Can you still remember the rules for keeping a Mogwai? if not, you'd do well to revisit Joe Dante's gore-soaked comedy on American consumerism.
"Our stuff can take anything," grumbles Mr Futterman (Dick Miller), a rabidly pro-American member of The Greatest Generation who spends the first act of 1984’s Gremlins raging against the subversive qualities of foreign manufacturing.
Futterman’s angry orations – pithy verbal daggers mostly aimed at everyman protagonist Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) – are essential to director Joe Dante’s extraordinarily entertaining and scathingly critical genre film, establishing a generational gap between nostalgia for the past and a Reagan era dominated by fear and paranoia.
This sharp juxtaposition allows Dante to skewer all forms of ideological rigidity, including the self-destructive western arrogance/miscalculation that allows the titular little monsters to run ramshod over the American dream.
Like many a Hollywood blockbuster from the 1980s, Gremlins considers a potential doomsday scenario witnessed at ground level in small town America, in this case a sleepy 'burb named Kingston Falls. But instead of laying the blame at the feet of communist invasion, this disaster is directly connected to pervasive economic uncertainty.
Billy’s father (Hoyt Axton), the hapless inventor responsible for setting the outbreak of gremlins in motion, is constantly on the road, desperately trying to peddle his innovative products, failing most of the time.
The film’s Capra-esque villain, a crotchety real estate tycoon named Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday), shows no compassion when a panicked mother asks for an extension on her mortgage payment. Finally, Judge Reinhold’s yuppy corporate jerk belittles Billy for not sharing his blind ambition, confirming the spite Dante feels for corporate malfeasance and individual greed.
That this razor-sharp subtext and social awareness lies beneath a smart, sassy and at times brutal horror-comedy is a testament to Dante’s skill at slyly meshing substantial thematic heft and witty, engaging storytelling. The brilliant final sequence, in which Billy battles the sadistic gremlin Stripe inside the town department store, represents the culmination of Dante’s seamless critique of blind consumerism.
If America is to stand tall as the world’s most influential manufacturer of product and ideology, then we must understand the vast responsibility inherent to that position. Gremlins is a rambunctious reminder of how quickly things fall apart as our nation balances on the edge of recession.
Gremlins has a long-standing reputation as one of the classic ’80s blockbusters.
Joe Dante effortlessly weaves genre tropes together to create lasting entertainment with teeth.
Brilliantly potent social critique of Reagan-era fear-mongering and consumerism.