In Retrospect: Gremlins by Garrett Collins

Garrett Collins continues the goodness with this new column for ‘In Retrospect’

Christmas is here! Which means unless you want to watch A Christmas Story and Elf for the 40th time, it is time to bring out some films of your own. Whether they include Die Hard or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is up to you, of course. Both are tremendous films. And, both, lucky for them considering they’re both at least 20 years old, are extremely re-watchable. However, there is one movie that I HAVE to watch every single year (in addition to Die Hard). The name of that film is Gremlins. If it is at all possible, think back to the year 1984. What were you doing? If your name was Steven Spielberg, you were on top of the world. With the exception of being included in a lawsuit filed as a result of the tragic accident that killed a few kids and actor Vic Morrow during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie (an incident that still, to this day, has severed the friendship between Spielberg and the director of that segment, John Landis), he could do no wrong. He had directed what was at the time the biggest film of all time in E.T., and in the process of making the second installment of the Indiana Jones series of films. However, now that he had some major hits in his back pocket, he found another way to make his presence known in Hollywood: he would open his own production company (and wallet) and produce. Sure, he dabbled in producing with Poltergeist and The Continental Divide. But, now, he had power. And, to his credit, Spielberg wanted it used to give young filmmakers a chance to make it big, giving his advice in the process to help films get made. One day, a script called Gremlins by a young writer named Chris Columbus moved across his desk, and he couldn’t put it down, calling it one of the most original things he’d come across in years, which is why after many studios were passing due to the violent nature of it, Spielberg ended up buying it. Columbus came up with the idea after hearing the creepy noises the rats in and around his Manhattan loft were making night after night. Columbus decided to combine this fierce situation with mechanical failure stories Air Force pilots would jokingly blame on creatures they called gremlins. To Spielberg, this script looked like the perfect way to launch his production company, making it the first produced feature of Amblin Entertainment.

As much as Spielberg liked the script Columbus brought him, he knew that changes had to be made. Spielberg loved dark comedies. And, in his mind, Gremlins was more of a comedy than horror film. However, some of the darkness needed to be removed from the script in order to make it more family oriented. For example, in the original draft, gremlins ended up killing the family dog. There was also a scene of the creatures killing Billy’s mom and having her head roll down the stairs. Now, THAT is dark! Especially coming from the production company of the man who just a couple years prior brought us the cute and cuddly alien that Elliot took in as his own pet. Little did people know just how much of the dark side of Spielberg’s personality they would see. To start off, he needed a director. He had watched film school shorts by a kid out of film school named Tim Burton and thought he could do a great job with this very unusual idea. However, Burton’s lack of experience in making feature films kept him from getting the job. Instead, Spielberg went with a director named Joe Dante. A man whose film The Howling Spielberg had loved, and proved to him that he could handle the mix of horror and humor that this script would require. The cast was a great mix of veterans and newcomers. For the part of Billy, Spielberg thought of Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson. But, when both of those actors were busy, he ended up with little known Zach Galligan. He also always had Hoyt Axton in mind to play the dad. A veteran actor who was in Black Stallion and was also a country/western singer in his own right. He also hired a little known child actor named Corey Feldman, (who he would bring back again in The Goonies a year later) and for the role of Billy’s love interest, they went with Phoebe Cates. Even though her reputation from being topless in Fast Times at Ridgemont High at first turned off the producers, they caved when her audition went really well.

With no CGI in site for another seven years, all of the creature effects were done with animatronics puppets, with the Gizmo puppet given them the most trouble. In fact, the scene where gremlins post Gizmo on a dart board and throw darts at him was Dante’s way of accommodating the puppeteers’ frustration with it. Chris Walas, who would win an Oscar a couple years later with his make-up effects work in The Fly, was in charge of these effects, with vocal effects provided by Peter Cullen and Frank Welker (who were the voices of Optimus Prime and Megatron in the Transformers cartoon filming the same year). Spielberg’s influence was also felt throughout filming. In addition to taking out the darker scenes mentioned earlier, Spielberg changed the fate of Gizmo that was in the original script. Originally, Gizmo was the one who was supposed to change into Stripe the Gremlin and die. But, Spielberg wisely knew that audiences that would see the movie would attach themselves to Gizmo. So, not only did he have him live throughout the entire film, he had him be the hero in the end. While Dante objected, he states in the DVD commentary that if Spielberg tells you to do something, you do not turn him down. Except in one instance: Spielberg wanted the speech that Kate gives for the reasons she hates Christmas. After all, this was a movie that kids were going to go to, and she doesn’t hesitate to say not only a grisly story about how her father died bringing presents, but how she found out there was no Santa Clause. However, Dante found this to be the darkest of the dark comedies, and insisted on leaving it in.

As much as Spielberg took out, according to some parents, it wasn’t enough. After a marketing campaign that included cute and cuddly Mogwais, and enough Burger King endorsements to get in anyone’s head, Gremlins, which was originally scheduled for a Christmas release, was rushed into the summer schedule. Kids begged their parents to take them to the new film called Gremlins, as to them all they saw was cute and cuddly Gizmo, and any movie featuring him and the guy who brought them E.T had to be cute. After the E.T. logo featuring E.T. flying across the screen and the first 20 minutes featuring the ever lovable Gizmo went by, parents thought they were in good hands. However, little did they know that there would be scenes featuring a mom stabbing a creature to death, killing another one by trapping him in a blender, and yet another by trapping him in a microwave. Even Roger Ebert, who gave a mostly positive review, stated he worried that kids would try these things with their family pets. There was also a scene that scared me as a kid, which is when the eggs containing the gremlins hatched, resembling a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the promo poster from Alien. On an $11 million budget, Gremlins brought in $12.5 million its first week, eventually making $153 million total. Financially, the film was a major success. Also, critics, for the most part, seemed to get the humor that Dante brought to the film. However, there was more that was going to change about films than was originally foreseen.

In Retrospect, Gremlins proved to have more influence than could have been expected. Spielberg already had a proven ability to produce, yet now he could take on his protégé Robert Zemeckis’ script called Back to the Future. Also, in addition to Poltergeist a couple years earlier, his directed film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and, of course, Gremlins, Spielberg’s films of this age were proving to enrage more than accommodate parents of kids who ignorantly took their kids to see films that contained hearts being ripped out of chests and creatures exploding in microwaves without looking into exactly what these films contained. See, this was way before buzz about films was generated by the internet, and in Spielberg’s hands, parents thought they were safe. So, whether he felt bad about what he brought about that summer or wanted to make himself feel better as a parent, Spielberg brought to the MPAA ratings board an idea for a new rating. A rating that would be higher than PG, but lower than R, so that parents would have a better idea of what their younger children could and couldn’t see. The PG-13 rating was the result. A rating that has polarized fans almost as much as the dreaded term remake. Speaking of remake, Hollywood really needs to dig deep and ask themselves if it could even be possible to remake Gremlins in today’s age. While no rumblings to do this are present yet, you know it’s had to cross their minds. Yet, Hollywood cannot remake magic. And, whether you believe it or not, that is exactly what Gremlins was. A dark comedy with the elements of horror every genre fan craves. Yes, a sequel followed. But, it was apparent that the magic the first one possessed was gone. The dark feeling of dread was gone. And, even projects that were influenced by Gremlins like Critters and Ghoulies weren’t nearly as successful. And, whether Spielberg produces another dark comedy, there will only be one first. And, in the age of E.T., this might have been his most creative defection, to coin a term used by his friend George Lucas, to the dark side.


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