Exactly 20 years ago today "Gremlins" opened in theaters across the U.S. It went on to be one of the biggest smash hits not only of the summer of 1984, but of the entire year. And in my opinion, it deserved to be a hit. I remember seeing this movie at a movie theater with some friends of mine right after it opened 20 years ago, and I said afterwards, "this is going to be a huge hit". And it was.
"Gremlins" is a story that plays like a darker version of Steven Spielberg's "E.T." Which is funny, because it was Spielberg himself who had the vision of "Gremlins" becoming a movie. Spielberg, along with his then collaborators Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (the trio founded the production company Amblin Entertainment), served as executive producers of the film. Spielberg got a then up-and-coming screenwriter named Chris Columbus to write the script (Columbus would go on to become the director of the first two "Harry Potter" movies as well as the first two "Home Alone" pictures), and Roger Corman protege Joe Dante to direct the picture (Dante directed 1978's "Piranha", a witty spoof of Spielberg's first smash hit "Jaws", and a segment of Spielberg's "Twilight Zone: The Movie" a year earlier). What they created was a movie that was great fun from start to finish.
"Gremlins" is about a young man who receives a very unusual Christmas gift from his inventor father. He gets a little friendly creature called a Mogwai, which is as cute as a button. But there's a twist. There are three rules that must be followed in caring for the Mogwai: Rule #1 - Keep them away from light; Rule #2 - Don't get them wet; and Rule #3 - Don't feed them after midnight. When the rules get broken, all hell breaks loose as mean-spirited little monsters turn everything upside down. "Gremlins" then turns into a super-duper special effects picture, with the creatures created exceptionally by Chris Walas (Oscar winner for the makeup job on the 1986 remake of "The Fly"). These monsters are scary to be sure, but also very funny with some of the antics they provide.
Even though the special effect monsters steal the show, the acting by the human actors is very good too. Zach Galligan makes the most of his film debut as Billy Peltzer, the young hero who tries to stop the gremlins; Phoebe Cates is effective as his girlfriend; the late Hoyt Axton is a hoot as the inept inventor father (some of his crazy inventions are hilarious, especially when the inventions backfire into slapstick catastrophes); Frances Lee McCain is good as the mother and housewife (who has one big scene with the nasty critters); Polly Holliday is wickedly funny as Mrs. Deagle, the meanest woman in town; and Dante regular Dick Miller is a riot as Mr. Futterman, the nice man who's always complaining about hand-made products being made out of foreign parts. Judge Reinhold and Corey Feldman have small roles as Billy's bank co-worker and good friend, respectively, and look for a quick cameo by Spielberg himself.
"Gremlins" was such a big hit in 1984 that it got re-released back in theaters the following year before it made its debut on video. The movie grossed over $153 million at the box office (combining the original 1984 release and the 1985 re-release). And it stands alone as a great creature feature. "Gremlins" was also imitated many times shortly afterwards. Following in its footsteps came 1985's "Ghoulies", and 1986's "Troll" and "Critters". All these movies spawned sequels of their own, and none of them came close to capturing the greatness of "Gremlins" (although the original "Critters" came the closest; it was the only movie out of that bunch that I mildly enjoyed). Six years later came the "Gremlins" sequel "Gremlins 2: The New Batch". It wasn't as good as the original, but it's still a good movie sequel. I'll take "Gremlins 2" as well as the original "Gremlins" over "Ghoulies" or "Troll" anyday.
***** (out of five)