Steven Spielberg was the film's executive producer, with the film being produced by Michael Finnell and written by Chris Columbus, drawing on legends of gremlins going back to World War II. The film stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, with Howie Mandel providing the voice of Gizmo, the main mogwai character.
Randall Peltzer, a struggling inventor, visits a Chinatown antique store in the hope of finding a Christmas present for his son Billy. In the store, Randall encounters a small, furry creature called a mogwai (Cantonese: 魔怪, "monster"). The owner, Mr. Wing, refuses to sell the creature to Randall. However, his grandson secretly sells the mogwai to Randall, warning him to remember three important rules that must never be broken – do not expose the mogwai to bright lights or sunlight which will kill it, do not let it get wet, and never feed it after midnight.
Randall returns home to Kingston Falls where he gives the mogwai to Billy as a pet. Billy works in the local bank, where he fears his dog Barney will be captured and killed by the elderly Mrs. Deagle. Randall names the mogwai “Gizmo” and Billy makes sure to treat him well. When Billy’s friend Pete spills a glass of water over Gizmo, five more mogwai spawn from his back, a more troublemaking sort led by the aggressive Stripe. Billy shows one of the mogwai to his former science teacher Mr. Hanson, spawning another mogwai, who Hanson experiments on. Back at home, Stripe’s gang tricks Billy into feeding them after midnight by chewing out the power cord to his bedside clock. They make cocoons, as does Hanson’s mogwai. Shortly after, the cocoons hatch and they emerge as mischievous, reptilian monsters that torture Gizmo and try to murder Billy’s mother, while Hanson is killed by his gremlin.
All of the Gremlins are killed except Stripe, who escapes to a local YMCA and jumps into a swimming pool, spawning an army of gremlins who wreak chaos around Kingston Falls. Billy tries to warn the police, but they don’t believe him. Many people are injured or outright killed by the gremlins' rampage, including Mrs. Deagle, who is launched out of her house on a stair lift that has been sabotaged by the creatures. At the local bar, the gremlins have fun until the barmaid Kate Beringer, Billy’s girlfriend, flashes them with a camera and escapes into the bank with Billy and Gizmo. While hiding, she reveals her father died in a chimney while dressed as Santa Claus. Billy and Kate discover the town has fallen silent and the Gremlins are watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the local theater. They set off an explosion, killing all the Gremlins except Stripe.
Billy chases Stripe into a Montgomery Ward store, where Stripe climbs into a water fountain and tries to spawn more gremlins. Gizmo arrives in a toy car and opens a skylight, exposing Stripe to sunlight and melting him. In the aftermath of the rampage, Mr. Wing arrives to collect Gizmo, scolding the Peltzers for their carelessness, thinking the Western world is not ready but comments that Billy might some day be ready to care for Gizmo properly. Gizmo likewise believes so, having become attached to Billy. Mr. Wing departs with Gizmo in tow.
Gremlins was produced at a time when combining horror and comedy was becoming increasingly popular. According to Professor Noël Carroll, Ghostbusters, released the same weekend as Gremlins, and the comic strip The Far Side also followed this trend. Carroll argued that there was now a new genre emphasizing sudden shifts between humorous and horrific scenes, drawing laughs with plot elements that have been traditionally used to scare.
The notion of gremlins was first conceived during World War II when mechanical failures in aircraft were jokingly blamed on the small monsters. The term "gremlins" also entered popular culture as children's author Roald Dahl published a book called The Gremlins in 1943, based on the mischievous creatures. Walt Disney considered making a film of it. A Bugs Bunny cartoon of the era, Falling Hare, has him battling a gremlin on an airplane. Joe Dante had read The Gremlins and said that the book was of some influence on his film. In 1983, Dante publicly distanced his work from earlier films, explaining, "Our gremlins are somewhat different—they're sort of green and they have big mouths and they smile a lot and they do incredibly, really nasty things to people and enjoy it all the while".
The story of Gremlins was conceived by Chris Columbus. As Columbus explained, his inspiration came from his loft, when at night "what sounded like a platoon of mice would come out and to hear them skittering around in the blackness was really creepy". He then wrote the original screenplay as a spec script to show potential employers that he had writing abilities. The story was not actually intended to be filmed until Steven Spielberg took an interest in turning it into a film. As Spielberg explained, "It's one of the most original things I've come across in many years, which is why I bought it."
