Celebrating the Gremlins movies

Joe Dante's most popular pair of films, Mark salutes the genius of the Gremlins...

Comedy and horror have always made good bedfellows. Modern cinematic history is littered with examples of crossover between the genres: An American Werewolf in London; Critters; Little Shop of Horrors; the Evil Dead series. One film in particular stands out as a masterful execution of the comedy-horror flick.

In many ways, it’s a wonder that Gremlins stood out at all in a bumper year for the film industry. Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, The Terminator and The Muppets Takes Manhattan all came out in 1984 and there was another horror movie in direct competition for the title of frightener of the year. Nightmare on Elm Street brought a new menace to teenagers in old steel fingers and a new icon for horror fans the world over.

Then you’ve got the relatively unknown leads. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates (oh be still my beating heart) were given a huge break in the film’s lead roles. It wouldn’t be easy for them though as this wasn’t just any old conventional film. Spending the majority of the time talking to, and fighting with, little puppets, they were always going to be upstaged to some extent. With great lead performances defining the year – Steve Martin in All of Me, Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone, heck even Steve Guttenberg in Police Academy – these two young stars would have to pull out all the stops to be remembered, and that they did with Billy Peltzer and Kate Beringer firmly etched in cinema’s history books.

Of course, Gremlins had two very big plusses going for it: a director who had previously filmed The Howling, and a superb script by Christopher Columbus, who would go on to helm Home Alone and two of the Harry Potter flicks. Just the tagline alone had you salivating for more: Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous. Married with an image showing Gizmo’s furry hand sneaking out of a box, it remains for me one of the defining movie posters of the 80s.

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What elevates Gremlins above other horror movies? Take your pick. Characters you really care about. A cute-factor that went through the roof. Amazing puppetry work. Judge Reinhold. All had their part to play in the film’s success. Most of all, it is a film that crosses genres effortlessly.

The dark humour throughout the film is perfectly judged (blender microwave Gremlins=hilarious) and the horror surprisingly daring for a PG-rated film (presumably the reason behind the 15 certificate on DVD). I remember first watching it on video when I was 12 and genuinely bricking it a little at the sight of that first mutation – mind you, I used to hide behind the sofa whenever Bruce Banner changed into The Hulk, but that’s another, far less interesting story.

The success of Gremlins led to the inevitable sequel that, as has been covered on these pages before, is an underappreciated gem. For my own part, I just want to say that any film which dresses up a puppet as Rambo, has lots of green things singing New York, New York, and brings back Phoebe Cates back in to the limelight is no bad thing.

The story may not even end there as rumours of a third outing for the green critters have been doing the rounds for a while now. I have to admit, I’m not ecstatic about that. Like the Rambo and Indiana Jones flicks, I think they should let classics remain so and not sully their good name by desperately reliving the 80s. For the Gremlins films in particular, the 80s are key to the many references and themes throughout (even though Gremlins 2 came out in 1990, it is still steeped in notions of greed and corporate wealth). I’m really not sure how you could translate much of the original ethos for the millennium generation. Plus, you can bet any money that those dreaded letters CGI would crop up among the production team and then it really is time to run for the hills.

No, far better to keep the memory of Gremlins as it is. A classic of the last 25 years that demonstrated how comedy, horror and cute furballs could be married into one hell of a move-going experience.

Check out our interview with Gremlins director Joe Dante here… 

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