Despite whatever amazing gifts you may have received this Christmas, I’m sure what you’re really hoping for is another few hundred words about Joe Dante’s festively freaky Gremlins, and since I don’t want to be compared to the other green menace that takes joy in ruining Christmas—the Grinch—let’s get to it.
Last time we discussed the origins of Chris Columbus’s initial script for Gremlins, which contained a more pronounced horror element in its horror-comedy blend. Even after balancing out the two, however, the finished film didn’t fit into either of the two ratings available at the time: PG or R. One other film released in 1984 presented the same problem, and together they left a small mark on movie history. As Dante explains, “There was some concern about the level of mayhem in this picture, and it was decided that a PG rating was really not appropriate for it, and so after these two pictures [Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom] came out, they invented this extra rating between R and PG” (cast commentary, 00:56:00). Since Indiana Jones is obviously a manly man and gremlins are capable of reproduction, I guess that makes Gremlins the mother of the PG-13 rating.
[A brief aside on the topic of origins: Finnell offers a brief explanation of the term ‘gremlins’ for anyone who doesn’t know but does care. According to him, it was coined in World War II to refer to the cause of any mechanical problems with a plane (filmmakers’s commentary, 00:02:45).]
While there’s no doubt that the violence in the film deserves a rating more severe than PG but less harsh than R, it’s worth wondering whether the postcard-perfect setting made the violence stand out even more. If Dante considered that effect at all, it seems it would only have been a by-product of his true motivation, which was to make the gremlins as convincing as possible. “My feeling was that because the gremlins were pretty stylized-looking, that the rest of the movie should also be stylized…,” he explains. “I thought they’d look a lot more real against a non-real backdrop” (filmmakers’s commentary, 00:08:55). Personally, I think that’s a very smart idea—if you can’t make the creatures look more real, try to make their environment slightly unreal.
Ironically, the filmmakers found themselves in a slightly unreal situation when, rather unexpectedly, executive producer Steven Spielberg wanted significant changes made to the second half of the film. “In the original version of the picture, Gizmo turns into Stripe, the bad gremlin, and there’s no more Gizmo for the second half of the movie because Gizmo is now a monster,” Dante explains. “Well, rather late in the game, Steven [Spielberg] decided—obviously correctly, but nonetheless terrifyingly—that Gizmo was really cute and he shouldn’t turn into anything bad, and he should always be around for the whole movie, and be Billy’s pal…. It was quite a blow to Chris and it was a shock to all of us, actually, but we had to realize that because Gizmo was pretty cute, and the audience really was gonna like him, it was gonna make the movie much more satisfying to have him stick around” (filmmakers’ commentary, 00:07:15).
Another of Spielberg’s changes robbed Galligan’s character of his time to shine, a change that Galligan remembers clearly and explains carefully. “This is the only tiny bit of bitterness I ever have about these two Gremlins movies, and I’m gonna tell you why,” he says. “What happens when we originally shot [this scene] is I do this running leap over the flower pots and I pull the shade that sends the light streaming in that kills the guy, and…they very cleverly cut it so that Gizmo does it, and steals my moment of heroic glory, and I’m upstaged by a puppet!” (cast commentary, 01:35:20). I can’t help thinking that Galligan’s “tiny touch of bitterness” might stem from the fact that he was 20 years old when Gremlins was released, and any star power that gave him with the ladies was probably undercut by the fact that he was ultimately saved by a puppet with the size and ears of a chihuahua. In other words, it’s possible that Gizmo stole his mojo.
In any case, Dante was also somewhat thrown off by the change, at least at first. “I was really not all that crazy about this idea, but I must say that audience-wise they are invested in Gizmo,” he says, before going on to explain how the film’s finale differs from what was planned. Apparently, Gizmo always pulled up the first window shade, but then Billy (Galligan) leaps over a row of potted flowers and pulls up a second shade which lets in the light that actually hits and kills the gremlin leader. However, the sequence was recut so that there is only one shade, which Gizmo opens, thereby doing away with the gremlin himself (cast commentary, 01:35:20).
And with that, we draw the shade on our 2014 Christmas post.
What do you think? Did it work for you having Gizmo as the focus of the movie, or did the little fur ball get on your nerves? Do you think the movie is better off because of Spielberg’s suggestions? Would you fall for a person who’d been saved by a puppet? 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)