With great cuteness comes great responsibility. Gremlins (1984) 35th Anniversary Review
Towards the end of the 1970s, Spielberg began working on a sequel to “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”. Unlike its predecessor, which spun alien visitation as a hopeful, transcendent and optimistic event, this follow-up would take a much darker tone: a story of a family in a rural farmhouse being terrorised by a group of aliens. “Night Skies”, as it was called, never went in front of the cameras but nevertheless may be one of the most prolifically productive films ever not made.
Its main idea of a family being visited by an alien was revised in a much more family-friendly direction and eventually became “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial” while the family being terrorised was reformed into “Poltergeist”, directed by Tobe Hooper who had been in mind to direct “Night Skies”. It was to “Night Skies” again that Spielberg turned for his collaboration with Joe Dante as they combined their love of 50s b-movies and small-town Americana with the idea of a group of unruly creatures running amok. “Night Skies” would have a third spin-off: “Gremlins”.
When Billy (Zach Galligan) received a mysterious new pet for Christmas, he’s warned that there are three rules he must follow: keep them away from bright light, never get them wet and, most importantly of all, never ever feed it after midnight. Of course, it’s only a matter of hours before all the rules are broken multiple times and chaos ensues.
There’s a wonderful frisson of energy crackling through “Gremlins”, generated by the creative tensions between director Joe Dante and producer Steven Spielberg. Not that their working relationship wasn’t cordial or constructive, but their sensibilities pull the film in very different directions and the end results are a wonderfully off-kilter blackly comic pastiche of Hollywood’s golden age of Christmas classics and monster movies as well as a sharp satire of consumer culture.
Rushed into theatres in the summer in the USA when Warner Bros released it had nothing to compete in the lucrative summer blockbuster season against Columbia’s “Ghostbusters” and Paramount’s “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom”, “Gremlins” had a more fitting release slot here in the UK where it came out just before Christmas. While it affectionately sends up a great many classic movies and movie tropes, its sequel would go even further, skewering this original film into the bargain. There’s an obvious homage to “It’s A Wonderful Life” but Dante, Spielberg and screenwriter Christopher Columbus – who would go on to work on “The Goonies” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” with Spielberg – also throw in references to “The Wizard Of Oz”, “A Christmas Carol”, “Forbidden Planet”, “The Time Machine” and many, many more. It’s almost a sci-fi cinema greatest hits collection. Thankfully, it’s not just a parade of borrowed iconography and instead, with a blend of Spielbergian magic and pitch-black Dante wit, Columbus’ script is brought to life with plenty of iconic scenes of its own, not least of all the darkest Christmas sequence in movie history as Kate (Phoebe Cates) explains why she hates Christmas.
Ruthlessly adorable, relentlessly mischievous and eminently rewatchable, its reliance on then-eye wateringly expensive practical animatronic puppetry pays off hugely thirty-five years later when it can celebrate its anniversary looking just as great as when it first premiered. A bona fide Christmas classic, a (mostly) family-friendly comic horror movie and one of the landmark movies of my childhood.