|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 13 April 1999|
If you watched 60 consecutive hours of ‘The Muppet Show’ while tripping on LSD and then fell asleep and had a nightmare, you might come up with something like ‘Gremlins.’ Chris Columbus’ script provided director Joe Dante, who had previously directed extremely nifty low-budget horror films like ‘Piranha’ and ‘The Howling,’ along with the TV-land segment of ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie,’ with the perfect vehicle to wed his loony-tunes sense of humor to his skill at eliciting real shivers in a way that makes the two seem inextricably linked.
‘Gremlins’ is the tale of what happens when inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) brings home a strange new pet as a Christmas present for his teenaged son Billy (Zach Galligan). The little being, a Mogwai called Gizmo, is cute and sweet, but comes with three rules: no bright light (bright light can kill it), no getting it wet (water makes it reproduce) and no feeding it after midnight. The Peltzer household is filled to bursting with Rand’s malfunctioning thingamajigs, all plagued by figurative "gremlins." It turns out to be an ideal breeding ground for real gremlins once Gizmo accidentally gets wet and his offspring find a way round the no-midnight-snacks rule and turn themselves into the title critters.
One of the pleasures of Columbus’ script is that the Peltzer family makes a concerted effort to adhere to the rules of good Mogwai maintenance -- their misfortunes are not caused by stupidity, which keeps them likable. Director Dante doesn’t quite have the knack that Steven Spielberg (one of the film’s executive producers) has for making weird little creatures touching instead of cloying. ‘Gremlins’ might be slightly more satisfying if the relationship between Billy and Gizmo showed a bit more heart. However, once the Mogwais become gremlins, the film becomes much more ambitious and audacious. The gremlins are mischievous and still weirdly appealing, but hardly harmless.
As ‘Gremlins’ accelerates to the whirlwind zoom of a Chuck Jones animated short, we find ourselves marveling at the dexterity with which Dante, Columbus and special effects artist Chris Walas tread the tightrope between the adorable and the horrible, often combining the two. In Chapters 20 and 22, we get utterly hilarious visions of fairytale goblins colliding with pop culture and running amok, even as Dante whips the suspense level to respectable fright film peaks.
‘Gremlins’ tips its hat to numberless cinematic conventions and specific well-loved films and cartoons of years past, while packing enough energy and gleeful, crazed creativity for any dozen progenitors packed together. Made in 1984, it holds up beautifully, and the DVD transfer is a joy to behold and to hear.