After deciding to executive produce the film, Spielberg chose Dante as his director because of his experience with horror-comedy; Dante had previously directed The Howling (1981); however, in the time between The Howling and the offer to film Gremlins, he had experienced a lull in his career. The film's producer was Michael Finnell, who had also worked on The Howling with Dante. Spielberg took the project to Warner Bros. and co-produced it through his own company, Amblin Entertainment.
The film's script went through a few drafts before a shooting script was finalized. The first version was much darker than the final film. Various scenes were cut, including one which portrayed Billy's mother dying in her struggle with the gremlins, with her head thrown down the stairs when Billy arrives. Dante later explained the scene made the film darker than the filmmakers wanted. There was also a scene where the gremlins ate Billy's dog and a scene where the gremlins attacked a McDonald's, eating customers instead of burgers. Also, instead of Stripe being a mogwai who becomes a gremlin, there was originally no mogwai named Stripe; rather, Gizmo was supposed to transform into Stripe the gremlin. Spielberg overruled this plot element as he felt Gizmo was cute and that audiences would want him to be present throughout the film.
A famous urban legend is referenced in the film, in which Kate reveals in a speech that her father died at Christmas when he dressed as Santa Claus and broke his neck while climbing down the family's chimney. After the film was completed, the speech proved to be controversial, and studio executives insisted upon its removal, because they felt it was too ambiguous as to whether it was supposed to be funny or sad. Dante stubbornly refused to take the scene out, saying it represented the film as a whole, which had a combination of horrific and comedic elements. Spielberg did not like the scene but, despite his creative control, he viewed Gremlins as Dante's project and allowed him to leave it in. A parody of this scene is featured in Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Phoebe Cates was cast as Kate, Billy's girlfriend, despite concerns that she was known for playing more risqué parts, such as Linda Barrett in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Spielberg urged the casting of the relatively unknown Zach Galligan as Billy because he saw chemistry between Galligan and Cates during auditions. Galligan later compared himself to Billy, saying he was a "geeky kid", and that being in the film "was really kind of a dream" given "what I get to do, what my character gets to do, blow up movie theatres", adding that he "got to work with great people".
In contrast to Galligan, many of the supporting actors and actresses were better known. Veteran actor Glynn Turman portrayed the high school science teacher whose study of a newborn Mogwai leads to his death after it forms a cocoon and emerges as a vicious gremlin. Dick Miller, who was a regular in Dante's films, was another experienced actor on the set, playing a World War II veteran who first refers to the creatures as gremlins. Rand was played by Hoyt Axton, who was always the filmmakers' preferred choice for the role even though it was widely contested by other actors. Axton's experience included acting as the father in The Black Stallion (1979), and he was also a country music singer-songwriter. After an introductory scene to Gremlins was cut, Axton's voice earned him the added role of the narrator to establish some context. Mr. Wing was played by Keye Luke, a renowned film actor, whose film career spanned half a century. Although in reality he was around 80 at the time of filming, and his character was very elderly, Luke's youthful appearance had to be covered by make-up.
Corey Feldman, who up to that time had primarily been in commercials, played Pete Fountaine, establishing his early credentials as a child actor.Polly Holliday, an actress best known for her role in Alice, played Mrs. Deagle. Dante considered the casting fortunate, as she was well-known and he considered her to be talented. Two other well-known actors, Fast Times' Judge Reinhold and character actor Edward Andrews, received roles that were significantly reduced after the film was edited; they played Billy's superiors at the bank.
Some of the performances were shot on the backlot of Universal Studios in California (Mrs. Deagle's house was one such set as well as the opening street scenes in Chinatown, which were filmed on the Warner Bros. Studios backlot). This required fake snow; Dante also felt it was an atmosphere that would make the special effects more convincing. As the special effects relied mainly on puppetry (an earlier attempt to use monkeys was abandoned because the test monkey panicked when made to wear a gremlin head), the actors worked alongside some of the puppets. Nevertheless, after the actors finished their work for good, a great deal of effort was spent finishing the effects. Numerous small rubber puppets, some of which were mechanical, were used to portray Gizmo and the gremlins. They were designed by Chris Walas. There was more than one Gizmo puppet, and occasionally Galligan, when carrying one, would set him down off camera, and when Gizmo appeared again sitting on a surface it was actually a different puppet wired to the surface. These puppets had many limitations. The Gizmo puppets were particularly frustrating because they were smaller and thus broke down more. Consequently, to satisfy the crew, a scene was included in which the gremlins hang Gizmo on a wall and throw darts at him. This was included on a list that the crew created known to them as the "Horrible Things to do to Gizmo" list.
