Gremlins (1984) | Review by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael's review of Gremlins in 1984 was, much like the film itself, a mixed bag. She acknowledged its entertainment value and technical accomplishments but ultimately found it uneven and morally questionable
Gremlins (1984) directed by Joe Dante

by Pauline Kael

When you look at the opening images of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, you almost hear the words “Once upon a time, in a small-town mov­ie…” Dante sets us down in Kingston Falls, a vaguely Middle American community that’s based on dozens of other movie-created nice, sleepy towns—especially the ones that are familiar to us from Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life and from the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The people who live in Kingston Falls have no more depth than comic-book characters; the town even has a meanie—a Wicked Witch-Scrooge, Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), who gets a kick out of foreclosing mortgages, especially now, at Christmastime. She threatens to destroy the only creature in town who defies her—Barney, a little dog who yaps at her and tries to attack her. Barney is the pet of the hero, Billy (Zach Galligan); at twenty, Billy aspires to be a cartoonist and comic-strip artist but is stuck in his job as a bank teller, because he’s supporting his parents. The only scenes that take place away from Kingston Falls are set in a Chinatown where Billy’s father, Mr. Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), an impractical dreamer-inventor—he devises contraptions that backfire—wanders about, trying to obtain orders for his malfunctioning gizmos, and in a nameless city he goes to for an inventors’ convention. It’s in the Chinatown, in the basement curio shop of an ancient Chinese sage (Keye Luke, in a long gray beard and with a milk-white glass eye), that Mr. Peltzer hears the near-human sounds of a mogwai, a tiny creature with the big, round eyes of a Pekinese and four-digit paws, who nests in a box. Peltzer wants to buy the mogwai as a present for Billy and offers two hundred dollars (rather casually, I thought, considering that he’s living off Billy’s wages). The sage refuses, but his grandson-—just a kid—follows Peltzer out, slips him the critter, takes the money, and gives him three instructions: don’t get him wet, keep him away from bright light, and never, never feed him after midnight.

The movie is, of course, about what happens when these rules are inadvertently disobeyed. The mogwai—Billy calls it Giz, for Gizmo—multiplies, and those mogwai also multiply, and though Giz remains harmless its progeny turn into greedy, demonic little gargoyles: dwarf dragons, with the jaws and teeth of crocodiles. About two feet high, they’re like the little devils of Hieronymus Bosch, but with a spark of drollery. They torment Giz the way, in the cartoons, Sylvester the cat tormented Tweety Pie. At times—when they play cards and carouse— they’re like race-track touts or underworld hipsters. And in one triumphantly insane sequence they invade the bar-and-grill where Billy’s girlfriend, Kate (Phoebe Cates), works nights, and, as she tries to keep up with their orders, they gorge themselves like a gang of happy juvenile delinquents, gloating over the size of their appetites. One of them flashes her, another wears leg warmers and does some break dancing, while yet another woozily sings the blues. When they get completely out of hand, Kate (in a takeoff of Rear Window) grabs her camera and shoots flash­bulbs at them.

Good little Giz takes no part in their revels. Giz is an icky-sweet lap-dog sort of creature that sits in a box all day waiting to be picked up and cuddled; it doesn’t seem even to be ambulatory—all it does is make gentle cooing sounds and bat its eyelids. But the scuzzy, malicious peewee dragons are everywhere; one of them hides among a pile of stuffed animals as E.T. did, and now there’s a stuffed E.T. right next to the demon. What Dante appears to be up to is a demonstration that something charming, like E.T., can get multiplied beyond a movie­maker’s control. He’s also doing his own, black humorist’s parody of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.—a demonstration that the underside of E.T. is like the monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Or, to put it more baldly, he’s showing that E.T.’s id is Alien. Gizmo is a good child; the other mogwai are its aggressively vulgar, beer-guzzling brothers—children of the night. When one of them blows his snout on a drape, he’s like Jean Renoir’s Boudu expressing his contempt for bourgeois life by wiping his shoes on a bedspread. These demons are like bad pets making messes.

