Second Union

Second Union

FRANCHISE REWIND: Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins, 1984 (Zach Galligan/Phoebe Cates) Warner Bros.

“Jesus Frank, that’s Dave Morris. He does Santa every year.”

Roger Corman protégé Joe Dante made the werewolf movie The Howling in 1981, boldly competing with John Landis’ similarly themed An American Werewolf in London. Based on a novel by Gary Brandner, The Howling spawned several sequels, mostly low-budget and on the fringes of direct-to-video distribution. The Howling was a wink and a nod at Hollywood horror and science fiction movies.

Dante peppered his cast with veteran actors such as Dick Miller, Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy, and John Carradine. He would continue to do this all through his career, including in his next films, the “It’s a Good Life” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Gremlins, both produced under Steven Spielberg’s supervision. It was an interesting choice considering the fourth and final installment of the Twilight Zone movie was about a gremlin (albeit one with a distinctly scaley, Rastafarian look to it) vandalizing an airplane and tormenting John Lithgow at 30,000 feet.

These are different gremlins altogether. Screenwriter Chris Columbus gives us a mystic backstory and mythology about these creatures. They don’t start out as disgusting, technologically savvy monsters. They have stages to their development. They start out as adorable little furballs (called Mogwai), akin to arboreal or highly-intelligent Rodentia, but if you feed them after midnight (I never got the hang of figuring out time zones), they enter a pupal stage (like moths and butterflies) and emerge sometime later as unpleasant creatures.

They do have a vulnerability. They can’t be exposed to bright light, otherwise, they’ll fry. That’s easy enough. Goofy inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) brings home a Mogwai as a present for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan), even though they already have an adorable dog named Barney. You’d think Billy was ten years old, but he’s actually a full-grown adult. It’s possible earlier drafts of the script put Billy’s age at roughly the same as his friend played by Corey Feldman. There’s too much of an age difference for these kids to be peers. It’s a little strange.

In addition, Billy works at the local bank and drives a car. It isn’t long before Billy starts breaking rules. Corey accidentally spills liquid on Billy’s Mogwai (adorably named Gizmo) and additional furballs sprout from his flesh. Later, the band of mischievous creatures tricks Billy into feeding them after midnight. Soon, these newly-hatched gremlins are wreaking havoc on this small town. A lot of this doesn’t make any sense, but it’s so well made, it can be easily forgiven. We go from a quaint, small-town Normal Rockwell vibe to complete chaos in about twenty minutes.

Dante (like John Carpenter) had this ability to photograph bizarre monsters, starting with The Howling, and make them seem real even if they were cartoonish. I remember Mad Magazine did a spoof of Gremlins (“Grimlins”) that ended with the entire town running Randall Peltzer off and warning him never to return. It’s kind of like the alternate ending of It’s a Wonderful Life on Saturday Night Live when Uncle Billy returns at the end of the movie to tell everyone Potter stole the $8,000 and everybody rushes to Potter’s house, throws him from his wheelchair, and beats him to death. That would have been a much more satisfying conclusion to the proceedings, but these are supposed to be kid’s movies.

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