A few marionettes were also used. Other effects required large mogwai faces and ears to be produced for close-ups, as the puppets were less capable of conveying emotion. Consequently, large props simulating food were needed for the close-ups in the scene in which the mogwai feast after midnight. An enlarged Gizmo puppet was also needed for the scene in which he multiplies. The new mogwai, who popped out of Gizmo's body as small, furry balls which then started to grow, were balloons and expanded as such. Walas had also created the exploding gremlin in the microwave by means of a balloon that was allowed to burst.
Howie Mandel provided the voice for Gizmo, and prolific voice actor Frank Welker provided the voice for Stripe. It was Welker who suggested Mandel perform in Gremlins. The puppets' lines were mostly invented by the voice actors, based on cues from the physical actions of the puppets, which were filmed before the voice work. When developing the voice for Gizmo, Mandel explained, "[Gizmo was] cute and naive, so, you know, I got in touch with that... I couldn't envision going any other way or do something different with it". The majority of the other gremlins' voices were performed by Michael Winslow and Peter Cullen, while the remaining voices were done by Bob Bergen, Kevin Michael Richardson, Fred Newman, Mark Dodson, Bob Holt, and Michael Sheehan.
The film's score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, who won a Saturn Award for Best Music for his efforts. The main score was composed with the objective of conveying "the mischievous humor and mounting suspense of Gremlins". Goldsmith also wrote Gizmo's song, which was hummed by a child actress and acquaintance of Goldsmith's, rather than Mandel himself. Goldsmith also appears in the film (as does Steven Spielberg), in the scene where Rand calls home from the salesman's convention.
The soundtrack album was released by Geffen Records as a specially priced mini-album on LP and cassette (Goldsmith's music comprised all of side two) and reissued on compact disc in 1993 only in Germany.
- Gremlins...Mega Madness – Michael Sembello (3:50)
- Make It Shine – Quarterflash (4:10)
- Out/Out – Peter Gabriel (7:00)
- The Gift (4:51)
- Gizmo (4:09)
- Mrs. Deagle (2:50)
- The Gremlin Rag (4:03)
"Gremlins...Mega Madness" was also released as a single, with "The Gremlin Rag" as its B-side.
In 2011, Film Score Monthly issued a two-disc release of the soundtrack, with the complete score on disc one and the original soundtrack album on disc two (representing the latter's first North American CD issue); this was the label's final Jerry Goldsmith album.
DISC ONE: The Film Score
Tracks 26–34 are listed as bonus tracks.
DISC TWO: 1984 Soundtrack Album
- Gremlins...Mega Madness – Michael Sembello 3:52
- Make It Shine – Quarterflash 4:11
- Out/Out – Peter Gabriel 7:02
- The Gift 4:58
- Gizmo 4:14
- Mrs. Deagle 2:54
- The Gremlin Rag 4:13
Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, also rated PG, Gremlins was one of two films in 1984 to influence the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, with Red Dawn being the first film released in theaters that was given the new rating in August 1984. The scene in which a gremlin explodes in the microwave was particularly influential to the idea that some films too light to be rated R are still too mature to be rated PG. The change to the rating system was not insignificant; the rating PG-13 turned out to be appealing to many film patrons, as it implied some excitement without being too explicit.
Film critics' reviews of Gremlins were mostly positive. Roger Ebert approved of the film, declaring it to not only be "fun", but also a "sly series of send-ups", effectively parodying many elemental film storylines. In his opinion, Gremlins did this partly through depictions of mysterious worlds (the shop in Chinatown) and tyrannical elderly women (Mrs. Deagle). Ebert also believed the rule in which a mogwai cannot eat after midnight was inspired by fairy tales, and that the final scenes parody classic horror films. He connected Kate's speech about her father with "the great tradition of 1950s sick jokes". Conversely, Leonard Maltin disapproved of the film, and his view was made clear in remarks he made on the television show Entertainment Tonight. He called the film "icky" and "gross". He later wrote that despite being set in a "picture-postcard town" and blending the feel of It's a Wonderful Life (a clip of which appears in Gremlins) with that of The Blob, the film is "negated by too-vivid violence and mayhem"; giving the film two out of four stars. Maltin later made a cameo appearance in Gremlins 2, repeating his criticisms of the original on film, as an in-joke, before being throttled by the creatures; he later gave the second film a more positive rating, three out of four stars.
