Produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus (who would go on to direct the first two Harry Potter movies), Gremlins brought a big-Hollywood sensibility to midnight monster movies. Starring Zach Galligan and Phoebe Gates, this modest-budget film was a hit when it debuted in 1984 and went on to gross over $150 million.
Gremlins is the story of Billy (Zach Galligan), the son of a not-terribly-successful inventor. Billy is still living at home while working at the local bank, dreaming of one day being an illustrator, as well as, perhaps, his co-worker Kate (Phoebe Cates). His life changes when his Dad (Hoyt Axton) brings home a strange Christmas present for him, a mysterious but cute creature known as a Mogwai. He is named Gizmo, and is pretty low maintenance as long as you remember three very important rules: he’s afraid of bright light, so never leave him in direct sunlight; never get him wet; and don’t feed him after midnight.
Well, guess how long it takes one of those rules to be broken? Soon, Gizmo has spawned further, more-violent versions of himself that are not only causing havoc around the town, but are able to multiply themselves rapidly. Before long, the whole town is at the mercy of these gremlins and Billy is trying to save Kate from them as well as restore things back to normal.
The main problem with Gremlins is that it tries to be about three films at once. It’s a monster movie about gremlins invading a small town. But it’s smart enough to realize that’s a bit hokey on its own, a double-feature at best. So it dresses it up as a comedy. But then there’s also this small-town “But it’s Christmas” setting that wants to steal a bit from A Christmas Story. It wants all of these things, but the only way it knows how to keep them all is to bounce around between them, and never truly integrate them all into a cohesive whole.
Although it does a decent job. It’s generally enjoyable when you look past its obvious flaws and just go with it. But the monster emphasis is a bit too much for younger kids, and the humor is a bit too low for adults, so the fact that it’s strong enough at mixing those elements could more accurately be expressed by saying that it’s strong enough at straddling those ages. It’s a proto-tween movie, the age where your sensibilities are still goofy enough to have fun with the corny story, but you’re old enough to not be weirded out by the violence. After all, it’s just a puppet in the microwave, and they never billed it as anything else.
And so after all these years, Gremlins comes across as what it probably always was: a fun monster comedy for the puberty set. It’s still that, but for those who are now older it’s difficult to go back in time and see it in that way again. Adults who aren’t holding on to the nostalgia of it will have a more difficult time on the revisit.
There’s a lot of nostalgia to be had while revisiting the film on Blu-ray. Meaning the same dim picture you probably viewed from previous home video formats. It’s a modest update from DVD quality, but the picture overall suffers from lack of clarity and an almost hazy layer that detracts from picking out detail. Color is lackluster, and the healthy grain of the film doesn’t do much to help remedy any of the above. The film is largely free from debris, but on the whole it’s a bit of a disappointing Blu-ray transfer. Passable, but doesn’t reach much beyond that.
The audio track improves things a bit. For the most part the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 delivers, although the moments for it to shine are scattered. During the main conflict scenes, the surround speakers kick into action, but when the movie veers back towards dialogue-driven scenes, things are considerably more flat. But there’s nothing from the audio field that feels lacking, other than the slightly neutered music score. Overall it’s a strong representation of the film, and frequently offers some solid action.
There are two commentary tracks for the movie. The first features director Joe Dante, producer Michael Finnell and special effects artist Chris Walas. The trio provide an interesting look at the film, focusing primarily on the technical details and challenges of the shoot, as well as sculpting the story and tone of the film. There is also an actor-oriented track, again featuring director Joe Dante, with stars Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller and Howie Mandel (who provided the voice for Gizmo). The group mainly takes a walk down memory lane, offering up bits of trivia and anecdotes from the shoot. It’s of little substance, but is a fun track.
There is a behind-the-scenes feature (SD, 6:21) that lacks a lot in terms of video quality and heavily shows its age, but makes up for it by taking a look at the genuinely fun and almost naive atmosphere on the set. A selection of deleted scenes (SD, 10:36) are presented both with and without commentary, and offer a few detours in the plot, as well as a bit more from Judge Reinhold’s character. A surprisingly fun, but brief, photo gallery is included, as well as trailers (SD, 4:42) for both Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Of the two Gremlins movies, the first is the hardest to judge when separated by the years (both its and mine). It has the most potential, but it squanders some of that by taking itself just a touch too seriously. It also can’t decide what genre it wants to be, and so wanders around a bit in style. Add to that its desire to be more than a kids movie, all the while pulling its punches both in horror and comedy. Bad movie fans will likely get the most out of it at this point, even though I’m sure the creators were aiming higher than that. The look of the film has aged pretty well (lackluster video transfer aside), but the tone and story might be more suited to those who find it particularly nostalgic.