Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Polly Holliday, Howie Mandel
Plot: When Billy’s father (Axton) gives him a mogwai for Christmas a fuzzy little creature called Gizmo (Mandel) with a simple set of rules. However when Billy (Galligan) accidently breaks these rules he unwittingly unleashes a horde of anarchy loving monsters.
Review: I think every critic has that one film which sparked their love of cinema and which inturn set them on their path of film criticism. For myself I would have to say it is would be this film, which I saw back in a time when your parents would take you to the video store and allow you to rent a film, which always used to come with that wonderful feeling of knowing that this tape was yours for the whole weekend and in turn would lead to you spending the weekend watching the same film over and over. It was of course through one of these weekends while staying at my grandparents, who remarked that I’d seen this film so many times I could no doubt write the script. This of course would prove to be all the inspiration I would need and over the course of the next few days I sat at my grandfather’s typewriter and churned out what I thought was the script but in all honestly could better be described as a junior novelisation of the film, which my grandfather would later illustrate the borders of with sketches of Gizmo and various gremlins. It would be from here that I would only continue my love of writing before eventually moving into film criticism when I started media studies, but there has always has been something about this film which has caused it to never lose its charm even after countless viewings.
It strange that a film which falls pretty firmly between horror and black comedy is so regularly viewed as family entertainment, no doubt due to the adorable presence of Gizmo and the Muppet like antics of his slimy evil offspring which meant that so many kids in my school saw it even if their parents were normally more conservative about what they let them watch. This tactic honestly made zero difference as these kids tended to just go and watch the movies their parents wouldn’t let them watch at the house of some kid whose parents weren’t so fazed by such things. This is only made the more confusing when consider that the fact the film features more than a few gooey moments of gore.
In many ways a throwback to the likes of “Abbott and Costello Meet The Wolfman” in which it perfectly balances horror and comedy, so that when it’s supposed to be scary it is actually scary, while the comedy elements it’s safe to say are probably what has helped it maintain such a legacy and part of why Dante choose to up the comedy for the sequel. Dante though likes to make broad strokes with the comedy elements as he combines simple slapstick moments frequently curtesy of Billy’s inventor father and his useless inventions which usually comes with messy outcomes. At the same time he also manages to pull off more subtle sight gags as seen in both the bar and cinema sequences, which only reward repeated viewing, especially with the cinema sequence which has so many fun details scattered throughout, while the sight of hundreds of gremlins taking a break from the chaos to sing –a-long to “Hi-Ho” from “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” still brings a goofy grin to my face even now.
No doubt another reason the film continues to last is the sheer likability of the characters, starting with the strong family unit who are truly believable as a family something seemingly lost in films after the 80’s. Billy also makes for the right combination of wholesome charm and common man bravado so that he is a believable hero, even if he finds himself frequently being bettered by the creatures, as none more clearly seen in his shopping mall showdown with the head Gremlin Spike where he spends most of it being assaulted by the vicious little sod. The other reason unquestionably is the overwhelming cuteness of the good Mogwai Gizmo, voiced by a pre “America’s Got Talent” judge Howie Mandel, who despite not speaking only a couple of words in English outside of his frenzied babble never fails to express himself, even if we never know why he such a stickler for following the rules which stop him turning into a gremlin aswell.
Interesting through the original script would have made for a much darker movie than the final film, as it saw not only Billy’s mother being killed, but also his dog being eaten by the gremlins and more shockingly Gizmo turning into a gremlin and turning into the stripe. A large number of these changes came at the request of executive producer Steven Spielberg while director Dante clearly knew which battles to pick as he fought to keep the darker view of the holiday season which Kate (Cates) has as she not only references holiday related suicides but also the dark tale of her father’s death as the result of trying to climb down the chimney while dressed as Santa which Dante stubbornly refused to remove as he argued that it represented the film as a whole. True her darker moments went over the heads of kids who watched the film who if they were anything like myself were too distracted with the fun gremlin antics, but rewatching the film now it adds a subtle dark edge to Kate’s character and rising her above the usual damsel in distress style character.
While the sequel would ultimately be more focused on upping the comedy elements, while Dante at the same time ensured that he broke the franchise in such a way that he wouldn’t be forced to produce another sequel, which currently seems to have worked despite the frequent threats of reboots which continue to float around. Dante though it would seem is still not ready to return to the series especially considering how long it took to shoot the gremlin sequences, which still stand up even now, while providing yet another great argument for the advantage of practical effects over CGI.
No matter how many times I’ve seen this film it still holds the same charm it did when I first watched it, thanks to some great performances let alone the fact it stars the always wonderful Dick Miller as the patriotic Murray Futterman who makes for such a fun double act with Jackie Joseph its little surprise that Dante brought them back for the sequel. However while this film might not be as madcap as the sequel it more than stands on its own merits with a perfect blend of horror and comedy which only begs the question as to why Joe Dante never seems to get the recognition he rightfully deserves especially here when he is clearly working at the height of his powers to craft something truly special which rises well above being another monster movie.