The Anarchic Comedy of Joe Dante’s ‘Gremlins’

As a filmmaker, there is much more to Joe Dante than Gremlins, but there’s a reason the 1984 film has been his most successful. Coupled with its screwball sequel, Gremlins represents Dante’s sensibility, a self-aware and sometimes postmodern mixture of horror and comedy, at its most accessible and fully-realized. Joe Dante is a filmmaker in love with junk cinema: low budget sci-fi, classic monster movies, gag-a-minute vintage cartoons. Media that, to quote Tony Randall’s Brain Gremlin from Gremlines 2, is “fun, but in no sense civilized.” Dante’s films bring these disparate influences together and, like a Mogwai transforming into a Gremlin, makes them into something new, exciting and, above all, entertaining.

The “film brats” of the 1970s were the first generation of filmmakers raised on television, appreciating high and low art in almost equal regard. But while Steven Spielberg and his best pal George Lucas would watch a cheesy Republic adventure serial or a low budget Flash Gordon and wonder what these films would be like in the hands of a truly competent director, Joe Dante was reading E.C. Comics and watching vintage cartoons and loving them for the purity of what they were.

His obsession with and cannibalization of pop culture images anticipates our current obsession with post-modern meta-comedy. As in the best of Community and The Simpsons, pop culture references aren’t the jokes in Dante’s films. Any references (and there are plenty) are esoteric and naturally occurring, deeply woven into the tapestry of the films.

Beginning life as a graphically violent spec script by Chris Columbus, Gremlins is the rare film that manages to be at once a horror-parody and a genuine horror movie. Dante and producer Steven Spielberg may have toned down the more gruesome elements of the original screenplay, but the finished film has plenty of actual scares and nasty images. The best genre parody movies love the material they’re sending up. Almost none are the material they’re sending up.

Opening with a moody noir sequence and transitioning to a montage of Christmas cheer, Gremlins has a sense of deliberate artificiality, as if it’s announcing itself as a movie. Keye Luke’s wise, old Chinese man is a stock character pulled from a ‘40s b-movie, while Mrs. Deagle’s vendetta against Billy’s dog is ripped unapologetically from The Wizard of Oz. The film establishes itself as a Christmas movie, before a quick transition into a parody of 1950s monster movies.

Gremlins is full of characters who watch movies: It’s A Wonderful Life or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (who’s pods mirror the ones the Mogwai burrow into) or, in the film’s climax, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It’s no coincidence that the Gremlins, postmodern children of pop culture, are drawn to a movie theater. Movie theaters are constantly in pivotal sequences in Dante’s films, whether it’s the seedy porno theater of The Howling, the spaceship of the Little Richard and Bugs Bunny loving aliens of Explorers, or most of Matinee, Dante’s criminally underrated tribute to huckster-filmmaker William Castle.

Gremlins is easily read as an inverse of E.T. Spielberg celebrates the potential of media as a means to instruct and educate: E.T. learns to speak by watching Sesame Street and concocts his plan to reach home by reading a Buck Rogers comic strip. The Gremlins love media too, but only for its pure entertainment value. They act out scenes from Flashdance and Phantom of the Opera, and they mindlessly watch Snow White, singing along to the asinine music in a violent celebration.

The film’s moral, spelled out by Keye Luke’s wizened old man, is that Billy, and perhaps American culture as a whole, cannot take something sweet and pure like a Mogwai without transforming it, even if just inadvertently, into a Gremlin. But what he doesn’t understand is that the Gremlins are far more fun and interesting than Gizmo ever could be. Gizmo is cutesy, delicate, Disneyfied, but especially Spielbergian. The Gremlins are unruly, mischievous and destructive, but they’re a lot of fun. It’s the distinction between classical music and jazz, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante. When he’s given It’s A Wonderful Life, Dante must transform it into Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a strangely personal film. Desperate for a sequel, the studio gave Dante creative control, and he let his id run as freely as he wanted. At its core, the movie is a parody of the original: Characters mock the ridiculous “Three Rules,” Leonard Matlin is brutally mauled by Gremlins as he pans the original film, and Katie revisits her controversial “Christmas monologue.”

The film opens with a Chuck Jones-directed animated scene in which Daffy Duck pushes Bugs Bunny off the Warner Brothers logo and plants himself there. The symbolism is clear: this is a film where Daffy Duck usurps Bugs Bunny.

Moving the actions from Kingston Falls to New York City, the film finds Billy and Katie working for bigtime ‘80s mogul Daniel Clamp (possibly a nod to legendary Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett) inside his state of the art Clamp Towers. Clamp Towers is the ‘80s and early ‘90s compressed into one building, where you can find a shopping mall, a nightclub, businesses, stock brokers, a genetic testing lab and, of course, cable TV stations. A now orphaned Gizmo finds himself caught inside the building’s genetic testing lab and (after a malfunctioning water fountain and some after-midnight frozen yogurt), the building is crawling with Gremlins.

The film’s zeitgesty satire is surprisingly nuanced, with Daniel Clamp portrayed as a very likable, upbeat, charming and outright heroic figure. He’s simply clueless to the effects that his unrestrained capitalism is having on culture. Dante would revisit this theme with a little more venom in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, in which Jenna Elfman plays a humorless “Vice President of Comedy” who ruins a Looney Tunes film by meddling with the creative process (which explains a lot of the film’s problems).

At the film’s end, Clamp appears to realize the error of his ways, but he’s learned almost nothing: When he sees Gizmo, his first thought (much like the studio executives) is merchandizing. Although, how can he help himself? Gizmo is adorable, and in this movie, they’ve clearly upped the ante, with more singing, dancing, googly eyes and Rambo worshipping. It all has a deliberately meta-edge to it, almost mocking how well the cutesy stuff plays with audiences.

Once the Gremlins show up, any sense of a plot is gone. Every sequence is stuffed with mischief. The Gremlins are spiritual descendants of the Muppets, particularly the early, sadistic proto-Muppets that shelled out Wilkins Coffee in the late ‘50s. But Jim Henson, for all his anarchy, never would have indulged in the grotesqueness of the hard drinking, chain smoking Gremlins.

In its most inspired gag, pulled directly from Looney Tunes, the film’s reel is ripped apart, revealing two Gremlins in the projection booth. We’re brought out to the lobby, see the much beaten projectionist, and are eventually saved by Hulk Hogan. The whole thing lasts about two minutes, a very long time to spend on a scene that features none of the film’s characters and does nothing to advance the plot. But it’s damn fun and sums up the film’s “anything for a laugh” attitude.

Last week, reports surfaced that Warner Brothers may be interested in remaking or rebooting Gremlins, almost definitely with CGI Gremlins and without Joe Dante involved. The idea of CGI Gremlins is totally antithetical to the world and tone that Dante has so firmly established. The Gremlins are symbolic not only of Dante’s sensibility, but their practical effects recall an older generation of filmmaking, of plastic monster masks and elaborately constructed props. They are a parody that became the genuine article and then became a parody again, changing their identity like the tricksters of classical mythology.

Joe Dante’s Gremlins are classic cinematic tricksters, with a long history of pop culture antecedents (from The Twilight Zone to Roald Dahl to The Looney Tunes and their unique combination of mirthful destruction and cinematic deconstruction merit them a distinct and unusual place as pop culture mischief-makers.

Anthony Scibelli is a handsome stand-up comedian and comedy writer. He avoids sunlight, water and eating after midnight. 

The Anarchic Comedy of Joe Dante’s ‘Gremlins’