Director: Joe Dante; Screenwriter: Chris Columbus; Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton; Running time: 106 mins; Certificate: 15
Those dastardly gremlins are making a timely return to the cinema as Joe Dante's 1984 masterpiece is re-released for the festive season. A clever subversion of Christmas movies akin to Bad Santa, Gremlins still retains its broad appeal with sadistic humour, dazzling animatronic effects and a critique of consumer culture that feel fresh and relevant today.
"Don't expose him to bright light. Don't ever get him wet. And don't ever, ever feed him after midnight." Hapless youth Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) becomes the most irresponsible animal owner since Cruella de Vil when he inadvertently defies those instructions after receiving a mysterious pet 'mogwai' from his inventor father (Hoyt Axton).
Billy's adorable creature Gizmo spouts furry balls as a result and those soon turn into fiendish and homicidal critters intent on causing havoc in the small-town Capraesque setting of Kingston Falls. They're still not the most obnoxious creature around though - that honour belongs to the ghastly Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday) who plots the death of Billy's dog and the financial ruin of her fellow citizens. But can Billy, his Christmas-loathing squeeze Kate (Phoebe Cates) and Gizmo save the day?
In the '80s and '90s, Gremlins was one of those 15-rated movies alongside Top Gun that seemingly every child had seen before becoming a teenager. The wonderfully evoked snow setting lends itself to a children's movie, as does the jovial tone and simple plot, but it's easy to forget about the dark and gory elements that emerge and multiply - like a wet mogwai - as the movie progresses.
There's certainly little value placed on human life and death sequences - such as Mrs Deagle's iconic demise - are played for laughs. It's wonderfully immoral and a refreshing antidote to the artificial sweetness of similarly snow-laden movies. The moments of horror, such as Billy's mother being attacked by a Christmas tree with a gremlin hidden inside, are wonderfully realised by Dante, as are the gremlin creatures. The puppetry and animatronics still look great and the benefits of a physical presence over CGI are epitomised here.
The actors are all well cast, with Zach Galligan effortlessly exuding youthful charm and Phoebe Cates adding a layer of dark intrigue to the generic love interest role. Her monologue about the demise of her father in a chimney while dressed as Santa still packs a powerful punch.
Gremlins features a proliferation of memorable moments that amuse, chill and enthral. There are far too many to mention, which is why we've collated a few here. Aside from the visual delights of witnessing gremlins blended and microwaved, their presence provides an amusing satire of typically human behavioural traits that are uproariously lampooned. The best example is during the bar sequence (move over Star Wars cantina!) that features an abundance of gremlins imitating muggers, drunkards, breakdancers and card game players. It soon descends into total chaos.
In today's more cynical and meta-aware era, perhaps the overt references to movie influences are over-exposed during the movie, with scenes from It's a Wonderful Life and Invasion of the Body Snatchers playing on televisions around town. Yet there's a pure and magical quality about this love of cinema, which also presents itself during a majestic sequence in which the gremlins are mesmerised during a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Grown-up viewers who last witnessed the film in their childhood could also benefit from revisiting the movie due to the various homages on show. Fans of The Shining may notice a familiar musical cue or two, alongside hungry lead gremlin Stripe's frequent cry of 'Yum! Yum!" echoing the child Danny's 'Red Rum, Red Rum' chants in Stanley Kubrick's movie.
The central message of humanity's greed is perhaps more pertinent now than ever and epitomised by the oriental shop owner's words when he takes Gizmo back at the end: "You do with mogwai what society has done with all of nature's gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready."
An enchanting yet savagely funny movie, Gremlins belongs alongside Ghostbusters as an enduring mainstream masterpiece from the summer of 1984. Just don't watch it after midnight.
> 'Gremlins': The Top 10 moments