In spite of my sincere effort to look at every movie in this series on its own merits and without a sense of nostalgia or eagerness to forgive, I fully believe in the idea of the "at that time" movie. We all have them – you know, those flicks we saw when we were ten or 12 or some other impressionable age that we still love, but we realize probably aren't that good now that we're grown up.
This seems especially true for folks who grew up in the 1980s, when cable television broadcast five or ten movies hundreds upon hundreds of times, immortalizing them in consciousnesses despite the fact that they mostly sucked (I'm looking in your direction, Modern Problems). Of course, the rise of VHS rentals also had much to do with these films' ubiquitousness, but there was an unusual (and I'd argue, unprecedented) connection viewers had with movies during the 1980s that unfortunately produced a wealth of box office successes that, in retrospect, kind of stunk.
All of which brings me to Gremlins. Joe Dante, like many prominent '70s and '80s filmmakers, emerged from the remarkable stable of directors producer Roger Corman discovered, and quickly established himself as a passionate and successful purveyor of gussied-up genre fare. After writing Rock & Roll High School and directing The Howling (among other projects), Steven Spielberg enlisted him to bring Chris Columbus' script for Gremlins to life. It became a notable box office hit upon release in 1984, and inspired a follow-up in 1990. But is it still any good?
The Facts: Written by Columbus, who went on to help launch Harry Potter as a film franchise (not to mention direct the first two Home Alone movies and Mrs. Doubtfire), Dante's Gremlins was released on June 8, 1984 in the United States, and went on to earn more than $148 million at the box office ($153 million counting subsequent re-releases). The film is otherwise noteworthy for being the first film upon which Spielberg's logo for Amblin Entertainment was added, and is credited alongside Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as one of the films that prompted the MPAA to create a PG-13 rating for violence too intense for PG viewers, but not enough for R.
Gremlins was also nominated for nine Saturn Awards and won five, including Best Horror Film and Director. In 1990, Dante not only directed a sequel, The New Batch, but wrote it himself.
What Still Works: The basic premise – particularly as a kid's first scary movie – works exceptionally well: a kid (in this case, a twentysomething) gets a pet from his dad, doesn't follow the rules to take care of it, and unwittingly unleashes the creature's dark, mischievous and ultimately destructive side. There are also a lot of fun homages in the film, which itself was clearly designed as an all-inclusive tribute to Dante's myriad influences and sources of inspiration, from westerns to animated fare. While the special effects are not transcendent, they are beautifully and effectively utilized to tell the story, generating a legitimate degree of believability and even sympathy for Gizmo and his offspring – until they become Gremlins, anyway.
The performances are broad but also effective, from Phoebe Cates' turn as a comely coworker of the main character Billy (Zach Galligan) to Hoyt Axton's masterful portrayal of Billy's dad Randall as an oblivious, misguided dreamer. Pitched just beyond the realm of reality but not so far the film seems like pure fantasy, Dante keeps a comfortable grip on the stakes and the scale of the action and the storytelling, even when it becomes big and broad towards the end of the film.
What Doesn't Work: Unfortunately more than what does work, especially 25 years later. The story is a mess, starting with the conception of Randall Peltzer as a charmingly inept husband and father figure; although his oddball salesmanship is precisely what gets Gizmo into Billy's hands and offers the opportunity for some Gremlin-fueled mayhem, he's basically a nonentity except as the "inventor" of a long series of failed contraptions that don't work (to hilarious effect). Other than as a device to drive the plot forward, he's basically useless.
That said, one could make an argument that his absentee parenting is what drives his wife and son to embrace this pet so quickly, or it serve as a surrogate for their affection and attention. But the problem with that is that Billy is like 20 years old (Galligan was at the time), and at the point in his life that he gets Gizmo, he should be getting his own apartment, not living in his parents' crawlspace with a gaggle of furry little friends.
Furthermore, the rest of the plot progresses in such ramshackle fashion that it never builds any sense of real intensity or suspense. Other than a few specific showdowns with the Gremlins, they just sort of exist everywhere as soon as they multiply, albeit via terrible movie logic that seems to ignore the "don't get them wet" rule any time they're outside in the snow (which is a lot). Meanwhile, there's literally a cut to the bar where Cates' character works and she has somehow become attendant bartender to hundreds of the little monsters without any explanation (except perhaps that the movie forgot about her but needed her to make it to the end of the story).
Finally, in addition to the creation of Randall as a terrible father and husband, but one not instrumental to Gremlins except as a plot device, the movie shoe-horns in a couple of really bizarre, extended, but almost completely unnecessary subplots or stories that definitely make the movie creepy and weird but don't add anything to its overall quality (rather, they detract from it). The biggest example of this is an anecdote/ story that Cates' character tells about her dad dying in the chimney of their house when she was little, and how before the Gremlins came along, that was the worst Christmas (or maybe just Christmas memory) she ever had. What does this have to do with the movie at all? Or even just her character in the context of the movie? Nothing, except to interrupt the action as the film winds towards its finale.
What's The Verdict: Gremlins does not hold up, except perhaps for people to whom it's an "at that time" movie. Which I understand – I have plenty of '80s favorites that are not great from a filmmaking, acting or storytelling standpoint – and don't begrudge anyone for still enjoying it. But Dante's box office breakthrough is a big mess, a genre pastiche that seems more charming in concept than execution, a bunch of funny/ goofy/ quasi-scary ideas in search of a story, and overall, a movie that is at its best at that time, but for the rest of us best left in that time.