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GREMLINS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sure, ‘Gremlins’ is a Christmas movie! The same way ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas movie! So if you’d like to revisit ‘Gremlins’ on the big screen, it will play Saturday, Dec. 7, at 1 p.m. in the Regal Crossroads theaters in Taylorsville. My review was published on June 8, 1984.

“Gremlins” opens with a pre-credits sequence in that mystical state of mind, Chinatown. Which Chinatown or where it is we’re never told. But it looks very much like an old waterfront movie, as goofy inventor Hoyt Axton tries to peddle his wares, at the same time looking for a Christmas present for his son.

In an old, worn shop, Axton tries to sell mysterious Keye Luke, who wears a glass eye, his latest invention, the “Bathroom Buddy,” an automatic razor/toothbrush/comb combination that tends to spit toothpaste all over its user. Luke’s not very interested.

Then Axton spots a wooden box emitting strange squeaks, goes over and is fascinated by its contents, a little singing creature called a mogwai. He wants to buy it as a pet for his son, but Luke won’t sell. His grandson, however, knows they need the money, so he spirits the creature to Axton outside the shop, explaining that there are three important rules to follow in caring for a mogwai: Don’t expose him to bright lights (“sunlight will kill him”), don’t get him wet, and especially don’t feed him after midnight.

Axton goes home to the small town of Kingston Falls — again in Anywhere, USA — and presents the new pet to his adult son (Zach Galligan), a would-be cartoonist who works in the local bank. The mogwai is dubbed “Gizmo.”

And that’s when the magic of “Gremlins” really begins to weave its spell.

Another stunning bit of movie magic, blending the mechanics of “E.T.” with the furry cuteness of the Muppets, the little mogwai seems amazingly real, and is sure to capture the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.

     

Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan and Gizmo, 'Gremlins' (1984)

After a while, Galligan begins to find that his mogwai is also very intelligent. It reads, watches television and even corrects him as they play a tune together on a small piano.

But then, the inevitable happens. Water and late-night feedings lead to some scary moments as several little mogwai appear on the scene (in much the same way that tribbles multiplied on an old “Star Trek” episode) and they go into a transitory state — eventually turning into nasty, vicious mischief-makers who go wild and virtually destroy Kingston Falls, killing quite a few people along the way.

I don’t want to go into the details of how the film unfolds, since that is a major part of the joy of “Gremlins” — there are surprises at every turn — but before you pack up your little ones for this picture, be advised that the film goes from a benign sweetness in the “E.T.” vein to a horror-movie motif, with the nasty mogwai resembling Muppets going berserk.

In some ways the nature of this film is best tipped off by a scene in the movie itself, where the leader of the rapidly multiplying mogwai is on a toy shelf in a department store when he flips an E.T. doll to the floor. “Gremlins” is the flip side of “E.T.”

Yet, despite the mayhem they cause, you have to love the little guys when they set up their own midnight screening of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and sing along with it.

“Gremlins” is also a movie buff’s dream, with more in-jokes and references to old movies than any film in recent memory — or perhaps ever. A movie double-bill at a Kingston Falls theater is playing “A Boy’s Life” and “Watch the Skies,” which were the working titles of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” and “Close Encounters.” “Watch the Skies” was also the last line in the original version of “The Thing,” and that film’s star Kenneth Tobey has a small role in “Gremlins.”

     

Gizmo celebrates the holidays on a keyboard in 'Gremlins' (1984)

Robby the Robot makes an appearance and quotes from “Forbidden Planet.” In the background at an inventor’s convention you can see “The Time Machine,” which has mysteriously disappeared in the next scene. Jackie Joseph and Dick Miller play a Kingston Falls married couple, both having appeared in the cult classic “The Little Shop of Horrors.” And Kingston Falls looks suspiciously like the town featured in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — which this film in many ways resembles.

But you don’t have to be able to spot any of these things to enjoy “Gremlins.” It’s just an added bonus for movie fans like me and a trademark of director Joe Dante, who did the same thing in “Piranha” and “The Howling,” as well as his segment of “Twilight Zone — The Movie.”

One aspect of this film is like an extension of the latter, with Dante paying homage to Warner Brothers cartoons, right down to having animator Chuck Jones in a cameo role. (And some of the mogwai themselves resemble the cartoon Tasmanian devil.)

“Gremlins” is also a frenetically paced movie and you may feel a bit frazzled when it’s over, if not completely wrung out. But you will certainly have had your money’s worth. Dante is a dazzling director.

Most of the actors are very good here, especially Axton, whose low-key style is a perfect counterpoint to the bevy of weird inventions he is constantly coming up with. Zach Galligan, a newcomer, is a very appealing youngster who should have a bright future in films. Polly Holliday scores well as the mean-spirited owner of half the town. And Frances Lee McCain is wonderful as Galligan’s mother, who doesn’t take kindly to what the mogwai do to her kitchen.

On the downside, Phoebe Cates proves that keeping her clothes on doesn’t make her a better actress, and that comes to an embarrassing zenith when she explains why she hates Christmas, which is unbelievably unfunny and should have been cut.

Rated PG, but decidedly not for young children, being loaded with violence, “Gremlins” is a lot of fun for film enthusiasts, special-effects fans and those who are looking for a wild-eyed piece of escapism.