Gremlins is a 1984 American comedy horror film directed by Joe Dante and released by Warner Bros. The film is about a young man who receives a strange creature called a mogwai as a pet, which then spawns other creatures who transform into small, destructive, evil monsters. This story was continued with a sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, released in 1990. Unlike the more satirical tone of the sequel (which parodies Hollywood sequels), Gremlins opts for more black comedy, balanced against a Christmastime setting. Both films were the center of large merchandising campaigns.
Steven Spielberg was the film’s executive producer, with the film being produced by Michael Finnell and written by Chris Columbus, drawing on legends of gremlins going back to World War II. The film stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, with Howie Mandel providing the voice of Gizmo, the main mogwai character.
Gremlins was a commercial success and received positive reviews from critics. However, the film was also heavily criticized for some of its more violent sequences. In response to this and to similar complaints about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg suggested that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) alter its rating system, which it did within two months of the film’s release, creating a new PG-13 rating.
Randall Peltzer, a struggling inventor, visits a Chinatown antique store in the hope of finding a Christmas present for his son Billy. In the store, Randall encounters a small, furry creature called a Mogwai (Cantonese: 魔怪, “devil”). The owner, Mr. Wing, refuses to sell the creature to Randall. However, his grandson secretly sells the Mogwai to Randall, warning him to remember three important rules that must never be broken—do not expose the Mogwai to bright lights or sunlight which will kill it, do not let it get wet, and never feed it after midnight.
Randall returns home to Kingston Falls where he gives the Mogwai to Billy as a pet. Billy works in the local bank, where he fears his dog Barney will be captured and killed by the elderly Mrs. Deagle. Randall names the mogwai “Gizmo” and Billy makes sure to treat him well. When Billy’s friend Pete spills a glass of water over Gizmo, five more Mogwai spawn from his back, a more troublemaking sort led by the aggressive Stripe. Billy shows one of the mogwai to his former science teacher Mr. Hanson, spawning another Mogwai, on whom Hanson experiments. Back at home, Stripe’s gang tricks Billy into feeding them after midnight by severing the power cord to his bedside clock. They make cocoons, as does Hanson’s Mogwai. Shortly after, the cocoons hatch and they emerge as mischievous, reptilian monsters that torture Gizmo and try to murder Billy’s mother, while Hanson is killed by his gremlin.
All of the Gremlins are killed except Stripe, who escapes to a local YMCA and jumps into a swimming pool, spawning an army of gremlins who wreak chaos around Kingston Falls. Billy tries to warn the police, but they don’t believe him. Many people are injured or outright killed by the gremlins’ rampage, including Mrs. Deagle, who is launched out of her house on a stair lift that has been sabotaged by the creatures. At the local bar, the gremlins have fun until the barmaid Kate Beringer, Billy’s girlfriend, flashes them with a camera and escapes into the bank with Billy and Gizmo. While hiding, she reveals her father died in a chimney while dressed as Santa Claus. Billy and Kate discover the town has fallen silent and the Gremlins are watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the local theater. They set off an explosion, killing all the Gremlins except Stripe.
Billy chases Stripe into a Montgomery Ward store, where Stripe climbs into a water fountain and tries to spawn more gremlins. Gizmo arrives in a toy car and opens a skylight, exposing Stripe to sunlight and melting him. In the aftermath of the rampage, Mr. Wing arrives to collect Gizmo, scolding the Peltzers for their carelessness, thinking the Western world is not ready but comments that Billy might some day be ready to care for Gizmo properly. Gizmo likewise believes so, having become attached to Billy. Mr. Wing then departs with Gizmo.
- Zach Galligan as Billy Peltzer
- Phoebe Cates as Kate Beringer
- Hoyt Axton as Randall “Rand” Peltzer
- Frances Lee McCain as Lynn Peltzer
- Corey Feldman as Pete Fountaine
- Keye Luke as Mr. Wing (credited as “Grandfather”, Mr. Wing’s name is revealed in the 2nd film)
- John Louie as Mr. Wing’s grandson
- Dick Miller as Murray Futterman
- Jackie Joseph as Sheila Futterman
- Polly Holliday as Mrs. Ruby Deagle
- Judge Reinhold as Gerald Hopkins
- Edward Andrews as Mr. Roland Corben
- Glynn Turman as Mr. Roy Hanson
- Belinda Balaski as Mrs. Joe Harris
- Scott Brady as Sheriff Frank Reilly
- Jonathan Banks as Deputy Brent Frye
- Harry Carey, Jr. as Mr. Anderson
- Kenny Davis as Dorry
- Nicky Katt and Tracy Wells as Schoolchildren
- Mushroom as Barney
- Frank Welker as Stripe
- Howie Mandel as Gizmo
- Don Steele as Rockin’ Ricky Rialto
- Marvin Miller as Robby the Robot (uncredited)
- Steven Spielberg as Man riding Recumbent bicycle
- Jim McKrell as TV News Reporter
- Jerry Goldsmith as Man in Phone Booth
- William Schallert as Father Bartlett
- Chuck Jones as Mr. Jones, Billy’s drawing mentor
- Kenneth Tobey as Smoking Gas Station Attendant
Gremlins was produced at a time when combining horror and comedy was becoming increasingly popular. According to Professor Noël Carroll, Ghostbusters, released the same weekend as Gremlins, and the comic strip The Far Side also followed this trend. Carroll argued that there was now a new genre emphasizing sudden shifts between humorous and horrific scenes, drawing laughs with plot elements that have been traditionally used to scare.
