If there is one name that looms large over the cinematic landscape of the 1980s, that name is Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had already proven his credentials with his break-out Jaws, and cemented his reputation with Raiders of the Lost Ark: both movies were popular and critical successes, and have proven enormously influential over the last three or so decades. But ET the Extra-Terrestrial, released in 1982, brought Spielberg superdooper fame. ET was, at the time, the most successful film ever produced, making more money at the box-office than Star Wars, garnering nine Academy Award nominations, and making Reese's Pieces famous. Today the film has a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It also has a lot to answer for. ET pretty much set the formula for kids' movies in the '80s. Twinkly suburban setting? Check. Lonely kid, usually a caucasian boy? Check. Kid-heavy cast? Check. Fantastic being/ability/occurrence that adults find frightening or incomprehensible, but which improves lonely kid's life? Check. Valuable life lessons? Check. External authority subverted? Check. Central importance of family reasserted? Check and check.
And somewhere, amidst all these Spielberg-inspired - even Spielberg-created - sweet and unchallenging exercises in schlock-making for the kiddies, something else sneaked in. The Spielberg-produced Gremlins.
Gremlins is not a great movie. It's not even a very good movie. But it is a deeply, profoundly weird movie.
A schlubby, middle-aged guy is wandering around the Big City looking for a Christmas present for his son before heading home. He naturally chooses the dingiest, dogiest retailer he can find: a creaky basement junk shop in Chinatown. The old man behind the counter won't sell him the cute little critter squeaking away in a nearby crate, despite being offered a nice chunk of change for it, so our schlubby man leaves, disappointment dogging his footsteps. The old man's grandson, however, chases after him and sells him the animal.
There are three rules that come standard with any adorable peeping creature in a crate, and you can recite them along with me: don't expose it to bright light, don't get it wet, and don't feed it after midnight.
Dad gets the crate home to his twinkly small town, long-suffering wife, and hapless son, Billy. Billy's a bank teller and an animal lover; he sneaks his sweet old dog into work with him every day and crushes on the pretty girl he works with, all while being talked down to by his superior at the bank and threatened by the evil old lady who owns half the town. (The old lady wants to foreclose on all her tenants and sell out to a chemical company. And, just in case you weren't certain she's capital-E vil, she also threatens to have Billy's lovable mutt put down.)
Billy's delighted with his little peeping critter and names it Gizmo. Gizmo is adorable and lovable and, oh yeah, intelligent. As in, learns to play the piano and, like, talk. Really. Amazingly, no one is particularly excited about this entirely new species with human-like cognition. Anyway, the first thing Billy does is spill water on Gizmo; poor Gizmo cries in pain and then buds. Five little furballs pop off him and turn into five more little Gizmo-like creatures. Only, they're really naughty. One of them, the ringleader, has a mohawk; Billy names him Stripe. These monsters aren't just naughty, though - they're actually malign. They try to murder Billy's dog by hanging it with Christmas lights; it's a shocking scene that, because this film cannot decide what kind of movie it is, is played for laughs.
It finally clicks in Billy's pea-sized brain that these animals are not normal, so he takes Gizmo to his former high school science teacher. They drop water on poor Gizmo to make him bud again, and the teacher keeps the new beast for observation. Billy heads home. Stripe and the others trick Billy into feeding them after midnight. The one at the high school snags a sandwich and also eats after midnight. All enter a pupal state, turning into gooey Alien-like eggs. All the humans very perplexed.
And this is where the film goes totally fucking nuts.
Of course the eggs hatch, and out pop green-skinned, gangly, razor-toothed monsters. Monsters with attitude. The one at the high school chases down and kills the science teacher. The other five monsters attack Billy's mom - who, it must be said, is totally bad-ass and kills three of them, gooily, with kitchen implements. Billy beheads the fourth and Stripe scarpers. To the local YMCA, where he hops into the pool and buds himself an army of monsters. Cackling wildly, they flood out into town to cause mischief and mayhem. They injure multiple people, kill the evil old lady, and force the girl Billy's got a crush on (Kate) to serve them alcohol at the local tavern.
