By 1984, Steven Spielberg was perhaps most frequently associated with three things: Jaws, E.T., and staggeringly large summer box office receipts. Gremlins, which Spielberg produced, managed to combine elements of all three, resulting in a wildly successful film about hundreds of vicious little creatures that invade a small town. Gremlins was the first produced script by Chris Columbus, who's better known nowadays for his directing (Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone) than his writing credits. The story was inspired by the sort of vermin one expects to have late night encounters with in Columbus' then-home of New York City. Spielberg optioned the screenplay, which went onto be the first production from the fledgling Amblin Entertainment, the company behind Jurassic Park, Men In Black, Back To The Future, and The Goonies, all gleefully carrying summer release dates and ten-figure theatrical grosses.
Joe Dante was selected by Spielberg to helm the film, having seen the director of Pirahna (Spielberg's favorite of the innumerable Jaws knockoffs) and The Howling meld scares, laughs, and ambitious special fx into effective, modestly budgeted movies. Gremlins was Dante's first feature-length film for a major studio, with his closest brush in the studio framework up to that point being his "It's A Good Life" segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie. With a budget barely breaking the $10 million mark, Gremlins wasn't a particularly pricey gamble even by the standards of the day. It opened on the same day as Ghostbusters and, despite not having a nearly comparable amount of hype behind it, managed to tally nearly $150 million domestically. That's before taking into account video sales and rentals, re-releases, foreign box office, and the extensive amount of merchandising and promotional tie-ins.
Gremlins, for the sad few that have never seen it, takes place in the sleepy little town of Kingston Falls. Failed inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) has been keeping his eye out for an unusual Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). Though Rand's not really sure what he's looking for, he finds it in Chinatown: an indescribably cute creature called a mogwai. These pets require more responsibility than your average terrier, though, and Randall is told three rules:
Rules are made to be broken, and through no real fault of his own, Billy unleashes an army of nasty green monsters upon Kingston Falls. His mother is forced to resort to guerilla kitchen warfare, the neighbor's house suffers the wrath of a snow plow, and his prospective love Kate (Phoebe Cates) is terrorized in a dingy bar. Billy, Kate, and Gizmo set out to find some way to stop the Gremlins' reign of terror before they spread outside the city limits.
- Don't expose him to bright light, especially sunlight.
- Don't get him wet.
- Don't feed him after midnight.
This was probably the tenth or fifteenth time I've sat down with Gremlins over the past couple of decades, but quite a few years had passed since I last gave it a whirl. It's exceedingly rare that I'm as enthuasiastic about a movie now as I was growing up, and lurking in the back of my mind was the fear that Gremlins wouldn't hold up nearly as well as I'd like. In a way, it didn't. My biggest and only real complaint is that the setup for the mayhem to come, comprising the vast majority of the first forty-five minutes, has a tendency to be somewhat slow-moving. The movie I looked back on so fondly doesn't really begin until the cocoons make their first appearance, and maybe I was just impatient waiting for that initial third of the film to end. From that point on, though, Gremlins moves at a frenetic pace, like a Chuck Jones cartoon with an IV drip of Red Bull. (Not coincidentally, Jones himself appears in a cameo, and even some of the sounds from Warner's animation library are incorporated into the film.)
Gremlins still stands out as one of the few successful attempts to blend comedy and horror, a combination that typically results in movies that are neither funny nor scary. Some of the more suspenseful moments remain as effective as ever, and any scene in which the gremlins interact with one another is almost without fail infectiously fun. Even in this age of overreliance on pricey computer animation, the creature effects in Gremlins hold up reasonably well.
Zach Galligan's character isn't the most interesting ever conceived, but his wide-eyed awe and innocence are really all that's necessary. It's borderline-impossible for me to prattle on about Gremlins for more than a couple of sentences without doting on the astonishingly cute Phoebe Cates. The supporting cast includes turns by Keye Luke (Charlie Chan's number one son), successful song writer Hoyt Axton, Dick Miller (a low-budget horror mainstay who would return for the sequel), Judge Reinhold back when his movies were still seeing some sort of a theatrical release, and a pre-stab-at-rockstardom Corey Feldman.
For pretty much anyone born between 1975 and 1980, Gremlins is a classic. Though I'm not quite as enthusiastic about it now as I was eighteen years ago, I'm glad to see that Warner has finally given Gremlins the special edition treatment it deserves.
