There are three rules for taking care of a Mogwai:
1. Keep them away from bright light.
2. Keep them away from water.
3. Don't feed them after midnight.
All three of these rules are quickly broken in Joe Dante's Gremlins, which leads to the arrival of the titular characters: small, murderous, sharp-toothed, leather-skinned green monsters with a demented sense of humor. Imagine all of the comic violence of a particularly manic Looney Tunes short with actual bloodshed included, and you have an idea of what sort of mayhem these critters generate. They're magnificent movie monsters, and perhaps the purest expression of Dante's sensibilities as a filmmaker: too funny to be truly terrifying, but too dangerous to be merely “cute” or “fun.” It seems appropriate that this was one of the the two films to inspire the creation of the PG-13 rating (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was the other).
The film begins in warm, gentle territory, as bumbling inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton, The Black Stallion) purchases a Mogwai – a adorable little mammal that chirps happy little songs and even talks a little bit – as a Christmas gift for his teenage son Billy (Zach Galligan, Waxwork). Technically, the Mogwai wasn't actually for sale, but Rand made a quiet deal with the elderly shop owner's grandson and that was that (Rand's attitude on the matter is typically American: “I just gotta have him”). Billy names the Mogwai “Gizmo,” and does his best to abide by the aforementioned rules of ownership. Alas, the movie is not called A Happy Mogwai Christmas.
Even so, Gremlins is a Christmas movie to its core, as the spirit of the season can be felt to some degree in almost every scene (often with a thick layer of irony, admittedly). The film's opening titles are accompanied by Darlene Love's spectacular “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” Jerry Goldsmith works traces of “Silent Night” into his otherwise marvelously weird score (highlighted by the truly insane “Gremlins Rag”) and copious Christmas decorations are littered all over the film (in their own unique way, the Gremlins eagerly embrace the chaotic razzle-dazzle of the holiday). The film rarely approaches actual horror, but the most unsettling sequence is a terrifically tense game of cat-and-mouse underscored by Andy Williams' “Do You Hear What I Hear?” There's another grim Christmas-themed scene of a different variety; a horrifying yet hilarious monologue in which Zach's girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) reveals the tragic event from her past that made her hate Christmas.
Galligan isn't much of a lead actor (he's not unconvincing or anything, but he brings so little definition to the part that Billy never feels like much more than “some guy”), but the supporting cast helps add some flavor. Axton's turn as the inventor is built around a nice running gag (the cheap inventions he's pitching never work the way they're supposed to), and his well-intentioned foolishness is curiously endearing. Dick Miller (Explorers) has a nice bit as the cantankerous town drunk, and Polly Holliday (Mrs. Doubtfire) goes cheerfully over-the-top as the preposterously cold-hearted Mrs. Deagle.
Still, the humans aren't exactly the main attraction here. The gremlins are the star of the show, and the filmmakers (led by designer Chris Walas) seem to be having a ball finding ways to make each and every one of them feel unique. The film inspired a host of mini-monster imitations (Critters, Ghoulies, Munchies, Hobgoblins, etc.), but none came close to recapturing the level of demented visual inspiration Gremlins offers (even Gremlins 2: The New Batch – a delightful and underrated film – couldn't quite top its predecessor in the design department). Special mention should also be made of Gizmo, whose fluffy sweetness serves as amusing counterpoint to the grotesque awfulness of his scaly brethren.
At its best, Gremlins is a savagely funny live-action cartoon (a notion enhanced by an early cameo from the legendary Chuck Jones). Many of the jokes might have felt cruel or mean-spirited in lesser hands, but Dante manages to maintain a winking tone without defanging the film's darker moments. All sorts of perfectly nice characters (and some not-so-nice ones) are forced to endure some form of hellish comic punishment, but the whole thing is presented with such giddy enthusiasm that the movie never really feels inappropriate for the young audience it's clearly aimed at. It's one of the best Amblin productions directed by someone other than Steven Spielberg (who hand-picked Dante for this assignment), partially because it expands on Spielberg's sensibilities rather than merely mimicking them. Imagine the wonder and warmth of E.T. suddenly interrupted by the arrival of 100 nasty little aliens, and you have a pretty good idea of what Dante achieves here.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 1984