Keep them out of the light. Don’t give them water. And whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of one of cinema’s most influential directors, Steven Spielberg. This week we’re taking a look at Gremlins. While not being a film Spielberg directed, Gremlins is easily one of the most well-known films for Steven working in a producer capacity. With a clever premise, biting humor and state-of-the-art creature puppetry, Gremlins earns its status as a pop culture mainstay.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Similar to Poltergeist and E.T., the origins of Gremlins can be traced back in part to Spielberg’s unrealized project Night Skies. Spielberg envisioned a horror successor to Close Encounters of the Third Kind involving small, malicious alien invaders terrorizing a family farm house. Prior to this, screenwriter John Sayles wrote a film inspired by Jaws named Piranha that was released in 1978. Unlike other Jaws rip-offs, Spielberg loved Piranha, so he hired Sayles to write Night Skies. The film never got made, but elements of its concept influenced Poltergeist, E.T., and also quite so, Gremlins.
Later, aspiring screenwriter/filmmaker Chris Columbus (who would later direct Home Alone, Harry Potter, etc.) wrote a spec script about small, mischievous creatures titled Gremlins, which was inspired by nighttime skittering noises in his ceiling. Spielberg loved it, so he bought it, and he hired Joe Dante to direct, who previously made Piranha in 1978, as well as the werewolf movie The Howling in 1981. Both were comedy-horror films that made extensive use of stop motion and practical effects, giving him highly relevant experience that would come into play on Gremlins.
Gremlins is about small creatures called mogwai. While traveling, a struggling inventor (Hoyt Axton) visits Chinatown in search of a Christmas present for his son. He buys a strange little creature, to which there are three instructions: keep him out of sunlight, don’t give him water, and don’t feed him after midnight. His son Billy (Zach Galligan) loves him, but of course the rules are inevitably broken, revealing that water causes mogwai to reproduce, and food after midnight transforms them into evil reptilian creatures. Soon his town is run amok with mogwai.
The concept of “gremlins” goes back to World War II, in which mechanical problems on aircraft were sarcastically blamed on little monsters. Roald Dahl wrote a book called The Gremlins which Walt Disney considered adapting to film, and gremlins appeared in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Falling Hare in 1943. They also appeared in the iconic Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which was adapted to film in Spielberg’s Twilight Zone: The Movie; originally as a bear-like creature sabotaging a plane engine in the TV series, and as a reptilian creature in the film.
The gremlins here sort of blend those two concepts, as they start out as adorable teddy bear-like creatures in their initial form, then when they are fed after midnight, they enter a pupal stage and emerge as vicious, reptile-like little monsters. They were designed by Chris Walas, who previously had worked on Piranha, E.T. and Return of the Jedi, and they are just outstanding. Using a combination of rubber puppets and marionettes, the visual effects here are on par with the wizardry of Jim Henson. Terrifying and full of life, the Gremlins, as they should, steal the show.
It all starts with Gizmo, the adorable, seminal mogwai that kicks off the film, the most recognizable Gremlin in its initial form. He is voiced by comedian Howie Mandel, and his cooing, skittering around and random vocalizations are just irresistible. Later after Gizmo reproduces and his offspring transform, we meet the mean-spirited and mischievous leader Stripe (voiced by renowned voice actor Frank Welker). Stripe, along with his troublemaking brothers, are wickedly entertaining as they wreak havoc upon the small town of Kingston Falls.
The film plays as rather standard family fare until the mogwai transform, which then things kick into high gear as the movie transitions into a rather dark and naughty rendition of The Muppets. Dante and his crew have no shortage of sight gags and antics for his Gremlins, with them getting into all sorts of trouble, such as taking over the diner and behaving as various human-like archetypes. It’s all mostly good fun, though things occasionally veer into racially problematic territory when the creatures breakdance to hip hop music and wear sunglasses after dark.
Paling in comparison, but who still remain to be charming, are the film’s human characters. Hoyt Axton as Billy’s well-meaning, but bumbling inventor father brings plenty of warmth to the character, and provides the movie some hearty narration. Zach Gilligan is quite likable as Gizmo’s owner Billy, but I would question why Steven and Dante didn’t go with someone younger. Phoebe Cates is very appealing as Billy’s crush Kate, and the two share some chemistry, although the film doesn’t seem very committed to exploring their romance very much.
The film features a strong abundance of pop culture references, placing Gremlins firmly in the cultural context of the 1980s. Scholars have garnered a variety of interpretations over the years, with some viewing the images of Gremlins aping human behavior in a shopping mall as a satire on American commercialism. A theme that almost certainly appears to be present is an indictment on Western exploitation of the natural world, as the film ends with the quote “You do with mogwai what your society has done with all of nature’s gifts. You are not ready.”
An aspect to the movie that is often overlooked is that it is very much designed as a holiday film, as it is set during Christmas and opens with holiday music. But for whatever reason, the movie was originally released in June. The film doesn’t really offer any themes that are relevant to Christmas, but I would consider Gremlins a perfectly appropriate choice for any holiday-time viewing. It contains all of the hallmarks of typical seasonal fare, especially in the early scenes, which go overboard into saccharine territory, aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s excessive scoring.
The movie is also responsible for an infamous attempt at black humor in which Kate recounts the death of her father falling down the chimney dressed as Santa Claus. This chilling monologue is punctuated with the dark punch line “and that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.” It’s hilarious in an ironic sense just how absurdly bad of taste this is, as a misguided Joe Dante fought for this scene by justifying its combination of comedic and horror elements as representing the film as a whole. Steven didn’t like it, but he viewed Gremlins as Dante’s movie.
Missteps aside, Gremlins features a fun and creative concept, and its novelty is illustrated by its derivative works (Critters, etc.), although I would still nitpick some aspects to its premise. For example, how can one be expected not to give a living thing water? Don’t all animals need water? And with not feeding after midnight, what about other variables, such as time zones, etc. But I digress. Realism is not why viewers flock to Gremlins. They watch it for its amusing visual effects, humor and puppetry, a style that is all but lost today. Gremlins is definitely worth the watch.
Next week, we’ll be looking at another film that Spielberg produced, but didn’t direct, Richard Donner’s The Goonies. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming from HBO Max, and from digital rental from your various retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.