn monster movie that spends its first act disguised as something more like what you'd expect from a film with the Amblin logo on it: something that's kinda creepy, but ultimately lighthearted, and where you don't really believe that the characters are in any danger. This is a problem that a lot of later films that followed that formula, including Joe Dante's own Small Soldiers, ran into, lacking the genuine bite of their predecessors. It's a problem that one can actually kind of blame this movie for, given that, as mentioned above, it was one of the major films that led to the creation of the PG-13 rating, which divided the broad, previously PG-rated middle between Walt Disney and Tom Savini into two ghettoes (PG became too family-friendly for teenagers, PG-13 became too edgy for parents and children). That said, boy does this earn the right to be credited with getting PG-13 invented. As somebody raised on the later, sanitized kids' adventure films of the '90s, my expectations for how this movie would play out became an ingenious trap. I didn't expect named characters, even hate-sinks, to get genuinely murdered by the gremlins as opposed to just subjected to really embarrassing and comically degrading situations, nor did I expect to see the gremlins wielding guns, raiding a local bar to get drunk and raise hell, and getting violently splattered by the main characters with everything from blenders to microwaves. Don't be fooled by the light tone of the first act, or how the second act keeps the monsters out of sight. This movie gets dark, even if it remains as much a comedy as it is a horror film.
Dante's background as a horror director on Piranha and The Howling is a major asset here. He treats the monsters like Spielberg treated the shark from Jaws, holding off on showing too much until it comes time to unleash the beast. I was kept on my toes as to just what the fully-grown gremlins actually looked like, with the hints given keeping me captivated and afraid to actually meet one face-to-face, and when the film finally did reveal them, they were even uglier than my imagination could come up with. "Gremlin" is a fitting name for these monsters, looking like they were disgorged from the bowels of Hell like a horde of demonic hooligans and hoodlums. They may love to goof off, as witnessed during the bar scene filled with numerous homages to classic crime movies and artwork, but even then, their antics carry some real menace to them, as seen when they follow it up by killing the townsfolk in any number of creative ways. The special effects on the creatures are outstanding, whether they're in their baby mogwai form or after they've grown up into monsters; FX wizard Chris Walas deserves major props here for making them look convincing without the aid of CGI, especially given, by all accounts, that the job was so difficult that they threw in a scene of the gremlins throwing darts at Gizmo just to satisfy the FX crew. The hard work that went into the puppetry and assorted creature effects definitely paid off.
Dante's direction and Chris Columbus' screenplay do a wonderful job balancing the horror and the comedy once it comes time to dive in on the former, and the result is beautifully twisted, perhaps best exemplified by a scene where Kate lays out to Billy, in horrifying detail, why she hates Christmas so much. Either the horror on display is lending some edge to the comedy, or the comedy is making the horror more messed-up, a comparatively family-friendly version of what the best Nightmare on Elm Street sequels accomplished with Freddy Krueger. This isn't really an actor's movie; while the entire cast was terrific, from Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates as the heroes to Corey Feldman as young Pete to Polly Holliday as the mean, rich neighbor Mrs. Deagle to Frances Lee McCain stealing the show as Billy's mom (especially when she takes on three gremlins single-handedly), they're not the focus here. No, this is a movie about making the viewer laugh and scream in equal measure, the monsters being the real star of the show, and it accomplishes that goal with flying colors. If I had a single complaint about this movie, it's that some of the supporting characters get short shrift, particularly Judge Reinhold as Billy and Kate's obnoxious yuppie boss at the bank, a character seemingly designed to go out violently but whose role was heavily cut down in the editing room. The quality of the rest of the film was such that it barely registered, but I still think that a bit more time could have been spent on the supporting players in the human cast.
The Bottom Line
A standout entry in a genre, the '80s family adventure, that is already brimming with classics, Gremlins is a treat for fans of horror and monster movies. It's not just your nostalgic memories telling you this movie was great. Whether you're introducing your kids to it or watching it for yourself, it still holds up.