Dante has the sensibility of a freaked-out greeting-card poet. In Gremlins, even when he’s at his weirdest the blandness is there underneath, and when he defiles his vision of the good American life it’s Frank Capraland that he’s defiling. Once again, as in his segment of Twilight Zone (the family terrorized by the ten-year-old TV addict), there are too many kinds of parody floating around, but this time there are also too many kinds of old-movie cloyingness. The incongruities are tantalizing, but they don’t work to any larger effect, and the movie never turns into the malevolent fun it should be. For a good part of the time, Dante’s tone is (perhaps deliberately) uncertain. Kate has told Billy that she doesn’t like Christmas, and the explanation comes in a monologue she delivers about how she lost her father; it belongs to the theatre of the absurd, but Dante presents it in such an unresolved way that we don’t know quite when to laugh. And what are we to make of the fact that the first casualty of the demons is the one black man in the movie, the high-school science teacher (Glynn Turman)? Is the movie using the old, standard ploy of disposing of black characters fast, or is this a parody of all those movies in which the good, kind black fellow is the first victim of whatever menace is at hand? The scene doesn’t play like parody, but with Dante you often can’t tell what’s parody and what isn’t.

The director builds suspense by postponing the audience’s first view of the mogwai: we aren’t allowed to see it when Mr. Peltzer buys it, and when he brings it home it’s in a box tied up with ribbon. We don’t see it until Billy first sees it, but this revelation has no sock to it, because the creature is such a wet-eyed blob—a kitten painted by Walter Keane, adorableness incarnate. Billy might be more likable if he were appalled by his father’s assumption that he’d want this itty-bitty furball, and had to struggle to conceal his feelings. Billy is an autobiographical hero: as a boy, Joe Dante wanted to be a cartoonist (which, in a sense, he is: he never gets past cartoon characters with cartoon emotions). But Billy has been made out to be a considerate and responsible fellow—a personable dishrag. We can’t tell if we’re meant to see him as a younger version of his dreamer father or as a young man with the practical good sense that his father lacks. We don’t even know if Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, who look alike in this movie (they have matching sets of teeth), are meant to be a charming pair or a spoof of dopey wholesomeness. (Where are their ids?) Gremlins doesn’t play by the rules or by the anti-rules, either. And Joe Dante seems to be trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces. The young actor Judge Reinhold looks as if he enjoyed playing smarminess, and he’s fine as a bastardly junior vice-president of the bank who brags about how quickly he’s rising (and leaving Billy at the bottom), but the picture introduces him, sets him up, and then seems to forget about him. Billy is provided with the dog Barney, who then has to be shunted aside while Billy becomes attached to Giz. Why didn’t the writer, Chris Columbus (an N.Y.U. film-school graduate), or Dante simply combine the plots and have Mrs. Deagle vent her anger on Giz, using that as the mechanism for setting Giz’s id in motion? (That might have given the picture a little more coherence.)

Movies are Joe Dante’s only frame of reference, and he slips in and out of movie conventions; I’m not sure that he himself knows when he means to be funny, since he seems to find the whole idea of making movies funny. But Gremlins isn’t dull; there’s always something going on. In one scene, we discover that Giz can reproduce musical tones; nothing comes of it. The picture is an unholy mixture—a whimsical pop shocker—and finally nothing comes of any of it. Dante can’t pull his ideas together, and the movie has so little emotional impact that it might be called affectless. Yet it’s obvious that Joe Dante is a genuine eccentric talent with a flair for malice, and it’s certainly clear why Spielberg, whose production company made the film (and who glides through a shot at the inventors’ convention, riding a little motorized cart), believes in him. There are some crack sequences. Upstairs in Billy’s house, the first batch of Giz’s progeny are in some gooey metamorphosing state while downstairs Billy’s mother—very well played by Frances Lee McCain— is in the kitchen baking gingerbread men. And although we may wonder whom they’re for—her husband and her twenty-year-old son?—they’re metaphorically perfect. McCain’s big scene comes just a minute later. Mrs. Peltzer, hearing strange noises upstairs, goes up to investigate. But she isn’t one of those dreary fools who inhabit the usual horror movie—the ones who go up to be slaughtered. She takes a very sharp knife, and from the set of her chin we know she means business. When she encounters the repugnant little dragons, she goes at them systemati­cally, one after another, and when a couple of them make the mistake of invading her kitchen she traps one in the juicer (the only time her husband’s gadgets come through for her) and the other in the microwave oven. Her efficiency is a thing of beauty. This tough and determined Mrs. Peltzer wouldn’t be staying home playing housewife while her young son supported her (instead of having his own life); she’d be out making a living. But when a sequence is directed with the snap and freshness of this one, who cares?

