If Gremlins has just one satirical target, it’s you. Though originally billed as a family-friendly trifle, the film has since been reclaimed by the nostalgic as a sly and subversive satire, a vicious black comedy using its veneer of cuteness to smuggle in a diatribe against…well, what exactly? Nobody seems quite sure. Its proponents, of course, offer a trove of differing and often incompatible opinions about the film’s tacitly delivered thesis, each more radical than the next: It’s aggressively critical of consumerism, you’ll read, or of small-town values, Christmas, late capitalism, America, the entire Western world. And the film’s detractors, too, have found no shortage of ideological perspectives from which to find it problematic, and there’s a compelling reading of Gremlins as one of the most brazenly racist Hollywood productions of the 1980s.
What is it about Gremlins that makes it such a popular site for projection? It might be that the gremlins themselves, alternately adorable and nefarious, are too ambiguously defined to ward off specific readings. This is at least partly a case of sloppy screenwriting: The critters have no origin story, no apparent motivation, and very little consistency from one scene to the next, which makes it difficult for the film to impose any clear meaning on them or to code their behavior a certain way. But that difficulty also makes it very easy for the audience to invest in the gremlins a coherent meaning of their choosing, and so creatures that are essentially ciphers become surrogates for racial caricature or consumer culture or whatever else with little effort on the part of the viewer. As a result, Gremlins becomes a very different kind of satire: one targeted at its own audience.
The audience, after all, is the morally suspect group indirectly responsible for the havoc and mischief the gremlins cause, because it’s the audience that loves to consume violence and destruction and misbehavior of all kinds. Here the spectacle collapses in on itself. How else are we to take the death of Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), the immensely dislikable old badger who threatens the life of our protagonist’s dog, if not as just punishment, there for us to savor? When the gremlins sneak into her home to terrorize her, we’re watching the film’s antagonists murder an essentially innocent person, which should be upsetting. But it clearly isn’t: We hate Mrs. Deagle, and we’re glad to see her get what was so obviously coming to her. Dante is encouraging us to identify with the villains of his film, and when he does so a funny thing happens: The gremlins come to stand in for us. They’re not simply “consumers” or any facelessly culpable group; they’re us, the audience watching, and the film is criticizing us for relishing our own demise at our own hands.
Not that we’re especially aware of it. People are notoriously averse to criticism, and Gremlins goes out of its way to reassure us that its entertainments are safe to enjoy. Keeping its satire ambiguous is an effective strategy for deflecting our concerns that we’re being admonished. Lapping up the spectacle of violence, it’s usually assumed, is acceptable as long as there’s a cogent point to be understood, and “consumer culture corrupts” will do just fine in a pinch. As he did just as effectively in his similarly subversive “family” feature Small Soldiers, made more than a decade later, Dante wants us to feel comfortable distancing ourselves from what we perceive to be the film’s true target, because if we’re busy critiquing some nameless Other we’re more susceptible to allowing a deeper and more salient satirical point to be directed at us.
In Small Soldiers, both corporate fat cats and small-town meatheads bore the brunt of the overt criticism, which made it easier for Dante to lambast even passive (and pacifist) viewers for savoring on-screen violence when it’s coded as “action.” Gremlins is a bit more subtle in the way it shifts the blame from the more obviously “corrupt” characters to the more outwardly likable ones (and eventually to us), but there are moments when it signals its true intentions loud and clear: a mechanic’s complaints about an invasion of “foreign” goods is a pretty striking slap on the wrist to Hollywood’s impulsive ethnocentrism (hey, it was the Cold War, after all), and there’s not much interpretive wiggle room when a crowd of distractible gremlins piles into an old movie theater, enraptured and slack-jawed before the flickering lights. It’s hard to imagine watching Gremlins in a theater and not feeling ever so slightly in the spotlight.
Nostalgia has somewhat softened the satirical impact of the film, if only because it’s difficult for a beloved childhood memory to attack you for liking it. But divorced from that sort of fondness, Gremlins has retained a lot of its original bite, and, with violent imperialist epics like Avatar capturing the hearts of today’s youth, it’s never been easier to appreciate the old-fashioned moralism of Dante’s criticisms. It’s become increasingly clear that Dante was to the ‘80s and ‘90s what Frank Tashlin was to decades prior, and I’m not sure if there’s a family-friendly filmmaker working in Hollywood today with quite the same flair for gleeful self-critique. We desperately need someone with the gall to tell us that we suck.
Though imperfect and, like the gremlins themselves, rather inconsistent from one shot to the next, Gremlins has still never looked better. Joe Dante is a severely underrated visual stylist, and this 1080p transfer does a commendable job showing off what was frankly his mastery of color; the (meaningful) reds, whites, and blues come through warmly and richly, and whether out of laziness or intent, that seductive mid-'80s grain is left untouched. In any case, the source materials don't appear to have been especially well-preserved, and the poor quality of certain frames and shots suggests damage that would have required a substantial amount of restoration. The sound is well balanced throughout, though the voices in the front channels have a tendency to sound slightly muted or muffled during otherwise silent sequences.
Beyond the usual refuse (a photo gallery, two trailers, and a trailer for the sequel), Gremlins offers a pretty forgettable making-of featurette and a collection of unimportant deleted scenes. Additionally, the disc includes two separate commentary tracks, the first with Dante and members of the crew and the second with Dante and members of the cast; as you might expect, the former leans toward technical discussions and the latter is largely anecdotal.
A blackly comic satire aimed squarely at its own audience, this 25th anniversary edition of Gremlins is an adequate presentation of a great film.