A minor classic from the Golden Age of blockbusters… one of two films that led to the PG-13 rating… the definitive “I hate Christmas” movie… whatever terms you want to use, Gremlins definitely doesn’t suffer for descriptors. Neither does its cult classic sequel, which a number of people love even more than the first film. Yet the franchise’s combined cache has apparently fallen so far that Warners won’t give it the Blu-ray release it deserves. Instead, the two films get a quick transfer to the new format devoid of bells or whistles. Neither movie deserves such a fate. Hit the jump for my full review of Gremlins and Gremlins 2 on Blu-ray.
The two films actually play less like an original and its sequel than two separate variations of the same general idea. Director Joe Dante keeps basic continuity together from one to the other, but views the second film as a chance to upend many of the elements in the first. That only enhances their unique status among 80s blockbusters, making up in novelty value what they don’t quite achieve in sheer quality. Above all, they represent perhaps the definite creative statement of their director, who injected a surprisingly subversive streak into what could have been boilerplate Hollywood product. We’ll take a closer look at each film below.
The first film opened in 1984, on the same weekend as another classic of the era, Ghostbusters. Almost immediately, however, we knew we were dealing with something different, as the more prudish critics condemned its dark tone and surprising violent streak. They really sort of missed the point. Dante viewed his mischievous subjects as anarchists in the grandest tradition, and set them loose against the Norman Rockwell homogeneity of a small town on Christmas. The violence and black humor thus became a counterpoint to enforced conformity, ripping off the veneer of holiday goodwill to reveal the petty shallowness beneath.
What better beasts to do it than gremlins, created here after young artist Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) gets a pet “mogwai” named Gizmo from his well-meaning father? Gizmo comes with three simple rules, broken with disturbing ease and creating a small army of scaly green monsters that wreak havoc on the nearby town. The mogwai and his owner struggle to undo the damage, while their neighbors experience the worst Christmas Eve this side of John McClane.
And again, that’s actually the purpose of the exercise. While Gizmo’s awfully cute and we root for his human friends to save the day, our secret heart of hearts lies with the monsters busy bringing middle-class America to its knees. Dante combines puppetry with some very clever stop-motion animation to bring the gremlins to life, and the gleeful misanthropy of their antics becomes infectious. It’s hard not to cackle merrily as they cut the brakes on cars, drive plows through homes and send the town’s designated wicked witch (Polly Holiday) rocketing through her top-floor window.
That makes it a perfect tonic for too-sweet celebrations of the holidays, and Dante’s affinity for 50s monster movies blends perfectly with nods to It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz. It holds up surprisingly well over the years – especially for anyone a little bitter about Christmas (in other words, everyone at some point or another) – and its box office success made a sequel inevitable. Little did we know what Dante had in mind.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love Gremlins 2 and those who don’t get Gremlins 2. I confess I was in the former camp for quite some time, though to paraphrase the President, my position has evolved over the years. Ostensibly, the sequel does what most sequels do: add a few gimmicky new elements to cover up for the fact that it’s basically the same story. So we shift from Small Town USA to a corporate high rise in Manhattan, where Gizmo finds himself the subject of medical experiments after his Chinese owner passes on. A few mishaps in the old mad scientist lab unleash a new army of gremlins… many of whom consume various beakers of liquid that grant them new and disturbing shapes. The worst parts of Gremlins 2 cave into the money shots, as we’re treated to a spidery gremlin, a gargoyle gremlin, a gremlin apparently inspired by those Renaissance paintings creating people out of vegetables and so on. Tony Randall scores a coup as the voice of an erudite intellectual creature, but the remainder exist primarily as an opportunity for make-up wizard Rick Baker to strut his stuff.
Or so it appears. Beneath the surface, Gremlins 2 launches an all-out assault on… well, on its own status as a money-grubbing sequel. It deliberately emphasizes crass product placement and gratuitous cameos, which might have gone unnoticed but for the film’s more overt dig as capitalism run amuck. The building itself is a paragon of sleek late 80s dehumanization, featuring the smiling visage of its dippy Ted-Turner-style owner (John Glover in a marvelous turn) plastered on assorted gougeables stuffed into every corner. The gremlins’ rampage thus becomes a backlash against everything the building stands for, as well the film that preceded it and the larger system that demanded a part 2 to begin with. So incredulous security guards point out the logic holes in the gremlins’ rules as Billy tries to warn them about the threat, while girlfriend Phoebe Cates delivers a hysterical revision of her formerly chilling “why I hate Christmas” speech in the original. Dante even takes the stuffing out of some of his critics, as God-King of Good Sports Leonard Maltin makes a cameo to repeat his condemnation of Part 1 before receiving due comeuppance.
It doesn’t always work, but it always surprises us, and when it strikes home, the results are pure gold. Dante didn’t push his luck with a Part 3 – likely because audiences skipped over the second film – leaving the franchise a textbook example of quitting while you’re ahead. Dante remains one of the more unique voices in Hollywood, and the series aptly demonstrates how he married his iconoclastic sensibilities with the needs of a studio production. He’s rarely done better, and the films hold up because we see so much of his soul onscreen.
The Blu-rays, unfortunately are rather malnourished: DVD transfers with middling image quality and a bare smattering of extras. A few gems appear in the special features menu – particularly an alternate home video version of the fourth-wall-busting “gremlins in the projection booth” scene. Lively audio tracks from Dante and key cast and crew members help salvage the remainder of the bonus material, but the discs as a whole make poor use of the Blu-ray format. New documentaries and retrospectives would improve things immeasurably: particularly more information on the creation of the gremlin puppets and the controversy surrounding the film’s “too soft” PG rating. Double dipping never goes over well, but these films merit the extra attention that a proper Blu-ray version can bring.