Six years after Joe Dante helmed "Piranha," he went on to direct the 1984 holiday classic, "Gremlins." Teenager Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) receives an unusual Christmas present from his father: a furry little creature called a Mogwai that he "bought" from an antique store in Chinatown. The Mogwai, which they name Gizmo, comes with three very important rules: never expose it to bright light; sunlight especially, because it kills it. Also, never let it get wet; water causes it to multiply. But most importantly, never ever feed them after midnight; they go into cocoons and mutate into nasty gremlins, where they cause nothing but havoc and destruction.
Naturally, it doesn't take long for all three of these rules to get broken. A little water is spilt, and then the unfriendly Mogwais unplug the clock in Billy's bedroom, tricking him into feeding them after midnight. What I want to know is why Gizmo is the only good Mogwai in the entire film; all of the others literally came out of him, so shouldn't they have some sort of respect for him? Instead, they're all evil; and somehow they know what water and midnight snacks will do to them.
Anyway, Billy and his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) have to stop gremlins before things get too out of hand; I should mention they're only specifically called gremlins because the America-first neighbor Murray Futterman (Dick Miller) mentions the mythological gremlins that damaged and dismantled machinery; it applies here, I suppose.
The film has some good characters. Zach Galligan is quite good as Billy; he's a nice kid, and he does what he can to make everything right. Phoebe Cates was known for her risqué roles in movies like "Paradise," Private School" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," but she does a fine transition to this movie. I like the scene where the gremlins are in the bar where she works; they're causing a ruckus, but she's still behind the counter serving them drinks; good for her. Corey Feldman gets a few scenes as little Pete; he starred in "Friday the 13th Part IV" that same year. And I actually really like Frances Lee McCain as Billy's mother Lynn; she's one of those moms you simply don't mess with. There's a particularly memorable scene where the gremlins are loose in her house, and she kills one by putting it in a microwave until it explodes.
The gremlin effects are really impressive; that's Howie Mandel doing the voice of Gizmo, and the great Frank Welker doing the voice of the main villain gremlin Stripe. The gremlins were made using animatronics and puppets, and it's such a joy to see effects like this. And there is actually plenty of character in these little creatures. They're not exactly evil (except with the possible exception of Stripe), they just want to have fun.
"Gremlins" is a film you can watch on Halloween as well as Christmastime, much like "A Nightmare before Christmas." There's this real Scrooge-like woman named Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), and she's just plain unpleasant. Most of what she does is threaten Billy's dog and bark at people who are just trying to be decent; she even tries to throw a bucket of water on Christmas carolers, only to discover it's actually the gremlins. Do you think people like this just get up every morning and say to themselves, "I'm going to be horrible to everyone today"? I suppose it's satisfying to see the gremlins send her rocketing up the stair railing and crashing through the upstairs window, but I just don't see her as one of those "love to hate" characters like Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life." I just plain hate her.
Most of the problems I have with this movie are pretty small. It's a very entertaining watch, and well-made, as most of Steven Spielberg's productions are. But the storytelling is a little clumsy sometimes; there are a few characters, like Billy's co-worker Gerald (Judge Reinhold) as well as Pete, that seem like they're going to have fairly prominent roles in the story, but are then just shoved aside. There's also a really bizarre scene where Kate tells a story about how one Christmas Eve, her father fell down the chimney dressed as Santa Claus and died...it's never mentioned again, so I don't know what that was all about.
The level of violence actually caused some controversy. The film was rated PG, so it attracted a lot of families, which included a lot of parents expecting something more family friendly, only to be met with something considerably darker. The same year saw the release of Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," which received similar backlash. Spielberg himself suggested a change to the MPAA ratings system, which came in the form of the PG-13 rating just two months after "Gremlins" came out.
I have my own views about what kids should and shouldn't be allowed to watch, but I'm not getting into that. This movie is a little more mature than a typical Christmas film, but there's still a sense of fun and innocence there. So feel free to watch it any time of the year you wish.