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.
Watching Joe Dante’s Gremlins during its theatrical run in the summer of 1984 proved an interesting experience. A movie chock full of dark humor, it gave most audience members plenty to laugh about. 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 as a result I didn’t so much as crack a smile while watching it.
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 an out-of-the-way trinket shop, he stumbles across a unique creature called a Mogwai, which he believes will make a good household pet. According to legend, there are three rules everyone who owns a Mogwai must obey: 1) Never expose it to light, 2) Never get it wet, and 3) Never, ever feed it after midnight. But rules are made to be broken, and before Billy knows what’s hit him, his Mogwai (who 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 transform into green, scaly creatures 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 the 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 comedic in nature. 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. 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), but in June of 1984, it was much too intense for me; I sat there horrified by what I was seeing. This may not have been the reaction Joe Dante was shooting for, but I’m betting he’d be somewhat pleased to learn that his comedy upset me so deeply.