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Savant Blu-ray Review

Warner Home Video
1984 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 106 min. / Street Date December 1, 2009 / 28.99
Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Keye Luke, Frances Lee McCain, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Judge Reinhold, Polly Holliday, Belinda Balaski, Edward Andrews, Don Steele, Scott Brady, Corey Feldman, Harry Carey Jr., Chuck Jones, Glynn Turman, Jerry Goldsmith, William Schallert, Steven Spielberg, Kenneth Tobey.
John Hora
Film Editor Tina Hirsch
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Chris Columbus
Produced by Michael Finnell
Directed by Joe Dante

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

As anarchic as ever, and even funnier than when it came out, Chris Columbus & Joe Dante's Gremlins is a great film masquerading as just another teen comedy. By now everyone is familiar with the tale of the furry Chinese Mogwai, a creature that comes with a strict set of rules we know are going to be broken. Faster than you can say Pandora's Box, an idealized Christmas holiday is invaded by an onslaught of reptilian demons -- the mischievous-murderous Gremlins of legend.

Stephen King nailed John Carpenter's Halloween as an expression of the traditional "campfire horror tale". Gremlins' takeoff point is the cautionary scare fable, like The Money's Paw. A person is put to an ethical test, and when he fails, all Hell breaks loose. The twist here is that Columbus and Dante don't sweat the moral mechanics, and instead exploit the idea's abundant potential for absurdity. We're eager for the Mogwai to get wet and be fed after midnight, and see chaos loosed on the movie screen.

The central character is Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) a nice-guy bank clerk who names his new furry Mogwai pet "Gizmo". Billy and young Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) don't realize what they're getting into, until they're forced to fight an army of midget monsters to save their town. The pair just happens to live in Joe Dante's favorite Neverland, a composite Everytown existing only in movie nostalgia and baby-boomer TV shows. Both the town and the script are seemingly made from bits of It's a Wonderful Life, The Blob and The Wizard of Oz. With his hilariously defective kitchen "conveniences" Inventor Randall Peltzer (folksy Hoyt Axton) is clearly a refugee from Disney's gentle "absent minded professor" farces. As Mrs. Peltzer, Frances Lee McCain plays a marvelous straight-faced Buster Keaton to runaway coffeemakers and orange-juicers that destroy her kitchen. The neighbor kid (Corey Feldman) is given a haircut to resemble one of the Corcoran children that frequented Disney's sanitized (but weirdly subversive) family fare. Dante would later lampoon this unrecognized subgenre as "Shook Up Shopping Cart" movies.

Gremlins features a wall-to-wall parade of actors guaranteed to raise our nostalgia radar: Scott Brady is the police chief, Edward Andrews a daffy bank manager, William Schallert a minister, Harry Carey Jr. a friendly townsperson and Kenneth Tobey a gas station owner. Polly Holliday (TV's "Flo") is the villainous Ruby Deagle, a combination Elvira Gulch and Old Man Potter taken to describing the ways she wants to kill the hero's little dog. Saved for special status are Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph, the comic co-stars of Roger Corman's original Little Shop of Horrors. Add cameos by Dante mentor Chuck Jones and Robby the Robot and we've got ourselves a virtual universe of cultural references. The director also keeps continuity with his own films, using Belinda Belaski (Piranha, The Howling) as a mother victimized by the miserly Ruby Deagle.

Everything about the Gremlins taps directly into vintage monster movie lore, combined with a comic streak borrowed from classic Looney Tunes cartoon shorts. We note that the reptilian creatures emerging from the Alien-ish egg pods uncurl their sticky ears like the unfolding pod people in the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers ... and then Dante gives us a brief clip from that exact same movie, playing on Billy's TV set. The anarchic tone reaches its peak when the fast-multiplying Gremlins decide to party all night, dressing up like humans and misbehaving like manic cartoon characters -- while murdering people, of course.

In spite of all the external cultural signposts -- comic books, posters and film clips (Hemo the Magnificent!) -- Gremlins firmly establishes its own identity. The puppet tricks used to animate Gizmo and his demonic offspring are enchanting ... it's like Howdy Doody or Soupy Sales gone mad, or madder. The cute Mogwai sings, pouts and curls its ears like a cuddly teddy bear, all thanks to the clever special effects of Chris Walas. Hordes of Gremlins stage a barroom brawl and go wild in a movie theater, singing along with clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The joke here (at the obvious expense of a hefty licensing fee) is that everybody, but everybody loves Disney's Snow White.

