director Joe Dante
For Friday night, we settled down for a Gremlins double feature, starting with the 1984 original to be followed by the 1990 Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Felix was out on a sleep-over, so it was just Clara and I who decided to get nice and cozy with Gizmo and the Mogwai.
Weirdly enough, I think Gremlins, back in 1984, was my first “date.” My mom took us there, her mom picked us up. I think it was a one-off date, which I remembered for losing my wallet in her mother’s car and for not being overly enamored with the film.
Gremlins was part of the 1980’s when Spielberg seemed to be franchising himself with various productions much in his own vein and certainly produced by him, but with other directors taking helm of the films to varying degrees of success and failure. Movies like Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins, Back to the Future (1985), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), The Goonies (1985) and many more far beyond that all could have been Spielberg movies, maybe some bear his mark more than others. But Gremlins turns out to be much more a Joe Dante movie, trying to be a Steven Spielberg movie.
Chris Columbus, who would go on to direct Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Home Alone (1990), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and the first two Harry Potter films, was screenwriter for Young Sherlock Holmes, The Goonies and here for Gremlins as well. It’s set in the small town of Kingston Falls, an Everytown, USA, home to the Peltzer family, Hoyt Axton as dad, the failed inventor, Frances Lee McCain as good-natured mom and Zach Galligan as Billy, who receives the Mogwai Gizmo as a Christmas gift from his roving father. It’s Christmastime. And the film heavily references many films, including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as if you didn’t get what they were going for.
It seems that all this cross-referencing, movie-citing, and parodying is pure Joe Dante. By the time he gets around to Gremlins 2, small town America is history and the whole film is a meta-reel of gags, asides, and cultural references. He was way ahead of Mr. Tarantino on that front.
But Dante’s Gremlins is also quite a bit dark. These gremlins kill. They don’t just wreak comic havoc. The produce a body count. And it’s doubtless this is why this film was partially influential in bringing about the PG-13 rating to the MPAA. But it’s also one of the film’s weirdnesses and potential shortcomings. Parts of it are supposed to be cute, parts of it sort of scary, but its darkness outweighs its lightness, though the film manically swerves back and forth between comedy, mayhem, and traditional American idealism.
Arguably, it’s best qualities are its madcap comedy and these darker elements. But it sort of feels like a Spielbergian film that’s gone off the rails a bit too much.
I don’t know that I’d seen it since the 1980’s. But I feel that I liked it about as much as I did back then. It’s okay. It’s a mess. It’s pretty fun. But also disappointing.
The incredibly cute Phoebe Cates and Galligan are so ineffectual as hero/protagonists, it’s possible that Dante made the film far more of a critique of American culture than a paean to it. He does blow up a classic small town movie theater playing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), or Galligan does for him. Apparently, the pop culture infused Gremlins are ga-ga about Disney classics as well as the latest things like break-dancing and modern music. The Gremlins might be humanity at its worst, but at least they are comical. Galligan and Cates are humanity at its blandest.
Clara enjoyed it fairly well. She was of course all over Gizmo the cutie. But I had told her that I had a friend who preferred the sequel because it was funnier. She was eager to watch it too.