Gremlins might still have come out in the summer of 1984 even if Steven Spielberg hadn't made E.T. two years earlier, but it would certainly have turned out differently. Taking a small-town wonderland and filling it with hateful creatures that rip it to shreds, Gremlins director Joe Dante gave audiences the dark side of the universe Spielberg created, aided in no small part by the latter's role as an executive producer. Most likely, he recognized Dante as a twisted kindred spirit, another director whose films came as much from old comics, late-night television, and back issues of Boys' Life magazine as from Howard Hawks and Akira Kurosawa. Working from a script by a young Chris Columbus, Dante invests Gremlins with a wicked satirical sense even when the film is on its best behavior. Shortly before Christmas, failed inventor Hoyt Axton brings his adult son Zach Galligan a gift from Chinatown: a furry, trilling pet with eyes so wide they would work on a Margaret Keane painting, and with colors inspired, as Dante reveals on one of this new special-edition DVD's two commentary tracks, by Spielberg's cocker spaniel. His name is Gizmo, and he's cute—too cute for the film to stomach, as it turns out. Even before the arrival of the offspring/doppelgängers of the title, something unpleasant happens to Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) in virtually every scene. When the gremlins do appear, bedlam follows, and the film turns into a free-swinging satire as its monsters turn the backlot-perfect town of Kingston Falls into a cross between hell and Mad magazine, engaging in recognizably human behavior all the while. Like Spielberg's Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Gremlins caused some furor upon its release, and its violence helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating. But the film's edge doesn't come from gore so much as from willingness to follow its premise to its destructive conclusion. Even better, Dante's 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch, also available in a fleshed-out new DVD, ignores the edge and jumps right over it. Moving the action (and stars Galligan and Phoebe Cates) to a state-of-the-art office building run by tycoon John Glover, Gremlins 2 begins like a conventional sequel. After fate brings him to a genetics lab located in Glover's building, Gizmo reunites with Galligan shortly before their monstrous problems predictably begin anew. The predictability soon disappears: Less than an hour in, film critic Leonard Maltin shows up to deliver a review of the original Gremlins, a vicious pan cut short by his death at the creatures' hands. It only gets wilder from there. Given full freedom by the sequel-hungry Warner Bros., Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas take advantage of the opportunity, turning in a film that has more in common with one of the studio's golden-age cartoons than with a live-action feature. A cameo from Hulk Hogan, a brainy gremlin voiced by Tony Randall, and a full-scale musical number all appear before Dante wraps up one of the strangest films ever released by a major studio. By that point, the director has done the original Gremlins one better: Instead of a film with a subversive streak, he's made a puckish act of subversion with a streak of film.
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