Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous
Studio: Warner Brothers Release :::::::::: Date: 8th June 1984
Director: Joe Dante :::::::::: Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates
Budget: $11M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $25.3M
U.S Box Office: $148.1M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $347.3M
Billy’s new pet, a Mogwai, comes with three simple rules. Never expose it to bright light, never get it wet and most importantly of all, never, ever feed it after midnight. But when all three rules are inadvertently broken, it’s down to Billy, Kate and Gizmo to save the picturesque town of Kingston Falls from the chaos unleashed by Gremlins.
If things had worked out as planned, Gremlins would never have been produced. The script was written purely as an exercise by Chris Columbus to show studio executives that he could write screenplays. The young author had no idea at the time that his story would be made, and go on to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year - not to mention spawn a wave of merchandising and bring about a change to the film classification system. But Gremlins, released in the summer of 1984, did all that and more.
Chris Columbus was born in Ohio in 1958, and after graduating, went on to attend the Tisch School of the Arts. Hoping to find a way into Hollywood, he started work on the script for Gremlins. The idea of a gremlin in the works was first conceived during the Second World War when aircrafts suffered seemingly unexplained mechanical failures. This was elaborated on by author Roald Dahl in his 1943 book, The Gremlins, a title which was written as a pre-cursor to a Disney movie that was never made. Columbus' primary inspiration came from listening to what seemed to be an army of mice scuttling around his loft late at night. From that starting point he began work on the spec script that would become Gremlins. [A spec script is a non-commissioned, unsolicited screenplay that a writer hopes will be picked up by a studio]. At some point the manuscript ended up on the desk of Steven Spielberg, who would later describe it as 'one of the most original things I've come across in many years'.
Spielberg opted to produce the film through his Amblin Entertainment production company along with studio Warner Bros. The script still needed some work, primarily to remove a number of the much darker elements. In the original screenplay Billy's mother is killed during her encounter with the Gremlins and her head thrown down the stairs when Billy rushes into the house. Another scene saw Billy's dog get eaten and hordes of gremlins attacking patrons at a fast food restaurant. All these were either cut or rewritten. Another major change would be the roles of Gizmo the mogwai and Stripe, but that would not come until the picture was six weeks away from shooting. Even with Spielberg's huge success on Jaws, E.T and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Warner Bros. were still cautious of the project. However, they also wanted to work with the famed director so pushed ahead despite reservations. Just to be sure of reducing the risks, the studio put up a budget of less than $10M, which would rise to $11M during post-production.
The search was now on for someone to helm the picture. Spielberg himself was knee deep in a number of projects, along with directing the second Indiana Jones film, Temple of Doom, so he was out of contention (if indeed, he had ever been). However, a young animator turned director was making waves with his short film Frankenweenie. Spielberg considered Tim Burton for some time, but ultimately passed on the idea due to Burton's lack of feature experience (he would go on to make PeeWee's Big Adventure his feature debut in 1985). Instead, Spielberg turned his thoughts to Joe Dante, a director he had recently worked with while shooting his segment on The Twilight Zone movie. The anthology, based on the cult TV show, consisted of four short films, with Spielberg and Dante helming two, while John Landis and George Miller directed the others.
Joe Dante, like a number of directors of the time, had got his break in the industry thanks to Roger Corman. His first actual directing credit was on the 1968 flick, The Movie Orgy, a seven hour compilation of old movie clips, adverts and film trailers that he cut together while still a college student. His editing skills caught the attention of Corman despite The Movie Orgy not getting a showing beyond colleges and repertory theatres. For his actual feature debut, Dante co-directed Hollywood Boulevard with Allan Arkush. The picture was the result of a bet that Roger Corman had with fellow producer Jon Davison, who claimed he could make a film for less money than Corman had done previously. Taking him up on the bet, Corman gave the production just $60,000 and a ten day shooting schedule. To get around budget (and time) constraints, Dante and Arkush created a movie that would feature footage from previously produced Corman flicks, linked by the story of a girl coming to Hollywood to find fame and fortune.
