In 1984, Steven Spielberg produced this cheeky horror movie for kids, directed by Joe Dante and written by Chris Columbus – now on rerelease. It is a wacky, satirical spectacle of chaos. It consciously alludes to other films, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz and Indiana Jones, and has characters watching Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in To Please a Lady on TV. But on the unconscious level, or semi-conscious level, it surely alludes to Spielberg’s own ET. In fact, Gremlins is ET’s late-spawning evil twin.
Hoyt Axton plays Randall Peltzer, an inventor who lives in a sweet, Bedford Falls-type small town, one of whose local characters is an old drunk who rails against foreign automobiles and foreign things generally and claims that US planes in the second world war were sabotaged by evil alien sprites called “gremlins”. On one of Mr Peltzer’s sales trips in a far-off city, he stops by an exotically imagined Chinatown to buy a Christmas present for his teenage son Billy (Zach Galligan); this turns out to be a mogwai, a sweet little bat-eared creature that everyone adores. But Billy breaks the rules about caring for the mogwai, and it spawns horrifying Mr Hyde-type things called “gremlins”, and soon the town is in anarchy, culminating in an uproarious visual gag involving an old lady’s stairlift going haywire.
Gremlins makes fun of America’s materialism, its suspicion of foreigners, and its ironic reliance on foreign-made toys and gadgets at Christmas and any other time. There are also some very sharp lines. Billy’s girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) hates Christmas with a passion and sympathises with other Christmas refuseniks: “While everyone else is opening their presents, they’re opening their wrists!” The reason for this is that her dad suffered a bizarre Christmas-related death.
There is another very adult line that never ceases to startle. When a little kid is shown how a gremlin is undergoing a transformation, he is told: “He’s going through change”; “Like my mother”; “No, this is different.” If Gremlins were to be made today, I don’t think its outrageously orientalist fantasy of Chinatown, with the aged Chinese grandpa with the long hair, spindly moustache and blind eye, would get past the script stage. The gremlins nonetheless deliver quite a bite.
• Gremlins is released in the UK on 6 December.
Source: The Guardian