Friday, December 19, 2014

#1,586. Gremlins (1984)

Directed By: Joe Dante

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton

Tag line: "Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous"

Trivia: Originally planned and scheduled for a Christmas release, the film was rushed into production shortly after Warner Bros. found out that it had no major competition against Paramount's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Columbia's Ghostbusters for the summer movie season.

Seeing Joe Dante’s Gremlins on the big screen in the summer of 1984 threw me for a loop. A movie chock full of dark humor, most of the audience that day was laughing hysterically throughout the film. Unfortunately, I couldn’t join in on the fun. 

Don’t get me wrong: I really liked Gremlins (still do, actually), but its title creatures were far too disturbing for this young viewer at the time, and I didn’t so much as crack a smile during that initial viewing.

As the movie opens, inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is strolling through Chinatown, on the lookout for the perfect Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). In a tiny little trinket shop off the beaten path, he finds a unique creature called a Mogwai, which he believes will make a good household pet. 

But there are rules that anyone who owns a Mowgli must follow: 

1) Never expose it to light 
2) Never get it wet, and 
3) Never, ever feed it after midnight. 

Of course, rules are made to be broken, and before Billy knows what’s hit him, his Mogwai (which he lovingly nicknames “Gizmo”) has spawned a number of duplicates (getting a Mogwai wet makes them multiply), which then mutate before his very eyes (feed them after midnight, and the Mogwai will transform into a green, scaly creature with a bad attitude and a penchant for destruction). 

It isn’t long before Billy’s hometown of Kingston Falls is overrun with these monsters, and it’s up to him and his new girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) to end their reign of terror once and for all.

Despite all the mayhem the gremlins unleash on this small town (up to and including murder), director Dante clearly intended the film’s later sequences to be taken lightly. While hanging out at a bar where Kate works, the little green bastards have one hell of a wild party, during which they pretty much trash the place (one gremlin in a trenchcoat even flashes Kate as she’s scrambling to keep the drinks coming). 

Still, no matter how funny the film tried to be, I simply couldn’t laugh. The reason for this, I think, is that I genuinely liked Kingston Falls, the small town at the center of it all, a place populated by mostly good people (the exception being Polly Holliday’s Ruby Deagel, a miserly old broad who, before long, gets what’s coming to her). How could I giggle and guffaw as these terrible monsters destroyed this peaceful town, and at Christmastime no less?

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt the gremlins went too far. Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (released that same summer), Gremlins is credited with forcing the MPAA to adopt a new rating - PG-13 - signifying a film that, while not overly explicit, may contain scenes that very young viewers will find hard to handle. 

But all's well that ends well; nowadays, I think the movie is hilarious (my favorite sequence has the gremlins piling into a theater to watch Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).  In June of 1984, however, it was much too intense for me. I sat there horrified, and while this may not have been the reaction Joe Dante was shooting for, I’m betting he’d smile a little knowing just how much his horror / "comedy" upset me.

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