Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Gremlins was a success because it understood completely what child audiences really want - cheerful mischief, irreverent violence and things that make you go 'ewwww!'"

"The Christmas film that's too frightening for children to see!" blazed headlines in 1984, showing snapshots of monstrous leering faces and whispering about murder most foul. Thus what might have been a forgettable kids' creature feature became a cultural phenomenon. You were nobody in the playground if you hadn't seen Gremlins, and all sorts of stories went around about what supposedly happened in it, traded by kids too ashamed to admit they didn't know. If you couldn't get into the cinema, you could still buy the sticker album. For a generation, Gremlins became the most famous film they'd never seen.

That was back in the time of the video nasty panic, but even today this cheerfully childish film carries a 15 certificate. Why? What's so terrifying about it? And is it really as exciting as all those children came to believe?

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If you don't know already, Gremlins is the story of an American boy, Billy (Zach Galligan), with a rich father who wants to find him the perfect Christmas present. When daddy brings home the cute little mogwai Gizmo, he also has a set of strict instructions, which include: don't get him wet and absolutely do not feed him after midnight. Of course, these rules are still broken. When splashed, Gizmo begins to bud, and a host of new mogwai are born - rather less amicable than their progenitor. Once they get their paws on a sneaky late night snack, all Hell breaks loose. These mogwai, it transpires, are the nymph form of gremlins, and gremlins like nothing better than causing destruction.

By modern standards, the violence in Gremlins looks very tame - but, crucially, it's easily imitable violence centered on domestic situations - one scene of an elderly lady having an accident after her stairlift is sabotaged occasioned particular outrage. It appealed enormously to its target audience because it's just the kind of violence kids would like to get away with if they had no consciences nor fear of adults at all. This isn't an amoral film, though - quite the reverse. Billy, who is initially amused by some of what he sees, quickly realises that things have got out of hand and, with the aid of the original Gizmo, sets about trying to put an end to the gremlins' reign of terror.

Aside from its lucky media break, Gremlins was a success because it understood completely what child audiences really want - cheerful mischief, irreverent violence and things that make you go "ewwww!" For the same reason its appeal to adults is limited, though many will experience it as a nostalgic treat. Tightly plotted to begin with, it is nevertheless predictable and it descends into an incoherent chase movie before the end. There's some really sharp dialogue (including an unforgettable conversation about Santa Claus), but this soon gives way to a lot of shouting and running about. Great for kids; nostalgia value aside, not so hot once you're old enough to eat after midnight yourself.

Reviewed on: 22 Dec 2007
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Gremlins packshot
The cute creature Billy gets for Christmas creates chaos by producing a legion of mischievous monsters.
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Director: Joe Dante

Writer: Chris Columbus

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Corey Feldman, Polly Holliday, Hoyt Axton

Year: 1984

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

The Goonies
Gremlins 2: The New Batch