Some people would have you believe that there is no such thing as the perfect movie and that’s true – after all it’s statistically impossible for EVERYBODY to like something. And yet, I totally believe in the concept of a perfectly MADE movie; a movie where every edit, every music cue, every performance supports the film flawlessly and not a single, solitary change could possibly make the film any better. How do I know such a concept exists, you ask? Simple: I reply, I know because I’ve seen Gremlins.
Joe Dante’s mischievous masterpiece that deconstructs small town Americana with all the gusto of a hyper-active pre-teen in legoland, is a magnificently cheeky middle finger to everything decent and wholesome. An looney toons-style assault – by a Chuck Jones inspired tornado – on that most American of institutions: the picturesque serenity of the type of a small town that Frank Capra made famous in films like It’s A Wonderful Life by a gaggle of impishly psychotic monster bastards.
It’s days before Christmas in the sleepy suburbs of Kingston Falls and hapless inventor Rand Peltzer has come home from a business trip with a suspiciously orginal Christmas present for his son Billy. It’s seems that while trawling through an old man’s dusty shop in Chinatown, he managed to purchase himself a strange, rare and adorably intelligent creature called a Mogwai. However, this little being whom Billy names Gizmo (who is so gorgeous he makes your actual heart ache) comes with three strict rules which, in true movie fashion, Billy accidentally breaks one after the other to the sound of us, the audience, collectively face palming as one cohesive unit.
The first rule is keep Mogwai’s out of bright light as it can kill them, the second is never get them wet, as, alarmingly, that’s how they multiply – that’s a trip to the beach nixed, then. However, the most important rule is the third and that is no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never, ever, feed him after midnight. Needless to say, in no time at all Billy a bunch of new Mogwai on his hands who are nowhere near as house trained as Gizmo and worse yet (you guessed it) this little wild bunch gets fed after midnight and promptly turn into icky, sticky cocoons.
Biblical amounts of shit proceed to hit the fan when the Mogwai hatch as vicious, green Gremlins – creatures loaded with teeth, claws and malicious intent – who, lead by their mohawked leader: Stripe, descend upon the small town and gleefully tear it a brand spanking new asshole. Can Billy, his girlfriend Kate and Gimzo stop this wave of destruction from a species as destructive as an army of murderous toddlers before they level Kingston Falls completely?
Director Joe Dante, who cut his teeth under the eye of uber-producer Roger Corman with the original Piranha and then went off and made the second greatest werewolf movie ever made with The Howling, is at the height of his powers here, having great fun taking as many wholesome conventions as he can and then unleashing these giggling little shits all over them. A guy in a Santa suit is savaged in the street and Billy’s mom gets into a gore soaked battle to the death in her kitchen where she utilises microwaves and blenders to hilariously brutal effect.
If it wasn’t for the sheer craftsmanship of everyone involved, Gremlins could have been in danger of being a forgettable B-movie but what helps immensely is the detailed and nuanced character work in the script by Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire and Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. Every denizen of this sleepy town feels like a living breathing person from xenophobic plow driver Mr Flutterman (Dante regular Dick Miller) to vile, crusty, money-obsessed Mr Burns prototype Mrs. Deagle whose hilariously brutal comeuppance thanks to a reprogrammed stair lift is one of the all time great blackly comic deaths in cinema. The cast rise to the challenge too with Zach Galligan making his nice-as-pie lead interesting and Phoebe Cates delivering one of the amazing, darkly humorous monologues you’ve ever heard about the traumatic reason she never celebrates Christmas (watch Gizmo’s reaction when she hits the story’s ghoulish punchline for extra impact), the line “And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.” still gives me goosebumps to this day.
Of course, the REAL stars of the show is the creature work by Chris Walas who realizes the mob of hysterical, impish maniac through superb puppetry and the extreme, cartoonish antics they get up to.
From blowing their nose on some curtains, to outright vehicular homicide, a single viewing of Gremlins is simply insufficient to absorb all of the wacky goings on with their deranged, childish antics literally filling the frame.
In a counter point to the frenzied amounts of crazy and sporting warm fur, big ears and an eyeball to skull ratio that would make an anime character’s head explode, Gizmo is almost offensively cute and may be one of the best performances of a puppet in film history. In fact he’s SO good you frequently forget he’s not actually real and the never ending indignities he’s forced to endure and balances out the adorability factor expertly to ensure the film keeps it’s winning, razor sharp edge and as per usual, the late great Jerry Goldsmith composes a superlative score that matches the onscreen tone perfectly with a main theme that is so catchy it’s almost criminal.
Like the gestating fur balls that agonisingly pop from Gizmo’s back thanks to an unwelcome dose of H²O, Gremlins spawned a genres worth of multiplying copycats that included Critters, Munchies, Hobgoblins, Mars Attacks! and Eight Legged Freaks, where swarms of creatures unleash adolescent anarchy upon an unsuspecting populace but Gremlins is still the alpha and the omega of diminutive creature features and remains not only one of the best comedy horrors around, but a stone cold definitive Christmas movie to boot too.
They’re violent, viscous and they’ll probably blow their nose on your curtains too, but invite the Gremlins into your house for the yuketime period and you’re in for a fearsomely festive time.