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There is a moment early in Joe Dante's The Howling ('81) when the heroine, a TV reporter on the trail of a mad killer, steps into a phonebooth in a very dark corner of L.A. nighttown. As she checks in with the cops on the periphery of the hunt, she fails to notice that a man has appeared behind her, just outside the booth. He bulks there, sinister, back to her and to the camera, till she finishes her call and prepares to exit. Then she sees him, gasps, draws back. He turns, favors her with a what-the-hell,-lady? look. She edges out of the booth; he steps in. He was just a guy waiting to use the phone.

For the casual viewer, a standard horror-movie tease; for film buffs, something more. The anonymous lurker happens to be none other than schlockmeister-supreme Roger Corman, the producer and studio boss under whom Dante apprenticed in the movie business. OK, an inside joke. But Dante's jokes have layers and layers. This one's an in-joke for superbuffs like Joe Dante himself, because it also refers to a specific movie moment. Back in 1968, when Roman Polanski worked a similar phonebooth tease in Rosemary's Baby, the menacing/innocuous presence behind Mia Farrow turned out to be that film's producer, former schlockmeister-supreme William Castle.

I bring up this (in itself trivial) gag because it affords an index of how Dante's movie mind operates, and points toward what's so exciting and gratifying about his new film, Gremlins - a horror comedy whose ferocious originality inheres largely in the way it plays off the audience's familiarity with and cozy reliance on movie prototypes, and deliciously confounds them.

The storyline is basic '50s monster mash. While flogging his wares in Chinatown, genially daft inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) comes across an exotic breed of cuddly pet and takes it back to his all-American small town. The creature, called a mogwai, coos, croons, and charms the bejeezus out of everybody within range. However, having a mogwai around entails three dire responsibilities: you don't expose it to bright light, don't get it wet, and don't, absolutely do NOT feed it after midnight. Let no one doubt that all three prohibitions get summarily violated, with the result that the Christmas-card town of Kingston Falls is soon at the mercy of the original mogwai's hundred thoroughly uncuddly offspring. They bite, they kill, they interfere with TV reception. Only the sweet young hero and heroine (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates) have a prayer of stopping them and saving the human race.

As with any good film, the storyline doesn't begin to tell the whole story. Dante gleefully develops his own peculiar filmworld and savors it for some time before the titular gremlins are ready to wreak their mayhem. His small town, unlike the essentially realistic suburbia of E.T. and Poltergeist, has conspicuously been built for the occasion and set within a matte-painted landscape from a bygone film era innocent of location shooting. Frank Capra is its cinematic patron saint, up to a point: It's a Wonderful Life, besides turning up on afternoon TV, supplies the model for the main street, and a key rich-old-meanie character (Polly Holliday in the Lionel Barrymore part). In addition, a recurring bit of business in the Peltzer household is adapted from a homey shtick in You Can't Take It With You, the junior high science teacher shows one of Capra's Bell Telephone documentaries (Hemo the Magnificent), and there's a wild sight gag featuring a photograph of favorite Capra villain Edward Arnold.

The nice-folks characters would fit right into Capra country, too, though unlike Capra's wonderful heroes full of gawky planes and other humanizing imperfections, Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates look as if they'd been cast in molds and polished till they shine. They're cartoon versions of young nice-folk - which brings us to another patron saint, the great Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones (who makes a cameo appearance in this live-action Warner Bros. movie). Like Jones, especially in his Roadrunner mode, Dante is going to disassemble his already stylized filmworld and put it back together according to a demonic pattern wherein the funnier things get, the more horrific they get. And vice versa.

For the full measure of Dante's insidiousness, consider that Gremlins was produced under the aegis of Steven Spielberg (who also shows up as an extra), and its best joke consists in the way Dante is biting the hand that feeds him - though presumably not after midnight. As designed by Chris Walas, the original, unmutated mogwai incorporates the adorability of E.T. and raises it to the nth power. His eyes are big and soft as Bambi's, and he bats them shamelessly; the voice murmurs like a fussy kitten and the furry little stubby-legged body seems made to nestle in the palm of one's hand. Peltzer's family sighs "Aaaahh!" when they first see him. So does the audience, even as we feel that - damn it! - it would be ever so much more cool to resist the manipulation. We know that this thing is no real animal, after all, but a mechanical (and eminently merchandisable) toy. Peltzer is even permitted to name him "Gizmo" - a natural-enough term of affection for a Rube Goldberg type to come up with, but also a bit of rubbing-our-noses-in-it audacity on the part of Dante & Co.

The joke darkens when Gizmo's unholy descendants get loose. If Giz was a too-much version of E.T., the gremlins are the flipside of Giz's cuteness. The strokable ears become batlike, the murmuring a mad gibber, the fur something saurian. More unsettling than the physical transformation is the gremlins' behavior. And here Dante seems to say: you didn't know quite what to do with too much cute - what are you gonna make of the mischief these babies do?

For, like the evolving identity of the poltergeist(s) in the Spielberg production of that name, the gremlins keep shifting valences on us. They're merry pranksters but they also kill: practical jokes or murder, all's one to them. Are they a giddy manifestation of archetypal Evil loosed upon the world, or humankind in a distorting mirror? They like to put on costumes and act out grotesque variations of human pastimes (and incidentally deliver what I'd like to think was the coup de grâce to the breakdancing genre). Of course, much of this behavior seems less an imitation of life than wild-hair embellishments of movie versions of life. Dante's japery reaches its most perverse when he admits the gibbering horde to the local Bijou and suddenly we're looking at, er, a movie audience going merrily ape (with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as target of opportunity) in much the way we've been doing for the past hour or so.

Not to worry, Joe Dante is One Of Us. He's also that rarity among the new generation of moviemakers - someone who doesn't slavishly feed off the movie formulae of the past, but instead truly celebrates the popular artform he's loved and been shaped by. Like Spielberg, his current sponsor, he's reinventing the movies by investing them with his own wit and love, his sharp technical skills and stylistic sense, his (dare we say) diabolical energy and imagination. In Gremlins he's given us what may be the best horror movie and the best comedy of the year.

Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle, June 1984), this article also appeared in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres.

Copyright 1984 by Richard T. Jameson