This series of scenes is a perfect representation of the film's tonal problems of a whole: murder and mayhem followed by a tone-deaf "drunk monsters R awesum n wicked funny w00t!" comedy scene. Because Gremlins can't quit hit the balance horror and humor.
Billy and Kate lure the army of gremlins into the local cinema, distract them with a showing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and blow it up. Hooray! Except, no, boo; Stripe was out stealing candy and has not yet met his toasty end. Billy and Stripe have their showdown in a local department store, and Billy defeats Stripe by exposing him to sunlight. Stripe dies, gooily. Ultimately, Mr. Wing - the grandpa from the dodgy junk shop - shows up to collect Gizmo from Billy. And rightly so, considering the fact that Billy can't even follow simple instructions. The end. Merry Christmas to all!
Gremlins is absolutely a product of a particular kind of film-making: the school of kitchen sinks. Everyone involved throws pretty much everything they've got into the kitchen sink film, and the result, while not without its merits, is always messy, if not an outright disaster. Gremlins is unequal portions of twinkly suburban melodrama, loving satire of the twinkly suburban melodrama, witless comedy and schlocky horror. There are rare moments of true drama, real tension, and actual humor, but they're irregularly interspersed through a film racing deafened and blindfolded, balls out, towards the only real catharsis a kitchen sink film can ever achieve: fucking big explosions.
It's a movie at war with itself. It's almost a Spielbergian kids' movie, only not quite. It's almost a horror-comedy, but not quite. The first half is a strange, loving kind of homage to and piss-taking of Frank Capra's films, particularly It's a Wonderful Life. The parallels are explicit; characters quote the movie and Wonderful Life plays on tv in the background of an early scene. At about the half-way point, however, the dreamy, Capra-like suburban wonderland (snow-covered, innocent, eccentric, neighborly) becomes perverted by the gross, the dark, and the violent the moment the gremlins hatch from their gooey eggs. Ultimately, comfortable small-town Americana gets blown all to hell. And there's a lot to be said for that set-up; however, Gremlins never quite commits to its anarchic second act. The violence and the mayhem is played as much for laughter as for shocks and scares, which reduces them all.
There may be some very good reasons for Gremlins' identity crisis - apparently the first cut of the film was nearly three hours long. (Ultimately, Gremlins clocks in at 106 minutes.) The script as written by Chris Columbus called for a much darker and more violent tone. Spielberg, Gremlins' producer, overrode Columbus and demanded the film be made more family-friendly. So Gizmo, who was supposed to turn into Stripe, remains cute and cuddly throughout the film, while the deaths are toned down or done away with entirely. Mom and dog were both meant to die, and the science teacher, who was supposed to be found with a bunch of hypodermic needles protruding from his face, is discovered with only one, sticking out of his butt - another of Spielberg's demands. Death, be not not funny.
There's an argument to be made that this film, like so many horror movies, is about the trauma of puberty. A cute little creature suddenly, inexplicably (eh... it's probably your fault) turns into a gangly destructive monster - a beast obsessed with meaningless mischief-making, random destruction, and movie-going. It hangs out with its friends, shuns cute younger versions of itself and any authority figure, and delights in tearing shit up. Gremlins almost makes that work - but because the film can't commit to a single vision or conceit, or even a single tone, the result is a schizophrenic mess. It's not a total waste, but in trying to be everything, Gremlins winds up not being anything.
Oh, and in the Cinema Library of Never Was? Spielberg considered signing Tim Burton to direct Gremlins, but decided against him because Burton hadn't made a full-length feature. Golly, imagine that movie.
Monsters: Gremlins! And an evil old lady.
Mullets: Well, Stripe sports that cinematic shorthand for anti-authoritarianism: a mohawk.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Girlfriend Kate is pretty useless, but Billy's mom has a good action sequence and offs three of the baddies (before being squashed nearly to death, with a Christmas tree, by a fourth.)
Destroying my Childhood by Inches: I avoided this one when I was a kid (the gremlins looked scary), so I'm not that invested in it one way or the other. There do not appear to be any remakes planned.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: There are some awesome moments, but the film's lack of a cohesive vision and bizarre tonal shifts do it no favors. It's better than Q and worse than The Neverending Story. The end.