June 8th, 1984 was a great day for movie nerds, particularly those with an affection for special effects, scares and belly laughs. Not only did they get “Ghostbusters” in theaters that day (as we’ve already looked at, but they also got “Gremlins,” the subversive PG-rated horror-comedy from the A-list trio of writer Chris Columbus, director Joe Dante and producer Steven Spielberg.
The film, which involves young Billy (Zach Galligan), who fails to obey the strict rules regarding looking after his new pet (all together now: don’t get them in bright daylight, don’t get them wet, and whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight) and ends up unleashing a plague of monsters on his suburban town. It was the first film released under Spielberg’s Amblin logo, and embodies much of what that company came to represent, although “Gremlins” was also violent enough that it helped give birth to the PG-13 rating. With the film being released 28 years ago today, we’ve assembled five facts about the much-loved picture. Pay more attention to them than Billy did to the rules of the mogwai, or you may end up regretting it…
1. Chris Columbus’ original script was much, much darker, and was toned down by producer Steven Spielberg.
When he wrote the script, Chris Columbus (who would go on to direct megahits like “Home Alone” and the first two “Harry Potter” movies) was a 24-year-old NYU grad — a classmate of Charlie Kaufman, curiously — living in the garment district of Manhattan. The young screenwriter was inspired by the scurry he heard at night, later relating, “By day, it was pleasant enough, but at night, what sounded like a platoon of mice would come out and to hear them skittering around in the blackness was really creepy.” The spec script was intended as a writing sample, but found its way to Steven Spielberg, who snapped it up. There were some conditions, however: the Bearded One found Columbus’ take too dark. For instance, in early drafts, the gremlins attack a McDonalds, eating the customers, kill science teacher Dr. Futterman with a fistful of hypodermic needles in the face, and kill both Billy’s dog and his mother, throwing the latter’s head down the stairs. All that being said, Spielberg did back up Joe Dante when he fought to keep Phoebe Cates‘ excellent monologue about her father’s death, which the studio hated. But the film’s violence (including Gremlins meeting deaths in blenders and microwaves) was still enough to cause complaints and walkouts from the PG-rated film. Together with Spielberg’s own “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom,” which had opened a couple of weeks earlier, “Gremlins” caused the MPAA to use the PG-13 rating as a halfway house.
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2. Judd Nelson or Emilio Estevez nearly headed up the cast, which includes a host of cameos.
Columbus was thought to be too inexperienced to direct, so after flirting with the idea of a young Disney animator turned short film director named Tim Burton, Spielberg settled on Joe Dante, who’d melded horror and comedy three years earlier with “The Howling.” Once he was on board, they started assembling the cast, with future “Breakfast Club” stars Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez among those in the running to play Billy. Meanwhile, Phoebe Cates was always the first choice to play his girlfriend Kate, although the studio was concerned about her risque reputation thanks to “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.” Dante always wanted Hoyt Axton to play Billy’s father, Randall, thanks to his performance in “The Black Stallion,” but came close to casting future “Batman” star Pat Hingle (Dante says on his commentary that he gave the best audition, but felt he might have pulled focus), while Pat Harrington Jr. of TV’s “One Day At A Time” was also in the mix. Elsewhere, both Japanese actor Mako (“The Sand Pebbles,” “Conan The Barbarian“) and British former “Doctor Who” Jon Pertwee were considered to play the mysterious Mr. Wing, who sells Gizmo to Randall in the first place, before Chinese actor Keye Luke (the original Kato in “Green Hornet” serials) got the gig. The film’s stuffed with cameos: look out for Cates’ ‘Fast Times’ co-star Judge Reinhold as Billy’s superior in the bank (the actor had a much bigger part, which was cut down in the edit), cameos from Spielberg, composer Jerry Goldsmith and future “Dancing With The Stars” host Tom Bergeron as a reporter, while the great Nicky Katt (“Dazed And Confused,” “The Dark Knight“) appears as a 13-year old schoolkid.
3. The voice of Gizmo was provided by future “Deal Or No Deal” host Howie Mandel.
Of course, the human cast are essentially set dressing to the cute-as-a-button Gizmo, and his less friendly, fed-after-midnight offspring, both of whom went on to grace merchandise the world over (this writer, though born two years after the film’s release, fondly remembers his “Gremlins” lunchbox). Again, in Columbus’ darker original draft, Gizmo was turned into a gremlin by the film’s end, but Spielberg saw how much audiences would love him, and created the Gremlin character Stripe to serve as the main antagonist in his place. To serve as the voice of Gizmo, Dante hired an unlikely source: stand up comic, and star of “St. Elsewhere,” Howie Mandel, who would go on to become best known as the host of gameshow “Deal Or No Deal” (while “Police Academy” human sound effect machine Michael Winslow voiced some of the other Gremlins, along with Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime). Mandel was undeniably committed to the part: he was allowed to ad-lib some of his dialogue, and learned his audible lines in several foreign languages, in order to dub them himself. Not everyone fell for Gizmo, however: the puppet created for the character malfunctioned frequently during filming (to the extent where the cast fell asleep on set at one point waiting for it to be fixed). As a result, the scene where Gizmo is tied to a dartboard and used as target practice was added to appease the angry crew. Of course, if you’ve read the novelization to the film, you’ll know that this act could have turned into a galactic incident: George Gipe’s spinoff book gives the creatures a backstory whereby they were created by a scientist in an alien world, but were physiologically unstable, leading them to turn into gremlins. No, we don’t know how they got to Earth.
4. The film inspired a now-discontinued theme park ride at the Warner Bros. parks in Australia and Germany.
Universal and Disney still dominate the theme park world, as far as studios go, but you may not be aware that Warner Bros. did in fact have their own attractions, albeit outside the United States; Warner Bros Movie World, on the Gold Coast of Australia, and Warner Bros. Moive World Germany (now sold, and renamed Movie Park Germany), which each opened in the early 1990s. And when both came into existence, they each had a ride based on Gremlins — “Warner Bros. Classics & Great Gremlins Adventures,” which was renamed “Gremlins Invasion” in Germany. Guests would sit down in a movie theater to watch outtakes from a selection of WB movies, only for Gremlins to invade the auditorium. Visitors were then ushered into a vehicle that would take them through the archive to escape the beasts. It doesn’t sound like much of a thrill ride, and it was replaced in Australia after ten years with the “Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster,” but remained in operation in Germany until 2004, when the park was renamed and stripped of most of its associations with the studio.
5. According to some, the film is super-racist.
Not everyone fell for the film, however. At the time, and for years afterwards, criticism that the movie used the gremlins as a racist caricature of black youth emerged. In her seminal “Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies,” Patricia Turner pointed to the creatures eating fried chicken, breakdancing to hip-hop, and wearing newsboy caps and dark glasses at night as reflecting “negative African-American stereotypes,” and as recently as this year, Complex Magazine labelled it as one of the 50 most racist films ever made. One of the strengths of the film, arguably, is the mutable nature of the creatures; most took it as a critique of capitalism, rather than a racially-targeted message, but it does strike somewhat of a sour note on a rewatch (although nothing compared to, say, “Transformers 2“). Certainly when you’re being defended by the horrible assholes of white supremacist site Stormfront, it’s hard to feel that you’re on the right side of history.