Classic Movie Review – Gremlins

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Perhaps some day, you will be ready. Until then, Mogwai waits.

Gremlins. One of the best non-Christmas Christmas movies ever made. It’s got a bizarre but cemented niche among the classics that somehow stands up after all this time, although Steven Spielberg seemed to be experimenting with genres in those days. Gremlins (1984) isn’t a great movie, but slips into the A range by nature of its utter weirdness and ability to blend low horror, broad comedy, and rollicking adventure into a palatable story. This was new territory at the time and can be considered the anti-E.T.

And it’s memorable. Memorable in the set pieces, that is. Who doesn’t cheer when Mom explodes a Gremlin in the microwave? I didn’t know microwaves did that. (Good life tip when you want to dry off your guinea pigs after a bath. Don’t. Just use a towel.) Mom racked up a 3 Gremlin count all by herself in the kitchen. That’s three times better than most of the victims in this small town “It’s a Wonderful Life” setting — which is shown several times on their TVs in the background. Anyway, go Mom!


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The plot’s not important

I didn’t remember the rest of the non-creature bits; that is, who these people were, or what the background was about. From watching it almost anew this week, I see why I didn’t remember anything really resembling cohesive world-building. The ‘mean old witch out to get the dog’ bit was paper-thin — and was really just a small nod to the Wizard of Oz. Billy and his family barely kept the characters moving along far enough to trash the Big Three Rules about keeping a Mogwai. Which is what the narrative pivots on.

Do you remember the Mogwai rules?

  1. Keep him out of the light. Sunlight will kill him.
  2. Keep him away from water.
  3. Most important, never feed him after midnight.

“With Mogwai comes great responsibility.” And so Spider-Man Billy learns the meaning of having a super-powered pet. But not in keeping it. Gizmo is taken away, mercifully, at the end.

I forget why he’s back for Gremlins 2. Gremlins 2, as I recall, is notable for breaking the 4th wall in the movie theater scene. Remember that? I’ll have to dig up that scene, because as someone who works in the movie industry, I find that inspired.

Okay, here’s the scene. I’m sure no one really thought Gremlins were taking over the theater, but for those too young to get it, movie projectors used to play reel to reel film. Sometimes the lightbulb would make enough heat to melt the celluloid. It looked just like this, and audiences would groan and hope there was a spare reel. Sometimes there wasn’t and they’d just stick in the next set of scenes.

There’s also a version for breaking the 4th wall in home video versions. Both are different; both are cute and worth viewing. (The rest of Gremlins 2 is mediocre.)

Gizmo’s great. But then WTF?

I’d like to know why Gizmo is so sweet, when his ‘children’ are brats. Once hit with spilled water, Gizmo thrashes about in pain (which wouldn’t fly these days — it really looks like he’s being tortured) and fuzzy babies pop off his back. These wack-jobs are on the dark end of mischievous, but only become pure evil when fed after midnight. That’s when the homicides start. (And the running and screaming, as Ian Malcolm so handily put it in Jurassic Park: The Lost World.)

Just so you know, the killings are heartless and nasty, but played for loony laughs. The neighbors aren’t so bad that you root for their demise, but Gremlins assumes you’ll cheer anyway. I’m also wondering if I’m supposed to root for the teacher’s death. I may have a horrid fear of needles, but I don’t think my doctors deserve to be eaten alive. Then there’s a segment with Phoebe Cates that’s a lead doorstop in the story, when she tells an awful tale of why she hates the holidays. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Gremlins kind of takes things a bit far for a PG, family-friendly Spielberg film. But as a horror-lite entry, it’s a rollicking time.

Side note: In the mid-80s there was no PG-13 — only G, PG, and R. It wasn’t until Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out, also in 1984 and by Amblin Entertainment, that a backlash occurred. Temple is just gross. And so PG-13 was created. Gremlins would surely have been a PG-13 film too, but unlike Temple of Doom, it’s all about the discretionary shots.