The notion of gremlins was first conceived during World War II when mechanical failures in aircraft were jokingly blamed on the small monsters. The term “gremlins” also entered popular culture as children’s author Roald Dahl published a book called The Gremlins in 1943, based on the mischievous creatures. Walt Disney considered making a film of it. A Bugs Bunny cartoon of the era, Falling Hare, has him battling a gremlin on an airplane. Joe Dante had read The Gremlins and said that the book was of some influence on his film. In 1983, Dante publicly distanced his work from earlier films, explaining, “Our gremlins are somewhat different—they’re sort of green and they have big mouths and they smile a lot and they do incredibly, really nasty things to people and enjoy it all the while”.
The story of Gremlins was conceived by Chris Columbus. As Columbus explained, his inspiration came from his loft, when at night “what sounded like a platoon of mice would come out and to hear them skittering around in the blackness was really creepy”. He then wrote the original screenplay as a spec script to show potential employers that he had writing abilities. The story was not actually intended to be filmed until Steven Spielberg took an interest in turning it into a film. As Spielberg explained, “It’s one of the most original things I’ve come across in many years, which is why I bought it.”
After deciding to executive produce the film, Spielberg chose Dante as his director because of his experience with horror-comedy; Dante had previously directed The Howling (1981); however, in the time between The Howling and the offer to film Gremlins, he had experienced a lull in his career. Dante began doing storyboard work on the film while also working as a director on Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), a film which Spielberg also served as a director on. The film’s producer was Michael Finnell, who had also worked on The Howling with Dante. Spielberg took the project to Warner Bros. and co-produced it through his own company, Amblin Entertainment.
The film’s script went through a few drafts before a shooting script was finalized. The first version was much darker than the final film. Various scenes were cut, including one which portrayed Billy’s mother dying in her struggle with the gremlins, with her head thrown down the stairs when Billy arrives. Dante later explained the scene made the film darker than the filmmakers wanted. There was also a scene where the gremlins ate Billy’s dog and a scene where the gremlins attacked a McDonald’s, eating customers instead of burgers. Also, instead of Stripe being a mogwai who becomes a gremlin, there was originally no mogwai named Stripe; rather, Gizmo was supposed to transform into Stripe the gremlin. Spielberg overruled this plot element as he felt Gizmo was cute and that audiences would want him to be present throughout the film.
A famous urban legend is referenced in the film, in which Kate reveals in a speech that her father died at Christmas when he dressed as Santa Claus and broke his neck while climbing down the family’s chimney. After the film was completed, the speech proved to be controversial, and studio executives insisted upon its removal, because they felt it was too ambiguous as to whether it was supposed to be funny or sad. Dante stubbornly refused to take the scene out, saying it represented the film as a whole, which had a combination of horrific and comedic elements. Spielberg did not like the scene but, despite his creative control, he viewed Gremlins as Dante’s project and allowed him to leave it in. A parody of this scene is featured in Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Phoebe Cates was cast as Kate, Billy’s girlfriend, despite concerns that she was known for playing more risqué parts, such as Linda Barrett in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Spielberg urged the casting of the relatively unknown Zach Galligan as Billy because he saw chemistry between Galligan and Cates during auditions. Galligan later compared himself to Billy, saying he was a “geeky kid”, and that being in the film “was really kind of a dream” given “what I get to do, what my character gets to do, blow up movie theatres”, adding that he “got to work with great people”. Spielberg commented when Galligan was testing with Cates that “he’s in love with her already” and that was how Galligan won the part.
In contrast to Galligan, many of the supporting actors and actresses were better known. Veteran actor Glynn Turman portrayed the high school science teacher whose study of a newborn Mogwai leads to his death after it forms a cocoon and emerges as a vicious gremlin. Dick Miller, who was a regular in Dante’s films, was another experienced actor on the set, playing a World War II veteran who first refers to the creatures as gremlins. Rand was played by Hoyt Axton, who was always the filmmakers’ preferred choice for the role even though it was widely contested by other actors. Axton’s experience included acting as the father in The Black Stallion (1979), and he was also a country music singer-songwriter. After an introductory scene to Gremlins was cut, Axton’s voice earned him the added role of the narrator to establish some context. Mr. Wing was played by Keye Luke, a renowned film actor, whose film career spanned half a century. Although in reality he was around 80 at the time of filming, and his character was very elderly, Luke’s youthful appearance had to be covered by make-up.