While some critics criticized the film's depictions of violence and greed—such as death scenes, Kate's speech, and the gremlins' gluttony—for lacking comic value, scholar Charlotte Miller instead interpreted these as a satire of "some characteristics of Western civilization", suggesting that Westerners may take too much satisfaction from violence. Gremlins can also be interpreted as a statement against technology, in that some characters, such as Billy's father, are overly dependent on it. In contrast, Mr. Wing is shown to have a strong distaste for television. Kirkpatrick Sale also interpreted Gremlins as an anti-technology film in his book Rebels Against the Future. Another scholar suggested that the film is meant to express a number of observations of society by having the gremlin characters shift in what they are meant to represent. At different times, they are depicted as teenagers, the wealthy establishment, or fans of Disney films.
Another scholar drew a connection between the microwave scene and urban legends about pets dying in microwave ovens. He described the portrayal of this urban legend in the film as successful, but that meant it seemed terrible. This is indeed a scene that is thought of as being one of the film's most violent depictions; with even Roger Ebert expressing some fear in his review that the film might encourage children to try similar things with their pets.
Gremlins has been criticized for more than its depictions of violence. One BBC critic wrote in 2000 that "The plot is thin and the pacing is askew". However, that critic also complimented the dark humour contrasted against the ideal Christmas setting. In 2002, another critic wrote that in hindsight, Gremlins has "corny special effects" and that the film will tend to appeal to children more so than to adults; he also said the acting was dull.
Despite the initial mixed criticism, Gremlins has continued to receive critical praise over the years. It currently holds an 85% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, and is considered by many as one of the best films of 1984.
Since its release, some people have criticized Gremlins as being culturally insensitive. Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that the film presents gremlins as African Americans. In Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies, Patricia Turner writes that the gremlins "reflect negative African-American stereotypes" in their dress and behavior. They are shown "devouring fried chicken with their hands", listening to black music, breakdancing, and wearing sunglasses after dark and newsboy caps, a style common among African American males in the 1980s.
Financially, Gremlins was a success. Produced on an $11 million budget, it was more expensive than Spielberg had originally intended but still relatively cheap for its time. The trailer introduced the film to audiences by briefly explaining that Billy receives a strange creature as a Christmas present, by going over the three rules, and then coming out with the fact that the creatures transform into terrible monsters. This trailer showed little of either the mogwai or the gremlins. In contrast to this, other advertisements concentrated on Gizmo, overlooked the gremlins, and made the film look similar to Spielberg's earlier family film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Gremlins was released into North American theaters on June 8, 1984, the same day as Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters. Gremlins ranked second, with $12.5 million in its first weekend, $1.1 million less than Ghostbusters. By the end of its American screenings on November 29, it had grossed $148,168,459 domestically. This made it the fourth highest-grossing film of the year, behind Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In August 1984, it opened in Argentina and Spain, and in October it premiered in West Germany. Screenings began in Mexico, Australia, and much of the rest of Europe in December. Since Gremlins had an international audience, different versions of the film were made to overcome cultural barriers. Mandel learned to speak his few intelligible lines, such as "Bright light!", in various languages, including German. Regional music and humor were also incorporated into foreign-language versions. Dante credited this work as being one of the factors which helped to make Gremlins a worldwide success. However, many critics questioned the summer release date of the film in America, as the film takes place during the Christmas holiday season, causing them to comment that it should have had a Christmas release date instead.
In addition to this, there were also complaints from audiences about the violence depicted in the film. These complaints were particularly present in people who had brought their children to see the film, many of whom walked out of the theater before the film had ended. Dante admitted to reporters later that "the idea of taking a 4-year-old to see Gremlins, thinking it's going to be a cuddly, funny animal movie and then seeing that it turns into a horror picture, I think people were upset... They felt like they had been sold something family friendly and it wasn't entirely family friendly".
The film became available to audiences again when it was brought back to theaters on August 30, 1985. This additional release brought its gross up to $153,083,102.
Gremlins was released on VHS, CED Videodisc, and Beta in 1985, and made $79,500,000 in video rental stores. The film was released on DVD in 1997 in a bare bones presentation. It included both full screen and widescreen versions and the film's trailer. It was repackaged in 1999 with the same disc, but a different cover. On August 20, 2002, a "special edition" DVD was released, which featured cast and filmmakers' commentary and deleted scenes. A 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition was released on December 1, 2009.