While it didn't set the world alight, it put Joe Dante on the map. His next film, Piranha, written by John Sayles, elevated his status further and showed his keen skill for combining horror and comedy. The film was a shameless cash-in/parody of Jaws, but thanks to a smart script and direction, managed to rise above the other similar movies of the time. It also caught the eye of Steven Spielberg who called it '"the best of the Jaws rip-offs" and convinced Universal Pictures not to take out an injunction against it. Dante would re-team with Sayles on the 1980 werewolf horror The Howling, again adding a darkly humorous streak. Reviews for that film were generally positive and it received notable mentions for its impressive special effects work (Courtesy of Rob Bottin, who took over the job when Rick Baker left to work on An American Werewolf in London). Despite the success, Dante struggled to find further feature directing work, and instead worked on episodes of Police Squad. When Spielberg began assembling a crew for The Twilight Zone, Joe Dante got a call. He would turn in segment 3, the tale of a teacher and an omnipotent boy, a remake of the episode It's a Good Life. While Landis and Spielberg's sections disappointed critics, Dante and Miller's won much acclaim.
Being able to blend horror and comedy so well, Dante was the perfect match for Gremlins, which would tread a very fine line between the two genres. Steven Spielberg would co-produce the picture via Amblin and Warner Bros, with Michael Finnell acting as overall producer (a role he had also occupied on The Howling). Pre-production work could now begin, and while decisions over how to portray the gremlins were on-going, Dante set about casting the lead and supporting characters. For the role of Billy Peltzer, Zach Galligan was cast despite having just two minor credits to his name - an after school special and a TV movie. However, his chemistry with Phoebe Cates during the audition phase convinced Spielberg to rally for him to get the part. On the other hand, Cates was almost passed over for the role of Billy's girlfriend Kate Beringer due to the risqué nature of her previous work. The young actress had made her debut in the 1982 feature Paradise, and then gave a memorable turn in Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the teen sex comedy, Private Lessons.
The supporting cast would be made up of more experienced actors, starting with Dick Miller, who had already worked with Joe Dante on Piranha, The Howling and his segment of the Twilight Zone movie. He'd be cast as Billy's neighbour, World War 2 veteran Murray Futterman. Country singer Hoyt Axton would take on the role of inventor Rand Peltzer (Billy's father) thanks to his turn in the 1979 picture The Black Stallion. According to the director, Axton had always been the number one choice for Rand, but he still screen-tested a number of other actors including Pat Hingle and Michael Gough. There's some conjecture over who actually gave the best performance. According to one source, Hingle was too good, and it was feared his character would dominate the picture if he were cast. Dante himself claimed on the DVD commentary that Michael Gough tested the strongest, but that the tone of his performance didn't gel with what they were looking for. Axton's role was further expanded to that of narrator when an introductory scene was scrapped.
Polly Holliday would provide a memorable turn as the dastardly Mrs Deagle, the old woman hell bent on making the townsfolk’s lives miserable. At the time Holliday was seen as something of a casting coup, being that she was a popular TV star thanks to her role in the sitcom Alice. Rounding out the cast would be veteran actor Keye Luke as Mr. Wing, along with Judge Reinhold and Edward Andrews, who would play Billy's superiors at the bank in which he works. Finally, child star turned movie actor Corey Feldman took on the part of Pete Fountaine. With casting complete, two things were about to affect proceedings - one of which would have a lasting effect on the film’s on-going success.
Steven Spielberg came up with what would be a game changer, not only for the film but also its merchandising prospects. In Columbus' original script, Gizmo and Stripe were one and the same - after the rules are broken, Gizmo turns into Stripe, and proceeds to terrorise Billy and the townspeople. But going over the script again, Spielberg could see that the audience would take to Gizmo, sympathise and root for him. He'd also make a great sidekick for the leads. The decision was made to rework the story that would see Stripe spawn from Gizmo when water was spilt on him. While this gave the puppet and effects crew extra work, all felt it would be worth the pay off.
