When was the last time you saw the #1 and #3 box office performers of the year open on the same day? It’s preposterous in our current blockbuster-heavy era, but it actually happened on June 8th, 1984 when Joe Dante’s Gremlins squared off against Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters won, but Gremlins hung in there, and today enjoys an only slightly less beloved status that its distinguished competitor.
Certainly it’s a triumph for director Joe Dante, who found the perfect fulcrum for both his 50s-era nostalgia and the patented iconoclasm that could tear it to shreds. Dante’s films always came from a strong personal vision, and here finds perhaps the purest expression of that point of view. A Norman Rockwell town beset by the forces of hell? Yeah, that sounds like his speed.
A great deal of the film’s appeal comes from playing both sides of that street so well. Sure, we appreciate our protagonists Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates), and the sweet little “Mogwai” Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) whom Billy receives as a present. But deep down, in our heart of hearts, we long to see everything around them descend into anarchy. Gremlins lets us have our cake and eat it too in that department. We get to revel in the chaos, gleefully watching the holidays turned inside out (credit the film for innovating a Christmas-themed story released during a non-holiday part of the year), then take comfort in the fact that the characters we really like manage to save the day at the end.
And let’s face it: the film only kicks on the afterburners after the evil Stripe – springing fully formed out of Gizmo when one of those pesky rules gets broken, then morphing into a scaly green monstrosity when a second rule follows suit – emerges from the darkness with a whole army of miniature reprobates in tow. Thanks to some impressive puppetry and stop-motion mayhem, we get to watch them spread across the happy town of Kingston Falls and basically burn it to the ground. Their appeal lies in the glee they take in their task. They love every moment of their rampage; even better, they want us to share.
It becomes a lot easier to accept that bargain thanks to Dante’s spot-on tone and a knowledge of just how far he can push his transgressions. The gremlins inflict their real wrath only on people who richly deserve it, like the cartoonishly awful Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) or the cops who never quite believe these nice kids’ stories about monsters in the dark. Other folks, like lovable drunk Mr. Futterman (Dante stalwart Dick Miller) get a good scare but come out the other side more or less unscathed. It’s a bit of Halloween at Christmastime, as the wicked are punished while the righteous simply have the wits frightened out of them, all for our edification and amusement.
That puts some of the film’s darker materials into context. Dante crafts his funhouse with care, and in order to scare us, he needs to convince us of the seriousness of the threat. The gruesome sights of gremlins buying it in the microwave or meeting the wrong end of an electric juicer shock us, but also establish the idea that these are dangerous creatures. With that in place, Dante can then temper the mayhem with his gentler instincts and give us a happy ending without diminishing from the fright-wig shocks that crop up along the way. (Producer Steven Spielberg apparently had the idea of keeping Gizmo around for the whole film, and they’re good instincts, as usual. His sweetness, and those of his human friends, keeps this firmly on the lighter side of the horror spectrum.)
Dante thrives in the spaces between comfort and terror: that mischievous place where you’re never quite sure if the monsters are kidding or not. It helps keep Gremlins in the realm of naughty fun rather than the traumatic sucker punch its critics made it out to be at the time. (That punch, along with the beating heart in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, eventually gave rise to the PG-13 rating.) Its subversive nature walks hand in hand with reassurance, tell us that it’s okay to cut loose once in a while as long as you stick around to clean up the mess afterwards. It remains a resolute staple of 80s cinema, but its dated nature feeds into the same nostalgia that informs all of Dante’s work. Above all, it’s the work of a true cinema-phile: someone with his own unique voice from which he never wavers. Dante doesn’t make movies to become rich. He makes them because he loves them, and he’s got some fun ideas that he’s always happy to share. That’s become increasingly rare in today’s movie environment, which helps turn Gremlins into a minor yet undeniable classic.