A comedy with horror elements, set at Christmas, released in the summer of 1984, earning positive reviews (Despite many being turned off by the violence) and earned a ton of money at the box office and a huge cult following 30+ years after release. How does this compute?
A few days before Christman, Randy Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is in Chinatown in New York City (Well... at least presumably NYC) and is looking to sell his inventions in one of the many shops around. He finds, with the aid of a young kid, a trinket shop, ran by the boy's grandfather, Mr. Wing (Key Luke).
Upon trying to sell his wares, he comes across a strange creature; very rare but also very interesting. He tries to buy the creature for his son, but Mr. Wing refuses because he couldn't handle the huge responsibility of taking care of a Mogwai. Of course, his grandson sneaks him out and sells him the Mogwai, with three rules: Sunlight will kill them, do not get the creature wet, and don't feed them after midnight.
Back in Kingston Falls, USA, Randy's son Billy (Zach Galligan, in his screen debut) is working at the local bank, trying to earn a living until his drawing lands him a better job and also trying to get a date with co-worker, Kate (Phoebe Cates). His father comes back from his trip, with an early gift in tow for Billy, the Mogwai he dubs "Gizmo" (Voiced by Howie Mandel).
Billy manages to take real good care of Gizmo, but when his young friend Pete (Corey Feldman) accidentally spills water on Gizmo, it unleashes more Mogwai, who tend to be more unruly than Gizmo. Billy decides to take Gizmo to his old school science teacher to run some tests on his own creature he creates with water. In the meantime, Billy tries to take care of all of the creatures, but is tricked into feeding them after midnight, after his clock wire is chewed loose. This then creates something far more dangerous, far more scary and more sinister... Gremlins!
Billy must then team up with Kate and Gizmo to protect himself, his family and the rest of Kingston Falls from falling into chaos. Will they succeed? Will they fall in love? Does the mogwai have internal clocks that tell them where midnight is in their timezone?
Has anybody never saw this classic film? Endlessly parodied, countless ripoffs (The series of Critters films, Muchies and Hobgoblins just to name a few) and was supposedly even the inspiration for the Furby, this film has huge influence. That, and the film is a ton of fun and pretty dark to boot.
I really like how black the film got, with the infamous scene of Kate telling the story of her father while hiding from the gremlins, but also making some of the darker elements huge sources of comedy and hasn't aged a bit. The story is well-paced, managing to entice us throughout the whole journey and not be boring.
The two leads have good chemistry, and while Galligan did pretty well as a first time lead (Charming, not bad looking as a lead, delivers a line fairly well), but Cates acts better overall and manages to believably make her character tragic but hopeful. The supporting cast does tremendous work, with Axton delivering a warm, fatherly performance, Feldman does good work as Pete, Mandel doing a voice fairly similarly to Bobby from Bobby's World (Anybody remember that show...?) but not annoying at all, Key Luke doing good work as the stubborn Mr. WIng and Polly Holliday as Mrs. Deagle (The single richest person in town who is a real you-know-what) are all fantastic. Of course, Billy's neighbor is played by iconic character actor Dick Miller and shines as the only real believer in gremlins, though in a fairly xenophobic way, but still believes in them.
Joe Dante brings his A-game to the film, managing to imbue his style into a major Hollywood film. Though able to be serious in the serious moments, there is a comedic pulse throughout the entire film that could undercut several scenes, but manages to subside until needed. Which is often needed and well done. Chris Columbus' screenplay, his first screenplay (Followed by The Goonies' and Young Sherlock Holmes, all three made by Spielberg) and manages to be a great mix of comedy and horror (Originally, this was a pitch black comedy, where the gremlins would eat patrons of a McD's instead of the burgers... 'nuff said) and has terrific flow and great use of the Christmas-time setting, which Columbus would use to great effect when he became a director, making the classic Home Alone years later.
The makeup, special effects and puppetry are flat out amazing, with the creature design by Chris Walas being absolutely fantastic (He later did the makeup for The Fly, winning an Oscar), with Gizmo and the gremlins looking fantastic and real, and the goopy slime effects also used to great effect. The score by Jerry Goldsmith, though not one of his epic masterpieces along the lines of Patton or Planet of the Apes, but manages to carve out a nice synth/orchestral score, with the more traditional sound blending well with the carnival-esque depravity of the Gremlins when they appear onscreen, unleashing havoc.
The cinematography (C/O John Hora) is also used well, being Rockwell-ish but if Norman Rockwell decided to paint small town America with Dali influences. The editing is well done and is cut where there is no lag time in-between scenes and flows well, the sound being decent but decidedly analogue, and the set design appropriately recreating winter in the dead heat of California in the middle of summer.
Moving on to the DVD, we'll start with the PQ. Shot in 1.85 on 35mm film (Blown-up 70mm prints were also released) and anamorphically enhanced, the picture here is pretty decent but not stellar. Though the cinematography has some influence on the look, the film can be grainy and soft at times, but the details are fairly sharp for a DVD and the colors do look great as well. Just don't expect a hugely modern look and feel and you'll be within expectations. The AQ is a bit better, but the 5.1 Dolby Digital track doesn't add too much the the presentation. The surrounds are used from time to time, but don't be looking for a strong LFE presence or an aural wonderland of delights, and mainly benefits the music. The original stereo track is also included and works better for the film overall.
The extras are fairly excellent, and puts the special in special edition. Starting off is the first of two commentaries, with Joe Dante, produce Mike Finnell and Chris Walas headlining track one. Though it is tech-minded, talking about BTS issues with the puppets, how certain shots were made, et cetera, but they manage to have fun and not be a boring track. Track two is just as good, this time Dante wrangling Galligan, Cates, Dick Miller and Mandel to the party, and manages to be a very entertaining and worthwhile track. Overlap is almost non-existent, and there are some great stories such as an accident Cates had with a moped to Galligan an inch away from being electrocuted fatally when destroying a neon sign. Both are excellent and worthy of your time,
Moving on, is a rather disappointing set of extras (Especially compared to the excellent commentaries) starting off with a vintage 1983 making-of that has some good BTS shots and interesting comments from cast and crew, but with muffled sound quality and it being so short, its good for a viewing once or twice. Next up are 10 minutes with deleted scenes (w/ optional commentary with Dante, Galligan, Mandel, Miller & Cates) with a few okay scenes, including a subplot where Mrs. Deagle was knowingly firing workers and forcibly foreclosing on homes for a strip mall, and one that many TV viewers will notice that follows the infamous speech in the bank.
Rounding out the extras are an extensive set of photo galleries, biographies of cast and crew members, production notes and trailers to this and the sequel.
Overall, this classic is treated well on DVD, with okay picture and sound, but the extras (Mainly the commentaries) make up for it, and is a must own if you don't want to upgrade to HD, though it is worth it with better picture and sound along with all the extras and new ones if you get the Diamond Luxe release. But, if you need a cheap DVD to entertain you for 90 minutes, look no further and comes highly recommended.