Video: This re-release of Gremlins, like its predecessor, is in anamorphic widescreen and presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The source material is in respectble shape, largely free of the obvious wear and tear cited in reviews of the original release. A couple of specks pop up intermittently, though they're well within the range of what's acceptable for a relatively high-profile catalog release. Film grain is a minor nuisance, rearing its jittery little head to greatly varying degrees in a handful of shots throughout the length of the movie. I'll cheerfully take moderately grainy and sharp over artificially smooth, though, and crispness and clarity are both reasonably strong for the duration. A couple of shots here and there don't look quite as crisp as the bulk of the film, but there's nothing I'd even consider characterizing as "soft". Colors are bold and vibrant, belying the nineteen years that have passed since principal photography began. I'd imagine all but the most finicky DVD enthusiasts will be pleased with the presentation, and if the reviews I've stumbled upon of the original disc are any indication, the quality of this release alone might be enough to convince its owners to upgrade.
Audio: Gremlins has been given the Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment, though it's not quite as appealing as the quality of the video. Its age is more apparent, particularly in the very flat, dated sound of much of the dialogue. Jerry Goldsmith's synth-heavy score is a little on the weak side as well. Rears are put to good use once the gremlins burst from their cocoons, with surround activity more or less proportional to how wild the beasties get. There's not an extensive amount of rumbling from the subwoofer, though a few moments -- such as the snowplow hijacking, an explosive screening of Snow White, and Stripe's skinnydippin' -- offer a healthy low-end kick. This mix isn't likely to curl any toes, but it's more than serviceable. Those who don't find it to their liking can also resort to the original stereo audio, which has graciously been provided. Also present is the usual barrage of stereo surround tracks and subtitles in a variety of languages.
Supplements: Whenever I pore through a disc with multiple commentaries, it generally seems as if there's always one that really stands out, while the others are remarkably less interesting. I was expecting something very much along those lines when I gave Gremlins a spin, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was not the case at all. The first commentary is more technical in nature, featuring director Joe Dante, producer Michael Finnell, and the man who masterminded the creature effects, Chris Walas. They provide a detailed runthrough of the early days of production, ranging from the graphic initial drafts (including decapitation, a faceful o' hypodermic needles, and a half-eaten dog) to an 11th hour decision that kept Gizmo from being the movie's villain. The shoot was enormously stressful for Walas, who shouts some variation of "Aaargh! Not this scene!" after every couple of shots. There's quite a bit of discussion about how certain creature effects were pulled off, in terms of both design and execution. Their chat goes so in-depth that even clearance issues for To Please A Lady, meal penalties, and specific backlots are tackled. This is a great, great commentary, and every bit as entertaining is the second track, this time putting the emphasis on the cast. Dante returns with Dick Miller, Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan, and Howie Mandel (the voice of Gizmo) in tow. Dante does most of the talking, with Galligan also chiming in frequently. Mandel gets kind of chatty around a third of the way in, though he's completely oblivious as to what the purpose of an audio commentary is, stating that he thought viewers would be miffed that they were talking over the movie. Cates has little to contribute, and Miller generally only responds whenever Galligan or Mandel toss a "so, what do you think, Dick?" his way. Considering that Dante is the dominant presence in both tracks, it's also a surprise that overlap between the two is kept to such a bare minimum. A few sentences aside, these commentaries cover almost entirely different territory. The actors' discussion puts more of an emphasis on production tales, such as Cates' backlot moped mishap and Galligan's near-fatal encounter with a rented "Candy" neon sign.
A featurette from 1983 is a far cry from the promotional fluff littering most DVDs nowadays. Though the audio is difficult to fully discern, the featurette offers a peek at a couple of stages in production. Joe Dante's sense of humor shines through, and he offers a couple of comments on the film and pals around with the cast. Hoyt Axton, Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan, and Steven Spielberg also chime in with a few comments.
A hair over ten minutes of deleted scenes have been provided, and they can be viewed with or without commentary by Dante, Cates, and Galligan. The quality of the letterboxed material is striking, and the footage includes an extended opening in Chinatown, insight into Mrs. Deagle's thoroughly unpleasant plans for Kingston Falls, and the scene of Judge Reinhold locked in the bank vault that would later be incorporated into the network television version. The commentary mostly consists of Cates and Galligan scarcely remembering filming these scenes and Dante noting that they were cut because the movie was running too long. He also mentions that the first cut of the film ran around two hours and forty minutes. Yikes.
A fairly extensive still gallery includes storyboards, promotional stills, and the like. Trailers for both Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch are provided in anamorphic widescreen, alongside a full-frame trailer plugging Gremlins' reissue. Interestingly enough, it uses the film damage fake-out that would later turn up in the sequel. Rounding out the supplements are cast/crew bios and production notes.
Conclusion: To those who grew up with Gremlins, a purchase of this very well-produced special edition is an absolute no-brainer, though uninitiated viewers might not entirely understand the fanatical devotion so many have for this movie. With its strong presentation and an assortment of high-quality supplemental material, the asking price of $15 at most retailers makes this disc an excellent, affordable addition to most any DVD collection. Highly Recommended.