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Gremlins (1984)

“Will you sign this petition?  They’re trying to close Dorie’s Tavern,” says Kate.  Billy responds, “Sure. That’s where my dad proposed to my mom, you know.”  Kate replies, “That’s where everyone’s dad proposed to their mom.”

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Joe Dante’s Gremlins.  There’s just nothing like monstrous mayhem occurring in a small town at Christmas time.  Also, I can admit that the little Mogwai known as Gizmo is adorable.  I was first exposed to Gremlins through its sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch.  It would take years for me to find a chance to see the first film, and it wasn’t until I got it on DVD that I was able to see it in its entirety (it would be several more years before I got a chance to see it on the big screen).  After missing out on a 30th anniversary midnight screening at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema recently, I found another opportunity to see it on the big screen, this time at the IFC Center.  It was a delight to finally see Gizmo in his first adventure on the big screen, and overall a very enjoyable experience.

1984’s Gremlins follows a young man named Billy in the small town of Kingston Falls who is given a creature called a Mogwai as a Christmas present from his father, who had purchased it from a Chinatown antique shop.  The Mogwai is named Gizmo, and Billy is told about the three rules he must follow: Never expose the Mogwai to sunlight, don’t ever get the Mogwai wet, and do not feed the Mogwai after midnight.  All three rules are eventually broken (accidentally, of course), and a batch of gremlins are unleashed on the town.  Joe Dante’s direction is top-notch.  An impressive cast was gathered: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Polly Holliday, Judge Reinhold, Keye Luke, Glynn Turman, Edward Andrews, Scott Brady, Jonathan Banks, Harry Carey Jr., and Chuck Jones, along with voice work from Frank Welker and Howie Mandel.  There are also cameos by Steven Spielberg, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and Robby the Robot.

The screenplay by Chris Columbus takes a Spielbergian small town and turns it on its head with the invasion of the gremlins and their attack on all symbols of small town America.  Of all the wonderful gags in the film, my favorite involves the convention Billy’s father is attending.  There’s a shot where he’s talking on the telephone to his family, and in that same shot is Jerry Goldsmith in a booth next to him and Robby the Robot is walking by.  In the background on the right, there’s a man sitting in a replica of the time machine from 1960’s The Time Machine.  A moment later when the film cuts back to that shot, the time machine in the background is gone (with dirt and some smoke in its place) and there are several people looking at that spot trying to figure out where (or when) it went.  It’s a subtle gag that works beautifully and is very funny for those who catch it.

James H. Spencer’s production design was first-rate, as was John Hora’s noirish cinematography and Greg LaCava’s makeup design.  Chris Walas’ creature effects were incredible and still hold up after 30 years (ensuring that every gremlin was slightly different and reflected its own personality could not have been an easy task).  Tina Hirsch’s editing keeps the film moving at a good pace and never drags.  Jerry Goldsmith provides a classic score that mixes the orchestra with electronics and reflects both the horror and comedy aspects of the film.  He also created instantly memorable themes for the gremlins and Gizmo.  The success of Gremlins led to Joe Dante making a bigger, zanier sequel (1990’s delightful Gremlins 2: The New Batch).  Gremlins has endured for 30 years as a classic and will continue to do so for many more years.

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