Tonight, children around the world will leave out milk and cookies for Santa Claus, and their parents just might steal a few in the middle of the night. Even Big Red himself would agree it’s better for parents to risk mild indigestion than to let mogwai, the cute and furry progenitors of the green and scaly gremlins, get their hands on the cookies. If they eat after midnight, any worries about acid reflux will take a backseat to flying circular saw blades and high velocity stair lifts-cum-catapults. The titular little green maniacs in Joe Dante’s Gremlins have a talent for lethal mischief, and the inability of the humans around them to follow the rules lets them loose on the picturesque town of Kingston Falls, U.S.A.
“The rules” sound simple enough. They are told to Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) when he first purchases the merchandisingly adorable mogwai named Gizmo, and he in turn explains them to his grown son Billy when he presents Gizmo as a Christmas gift: keep the mogwai out of the light—especially sunlight, which can kill him; don’t get him wet; and never, ever, feed him after midnight.
Simple though they are, the rules caused director Joe Dante a lot of stress. “When we did this picture we were so worried that these rules, which are kind of arbitrary, would kill the picture, and that people just wouldn’t buy it,” he says on the cast commentary track. Zach Galligan, who played Billy, seems to have met a lot of such people. He mentions that he was often approached by people on the street who pointed out that it’s always after midnight if you count the previous night, and other problems with the rules. Overall, though, audiences seemed to get on board. As Dante says, “One thing about movie audiences is that they plunk down their money and they really do want to be entertained, and they really do want to have a good time, and you have to make a series of catastrophic mistakes to lose them this early in the picture” (cast commentary, 00:05:05).
Along with the rest of the concept and screenplay for Gremlins, Dante says the rules “came from the fertile mind of Chris Columbus”—“when he was still a student at New York University film school,” adds producer Michael Finnell (filmmakers’s commentary, 00:03:45). That’s right; Chris Columbus, who went on to direct the first two Home Alone movies and the first two Harry Potter movies, wrote this while he was still a student!
However, the original script had a very different tone than Columbus’s later stories of young children fighting off home invaders and evil wizards, and even from the finished film. As Dante explains, “When Steven Spielberg finally got a hold of [the original script], he had the idea of making it kind of on the cheap. I should also add that Chris’s original concept for this film was much more horrific…. It was pretty gruesome, but it was a horror-comedy basically and that’s probably what led [Spielberg] to think of me to direct it since I had just done The Howling, which was sort of in the same vein. But we found as we went on that it was gonna be not that easy to make the picture cheaply because there was a lot of effects and a lot of gremlins…. Once it was apparent how big a deal it was gonna be, it seemed that the only way to do it was to do it with a studio, and so Steven went to Warner Brothers…” (filmmakers’s commentary, 00:03:45).
Throughout the film’s production, executive producer Spielberg had a few “suggestions” for Dante about the film, some of which may have been a bit difficult for the cast and crew to digest, but we’ll discuss those next time. For now, I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noël, closing night of Hanukkah, Happy Holidays, and Happy Hump Day! (No matter what you celebrate, we can all agree it’s Wednesday!)
What do you think? How would you rate the film? Did you have an issue with the three rules, or did they work for you? Do you think it’s getting harder for filmmakers to entertain audiences? Why or why not? Aside from Gremlins 2: The New Batch (which I remember enjoying), are there any other films starring Zach Galligan and/or Phoebe Cates that you’d recommend? Leave some comments below and let us know!
Gremlins (1984) | Directed by Joe Dante | Written by Chris Columbus | Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday, Frances Lee McCain | Cast commentary by Joe Dante, Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandel | Filmmaker commentary by Joe Dante, Michael Finnell (producer), Chris Walas (special effects artist)