Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Chris Columbus
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Howie Mandel & Frank Welker
Out of all the pint-sized monster films (not exactly a subgenre known for its originality and quality) in cinematic history, GREMLINS is likely the best. This horror-comedy is full of creature chaos, dark humor, and silly scenes. Director Joe Dante (who also helmed THE HOWLING and the second-best segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE) made an enjoyable monster movie that feels like it would be right at home in the 1950’s…if it weren’t for the impressive practical effects and surprising level of violence. GREMLINS is one of those nostalgic pieces of entertainment that encapsulates what 80’s family classics are made of (ala THE GOONIES and MONSTER SQUAD).
Inventor Randall Peltzer is searching for a special Christmas present for his son, Billy. When he stumbles across an underground store in Chinatown, it seems that he’s found the perfect gift: a furry, adorable creature called a Mogwai. Billy begins to care for this Mogwai, named Gizmo, as an unusual pet. However, there are three rules that come with Mogwai. You can’t expose them to bright light. You can’t get them wet. Most importantly, you can’t feed them after midnight. Billy accidentally breaks all three of these rules and soon after, reptilian-looking Gremlins are wreaking havoc in his small town on Christmas Eve. It’s up to Billy and Gizmo to put a stop to this monstrous mess.
Believe it or not, GREMLINS is one of the films that had a significant impact on the MPAA’s rating system (alongside RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and POLTERGEIST). Though it only sports a PG rating, GREMLINS contains some surprisingly dark moments. There are creepy images on display, including cocoons that form before the actual Gremlins emerge. I also like how the movie took a semi-JAWS approach before reveling in the Gremlins themselves. You only catch a few shadows and a very brief glimpse, before the movie goes balls-out in showing off the little monsters. The film is surprisingly violent too, not that I’m complaining. While you don’t necessarily see a lot of people get killed by the Gremlins (there are a couple), the title monsters themselves get it pretty bad. One sequence with Billy’s mother wandering through her house while five Gremlins stalk her is both suspenseful and beyond satisfying as the little monsters bite it in gruesome ways.
GREMLINS isn’t all good though, because the humor is very hit-or-miss. The movie especially gets a little too stupid in its final third. There are two montages that go on way too long: Gremlins drinking at a bar and Gremlins partying at a movie theater. It’s not as if these ideas are terrible (though the bar thing is dumb), but they drag out and feel tired. While the last third of this movie gets downright comedic, one depressing monologue comes right out of nowhere and is arguably a bit too dark for this film. It’s not like it’s a bad monologue, but it’s oddly placed and doesn’t help the shifting tone of the story. The mixed bag of characters complicate things too. Billy is an okay protagonist, but bland. Meanwhile, Dick Miller is great as a drunk neighbor with a prejudice against foreign machines. Of course, in a monster movie like this one, the characters aren’t supposed to the be the stars. Those would be the Gremlins themselves and they’re fun to watch, even if they can be too ridiculous.
This is one of those family films that had a big impact on kids growing up during the 80’s and 90’s. The tone of the movie doesn’t exactly stay consistent. Sometimes, it’s all-out comedic (a couple of montages are way too long) and it can also be a bit too dark (a Santa Clause monologue comes right out of nowhere). However, it makes up for its shortcomings though legitimately creepy moments and a risky level of chaos. GREMLINS is enjoyable and easily the best little-monster movie that I’ve ever seen (competing with the likes of GHOULIES and CRITTERS). Recommended!