Grading Gremlins

As I said in the non-Christmas Christmas film article, “Gremlins is kind of a feel-good, feel-weird film.” It’s completely enjoyable on a Looney Toons level that just earns an A-. This is Spielberg being utterly strange and reveling in it. Spielberg also makes a few recursive references to other movies he’s made with Amblin Entertainment, but I’ll save that for another article.

Movie Grade: A-

Best Non-Christmas Christmas Movies

Classic Movie Review – E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

Classic Movie Review – The Goonies

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11 thoughts on “Classic Movie Review – Gremlins”

  1. When it came to why Gizmo’s “Children” are mean and evil, I think back of the old saying from “The Shadow” that goes “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!,” so by feeding him after midnight brings out the “Evil from the shadows” and then by exposing them to the “Bright Light” Kills the evil from the darkness. But that is just my opinion. Still liked the movie a lot when it came out in theaters and still think its pretty good today.

  2. Wow, that predates even me. I Barely remember the saying and have no memory of the reference.

    Could you illumine the reference for us?

    But I think you have your finger on top of something crucial here. Along the lines of ‘we have find the enemy and it is us.”

  3. On September 26, 1937, The Shadow radio drama, a new radio series based on the character as created by Gibson for the pulp magazine, premiered with the story “The Death House Rescue,” The introduction that started each show from The Shadow radio program “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!,” was spoken by actor Frank Readick, which has earned a place in the American idiom. These words were accompanied by an ominous laugh and a musical theme, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Rouet d’Omphale (“Omphale’s Spinning Wheel,” composed in 1872). Lets just say I like comics and History…lol And Thank You.

  4. Thank you for illuminating that!! I probably am just young enough to have missed it (I’m 52).

    So these bad children are the evil that lurks in the soul of Gizmo? Or do you think it’s an allegory for the evil under the surface in humanity?.

  5. For me I think it was the evil that lurks in everyone as you see how many crime shows are on and the first think you always hear in interviews with friends and such are “But they were such a nice person, never hurt anyone I thought” So even Gizmo the nicest creature has evil deep down. Oh and I am 58, I just love comics, TV, old shows and I like to go to the movies weekly (well before all this happened I did) So sometimes when I will see a movie and try to put my own spin on it to make it more interesting

  6. Jill Florio Administrator

    That’s very interesting! I can see it. That reminds me of the star trek next generation episode Skin of Evil. A group of people took all the Evil from themselves and made a new being from it. It went well for them, but not for the crew of the enterprise when they ran into the pure Shadow, as you put it.

    That’s cool that you put your own spin on screenplays. What other movies would you change?

  7. Or the Orginal Star Trek with the half white half black men who is only difference was that one had white on the right side and one had white on the left side, they were both the same but in thier tunnel vision mind you are wrong and I am right, (I LOVE the original there was a lesson in almost every episode) but if you look today you see the same things. The last Indiana Jones movie had a HUGE amount wrong with it, and I think they were trying to hand off the series to another, but it lacked the enemy we could all think was bad, and lost its way in the search of a artifact we all knew about. I see you put a review of Matilda, I never saw the movie, but I did like Dahl he reminded me of a artist I like called Savador Dali. He would take something normal and twist it into something that was unsettling, or bizarre to look at, As Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was unsettling (the poor family all living together and eating nothing) and a childs wish to only have something he could give to his family, he never dreamed of a big house or toys, but to have a candy bar he could share was gold to him. Joker I have a love hate relationship with, I do like they showed that the Joker was just a person who had MANY problems and because of one situation it changed his life forever, and if you think of where your life is now, I am sure you did not plan to be here, but because you took this job and not that one, moved here and not stayed there, and so on your life changed from what you dreamed of to something that almost just happened because of fate. The thing I did not like about it is that to me the movie could have easily been called, “Clown fights back” as when I think of the joke in ALL of his versions, I think of a highly intelligent person, who is always thinking 50 moves ahead, he would never let his real name get out, and never would be caught unless he wanted to or Batman did it. In the movie he was not a smart man, he did not have a plan, he just reacted and fought against people who have “Done him bad” So I think I would have changed the ending to after the police car got hit, that his followers would have saved him, took him somewhere and became his hencemen, and maybe the accident changed him so he thirsted knowledge and then became the Joker, this way he would be the joker and have his crew.