Director Dante knows how to maximize the impact of his cast veterans and is uncommonly sensitive with his younger performers. Corey Feldman's admiration of Gizmo is as tender as anything in a Disney picture. Zach Galligan's Billy is a little slow on the uptake but definitely not a stooge, while the charming Phoebe Cates (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) fits nicely into the insanity when she attempts to tend bar for a rowdy, randy pack of Gremlins. The movie constantly shifts tone between Dante's nostalgia-satire, earnest cutesy scenes (Billy's dog is utterly charming), suspenseful anticipation, and all-out anarchy. The enjoyably goofy farce is also completely unpretentious -- the underlying social significance of the killer Gremlins is, happily, zero.

Gremlins' grotesque thrills generated enthusiastic word-of-mouth and also a bit of controversy from parents expecting a re-run of E.T. sweetness and light. With furry Gizmo stuffed toys on store shelves the film's marketing was clearly very attractive to young audiences. Over-publicized media flak over the film's mayhem and murders helped inaugurate the PG-13 rating category. But the show is consistent with Joe Dante's comedic approach to horror as seen in his previous successes The Howling and The Twilight Zone: The Movie. The werewolf show proved that horror and comedy can definitely reinforce one other: when victims are torn to pieces to the background accompaniment of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf", we laugh and recoil at the same time. Although Dante is never mean-spirited, he's more than willing to make us nervous, eagerly pushing his gags into "ick" territory when logic indicates. Gutsy homemaker Mrs. Peltzer defends her kitchen with everything she's got: knives, bug spray and a Gremlin-scrambling blender. Audiences screamed and cheered when Mrs. Peltzer traps a Gremlin in a microwave oven and gives it the works: POP! SPLAT!

Dante saves his sharpest instance of cinematic disquiet for a much-discussed macabre Christmas story scene, told by Phoebe Cates's Kate. An anticipated belly-laugh suddenly turns into a grim little moment worthy of the black humorist Charles Addams. In one of his comments Dante mentions having to choose between this verbal creep-out or another scene in which Judge Reinhold is discovered locked in the bank vault. He kept the Downer Christmas Story.  1

I watched the Gremlins Blu-ray alone and laughed out loud twice, at two of the perfectly timed gruesome jokes. Conceptually speaking, the film's most accomplished gag has Gizmo, a seemingly infantile puppy-type critter, show interest in an old movie playing on Billy's TV. The film is To Please A Lady, where Clark Gable looks more than a little silly racing midget cars. Sure enough, when Gizmo later commandeers a Barbie toy convertible to race to the rescue, he has a mental thought-flashback to the Gable picture, with Barbara Stanwyck telling him how virile he is! That joke is at least three degrees removed from anything even remotely rational, yet it always gets a big laugh.

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Gremlins gives us this comedy classic in a crisp Hi Def transfer that both looks and sounds great. Jerry Goldsmith's delightful score helps to maintain a consistent farcical tone, in case any particular gag scores as too much of a gross-out. HD's added visual and audio detail allows us to examine the clever effects and scan for gags and references we might have missed on earlier viewings.

The disc extras may date from 2002. Joe Dante contributes to two separate commentaries. On the first he hosts Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan, Dick Miller and Howie Mandel; the second producer Michael Finnell and Special Effects master Chris Walas join Dante with recollections of the filming. We're told that Chris Columbus' original script was a much more violent horror story. Instead of giving birth to the monsters, Gizmo transforms into the murderous Gremlin leader "Stripe". As originally conceived, poor mom ends up decapitated!

A trailer is present along with galleries of photos and storyboards. An amusing 1984 making-of featurette is something I remember showing on the old "Z" Channel. Dante provides additional commentary for a group of deleted scenes that flesh out scenes with secondary characters. The deleted material apparently represents only a fraction of footage that Dante trimmed away while whittling Gremlins into its final shape.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Gremlins Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentaries, featurette, deleted scenes, galleries of ad art and storyboards.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 4, 2009


1. I cannot, and I daresay Mr. Dante cannot, envision a film studio of today allowing this kind of a tonal interruption to make it to the final cut. Why, people may be upset! Gremlins has people slaughtered with snowplows, thrown through high windows and mangled by nasty little demons, but please, nothing morbid. Horror fans cued to Dante's taste watch the scene of Miss Deagle ascending the stairs on her little electric chair, and immediately think of a supremely sick joke in William Castle's Homicidal.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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