Corey Feldman, who up to that time had primarily been in commercials, played Pete Fountaine, establishing his early credentials as a child actor. Polly Holliday, an actress best known for her role in Alice, played Mrs. Deagle. Dante considered the casting fortunate, as she was well-known and he considered her to be talented. Two other well-known actors, Fast Times‘ Judge Reinhold and character actor Edward Andrews, received roles that were significantly reduced after the film was edited; they played Billy’s superiors at the bank.
Some of the performances were shot on the backlot of Universal Studios in California (Mrs. Deagle’s house was one such set as well as the opening street scenes in Chinatown, which were filmed on the Warner Bros. Studios backlot). This required fake snow; Dante also felt it was an atmosphere that would make the special effects more convincing. As the special effects relied mainly on puppetry (an earlier attempt to use monkeys was abandoned because the test monkey panicked when made to wear a gremlin head), the actors worked alongside some of the puppets. Nevertheless, after the actors finished their work for good, a great deal of effort was spent finishing the effects. Numerous small rubber puppets, some of which were mechanical, were used to portray Gizmo and the gremlins. They were designed by Chris Walas. There was more than one Gizmo puppet, and occasionally Galligan, when carrying one, would set him down off camera, and when Gizmo appeared again sitting on a surface it was actually a different puppet wired to the surface. These puppets had many limitations. The Gizmo puppets were particularly frustrating because they were smaller and thus broke down more. While Walas recommended making the mogwais larger to make their creation and functioning easier for the special effects team, Dante insisted on keeping their size small to enhance the cuteness of the creatures. Consequently, to satisfy the crew, a scene was included in which the gremlins hang Gizmo on a wall and throw darts at him. This was included on a list that the crew created known to them as the “Horrible Things to do to Gizmo” list.
A few marionettes were also used. Other effects required large mogwai faces and ears to be produced for close-ups, as the puppets were less capable of conveying emotion. Consequently, large props simulating food were needed for the close-ups in the scene in which the mogwai feast after midnight. An enlarged Gizmo puppet was also needed for the scene in which he multiplies. The new mogwai, who popped out of Gizmo’s body as small, furry balls which then started to grow, were balloons and expanded as such. Walas had also created the exploding gremlin in the microwave by means of a balloon that was allowed to burst.
Howie Mandel provided the voice for Gizmo, and prolific voice actor Frank Welker provided the voice for Stripe. It was Welker who suggested Mandel perform in Gremlins. The puppets’ lines were mostly invented by the voice actors, based on cues from the physical actions of the puppets, which were filmed before the voice work. When developing the voice for Gizmo, Mandel explained, “[Gizmo was] cute and naive, so, you know, I got in touch with that… I couldn’t envision going any other way or do something different with it”. The majority of the other gremlins’ voices were performed by Michael Winslow and Peter Cullen, while the remaining voices were done by Bob Bergen, Fred Newman, Mark Dodson, Bob Holt, and Michael Sheehan.
Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, also rated PG, Gremlins was one of two films in 1984 to influence the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, with Red Dawn being the first film released in theaters that was given the new rating in August 1984. The scene in which a gremlin explodes in the microwave was particularly influential to the idea that some films too light to be rated R are still too mature to be rated PG. The change to the rating system was not insignificant; the rating PG-13 turned out to be appealing to many film patrons, as it implied some excitement without being too explicit.
Roger Ebert approved of the film, awarding three out of four stars and declaring it to not only be “fun”, but also a “sly series of send-ups”, effectively parodying many elemental film storylines. In his opinion, Gremlins did this partly through depictions of mysterious worlds (the shop in Chinatown) and tyrannical elderly women (Mrs. Deagle). Ebert also believed the rule in which a mogwai cannot eat after midnight was inspired by fairy tales, and that the final scenes parody classic horror films. He connected Kate’s speech about her father with “the great tradition of 1950s sick jokes”. Gene Siskel gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, describing it as “a wickedly funny and slightly sick ride,” and “a most original work. We’re aware at every moment that someone is trying to entertain us. Playfulness abounds.” Vincent Canby of The New York Times was mixed, writing that the film “is far more interested in showing off its knowledge of movie lore and making random jokes than in providing consistent entertainment. Unfortunately, it’s funniest when being most nasty.” Variety declared, “Make room for adorable ‘Gremlins’ dolls on the shelves and start counting the take for another calculated audience pleaser from the Steven Spielberg-Frank Marshall-Kathleen Kennedy team. But that’s all that’s here in this showy display of technical talent, otherwise nearly heedless of dramatic concerns.” Leonard Maltin disapproved of the film, and his view was made clear in remarks he made on the television show Entertainment Tonight. He called the film “icky” and “gross”. He later wrote that despite being set in a “picture-postcard town” and blending the feel of It’s a Wonderful Life (a clip of which appears in Gremlins) with that of The Blob, the film is “negated by too-vivid violence and mayhem”; giving the film two out of four stars. Maltin later made a cameo appearance in Gremlins 2, repeating his criticisms of the original on film, as an in-joke, before being throttled by the creatures; he later gave the second film a more positive rating, three out of four stars.
