Carl takes a retrospective look at Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante’s all-time Christmas class Gremlins…
‘And, no matter much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never, ever feed him after midnight’
Those words have gone down in history. It sounds just like a silly little throwaway line but in the context of the film, it should have been taken seriously.
I love Gremlins. It’s the kind of film I could just put on during the day as background and end up watching it all the way through and starting again when it ends. It’s the ultimate Christmas nightmare. Cute little creatures morphing into evil, vicious little creatures. It sounds like a horror movie but it’s so much more than that. Its one of the best Christmas films of the modern age. Not only is it dark, violent and scary but it’s also so laugh out hilarious at times that you can’t help but adore it.
The film opens in Chinatown where many people are doing the same thing, searching for that last elusive present. Rand Peltzer is a down on his luck inventor. After a long day of trying to sell his inventions to major companies, he finds himself in a little shop in Chinatown. He’s looking for a last-minute gift for his son, Billy. Seeing an opportunity, he attempts to sell one of his products named the Bathroom Buddy to the elderly proprietor. All the while he is speaking, he keeps hearing a chirping noise which keeps distracting him.
After concluding his sales pitch, his curiosity gets the better of him. He pulls back a blanket covering a small cage to reveal…something. We the audience can only see the back of the creature and are not yet privy to seeing what the creature inside looks like. After offering the shop owner $200 for the creature, he is refused. Leaving the store, the owner’s grandson catches up to him with a small wooden box containing the creature. Taking the money, he then tells Rand the three rules regarding the creature. Never get him wet. Never expose him to bright light and to never, ever feed him after midnight.
Of course, the creature gets wet and produces new similar looking creatures. However, instead of being cute and friendly like the original, these new creatures are nasty, evil and mischievous. One is taken to a school science teacher who proceeds to carry out tests on the creature. The new creatures manage to eat after midnight and enter into self-made cocoons like an insects pupil stage. And when they hatch…
The filmmakers obviously knew their subject matter. Writer Chris Columbus creates an urban horror story that hooks us from the start. The name of the creature is Mogwai. The name is in actuality a Cantonese word meaning Devil. It fits the film perfectly. The original Mogwai called Gizmo is to this day a cute little creature, one that we, the audience can’t help but fall in love with. Every child who saw the film probably wanted one for real, my brother certainly did and I must admit having several cute stuffed versions of him as well as other versions including the NECA collectable versions of the character. However, being a black comedy, his nemesis is called Stripe, a similar bundle of fluff but with evil intentions. When Stripe escapes from his cocoon, he is the leader of the Gremlins. I hate to say this but I love Stripe. He’s nasty, evil, violent and so much fun to watch. Obviously, I wanted Gizmo to live at the film’s climax but I was hoping Stripe would too.
In the U.S, the film got the rating of PG (PG-13 came about after and because of the film and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, too light for an R rating but too dark for a PG) but in the United Kingdom, such a rating didn’t yet exist. The film was therefore rated 15 which banned children from seeing the film. Cuts were considered to lower the rating to PG but in doing so, the film as a whole would suffer and wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever. The film’s target audience in the U.K was thereby excluded which I remember led to a lot of upset youngsters who then had to wait for a VHS release to come out before finally being able to see it. Some may say it was irresponsible for parents to allow small children to view the film as it was age restricted but the film deserves to be seen with a family.
The film was criticized for some of its more violent sequences. The kitchen sequence itself, though darkly comedic, is disturbing. A Gremlin is stabbed to death with a kitchen knife (though unseen but the viewer is left in no doubt what is happening), one is blitzed in a blender and another is killed in a microwave oven. It’s lucky the Gremlins blood is green in the film as if it was red, the film would easily get an R-rating in America and an 18 rating in the UK. And that would have been a shame as the film isn’t really that graphic after the kitchen scene.
Columbus based his screenplay on the old World War II legends of Gremlins on the wings of planes, causing mechanical malfunctions and the like. He remembered an old Twilight Zone episode, filmed in black and white and starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner as a nervous flyer seeing a Gremlin on the wing of an airliner in flight from his window inside the plane. The episode is an all-time classic and was remade for the film version of the Twilight Zone.
