"Gremlin: an impish little gnome reported by airmen as interfering with and disordering equipment (as motors, instruments, machine guns); broadly, an unaccountable disruptive influence." --Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary
Everybody loves the movie "Gremlins." It did excellent business at the box office, and by all accounts it's picked up an even more sizable following since. Well, everybody loves it but me. I'm a grump, I suppose, but not even this new high-definition Blu-ray rendering did much to encourage me. So, count me as the one in a million who thinks the movie is only mildly intereting at best.
When the Wife-O-Meter and I went to see "Gremlins" on opening night in 1984, it was with high hopes, thanks to Steven Spielberg's name as executive producer and Joe Dante's as director. Spielberg was riding high with "Jaws," "Close Encounters," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "E.T.," while Dante had recently done "The Howling." Regrettably, we left the theater disappointed; the film had been neither funny enough (satiric enough) nor scary enough to justify fully our time or our eager anticipation.
This is not to say "Gremlins" is without its charms. The film starts out promisingly enough, with singer, songwriter, actor Hoyt Axton playing Rand Peltzer, an eccentric inventor out for a stroll in Chinatown (location not given), looking to find a gift for his son. He comes across a tiny shop filled with curiosities run by a mysterious old gentleman referred to only as "Grandfather." Keye Luke plays the Grandfather, the actor lured out of retirement after playing Charlie Chan's Number One Son many decades before (which may be appropriate, considering there is an undercurrent of racism that's hard to deny in the present film, a subject that most viewers will overlook and that I won't dwell on). In the old guy's store, Peltzer finds a totally captivating little creature--a sweet, furry, pint-sized critter called a mogwai. The old man is reluctant to sell it, but Peltzer buys it on the sly from the gentleman's grandson. Only three rules go with the unusual animal: (1) Keep him out of the light, especially sunlight; (2) keep him away from water; and (3), most important, never feed him after midnight.
The next part of the film parodies "It's a Wonderful Life," as Peltzer returns home to Kingston Falls, a modern copy of Bedford Falls. Indeed, the earlier movie is even playing on TV, in case you missed the reference. This is just the beginning of a whole series of movie spoofs and film allusions in "Gremlins," some of which are humorous but most of which go nowhere and add up to little but self-congratulatory winks. Next, we meet Peltzer's son, Billy (Zach Galligan), a bank clerk, and Billy's friend, Kate (Phoebe Cates), both in their early twenties, both heroes in the story, and both thoroughly bland. Well, at least they're both attractive, and Billy may be the only twenty-year-old eight-year old in the country.
Billy and his family call the mogwai "Gizmo," a cute enough name for a cute enough pet. Well, cute enough for a hand puppet, which is what the creature appears to be, a hand puppet made to order for after-movie merchandising. This is more than a bit ironic because part of the film's message mocks middle-class America's commercialism, yet in real life retailers sold mogwai and mogwai-like plush dolls, model kits, key chains, trading cards, even a breakfast cereal with mogwai pictures on it like crazy after the film's release. Anyway, Gizmo is kind of a second-rate Yoda but without the life or depth of feeling of that creation and without the expressive detail of today's digital animations. Mogwai is all right in his way, but often he and his later fellows look too much like what they actually are--bouncing toys.
Then the film gets even more contrived. We meet Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), a Margaret Hamilton/Wicked Witch of the West type, who threatens to kill Billy's dog; and Gerald (Judge Reinhold), a kiss-up junior vice-president at the bank. Next, we meet Pete (Corey Feldman), a kid whose dad makes him dress up like a Christmas tree in order to sell trees on the father's lot. And we meet Mr. Corbin (Edward Andrews), the bank president, who is always fussing about time and order. And we meet Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), a WWII vet who hates anything foreign, particularly German or Japanese. And we meet just about any other character that the screenwriter, Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Harry Potter"), thinks might be colorful or amusing.
So, how does Billy regard the mogwai, this totally new and adorably bizarre little fuzz ball that seems to be smarter than most of the human folks in the movie? He merely thinks it's sweet and harmless and puts it away for the night. Nobody figures this could maybe be the zoological find of the century? I know this is a satire, but these folks must be the dumbest people on the face of the Earth.