  8. Jill Florio Administrator

    Micheal there’s a lot to respond to here and thank you for your insights!

    I used to love Salvador Dali when all I knew was The Persistence of Vision. I loved the melting clocks. When I got older and saw the rest of his work, I was appalled. So much of it is nasty and difficult to look at. He’s a horror artist. And I don’t handle horror well.

    I’m not a Joker fan, although I like the IDEA of him. The Mark Hamill animated version is my favorite. He is just too mean spirited to enjoy for me by many of the actors who’ve taken him on.

    I prefer my villains like Thanos or Magneto, where I can kind of see the cause and there is some sympathy. Like Scorpius on Farscape. The Romulans are good villains – smart, real people, in a tough society. Same with the Cardassians.

    I don’t like evil just to be twisted.

  9. We have something in common with Mark Hamil, I loved him as the joker, and I also think the Romulans are a great bad guy as if you remember in that one episode of Star Trek Kirk and the Romulan commander thought pretty much the same and it was a real battle until the end, and you never really knew if they were right or not as they attacked because they thought it was their “Land” (Planets) first I think it was called “Balance if Terror”. Thanos I liked because he thought he was doing the universe a favor by helping it, and that goes into the mind of some people today where you look at their actions and say “what a nutjob” but in their mind they think they are on the side of good and it goes back to the question what is good and bad, you think something is bad and someone with the opposite view thinks what you think is bad. And as for the joker I do like him and he has different ways he has shown up, but I do not like how they over use him in movies recently, the joker in the 1969 Batman was more of a practical joker and just wanted to make fun of batman, Ledgers was more of a psychopath who did not care for anything but Chaos Rivers was more of a mentally ill person who just acted. And I do like a good horror movie, not one that is all blood and guts, but one that makes you think a little, like Saw, Final Destination. Ones that are just gross to be gross I do not like. And thank you for the compliment.

  10. I really enjoyed Balance of Terror — one of the best TOS Trek episodes. Mark Lenard is just wonderful as a Romulan and Sarek!

    There are a few really good horrors out there…and some amazing villains. It’s just hard to do it right. I do think Thanos thought we was his own kind of hero, but the things he did to get to his goal are hard to accept.

    I really prefer Jean Luc Picard as a role model: sometimes he does the ‘moral thing’ instead of the ‘right thing.”

  11. Absolulty I know what you mean, it is VERY hard to do a good villain as if you go to far they become like a cartoon, and if you do not go far enough they look they they could be easily defeated. James Bond ones I think are good examples of that, some are scary to think what they could do and some are like a Austin Powers Doctor Evil with the sharks with “Lasers”. And I did think it was funny how Mark Lenard played a bad guy and Spocks father, he probably got that job as he already had the ears. I do Like Jean Luc Picard and he reminds me of how a real starship captain would act, I mean you do not see a Captain of any military putting himself in harms way to go on “Away” missions, he always sends “Number One” which is how a real military would do, but he gets involved when he knows its big or no one else could do the job as well as him. But I will always have a spot in my heart for Kirk, he’s a rebel, does what HE thinks is right, puts himself in the middle of bad things like a speed junkie, is a womanizer, and thinks no one is smarter then him, so he has this arrogance about him. I do like some of the new movies with Kirk as he has some of that same feel, expecially with Bones, Karl Urban makes a GREAT Bones and even Simon Pegg makes a GREAT Scotty. But I aways wonder with a great property like Star Trek why don’t they do more with it, they do with the TV shows with Discovery, but they could make one off type movies with a different ship and a different situation, probably make it for half the cost and it would still bring in the fans like me.

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