Four directors contributed to the film including Gremlins director Joe Dante, however, George Miller of Mad Max fame directed the segment (named “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) for the film. The story is even referenced by Mr Futterman (Dick Miller) during a part of the film. It all adds up to become almost like a semi-sequel to the original episode from years ago. Adding to it, the Twilight Zone movie score was composed and conducted by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith who returned to score Gremlins. Listen to Goldsmith’s music for the Nightmare segment of the film and compare it to his Gremlins score. The themes and music are eerily familiar sounding to each other, almost like Gremlins is a follow-on of the episode.
Columbus actually wrote the film as a spec script to show potential employers he could write. The script was never intended to be filmed until Steven Spielberg happened across it and showed an interest in making it into a motion picture, proclaiming that the script was ‘One of the most original things I’ve come across in years’. After deciding not to direct the film and to step down to an executive producers credit, Spielberg turned to Joe Dante to direct the film. After working with him on the Twilight Zone movie and after seeing Dante’s brilliant horror film, The Howling, Spielberg saw how easily Dante could make a horror-comedy film. Dante was, unfortunately, going through a lull in his career at the time. Luckily for him, producer Michael Finnell had worked with Dante on The Howling and so the film was born. With Spielberg co-producing the film through his own Amblin company, the film set out on its road to the screen.
The film’s script went through various incarnations and rewrites before a final shooting script was completed. The original version was far darker than the film ended up becoming. Several scenes were cut from the screenplay including the death of Billy’s mother during her battle with the Gremlins in her kitchen with her head being thrown down the stairs when Billy arrives home. The Gremlins eating Billy’s dog was also removed as well as a scene I would love to have seen in the film in which the Gremlins attacked a local McDonald’s and finding the burgers disgusting, eat the customers instead. That would have made the film darker but would have been a hilarious scene to see. Also, Gizmo was to become the main Gremlin, Stripe wasn’t in the original script. Spielberg, being astute with these things, overruled it, explaining Gizmo was cute and audiences would want him to be in the entire film and to be an unlikely hero.
Studio executives, after seeing the rough cut of the film also demanded the removal of the scene where Kate reveals how her father died, not sure if the scene was supposed to be funny or sad. Her speech is based on a famous old urban legend. Dante refused to remove the scene, stating that it represented the film as a whole, combining horror and comedic elements. Dante went on to make a sequel to the film where he lampooned the scene to great comedic effect.
The casting was pretty spot on. Phoebe Cates was cast as Kate despite studio reservations she was more well-known for playing risqué parts such as Linda in 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Check the film out and you’ll understand what I mean. Zach Galligan was a virtual unknown when he was cast as Billy Peltzer However, once the producers saw the chemistry between himself and Cates, they gave him the role almost immediately. Dick Miller was a regular actor in Joe Dante’s films so it was no real surprise when he was added to the cast as Mr Futterman. Hoyt Axton was a country and western singer and a part-time actor who was chosen to portray Billy’s father, Rand. His most famous role up until that point was in 1979’s The Black Stallion. After an opening scene to the film was cut, Axton’s voice led him to be given the added role of narrator. Keye Luke, a renowned film actor was chosen to play the small but vital role of the Chinese store owner, Mr Wing. Luke reprised the role in the sequel briefly before his character was written out as having died. Luke was around 80 years old at the time of filming the original film but was still youthful looking, forcing the producers to have him covered in make-up to make him look older. Polly Holliday, best known for her role in the film Alice was cast as the villainous. poisonous evil Mrs Deagle. Her casting was a coup for Dante as Holliday was well-regarded and known in the film world. Francis Lee McCain was cast as Billy’s mother, Veteran actor Glynn Turman was cast as the ill-fated science teacher. Up and coming young actor Corey Feldman was cast as Billy’s young friend, Pete, who inadvertently starts the whole horror to come by spilling a glass of water onto Gizmo, causing the creation of six new evil Mogwai’s. And Judge Reinhold, who was fated to become a big star later with his supporting role in Beverley Hills Cop played a small role as Billy’s superior at his job in a bank.
