To be honest, Gremlins is a mess. It offers three simple rules, and doesn’t follow a single one of them. When exposed to water, they should multiply. However, they run through snow and douse themselves in beer. Light bothers them, yet a theatrical showing of Snow White is enjoyed by all. Finally, you can’t feed them after midnight, yet every moment of the day is after midnight.
That goes to show what a grand accomplishment Gremlins is, a classic of the ‘80s that draws the audience in so tightly, they never realize they’ve been duped as Stripe takes off into the snow-covered town.
Gremlins has no problem offering sweet, tender moments in the midst of insanity, chaos, and twisted humor. Gizmo’s first appearance, awkwardly looking up out of his box enclosure, is adorable. The dimmed lights, soft theme from Jerry Goldsmith, and engaging performances from all members of the Peltzer family make it one of the lasting impressions Gremlins leaves behind.
The film also loves going for broke. As the Gremlins exit their metamorphosis, Goldsmith’s weird, purposefully off-key music breaks free after slowly, quietly being introduced earlier passing over a box of the then-mogwai critters. The Gremlins raid a bar in what has to be considered one of the greatest examples of Hollywood puppetry ever filmed. These creatures are alive, completely believable without an ounce of digital assistance.
They destroy the bar, hang from ceiling fans, stick their fingers into light sockets, fill themselves with booze, and shoot each other in the face. That apparently passed as fun when you’re a Gremlin.
This is a Christmas movie for the twisted, maybe even the twisted holiday classic. Those that enjoy seeing gaudy, imported snowmen being ravished by dogs, or garland twisted around and torn on the Gremlin’s bodies undoubtedly watch this one during the holiday season.
In fact, it would not be hard to believe that Gremlin’s hates Christmas, going so far as to let Kate (Phoebe Cates) recount the story of her father. Told in a destroyed storefront with limited backlight, the tragedy is awful, even unnecessary to the story, but adds that small drama to human characters that are otherwise happy when they’re sprayed with orange juice.
Despite the dark, chaotic nature after the birth of the Gremlins, there is a cartoon level of action and visuals at work. The sound of chirping birds as Spike is tossed into a wall, a cross-dressing creature offering tips while others play cards, the infamous blender/microwave assault, and a dancing Gremlin complete with leg warmers all lighten the mood while upping the charm. Gremlins balances it all, not an easy task, and does so with a resounding level of success. It’s something the countless knock-offs (Critters and Munchies to name a few) failed miserably to do.
Grim and dark, Gremlins is not prime hi-def material, but Warner’s VC-1 encode is handled well. There are moments where the grain structure struggles, typically amongst bright red and blue lights. As Hoyt Axon walks through Chinatown (juts past five minutes) in slow motion, there is a notable flare up of compression. Likewise, as Billy tends to Gizmo around 21:20, the blue light causes the same problem. Otherwise, the grain remains intact with few problems.
The first shot of the film in bright light, that of a billboard, carries a color vibrancy this film has likely never seen. The bright red and blue hats of the kids playing in the snow are wonderfully saturated. While darker scenes obviously fail to reach this level, flesh tones remain accurate and the transfer holds up. Black levels, while not richly deep, are more than adequate at offering depth. There are no instances of edge enhancement or ringing, and the print itself suffers from no notable damage.
Facial detail is sporadic, the same goes for clothing and the like, but does offer some instances. Glynn Turman’s (the science teacher) face is nicely textured before he pokes Gizmo with a needle to draw blood. Some close-ups of Billy reveal the same level of definition. While few, these scenes are impressive. This not a transfer with a lot of “wow” factor to it, but it presents Gremlins better than the likely expectation.
Warner provides an uncompressed TrueHD 5.1 mix and Dolby Digital stereo track. Purists will adore the spacious stereo track, which is carried over beautifully into this unobtrusive TrueHD mix. Fronts are well defined, including positional dialogue, a record playing before the first Gremlin assault, car engines, and growls from the slimy critters.
Rear channel usage is generally limited. The plow being driven through the Futterman home could be livelier, but is set within the three fronts. However, there are subtle touches, including wind chimes lightly clanging in the opening shop sequence, and the bar scene offering Gremlin noises in all channels. Bass is sporadic, used when the Gremlin’s hatch and during the theater explosion. It’s not terribly full, but does enough to deliver a jolt.
Dialogue can be slightly rough, lacking the modern expectation of clarity, although making that a complaint is a petty cheap shot given the era. Goldsmith’s score is allowed to bleed beautifully into all channels, creating an enveloping effect that makes it easier to appreciate the subtlety of the music.
Extras begin with two commentaries. The first has director Joe Dante, producer Michael Finnell, and special effects artist Chris Walas diving into the technical details. Notably, there is discussion on how the film would have been handled today, which would undoubtedly be without the charm, but plenty of computer generated effects.
A second commentary brings back Dante to chat with his cast, including Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandel. A featurette from 1983 follows with some limited behind-the-scenes footage, while 10-minutes of deleted scenes have an optional commentary. A photo gallery and trailers remain.