The Test of Time: Gremlins (1984)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, and Holt Axton

Let’s be honest. There isn’t exactly a plethora of horror movies made to enjoy with the whole family…especially during Christmas. Sure, we can try to push the boundaries of good taste and end up risking looking like either the asshole or the weird one during the holiday, but that’s not cool.

Actually, horror movies aimed at families are as rare as a creepy undocumented animal found only at a basement Chinatown specialty shop. And maybe that’s what Steven Spielberg thought when he first ran across Chris Columbus’s script back in the early 1980s. It presented not only a damn fine story, but characters and creatures that not only could scare the hell out of kids, but make them want to buy a entire line toys and bed sheets too.

Ugly has never looked so cute. 

Under the examination: Gremlins.

THE STORY: On Christmas, a father with a bad habit of creating terrible inventions buys a Mogwai named Gizmo for his mild mannered bank teller son. The thing comes with a very specific set of instructions: 1) No bright lights 2) Keep away from water 3) Don’t feed him after midnight. Obviously, we wouldn’t have a movie if he didn’t fail at the instructions. Gizmo multiples until the Gremlins start to appear, and then they do what Gremlins are supposed to do…reek havoc. When they invade the town, people end up dead by a wide variety of methods. But don’t worry…it’s fun for the entire family!

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: I suspect that Gremlins is one of those movies that’s very much a product of the time, of my time, and I have to admit this is a tough one to view completely objective. It's a childhood love and sometimes it's hard to see the faults in things we love as kids. However, I'll do my best. 

First off, this is one of the only if not THE only horror/comedy that plays as a Christmas movie. I guess Ghostbusters could be lumped into that category, but it's a much lighter film. That's what makes Gremlins such a special film. It's scary, adorable, tense, and gory all at the same time, and somehow it still plays for the family audience. It's a rare feat that will probably never be matched again. 

Billy's mom won't sport that smile for long.

There’s so many scenes that still bring back the wrong kind of memories. The YMCA breeding pool, the Gremlin Christmas caroling, the ejection of old cat lady, the death of fake Santa, the bulldozer death, the bar party where the Gremlins get drunk (and even shoot each other), and, of course, the movie theater. It's all in good fun, but that's really a testament to the movie's effects, which mostly still work damn well, especially when Gizmo first gets all wet and shoots his “eggs” off his back. Then there's the birthing sequence, when Gizmo hides inside the Honda helmet. It still plays scary even today.

The Gremlins don't make their first kill until 50 minutes in when they take out the science teacher, but that's when things really get dark in one of the best sequences when Billy’s mother (Frances Lee McCain) goes on a rampage, which was and still is a little hard to watch. She grinds up one of the Gremlins in the blender, stabs one, and even worse decides to cook one in the microwave, which really f*cked me up back then. It’s still amazing how violent a family flick. 

Now that's a beer gut.

Above all, perhaps what makes Gremlins work is the script, which finds that rare combination of humor, horror, and family box office. The movie has near perfect pacing. We’re never left with a dull moment or a scene that doesn’t entertain. Even though Zach Galligan never turned into a star (despite his Waxwork movies), he and the girl from the 1980s, Phoebe Cates, are perfectly cast and never annoy. (By the way, anyone else ever notice Mike from Breaking Bad in here as Deputy Brent?)

WHAT BLOWS NOW:  If there's anything wrong with the movie its that it never can figure out what kind of movie it is. It's not so much a question or horror or comedy, but more so the inclusion of the family film. Every time it really could have pushed it, Dante and company pulled back to play it safe. I'm complaining, but this could have been a hell of a straight horror film. Somehow that managed to work great back in the 1980s, but they couldn't make this if they tried today. Mass murder (even by little green creatures) and this level of darkness would be played for lighter comedy, and never be allowed to go dark. Oh, and why did anyone think Corey Feldman was a good actor? He’s not, and it’s pretty damn obvious. Whenever he appears on screen it just ruins things.

THE VERDICT: Certain movies shouldn’t be touched and don’t need a CGI update in order to remain relevant to today’s audiences. While the puppets sometimes look like...well, puppets, that’s part of the appeal to Gremlins. The creatures all look a little off and odd, but that just adds to their lovely creepiness.



Stripe needs shooting lessons.



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