Let us step into the Way Back Machine, and return to a kinder, simpler time. A time when men wore neon t-shirts and matching socks, and women teased their hair to near-Everest-level heights. I speak of the 1980s, friend; a magical era, where everyone did The Safety Dance and every coffee table was piled to the rafters with mountains of cocaine. This was also a period that many of us horror fans refer to as “the golden age”, where slashers and all manner of spookfests dominated the cinemas, and even kid-friendly PG-rated fare had a decidedly devious streak. One of the most beloved and, at the time, controversial films of the period, 1984’s Gremlins managed to both delight and terrify young audiences with its expert blend of horror, humor, and Spielbergian whimsy. The Joe Dante directed film not only struck box-office gold, but, thanks to reportedly traumatized children across the country, also served as a catalyst for the implementation of the PG-13 rating.
Gremlins opens with the struggling inventor Randall Petzler (Hoyt Axton) rummaging through a Chinatown gift shop in search of the perfect Christmas present for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). He finds said present in the guise of a Mogwai; an impossibly cute and exotic little creature that the store’s wizened owner refuses to sell. With the help of the store owner’s grandson, however, Randall is manages to procure his son’s present, but not before he’s given the three rules of Mogwai ownership;
1) Never expose them to bright light
2) Never get them wet
3) And, most importantly, never, ever feed them after midnight.
Randall returns to the idyllic town of Kingston Falls and presents his son with his new pet, which he dubs Gizmo (voiced by comedian Howie Mandell). It isn’t long before Billy violates the first rule, nearly frying Gizmo with “bright light”, as well as the second rule, when a neighborhood boy (played by 80s kid-movie fixture, Corey Feldman) knocks over a glass of water on Gizmo, sending the poor Mogwai into a writhing fit of agony which, much to their surprise, leads to the spawning of five more of the creatures. This new batch, however, have a decidedly different temperament than the cute and docile Gizmo, with one hatchling in particular – the mohawked Stripe – exhibiting both unwelcome leadership qualities and a nasty disposition. Gizmo, who speaks mostly in purrs and chirps, tries his damnedest to let his new owner know what he’s in for, but before Billy can get the message, the mischievous offspring of Gizmo trick him into violating rule number three by unplugging his alarm clock and convincing him to feed them after midnight. The once innocuous little critters undergo a horrifying metamorphosis, and, soon, Billy’s picturesque little town is overrun by scaly, super-intelligent, and ragingly homicidal beasties, leaving it up to him, his Christmas-hating gal pal, Kate (the oh-so-incredibly gorgeous Phoebe Cates), and Gizmo to stop Stripe and his toothy minions.
When I received my copy of Gremlins: 25th Anniversary Edition (originally released in 2009, but sent to accompany the recently released Gremlins 2: The New Batch), my four year old saw the cover and demanded we watch the movie. Call me irresponsible, but I figured “why not?”. I mean, I’ve seen the film so many times, now, that I’ve pretty much committed it to memory, and, to be honest, by today’s “kid entertainment” standards, it seemed pretty tame (hell, have you watched some of the shows they make for kids these days? Talk about nightmare-inducing!). My son loved every minute of it, save for the last five or so, and I shut the film off just prior to Stripe’s gooey demise, assuring him that, in the end, they all learned to live together happily ever after (or something to that effect). Gremlins created so much controversy for its “violence” and “horrific imagery” back in 1984, and, subsequently, films like it were saddled with the PG-13 rating (which, in its infancy, featured not only R-rated levels of violence and profanity, but, in some instances, nudity as well). To watch it now and think that this very funny, cute, and cartoonishly violent movie would share the same rating as something like The Cider House Rules, Splash, or even Doc Hollywood (each of these films featuring lengthy nude scenes, profanity, and sexual situations) just strikes me as ludicrous. Yes, there are some distasteful bits (the microwaving of a gremlin, for instance) but it’s all handled in such Tom and Jerry style fashion and punctuated by humorous sight gags and goofy music that had my son laughing hysterically (if not a touch nervously, but that’s for his therapist to decide).
I write all of this because I have to write something. I mean, you don’t expect me to review Gremlins, do you? It should be obvious by now that I’ve nothing but immense love for this flick and the sense of nostalgia it imbues in me. Dante’s playful direction and Spielberg’s obvious influence over the proceedings lends the film a genuine sense of warmth and heart, making the living, breathing Norman Rockwell painting that is Kingston Falls a place I look forward to revisiting year after year. It’s a classic piece of cinema, and is as effective today as it was nearly thirty years ago.
Warner Brothers releases this 25th Anniversary Edition of Gremlins on Blu-ray with an occasionally problematic 1.78:1 transfer that doesn’t quite do the film justice. The image just isn’t as crisp as I would have hoped, with soft edges made all the more apparent by an overabundance of cinematic grain in darker scenes. The opening sequence, in which Hoyt Axton is rummaging through the basement shop in Chinatown, really set me up for disappointment, but it did improve somewhat, especially in daylight/well lit sequences, where the image sharpened up considerably. It’s definitely an upgrade over the DVD, but not as big of an upgrade as one would expect, especially given the film’s status. The accompanying Dolby True HD 5.1 soundtrack fares slightly better, with crisp dialogue and natural sounding and smartly implemented surround effects, but I did find the bass a bit on the weak side.
Being an “anniversary edition” one expects at least a few extra goodies, and Warner Brothers delivers by including a pair of commentary tracks (the first with Dante and stars Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandell, the second featuring Dante, Producer, Michael Finnell, and SFX artist, Chris Walas). Also included are a short making-of featurette (SD), ten minutes worth of deleted scenes (SD), storyboard/photo gallery (SD), and the film’s theatrical trailer (SD).
One of the “early” releases on Blu-ray, Gremlins: 25th Anniversary Edition shows plenty of room for improvement, in terms of both the transfer and quality of the special feature, but whether or not Warner Brothers will go all in for a total remastering of the film (maybe for its 30th Anniversary?) remains to be seen. I can say that great strides were made with their recent release of the film’s sequel (review forthcoming!), so there’s hope that fans will get a definitive release of this classic film, but, for now, this is pretty much as good as the film has looked or sounded on retail media, and represents a fairly modest upgrade over the DVD.
Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch are available to own on Blu-ray May 8th, 2012.