While some critics criticized the film’s depictions of violence and greed—such as death scenes, Kate’s speech, and the gremlins’ gluttony—for lacking comic value, scholar Charlotte Miller instead interpreted these as a satire of “some characteristics of Western civilization“, suggesting that Westerners may take too much satisfaction from violence. Gremlins can also be interpreted as a statement against technology, in that some characters, such as Billy’s father, are overly dependent on it. In contrast, Mr. Wing is shown to have a strong distaste for television. Kirkpatrick Sale also interpreted Gremlins as an anti-technology film in his book Rebels Against the Future. Another scholar suggested that the film is meant to express a number of observations of society by having the gremlin characters shift in what they are meant to represent. At different times, they are depicted as teenagers, the wealthy establishment, or fans of Disney films.
Another scholar drew a connection between the microwave scene and urban legends about pets dying in microwave ovens. He described the portrayal of this urban legend in the film as successful, but that meant it seemed terrible. This is indeed a scene that is thought of as being one of the film’s most violent depictions; with even Roger Ebert expressing some fear in his review that the film might encourage children to try similar things with their pets.
Gremlins has been criticized for more than its depictions of violence. One BBC critic wrote in 2000 that “The plot is thin and the pacing is askew”. However, that critic also complimented the dark humour contrasted against the ideal Christmas setting. In 2002, another critic wrote that in hindsight, Gremlins has “corny special effects” and that the film will tend to appeal to children more so than to adults; he also said the acting was dull.
Despite the initial mixed criticism, Gremlins has continued to receive critical praise over the years. It currently holds an 85% “Certified Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, and is considered by many as one of the best films of 1984.
Since its release, the film has been criticized as being culturally insensitive. Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that the film presents gremlins as African Americans. In Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies, Patricia Turner writes that the gremlins “reflect negative African-American stereotypes” in their dress and behavior. They are shown “devouring fried chicken with their hands”, listening to black music, breakdancing, and wearing sunglasses after dark and newsboy caps, a style common among African American males in the 1980s.
Financially, Gremlins was a success. Produced on an $11 million budget, it was more expensive than Spielberg had originally intended but still relatively cheap for its time. The trailer introduced the film to audiences by briefly explaining that Billy receives a strange creature as a Christmas present, by going over the three rules, and then coming out with the fact that the creatures transform into terrible monsters. This trailer showed little of either the mogwai or the gremlins. In contrast to this, other advertisements concentrated on Gizmo, overlooked the gremlins, and made the film look similar to Spielberg’s earlier family film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Gremlins was released into North American theaters on June 8, 1984, the same day as Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters. Gremlins ranked second, with $12.5 million in its first weekend, $1.1 million less than Ghostbusters. By the end of its American screenings on November 29, it had grossed $148,168,459 domestically. This made it the fourth highest-grossing film of the year, behind Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In August 1984, it opened in Argentina and Spain, and in October it premiered in West Germany. Screenings began in Mexico, Australia, and much of the rest of Europe in December. Since Gremlins had an international audience, different versions of the film were made to overcome cultural barriers. Mandel learned to speak his few intelligible lines, such as “Bright light!”, in various languages, including German. Regional music and humor were also incorporated into foreign-language versions. Dante credited this work as being one of the factors which helped to make Gremlins a worldwide success. However, many critics questioned the summer release date of the film in America, as the film takes place during the Christmas holiday season, causing them to comment that it should have had a Christmas release date instead.
In addition to this, there were also complaints from audiences about the violence depicted in the film. These complaints were particularly present in people who had brought their children to see the film, many of whom walked out of the theater before the film had ended. Dante admitted to reporters later that “the idea of taking a 4-year-old to see Gremlins, thinking it’s going to be a cuddly, funny animal movie and then seeing that it turns into a horror picture, I think people were upset… They felt like they had been sold something family friendly and it wasn’t entirely family friendly”.
The film became available to audiences again when it was brought back to theaters on August 30, 1985. This additional release brought its gross up to $153,083,102