The other big change wasn't to the film's content, rather its release date. It's often puzzled people why Gremlins, which is set at Christmas time, wasn't released in December. In reality that was the plan; with Warner Bros. hoping it would be their big festive hit. However, when they discovered they had no major releases for the summer of 1984 - when Universal had Temple of Doom and Columbia had Ghostbusters - they pulled the film's release forward into the middle of the year. That meant the production team had around six months less in which to complete the picture, and put a sense of urgency onto getting shooting completed so the extensive effects work could get under way. None of this helped solve the biggest issue the film faced - how to bring Gizmo and the gremlins to life.
CGI was still very much in its infancy - and what was available simply wasn't capable of creating living, breathing creatures with any level of believability. Joe Dante turned to Chris Walas, a special effects guy with whom he'd worked on Piranha. Walas would later state that he had had no idea how they were going to make it all work, and took the job on out of desperation more than anything else. Initially they opted for stop-frame animation, but this was quickly dismissed due to the incredible amount of time it took to do even the simplest of scenes. Next, in what was surely a moment of panic (or insanity) they tried putting a gremlin-style mask on a monkey to see if that would work. It was a disaster, with the animal bouncing around the room in pure terror.
In the end, they opted to create full and partial models of the gremlins, along with numerous ones of Gizmo, including a larger version of his head that could be used for close ups. The animatronic creatures weren't cheap to produce, costing around $30-40,000 each. This led to security guards being posted on the set to ensure that all the models were returned at the end of the day's shooting. Even with two months of puppet work set aside after the main shoot was complete, filming was still arduous. Gizmo in particular caused the crew a number of headaches, and required up to twelve people to control, depending on the scene and what was required. Small internal parts meant it was often breaking down, resulting in many long hours on set while scenes were re-shot. According to Dante, the scene in which the gremlins pin Gizmo and throw darts at him was created at the behest of the puppeteers, who wanted some small revenge for the hours of difficult work they had endured. But no one could deny, the character worked incredibly well and proved Spielberg's idea was a great one – the public would love Gizmo.
The fictitious town of Kingston Falls, where the film is set, was actually created on the Universal back lot, and would be used again for Back to the Future. Other sequences, such as the Chinatown opening, were shot on the Warner Bros. lot. Having begun shooting in April of 1983, principal photography was finally completed in August. By this stage Chris Walas was already burnt out from the long days (and nights) on set, and still had another two months of puppet work to complete. Further partial models were created, enlarged gremlin ears, legs and hands, along with over sized food to be used in scenes showing the creatures eating and drinking. An enlarged Gizmo was required for the shots in which he multiplies after water is spilt on him - the pulsating mogwai furballs being created via the use of fur-covered balloons. By the time the puppet work was completed, Walas was on crutches, suffered kidney stones and had spent weeks surviving on three hours sleep a night. He would later say it was the most horrendous film experience of his career, yet bizarrely, because of how close-knit the cast and crew were, it was also one of his happiest.
Work continued apace to meet the summer release date. The score for the picture was provided by Jerry Goldsmith, who would win a Saturn award for his efforts. Goldsmith would go on to score two further Dante directed pictures (The 'Burbs and Small Soldiers). The 'voice' of Gizmo was provided by comedian Howie Mandel, while noted voice actor Frank Welker supplied the few words Stripe speaks. He, along with Police Academy's Michael Winslow and Mark Dodson, would give voice to the remainder of the gremlins, whose sounds and dialogue were largely improvised. At Spielberg's suggestion the ending of the movie was also re-shot. Originally Billy was the clear hero of the finale, but in the new ending, Gizmo in his pink Barbie car saves the day. Actor Zach Galligan had no idea of the change until he sat down to watch the completed picture for the first time. Judge Reinhold and Edward Andrews saw their roles reduced as Dante attempted to get the film's edit down from two hours and forty minutes. The movie’s title sequence would mark the debut of the Amblin logo, and also featured the Warner Bros. shield for the first time in years. [If one looks very closely at the poster, you can also see the Amblin logo on the button of Billy's jeans].
