Warner Bros. // 1984 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // June 1st, 2012
Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous.
Amblin Entertainment's first non-Universal film, Chris Columbus' first spec script, one of two films responsible for creation of the MPAA's PG-13 rating, and still crazy after all these years.
Rand Peltzer (country singer Hoyt Axton) is the world's worst inventor, hawking his disastrous creations to anyone not smart enough to walk away. While in San Francisco's Chinatown, searching for a unique Christmas gift for his son Billy (Zach Galligan, Waxwork), he stumbles across a unique creature called a Mogwai. When shop owner Mr. Wing (Keye Luke, Charlie Chan at the Opera) refuses to sell, the man's grandson cuts a deal with Peltzer, so long as he obeys three basic rules: 1) Never expose it to bright light, 2) Never get it wet, and 3) Never feed it after midnight. Of course, from the time he gets home and introduces unsuspecting little Gizmo to the family, it takes less than 48 hours for all three rules to be broken and all Hell to break loose in Kingston Falls.
Much like writers and recording artists, certain directors resonate with you in in such a way that they can seemingly do no wrong. You're certainly not blind to their missteps and misfires, but you can somehow manage to explain them away or accept them as endearing scars. In my pantheon of all-time favorite directors, Joe Dante holds a place alongside master storytellers Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and Alfred Hitchcock. An unusual choice, I admit, but looking back on films like The 'Burbs, Explorers, Innerspace, Small Soldiers, Matinee, and Gremlins, they form an undeniable master class on genre filmmaking.
Coming off his success with The Howling, Joe was hand picked by producer Steven Spielberg to bring Gremlins -- a dark and twisted comedy from rookie screenwriter Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) -- to life. Together with producing partner Michael Finnell, production designer Jim Spencer, cinematographer John Hora, and creature creator Chris Walas, the team took an usual challenge (much of which needed to be reworked) and turned it into what stands today as a cult classic.
No, Gremlins is not a perfect film. The groundwork for its mythology is half-baked, requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, and demands you not ask too many questions. For example: What is it about light, water, and food that causes these things to mutate from sweet and innocent pets to uncontrollable forces to malfeasance? How do creatures with tiny little arms have the strength to accomplish half of the death and destruction they unleash? And why don't they take full advantage of the situation and reproduce to the point where they could take over the entire world? The point is it doesn't matter. It's Christmas Eve, weird things are happening, and everyone is too distracted to take notice of it until it's too late.
Gremlins succeeds not despite its limitations, but because of them. Overcoming an milquetoast leading man performance from Zach Galligan (who won the role over actors like Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez) is one thing, but being backed into several logistical and budgetary corners, the production team was forced to be insanely creative, in world where there were no easy (albeit expensive) CGI solutions. The horror stories from this shoot may be plentiful, but the end product reflects the triumph in torture Dante's team put themselves through.
Interestingly enough, Columbus' original script was far more menacing than what ultimately wound up on screen. For as memorable as it is to see Barney the doog hung with Christmas lights, Mrs. Peltzer strangled with Christmas tree garland, Mrs. Deagle catapulted from her motorized stair-chair, not to mention gremlin death by blender, microwave, and fireplace, it could have been much worse. The dog was supposed to have been brutally murdered. Billy was to have walked into the house to see his mother's decapitated head rolling down the stairs. And little Gizmo was the first to mutate into the creature that became the malevolent Stripe. You can thank Spielberg's firsthand experience with E.T. to recognize when a character will become a fan favorite and open a world to profitable merchandising. That particular change was made well into production, causing Dante and company to scramble and find ways to make Gizmo the hero without having the budget or the technology for him to be seen traveling anywhere without the help of Billy's trusty backpack. In the end, he became an iconic figure worldwide. In fact, it was only after my then wife and I adopted our dog from a shelter back in 1998 did we learn his name was Gizmo, as was etched not only on his tags, but his bedding, food dish, and carrying bag. His original parents were obviously fans of the film, and I was blessed to have him in my life until he passed away in early 2012 at the age of 18. Just another sentimental connection I have to Gremlins.
But I digress...
The point I'm trying to make is that Joe Dante has the unique ability to strike a balance between the ridiculously fantastic and heart-warmingly endearing. Whereas Tim Burton transports us to hyper-realistic often absurdist worlds (Pee-Wee's home, Batman's Gotham, Bettlejuice's afterlife), Dante allows the fantastic to seep forth from our present reality (Building the ThunderRoad, infiltrating The Klopec's house, assisting The Commando Elite) visible only to those who are open minded (or pure of heart) enough to see it. We identify with his characters as the world around them reveals wonders and horrors they never could have anticipated. And most importantly, we become fully immersed and emotionally invested in their adventures, rather than being third party observers. In fact, the reason most people view Joe Dante as a cult filmmaker is because most people don't get what he's trying to accomplish, which makes those of us who do appreciate his films all the more.
Presented in 1.78:1/1080p high definition widescreen, this is nothing more a Warner Bros. re-release of their 2009 Blu-ray, itself a minor upgrade from the 2006 25th Anniversary DVD release. There's nothing remarkable about a transfer that suffers greatly in the darkest scenes and presents a fairly hefty film grain throughout the rest of the picture. Yes, the depth of field is increased, and you're likely to pick up on background info and subtle pop culture references never before noticed. Just don't go in expecting miracles, and you'll be happy. The TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix fares a bit better, but nothing has been done to correct some of the original volume discrepancies with the music (more so the pop songs than Jerry Goldsmith's wacky synthetic score, which recently received a long overdue CD release from Film Score Monthly) and minor idiosyncrasies with the source dialogue recordings. As for the audial immersion, the ambient separation does make decent use of the surrounds, most notably in the larger gremlin action sequences, but you may want to keep the remote handy just in case your family or neighbors are easily disturbed.
Bonus features are all ported over from the 2006 anniversary DVD. The two commentaries are easily the greatest assets, giving us an entirely new appreciation for the film and everything it took to make it. I highly recommend the technical track from Joe Dante, producer Michael Finnell, and gremlin creator Chris Wallas. The other track with Dante, Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandell is fun, but not nearly as informative for film geeks. We also get 11 minutes worth of deleted scenes with optional commentary from Dante (recommended), including an entire subplot on Mrs. Deagle and the bank selling out Kingston Falls to developers (since the town became Hill Valley in Back to the Future the following year, maybe they succeeded?!). If you ever wondered what happened to Judge Reinhold's character, you'll learn his fate here. Warner Bros. rounds out the set with a horribly degraded vintage behind-the-scenes featurette (6 min), the original theatrical trailer, and a trailer for Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Not quite the family film it was originally marketed as, nor the subversive horror flick it might have been, Gremlins epitomizes the '80s horror comedy subgenera and cements Joe Dante's unique filmmaking voice. Now busy producing in other areas (if you haven't yet explored his Trailers From Hell website, go there now!), I hope Joe finds time and the right material to give us a few more great films.
"Perhaps some day, you will be ready. Until then, Mogwai waits."
Review content copyright © 2012 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Joe Dante's Trailers from Hell!