by Marty Demarest
Drawing on the same mixture that helped E.T. break down box office records two years earlier -- old monster movies and a realistic portrayal of contemporary upper middle-class America -- 1984's Gremlins was both the pinnacle and the death knell for live special effects-driven films. Within a few years, Young Sherlock Holmes would mark the entrance of digital effects into mainstream cinema, and films like Legend, Labyrinth and The Goonies would conclude an era for a generation of filmgoers.
Despite being dated, however, Gremlins still stands up as a rollicking good movie. Digitally remastered for the special edition DVD, Director Joe Dante takes the story of a cute creature named Gizmo (who must be kept out of sunlight and water, and never fed after midnight), and turns it into a film that delightfully fulfills and surprises the viewer's expectations. Of course Gizmo gets wet, causing him to produce multiple, evil clones, which are then naturally fed after midnight, resulting in their transformation into the lizard-like Gremlins, who then terrorize the town. It's the other rule that predictably saves everyone.
What's surprising is the extreme to which Gremlins takes both comedy and violence while keeping them balanced. The creatures are not above blatant shtick like wearing drag and breakdancing when they want to be funny; but they also don't mind maniacally killing anyone who gets in their way. Audiences didn't know whether they were seeing a horror film or an after school special. Released with a PG rating, a still-nasty scene involving the hero's wholesome-as-butter mother defending herself in her home with a blender, a knife and a microwave, raised red flags. The oven's historic ding marked the entry of a new level of violence into America's diet of mainstream media, and a few months later the MPAA introduced PG-13.
On one of the DVD's commentary tracks, Dante and his crew talk about filming the scenes in which the monsters appear. Since Gremlins used a cast of hundreds of rubber puppets, everything was actually on the set with the actors, and the whole film has the resulting charm of a Muppet movie gone awry. Even though you can see right through the special effects, the ingenuity and enthusiasm with which they are presented is more enchanting and nearly as impressive as the digitally created creatures and settings of more recent films.