Ultimately, Gremlins original low budget swelled to $11M. Despite the fact the film would only need a couple of good weekends to break even, Warner Bros. were still unsure of its chances, with executives especially concerned about its dark tone. Even Steven Spielberg wasn't sure how the film would play, and one scene in particular - where Kate relates the death of her father, led him to believe it would polarise audiences. He talked at some length with Dante about the possibility of removing it, but the director refused and Spielberg let it be. What they were sure about was the merchandising potential of Gremlins. If they could get people to fall in love with Gizmo, the sky was the limit - dolls, lunchboxes, games - anything that could carry a picture of Gizmo (or Stripe) was a potential money-spinner. As was becoming the normal practice, Atari had already started work on a videogame adaptation, while Topps had a line of trading cards readied for release.
Critical reception for Gremlins was largely positive, with one notable exception. Roger Ebert loved its sly, satirical humour but Leonard Maltin famously savaged the film, noting its picture postcard setting felt at odds with the chaos and violence that befell it. But whether critics liked or loathed the picture, many noted that its graphic violence felt at odds with its PG rating. The issue would have long term affects and before the end of the summer, set changes in motion.
As has been mentioned before, the summer of 1984 was a big one. There weren't a glut of new releases, but many that were released, struck gold. In a move that seems inexplicable to the modern box office reporter, Gremlins opened on the same weekend as Ghostbusters. It's hard to figure out the reason for this, considering both films would have surely eaten into the other's audience. If Gremlins failed, Warner Bros. would at least have Ghostbusters to blame rather than the quality of their own movie. In terms of other competition, the summer had already seen success with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Stark Trek III: The Search for Spock - two films that would still be relatively new by the time of Gremlin's release. Older hits such as Police Academy, Romancing the Stone and Footlloose were still in theatres, However there wouldn't be much to trouble the picture in the weeks ahead.
If the weekend of June 8th 1984 proved anything, it was that you could release two pictures with similar target audiences, and have two smash hits regardless of their final chart position. Gremlins may have had to settle for second place, but with a $12.5M opening total, it was anything but the loser. Interestingly, the film played stronger in New York then Ghostbusters did. In an interview for Empire magazine in the summer of 2014 Dante stated that this was because the filming of Ghostbusters had caused so much annoyance and disruption to New York that the natives stayed away - at least initially. Within only three days, Gremlins had earnt back its production budget and the character of Gizmo was already winning fans. This was something the studio, and Spielberg in particular had banked on. The merchandising stepped up.
A week later there was no change for the two top spots, and incredibly, both films saw an 11% increase in takings over the previous weekend. While Ghostbusters widened its lead, there was little cause for concern. Weekend three told a similar story, even with Rhinestone, The Karate Kid and Top Secret thrown into the mix. By this point Gremlins had recouped its budget some five times over and the studio were already looking at Gizmo (and Stripe) dolls being major sellers in the coming holiday season. In all, the two films occupied first and second place for six straight weeks, at the end of which Gremlins had made $95M. Only in weekend seven did it slip one place with the release of the Dudley Moore/Eddie Murphy comedy, Best Defence. Summer came and almost went, and the film was still in the top ten. While the gap between its takings and that of Ghostbusters had widened substantially, Gremlins was still clearing anywhere between $1-3M each weekend.
Records show it remained in the top ten for sixteen weeks in total, making an impressive $148M. The merchandise continued to fly off shelves while new opportunities were explored and exploited. Gizmo even got his own back story courtesy of a novelisation written by George Gipe (who never actually got to see the film). The picture also cleaned up on VHS too, making a further $79.5M in rentals. Warner Bros. put the film back into theatres in August 1985, adding another $5M to its total. It became the fourth biggest hit of 1984 behind Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Temple of Doom, and while figures aren't available, it's save to assume the merchandising was equally, if not more successful. In its wake, other studios tried to jump on the bandwagon, and a number of knock-offs were quick to emerge including Critters, Ghoulies and Munchies. Of those three, Critters was the most successful and spawned three further sequels. Its director Stephen Herek also maintains that it was written before Gremlins, and the script rewritten later to distance itself.
