‘Tis the season to wreck havoc. Joe Dante’s 1984 tale of that loveable and unique Christmas gift which turns out to be more trouble than he’s worth is now a firm festive favourite, and similar to Die Hard, it has earned a loving place on that list whilst using the holidays ostensibly as a hook to tell the story.
Produced by Steven Spielberg under his now legendary Amblin banner, director Joe Dante was apparently brought on board due to the Jaws auteur being a huge fan of his debut feature, The Howling. The director’s playfully sense of dark mischief alongside that more traditional, wholesome Hollywood outlook serves the story perfectly, and the film has a little more bite than some of the other fantasy features it shares a kinship with from that era.
Dante’s own love for Christmas is palpable throughout, and he litters the film with amusing references amongst the creature mischief and carnage. He also has fun subverting the traditions associated with the season, and this is particularly apparent when a main character reveals why she doesn’t join in with celebrations, owing to the death of her father who broke his neck whilst emulating Santa and attempting to climb down the family’s chimney.
The Gremlins themselves are a fantastically evil creation, and the air of menace and danger is much more evident here than in the sequel, which opted for a more comedic, knockabout tone. In the days before CGI, the model work on display is pretty impressive, even with the limitations that process brings. The Mogwai and their green transmutations all possess distinctive personalities and the strong creature design and puppetry really help bring out those characteristics.
In fact, the effects work sometimes threatens to overshadow the sketchily-drawn human characters and the actors who inhibit them. Leads Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates (fresh from being the object of lust for young American males in Fast Time in Ridgemont High) are appealing if a little bland, and the performance of the principal human villain (the spiteful and cantankerous town matriarch Mrs Deagle) is very broad and veers a little too close to out-and-out caricature at times.
It’s definitely the Gremlins show and it’s easy to forget just how vicious and deadly they can be during the scenes which are more slapstick and spoofy in nature. That the cinema turns out to be the only place where they are visibly (and hilariously) enraptured is a wonderful moment and a fun comment on the power of the moving image.
Gremlins was the fourth highest-grossing film of that year (Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and ‘Temple of Doom’ took the top three slots) and while it certainly hasn’t aged as well as Amblin stablemates, Back to the Future and The Goonies (it’s a very uneven film in terms of pacing and structure), there’s still much fun to had here, and it’s the perfect respite for those who tire of the overabundance of mawkish festive material which bombard our cinema and TV screens each year.