The veteran horror-film actor Dick Miller (he looks like an older, more wizened Robin Williams) appears as Mr. Futterman, the town drunk, who accounts for his tractor’s not starting by referring to the gremlins that were supposedly planted in machinery in the Second World War. Miller gets a chance to show what a likable low comic he is in the kind of part that Barry Fitzgerald used to play. When Mr. Futterman’s TV goes on the fritz, he looks up at the antenna on his roof, which the demons have been using as a jungle gym; at that moment they come driving his tractor out of the garage and right through his living room. And Polly Holliday is a wonderfully astute and polished actress. She brings the Margaret Hamilton role a whiny, self-justifying undercurrent. You laugh at Mrs. Deagle because she’s just so awful; she’s someone you could love to hate. In her last moments on earth, Mrs. Deagle hears what she thinks are Christmas carollers, rushes to fill a pitcher of water so she can douse them, and opens the door to the fearless little devils (who should never be got wet).

For a movie that’s a pop junkpile of movie references, Gremlins has a surprising number of good things in it. There’s a marvellous effect when one of the mogwai falls into the swimming pool at the Y, and the whole body of water roils and smokes, like a Blakean vision of Hell, and from outside the building you can see the shadows of the demons who are taking shape. But the scenes that can make a claim to be inspired take place in the Kingston Falls movie theatre. It’s an ingenious location, since the mogwai have to be in darkness, and they have multiplied so lavishly that they fill the seats. The theatre is packed with these lewd hipster dragons watching their gnomish counterparts on the screen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; they pad up and down the aisles, eating, laughing, commenting on the action, and tearing up the place. And when the Seven Dwarfs on the screen start to sing “Heigh-Ho,” the mogwai join in the singing. In their enthusiasm, they spin around on the projectors, and rip the screen to shreds. It’s a delirious, kitschy travesty—a kiddie matinée in Hell. In some ways, Joe Dante makes these antic demons as disgustingly adorable as Giz. They’re Katzenjammer Kids, and the action is all kiddie pranks in a cluttered comic strip.

It’s typical of Dante’s paranoid-cartoon approach that after this sequence Billy and Kate, who battle the demons in the theatre, must rush to do battle again in the town department store. The moviemakers have so many ideas that they lose track of their own central metaphor. The mogwai can’t stand bright light—it kills them. The movie—and this ties in with Kate’s monologue—is a Christmas Eve dream of something fearful coming down the chimney. When we see the mogwai at the debauch in the theatre, we may reasonably expect the sun to come up on Christmas morning and take care of them. The whole picture seems to point to that ending, because when the sun comes up movies end and our dreams are over. Gremlins just keeps going from one cartoon idea to another. There’s a lovely last shot of Keye Luke in a Christmas-card landscape, but the picture has already self-destructed.

Gremlins is leaving something behind, though. Is Giz meant to be as mawkish as I found it? A little boy who visits the Peltzer house fusses over how cute it is; Giz makes a face and says something on the order of “Oh, that again.” Joe Dante is certainly conscious of the creature’s ickiness; Giz is designed to make everyone say “Aw,” and the whole idea of the demons is based on Giz’s repression of everything that isn’t pure and sweet. But if Dante and his moviemaking team are aware of what a soft bundle of anthropomorphic ick this creature is, how can they be party to launching stuffed Gizmos into the toy stores of the world for children to covet and caress? It’s one thing for a movie to lead to the manufacture of toys that delight the public because they delighted the moviemakers. But selling Gizmos is a horrible joke.

The New Yorker, June 25, 1984


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