Running time: 106 mins
Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Coates, Dick Miller, Hoyt Axton
Genre: Horror, Comedy
With Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha Joe Dante cut his teeth as a director on the tail end of exploitation cinema. In 1984 some of the principle ideals of the movement was taken and with a studio budget crafted the first family friendly exploitation Christmas horror and best of all it comes with three simple rules.
Returning home for Christmas Randall Peltzer (Axton) drops by
Chinatown and in doing so comes across the perfect present for son Billy (Galligan) a small oriental pet which clear instructions. One by one each rule is broken with increasingly serious consequences. With the sleepy town under siege can anything stop these gremlins?
It’s difficult to objectively view a film like Gremlins having grown up on it and the work of Dante in general, the best you can do is look it in relation to relevant modern films of it’s genre. The problem with that is there’s nothing like Gremlins. Cinematically the film is timeless, viewing it in 2011 it looks as rich and current as it did in 1984. Dante’s background in the zero budget world of exploitation (both as director and crew in the Philippines) means that even with the smallest Hollywood budget ($11 Million) Dante can create the most lavish sweeping shots across the town that picks Billy out of a crowd or later in the film tracks the gremlins as they roam the streets looking for trouble. Like The burbs Dante creates a beautiful looking film than searches the mise-en-scene’s depths with some of shots that Orson Welles would have been proud to call his own. The colour palette of the film is filled with contrast. The rich earthy tones of the Chinese pet store, the toasty reds of the Peltzer residence and the use of shadow and light to create a family film with a genuinely dark enclosure all define values and the important traditions of those inhabiting these environments. The sculpting of light in the cinema sequence is a masterclass in film making, you simply don’t see the use of light of framing of shots like this in family let alone ‘festive’ films. The dark almost Weimar quality of the lighting in the cinema is only better by the casting of hard edged, heavily contrasted shadows against the perfect white of the cinema screen as the gremlins charge. You can’t quite help but psychologically connect with Gremlins in the same way you would connect with Nosferatu as these monstrous shadows fill the screen. It truly is a superior looking film than what the studio were, perhaps, expecting.
Zach Galligan (as Billy) delivers a fantastic performance as Billy, so good it would (like Anthony Perkins before him) kill his career before it got a proper chance to begin. It’s not difficult to picture an actor like Tom Hanks in this role but likewise it’s not difficult to picture Zach Galligan in a lot of Hanks’ 1980’s roles, the fact that it never happened is a sad testament to how well pitched he plays Billy. The sensitive bank employee (at a time of economic trouble) speaks to the season of giving and the old ways, it’s somewhat obvious that Billy’s father imagines an old world almost traditional gift for his son. Billy is an old fashioned hero and as such his relationship to his partner in this (buddy) movie is crucial. In a world of cinema before the real emergence of CGI Galligan sells his scenes with Gizmo perfectly. It’s impossible not to believe in the existence of the mogwai and that is thanks to Galligan. Axton (as Randall) makes for a wonderful salesman, his pitch is perfect for the role but outside of the sales realm he comes across as somewhat wooden. At the time it would have been a piece of favourite casting by Dante as Axton the musician was thought after with more esteem than Axton the actor (unless you’re a fan of Midnight Caller). Dick Miller is another piece of favourite casting by Dante playing the Nationalistic Murray. Aside from acting in films like Night Call Nurses, Truck Turner and Big Bad Mama he also penned the script for TNT Jackson and was quite prolific when it came to coming up with slogans for the exploitation films he was involved in. Miller has never been better; he has a way of being (even then) politically incorrect, slightly racist and extremely paranoid yet unbelievably endearing. It’s a character that’s larger than life in the truest sense of exploitation cinema and it works perfectly not just for the film but to almost endear you to the gremlins. Phoebe Coates (as Kate) like Galligan delivers a fantastic performance as the damsel in distress girlfriend of Billy and like Galligan manages to derail a promising career that started out at Ridgemont High. It seems odd to commend the performances of the mogwais and gremlins but this is pre-CGI and it’s remarkable that suspension of disbelief is never broken when they are on screen. Howie Mandel (Gizmo), Frank Welker (Stripe) and the rest are great as they underplay the largest of small characters.
Jerry Goldsmith delivers an excellent and heartfelt jingle centred score. It’s impossible to imagine the film with a different emotional core and equally as impossible to untangle objective critique from memories when listening to the now iconic music.
It’s to the films credit than it can be so influential yet at the same time when rewatched it doesn’t appear contrived or genre riddled. Dante’s early experiences in exploitation has allowed him to create a film that strives to be more than what was wanted and as such is timeless. It’s worth a thought to the sequence, the success of Gremlins and the obvious financial rewards led to the studio deciding the sequel should be littler, more friendly with a emphasise on comedy over horror and as such a complete betrayal to the amazing origins laid out in Gremlins.