However, the biggest stars of the film were Chris Wallas and his studio of puppet makers and special effects artists. Without Wallas, the film’s creatures wouldn’t have come to life in the same way or even appeared as they do. The film relied mainly on puppetry after a test using a monkey wearing a Gremlin head was abandoned after the monkey panicked. Many puppets of Gizmo had to be built as they had limitations and constantly kept breaking down. Frustratingly for the crew, they then had to reset the shot and bring another animatronic puppet in. The scene where Gizmo is hung on a dartboard and the Gremlins throw darts at him was included as a way to satisfy the crew.
They even drew up a list on set titled ‘Horrible things to do to Gizmo’. Howie Mandel, a popular Canadian comedy actor provided the voice of Gizmo. Legendary voice actor Frank Welker was assigned the voice for Stripe. It was Welker who suggested Mandel for the voice of the little Mogwai. The two actors improvised their characters dialogue based on the physical actions of the respected puppets. Mandel explained the voice of Gizmo came about as ‘Gizmo was cute and naive, so, you know, I got in touch with that’. The other Gremlins voices were performed by Michael Winslow, best known for his role as Jones in the Police Academy movies, Bob Bergen, Mark Dodson, Michael Sheehan, Bob Holt,Fred Newman and, to me, the greatest voice actor ever, the legendary Peter Cullen, best known for his vocals for Optimus Prime in both the Transformers cartoon show and subsequent movies.
Jerry Goldsmith contributed a classic score to the film including Gizmo’s song that was hummed by a child actress and not by Howie Mandel. Goldsmith also nabbed himself a cameo role as did Spielberg himself, both appearing in the scene where Rand calls home from the salesman’s convention. In addition, Michael Sembello contributed to the soundtrack with the song ‘Gremlins…Mega Madness’. Quarterflash with ‘Make It Shine’ and Peter Gabriel with ‘Out/Out’ The soundtrack was released on a specially priced vinyl LP and cassette as a mini album, Goldsmith’s music comprising all of side 2. In 2011, the complete score/soundtrack was finally released by Film Score Monthly, consisting of two discs, disc one containing the complete Goldsmith score including alternate takes and disc 2 containing the original 1984 album.
The film had a production budget of $11m and went on to make $153.1m worldwide, reaping a great reward despite the restrictive ratings imposed on the film in some countries and has gone on to be added to the list of the greatest Christmas movies of all time. Finally, the British rating board, the B.B.F.C lowered the film’s rating to 12A, allowing the films target audience the chance to see the film on the big screen. The children of 1984, now adults in their own right could now take their own children to see the film they were denied years ago. Even though I was old enough to see the film on its original 1984 release, my brother wasn’t so I didn’t see the film on its original release. Now I can honestly say that we both attended a screening to commemorate its 30th anniversary and have finally seen the film on the silver screen we both desperately wanted to go to many years before.
My feelings are the film deserves its place on the list of great Christmas movies as its one I can look back on with great affection. The bar scene in particular never fails to make me cry with laughter. Seeing a group of drunken creatures swaying along to music while still drinking copious amounts of beer, passing out drunk and one poor Gremlin getting hit in the head full on with a thrown beer glass reduces me to tears. And don’t get me started on the poker playing Gremlins! Add to that, the delightfully wicked look on Stripe’s face as he tinkers with Mrs Deagle’s chairlift and the Gremlin Christmas carolers and I’m crying. One thing that has always bothered me though is if you can’t get Gremlins wet, why are there not more of them considering they escape and walk about in the snow? A small Issue in an otherwise excellent film.
The rumour going around Hollywood is that Warner Bros are considering a reboot or remake of the franchise. I for one hope it doesn’t come to fruition as it will be as welcome to me as a case of poisoned chestnuts with my Christmas dinner. You see, Gremlins is a darkly comedic fantasy that stands the test of time. It doesn’t need a remake or reboot. It stands on its own feet large and proud. And lives on in our hearts 34 years later. The ultimate Christmas horror story should be left alone, to scare, frighten and be enjoyed by generations to come as what it truly is.
An unashamed original.
Never, ever feed them after midnight!!!
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Carl Roberts is a Senior Entertainment/Books and Literature Correspondent for The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force frequently!