Gremlins has to be one of the most tonally-schizophrenic movies ever made. The first half charms with classic Spielbergian suburban kitsch and the second half morphs turns into a pretty intense little horror movie. It's almost as if the script itself tries to mirror the nasty Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation that the creatures themselves experience.
The story begins whimsically enough, with inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) on the hunt for an unusual Christmas gift for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). While trolling through the sort of curiosity shop normally only found in 1930's Shanghai, Rand comes across an exotic animal called a "Mogwai". The owner of the shop, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) refuses to part with the critter, but the old man's grandson sells the creature to Rand after he swears to abide by the following three iconic rules:
- Don't expose the Mogwai to sunlight.
- Don't get him wet.
- And for the love of Sweet Baby Jesus do not, I repeat, DO NOT feed the furry little bastard after midnight no matter how much he bats those disproportionate eyelashes.
Rand brings his furry contraband back to the sleepy little town of Kingston Falls, the sort of place that you can only find on a Hollywood back lot. When he gives the Mogwai to Billy, we're treated to our first glimpse of the critter, who looks like a marketing executive's wet dream. Gizmo is cute, fuzzy and sounds suspiciously like Howie Mandell's cartoon character "Bobby", probably because Mandell actually voiced the damned thing.
Well, as you might imagine, within about thirty minutes of run time Billy manages to fuck up every single one of the rules and pretty soon the entire town is over-run with Gizmo's evil twin. It's at this point when things take a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn away from kiddie flick territory and barrels head-first into the realm of coal-black comedy.
Now keep in mind: everything up to this point has been pretty saccharine. The town and most of its residents are like rejects from a Frank Capra movie, Billy and his would-be girlfriend Kate are wholesome, plucky, freshly-scrubbed young go-getters and Gizmo is just about the cutest l'il feller you ever done seen! However, if you make the mistake of glancing at the bottom your popcorn box for so much as a second, you'll probably miss the moment when all those sweet little Mogwais suddenly transform into a pack of evil, slavering, homicidal Gremlins™.
These scaly, razor-toothed, bat-eared little creeps are worse then a horde of football hooligans. At first their antisocial behavior is limited to chain smoking and breaking more shit then Fred Durst, but soon they move on to attack Billy's mom in her own kitchen, murder a research scientist (!), mow down an elderly couple in their living room (!!) and indulge in some hideously-dated Flashdance parodies. The humans are quick to respond in kind and pretty soon Gremlins are being stabbed, decapitated, blinded, burnt, microwaved, blown up, melted and put on "frappe" at every turn!
Only From Dusk Til' Dawn, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the first fifteen minutes of Revenge of the Sith are this tonally disjointed. Because of its borderline-psychotic and awkward juxtaposition of Christmas tropes, creative cruelty, doe-eyed animatronics, splatterific gore, Spielbergian wholesomeness and spates of comedic violence, this film was a major impetus behind the creation of the "PG-13" rating. Indeed, Gremlins has a hard time deciding if it wants to traumatize little kids or leave hardcore gore-hounds clamoring for more.
Regardless of the film's intoxicated demeanor, it's certainly a treasure trove of Eighties nostalgia. The practical puppetry effects are gleefully rubber-riffic, Corey Feldman turns in the sort of performance that he seems incapable of delivering as an adult, the clothing and hair are all "totally radical" and the rampant product placement is a hoot, especially in the big department store finale. Not only is Gremlins a great visual time capsule for anyone who grew up in that kooky decade, Joe Dante also takes great pains to seed the film with his characteristic homages to classic Hollywood.
Especially welcome is penultimate Eighties hottie Phoebe Cates, who delivers a truly bizarre eleventh-hour soliloquy about the nature of Santa Claus. Honestly, if they made this movie today there's no way in hell that such an odd, psychologically-volatile scene would ever be included.
But that's what makes Gremlins so interesting. In the hands of a lesser film-maker, this movie could have been a vacant, disposable bit of pablum. But thanks to a clever satirist like Joe Dante, this tale of dark metamorphosis is loaded with subtext about the death of childhood innocence, our obsession with violence and the pointless nature of technology and materialism.
If you haven't seen Gremlins in a while, you owe it to yourself to have another look. Even though it doesn't quite succeed as either a childish diversion or as a balls-to-the-wall horror flick, it's still a gleefully subversive experiment.