Okay, so normally I would watch Gremlins closer to Christmas than Halloween. I mean, it is a Christmas movie after all, albeit a dark one. But who doesn’t love a Christmas with monsters and goo and skeletons and alcohol and xenophobia…well, any Christmas could do without that last one, but I digress.
If you listened to Mel and I talk about our personal history becoming movie maniacs (located here on Patreon), you will have heard me talk about first seeing Gremlins at a very young age. It’s one of the Movies That Made Me (to reference the movie’s director, Joe Dante, and his awesome podcast of that name), and if my research tells me anything it made a lot of other movie fans too. Suffice to say it’s a modern monster movie classic, and for me it comes in at number two on my personal list of favorite monster movies–preceded by another wintertime terrifier, John Carpenter’s The Thing.
But it’s not just the first Gremlins that remains a perennial classic in horror fan circles. Its sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is actually a cult hit nowadays. Unsuccessful in its first run, it’s now seen as equally good if not better. Heck, director Joe Dante says it’s one of his favorite movies he ever made, and he prefers it to the original!
So, let’s celebrate the little monsters that started a micro-monster craze in the ‘80s and ‘90s!
Let me say this same thing about Gremlins that I said about Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island: I saw it far too early to actually assess it critically and objectively. But I can try. And it’s still great.
If you’ve paid attention to your horror history over the past thirty-eight years, you know this one. A young man named Billy receives a strange new pet as an early Christmas gift. The pet is a mythical Chinese creature called a Mogwai, soon renamed Gizmo. But there are rules to caring for this pet: don’t get him wet; keep him out of the light, especially sunlight—it’ll kill him; and finally, never ever, under any circumstances, feed him after midnight. As the story goes, Billy fails to follow these rules, and horror ensues.
Now, there are a number of problems with Gremlins, and a lot of them are fairly obvious. When does it stop being “after midnight”? How much light, exactly, is too much? Can Gizmo drink anything without consequences? Yeah, there are a ton of plot holes here. But you know what? None of us care. We’re talking about a little monster that multiplies in water, dies in sunlight, and goes postal when fed after midnight. You really wanna harp on the rules in something like this? Yeah, there are problems—they’re built in!
Besides those critiques, there are other problems. Though the actors try their best, there are a few moments where they falter into the bad lands. For instance, I think Hoyt Axton as Billy’s dad is a little much sometimes, even though I like most of his performance. There are jokes that don’t work. Some people hate Phoebe Cates’s two “bad stuff happens on Christmas” scenes. I can meet them halfway by agreeing with them on the first scene while still liking the second. But on to why I love this movie.
Special effects: top notch. There are several scenes where I really believe in Gizmo and the other Gremlins, and there are only a few shots—not scenes, but shots—where they look fake. But 90% of these effects are so well-designed, so physical, so convincing, that I defy anyone with a modicum of suspension of disbelief to find the seams. Similarly good is the set design, filled to the brim with movie posters and useful junk. While the observant eye will notice how precisely and purposefully cluttered the spaces are, and therefore realize that it’s artificially designed that way, it ultimately just adds to the heightened reality of a film like this.
Speaking of heightened reality, that’s how the actors present themselves too. Billy is a guy who has to be close to twenty-five, but he hangs out with a kid half his age. He trusts a high school science teacher as an authority on mogwai biology. Heck, his crush on Kate (Phoebe Cates) is as cute and innocent as it can be. What am I saying here? Billy is just a grown-up idealized version of a kid! And that’s just how Zach Galligan plays him, as he should. The narration reflects this: it’s narrated by Billy’s dad. Of course, everything would be fantastical—it’s a Christmas time memory from the perspective of a father about his son.
All that is to say: Gremlins is great. If we need a content warning, here we go; there’s some unneeded cursing, some pretty strong violence, sexual references—all vague enough that it shouldn’t be harmful, but you parents know your kids and what they can handle.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
If you’ve ever watched Key and Peele, you know a little about Gremlins 2 from their famous sketch. And if you’re wondering if all that stuff really happens in the movie, I can assure you it does. This movie is crazy.
The backstory is more interesting than the story, which is basically just this: Billy is a designer for a massive multimedia corporation in New York, housed in an enormous skyscraper with tons of TV stations, restaurants, et al within it. Gizmo finds him there and insanity ensues. But now the backstory, which can be put in quick and simple terms.
Warner wanted to make a Gremlins 2 to capitalize on the success of the first one. A bunch of companies made their own versions of the Gremlins story, notable franchises including Ghoulies, Munchies, Critters, Hobgoblins, and Trolls. These movies made a bunch of money and Warner needed a cut of that filthy lucre. They tried and tried to make a sequel to no avail. Eventually they became so desperate that they offered original director Joe Dante (who scoffed at the idea) a big budget and complete creative control within certain pentameters to make the 1990 sequel. He accepted under those conditions, and MAN, did he exercise that creative control!
Gremlins 2 is a masterpiece of the absurd, more an anarchic black comedy than a horror movie. It takes time to tackle all of Dante’s pet obsessions, from critiquing corporations and consumerism to referencing golden age movies and TV. Heck, there’s even a scene where Joe’s buddy Leonard Maltin comes on to critique the first movie and then gets eaten by Gremlins. What a scene!
Now, this one is easier for me to critique than the first one. Yes, there are tons of hammy things here that occasionally don’t work. True, there are weird sexual angles on things that happen in the film that I don’t really find appropriate. Of course, the plot is virtually nonexistent and the only thing that keeps this movie going is a barrage of references, gags, and enormous, occasionally overdone set pieces.
And yet, for what this movie is trying to do, it’s nearly perfect. Dante’s criticism of consumerism and corporatism hit the mark without being genuinely hateful. The references, though gratuitous, actually add to the insanity and hold up, despite being dated and rooted in then-current culture. Our modern love of the 80s and 90s even strengthens the effect of the critiques and references, and the gags are like nothing going on in cinema today. The special effects are as strong as they are in the original film. In this one, Rick Baker’s use of puppets and animatronics even add to the wacky “Muppets from Hell” style ol’ Joe is going for here.
Overall, a wonderful movie that only gets better with age. And for all the parents out there wondering if you can show this to your kids…maybe. I would call this family appropriate with qualifiers, like a little bit of language and some awkward sexual content that sometimes goes over the young ones’ heads and sometimes doesn’t. Thankfully much of this is telegraphed or implied, so skipping the scenes or having conversations afterward can be equal responses here.
Looking at both Gremlins films, the second is clearly the better pick for Halloween, but both are very good and offer a lot to a discerning audience! In finality, to reference the first movie’s last scene: Watch Gremlins…watch Gremlins 2…and if something goes wrong…turn on all the lights, look under all the beds and in the closets, and keep in mind…there just might be a Gremlin in your house!
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Stephen McFerron likes movies. It’s that simple. From the lowest depths of the drive-in to the highest peaks of arthouse; the grand golden age to superhero spectacles, he’s all in! Since watching Gremlins and Jaws at a young age, Stephen has had an appetite for the strange and fantastic, as well as the old! If you’re here to explore movie history, or learn more about the best of today, Stephen’s your guide! He may even say something mildly profound along the way… if he’s lucky!
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