But one downside did continue to raise its head throughout the theatrical run - that of the film's PG rating and its graphic violence. A similar thing had been raised against Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There were reports of parents walking out of screenings with their young children and Joe Dante himself sympathised with them. Gremlins, despite its cute character and Christmas setting, wasn't a film for young children. It was Steven Spielberg who suggested to the MPAA that an intermediate rating between PG and R was what was needed. This would inform parents that a film was unsuitable for young children, without alienating the slightly older market (or their parents). The introduction of the new rating came very quickly, and the first film to carry the PG-13 moniker, John Milius' Red Dawn, was released just two months after Gremlins debut. For a while it opened up a new market to studios and movie makers - it meant they could craft more violent, edgier films with losing the all important teen market by being hit with an R-rating.
Having seen how much the film and its related merchandise had made the company, Warner Bros. wanted a sequel as soon as possible, and asked Joe Dante to begin work almost immediately. The director wasn't interested, saying that Gremlins worked well as a single picture - it had a beginning, middle and logical ending. Furthermore, working to such a tight deadline and budget, along with all the headaches the puppets had provided, had left him burnt out. The studio pressed ahead anyway, approaching numerous writers and directors to get the project moving while the characters were still fresh in the public's eye. A number of ideas were entertained - the gremlins invading Las Vegas or travelling to Mars being just two of them, but nothing stuck. Eventually Warner Bros. returned to Joe Dante and offered him triple the budget and full creative control to do whatever he wanted. A number of years had passed since the original and the director wasn't even sure the characters were relevant anymore, but the promise of full control convinced him to sign up.
The setting for Gremlins 2: The New Batch would be New York, and both Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates would return, along with Dick Miller's Murray Futterman (Miller has appeared in almost every single film Dante has directed). Christopher Lee would play a genetics scientist while John Glover gave a memorable turn as CEO Daniel Clamp. Someone who didn’t return was Chris Walas, and so creature design fell to Rick Baker, who initially turned the job down for fear of being too constrained by what came before. When Dante told him that he too had free reign to create whatever he wanted, he signed on board. The plot would allow for all manner of gremlins this time around, including a super intelligent one with the ability to talk (and voiced by Tony Randall). Unlike the first film, where the merchandising developed as its success increased, Gremlins 2 hit the ground running with numerous tie-ins and the like. Sadly critics weren't as impressed with the sequel, and despite a $9M opening weekend, it made only $41M in total. But at least the gremlins got to have their revenge on critic Leonard Maltin in one scene.
Between the two movies, Joe Dante directed Explorers, The 'Burbs and Innerspace. He'd go on to make Matinee, Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes Back in Action, amongst others, but none were ever as successful as Gremlins. His most recent release, The Hole, was well received but criminally under seen. His next project, Burying the Ex, currently has no release date. As we have seen a number of times already with 80s actors, Zach Galligan struggled to find work outside of the Gremlins franchise. He appeared in Waxworks and its sequel, and now divides his time between TV, movie and theatre work. Phoebe Cates would appear opposite Michael J.Fox in Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and with Rik Mayall in the 1991 comedy, Drop Dead Fred, before retiring from acting in 1994 to raise her family. Since that time she has appeared on screen just once, as a favour to friend Jennifer Jason Leigh in the 2001 comedy drama The Anniversary Party.
Over the years there has been much talk of a reboot or remake, and the characters themselves continue to remain popular. Speaking in 2012, Chris Columbus stated that he couldn't see how a remake would work in today's CGI obsessed environment. However, by 2014 he had changed his mind was said to be co-producing the remake through his 1492 production company. In April that same year a number of websites reported that Warner Bros. were planning to fast track a new Gremlins films (along with the long-gestating Goonies sequel). A few months later Film Divider reported that Morgan Jurgenson and Alex Ankeles had pitched an idea that went down a storm with 1492 and they were now awaiting approval from Steven Spielberg before moving forward on the script. At the time of writing, there is no further update on their remake.
Gremlins still plays incredibly strong today, its deeply dark streak coming off well against the Christmas setting. The puppets may be showing their age, but there's no denying the charm of Gizmo and mischievousness of Stripe & Co. The violence, particularly in the kitchen sequence, is still strong enough to shock, as is the graphic finale. The creatures offer up a real sense of danger, but Dante manages to perfectly tread that fine line between hilarious and horrifying. It still makes essential viewing for a cold festive evening.
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