Naturally, Billy inadvertently violates the rules, and all hell breaks loose. The critter begins to multiply and the offspring eventually transform into evil, vicious, nasty-looking dark sides of Gizmo. So, what does Billy do? He takes one of them to the local middle-school biology teacher (Glynn Turman), whom you'd think would immediately call a local university or the government or something. But, no, true to the old Hollywood films that this one is now and then lampooning, the teacher simply makes some tests on it, then goes away and leaves it alone. Before long the creatures are reproducing like trebbles on "Star Trek," and the whole town is being terrorized, overrun, by gremlins, in the manner of "The Blob."
Along the way we get to see Robbie the Robot and the Time Machine at an inventors' fair, plus snippets of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and even "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," with the mogwai's evil selves singing along with the little men. "Gremlins" tries hard to be hip and clever, but what it really succeeds at doing best is becoming too cutesy for this adult in the first half and I imagine too malicious and violent for younger kids in the second half. I mean, it's only grossly funny to see a gremlin explode in a microwave or get pureed in a blender.
Given the phenomenal sensation "E.T." created a couple of years earlier, it was no wonder that another sweet and adorable alien-pet movie would come along, this one adding the horror elements so beloved of audiences everywhere. "Gremlins" is a comedic put-on, so we can forgive a lot of things in it, like the clichés being spoofed, the lapses in logic, and the plot holes big enough to drive snow tractors through. But the mere fact that it's a comedy shouldn't excuse the idiot characters that abound in the film nor the vacuous ones. When the mogwai or gremlins aren't in the picture, poor Galligan and Cates are basically at a loss for anything to do; and Axton, who has the only genuinely interesting part in the story, remains out of it for the most part after the introduction. In any case, by the time the gremlins were out and about on the town, I had pretty much lost interest.
Warner Bros. present the movie in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1, using a VC-1 codec and a dual-layer BD50. The problem is that the image is so variable, fluctuating from scene to scene, that no amount of high-definition can help it. Sometimes, the picture is soft, the color slightly blurry, much of this look probably intended by the director, especially at the beginning of the film, to establish a fable-like atmosphere. At other times, the picture is gritty and grainy, yet occasionally it's also crystal clear. Now and again the colors are a touch faded, probably not intentional, and then at other moments they're bright and natural. Go figure.
The audio engineers remixed the film's soundtrack in 5.1 channels and transferred it to disc using lossless Dolby TrueHD. While retaining good front-channel stereo separation, it does not impart much rear-channel information until the evil gremlins get loose. Then you'll hear a whole lot of random rear-channel effects popping up. The sound in general is slightly better than it was in regular Dolby Digital, but it's still a tad hard and bright, particularly noticeable during Jerry Goldsmith's musical score, with its annoying title theme, the "Gremlin Rag" or whatever it's named.
The Blu-ray "25th Anniversary Edition" carries over most of the extras found on the previous DVD Special Edition. Of greatest interest are two separate audio commentaries, the first with director Joe Dante and actors Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandel; the second again with director Joe Dante, this time accompanied by producer Michael Finnell and special-effects artist Chris Walas. I listened only to a few minutes of each and would choose the first, the actor commentary, for entertainment and the second, the crew commentary, for substance. Next, we get about ten minutes of additional scenes, with optional filmmaker comments. Then, there's a brief, six-minute promotional featurette made at the time of the film's production, "Gremlins: Behind the Scenes," all of it in standard definition.
Finally, there are twenty-seven scene selections; a photo gallery; several theatrical trailers for "Gremlins" and one for its sequel; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
Despite the film's flaws, the public adored "Gremlins" and it did quite well for itself. In fact, it did so well at the box office, it engendered a sequel in 1990, "Gremlins 2: The New Batch," again starring Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates and again directed by Joe Dante. This time the scale was larger, and the little critters started to infest New York City.
There's a mischievous playfulness about "Gremlins," and that's its most endearing quality, but I found it grating on me early on and soon turning to mean-spiritedness. In the final analysis I've never seen much in the film more than a huge merchandising scheme to sell mogwai dolls and other movie-related paraphernalia. Yet, I can see the movie's appeal in the black-comedy horror department. Maybe if it had been a mite more developed as either a black comedy or a horror film, I would have liked it better. As it stands, it's a just another could-have-been.