With its commercial themes, particularly the perceived cuteness of the character Gizmo, Gremlins became the center of considerable merchandising. Due to this, it became part of a rising trend in film, which had received a boost from Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Manufacturers including LJN produced versions of Gizmo as dolls or stuffed animals. (The latter of which became a popular high demand toy during the holiday season of 1984.) Both Gizmo and the gremlins were mass-produced as action figures, and Topps printed trading cards based upon the film. A product placement deal with fast food chain Hardee's also led to a series of five book-and-cassette/45 records adaptations of the film's story. Starting in the early 2000s, companies such as Jun Planning and the National Entertainment Collectibles Association produced all-new Gremlins toys and collectibles.
The film was also the basis for a novel of the same name by George Gipe, published by Avon Books in June 1984. The novel offered an origin for mogwai and gremlins as a prologue. Supposedly, mogwai were created as gentle, contemplative creatures by a scientist on an alien world. However, it was discovered that their physiology was unstable. The end result was that only 1 in 10,000 mogwai would retain their sweet, loving demeanor. The rest would change into creatures that the novel referred to as "mischievous". The minority mogwai (the 1 in 10,000) are all but immortal by human standards, though Gizmo explains to Stripe that if he were to undergo the transformation himself, he would become like the others, "short lived and violent." This origin is unique to the novel but is referred to in the novelization of Gremlins 2 by David Bischoff. No definitive origin for mogwai or gremlins is given in either Gremlins film.
In addition to this, Gremlins brand breakfast cereal was produced by Ralston concurrent to and for a few years after the first film was released in 1984. The front of the cereal box featured Gizmo, and inside were decals of the malevolent gremlins, including Stripe.
Several officially-licensed video games based on the film have been produced. One of the first was Gremlins, released by Atari, Inc. for their 2600 console.
Atari, Inc. released a completely different (and more technically advanced) game- also called Gremlins- for the Atari 5200 console and the Apple II, Commodore 64, and IBM PC computers. Although the Atari 5200 version went to manufacturing in 1984, the turmoil surrounding Jack Tramiel's takeover of Atari's consumer business resulted in it not being released until 1986.
In the 2000s, more games were released; Gremlins: Unleashed! was released on Game Boy Color in 2001. The game was about Gizmo trying to catch Stripe and thirty other gremlins, while the gremlins also try to turn Gizmo into a gremlin. Both Gizmo and Stripe are playable characters in the game.
A Gremlins Team Pack was released for Lego Dimensions on November 18, 2016. The pack includes minifigures of Gizmo and Stripe, a constructible polaroid camera and RC car, and grants access to an Adventure World and Battle Arena based on the film. Howie Mandel and Frank Welker reprise their respective roles as Gizmo and Stripe, while Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton and Frances Lee McCain reprise as non-playable characters Kate Beringer, Randall Peltzer and Lynn Peltzer respectively.
At the time of the film's release, an interactive fiction game based on scenes from the film, entitled Gremlins: The Adventure (1985), was released for various home computers, including the Acorn Electron, the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum. The game was written by Brian Howarth for Adventure Soft and was text-based, with full-color illustrations on some formats.
The film not only spawned the sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and an advertisement for British Telecom, but is believed to have been the inspiration for several unrelated films about small monsters. These include Critters, Ghoulies, Troll, Hobgoblins and Munchies.
In music, the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai are named after the film's creatures: as for the reason for the band chose this as their name, their guitarist, Stuart Braithwaite, has stated that "it has no significant meaning and we always intended on getting a better one, but like a lot of other things we never got round to it". Welsh singer and songwriter Rod Thomas performs under the name Bright Light Bright Light, which is a direct quote from the film.
In January 2013, Vulture reported that Warner Bros. was negotiating with Amblin Entertainment to reboot the Gremlins franchise. Seth Grahame-Smith was tapped to produce, alongside David Katzenberg. In January 2015, Grahame-Smith stated that the project has been put on hold. In November 2015, Zach Galligan confirmed that the third film will be a sequel and not a reboot.
In a December 2016 interview with Bleeding Cool, Galligan again spoke about a third film saying that "Warner Bros. definitely wants it, Chris Columbus wants to do it because he’d like to undo the Gremlins 2 thing as he wasn’t thrilled with it, and Spielberg wants to." He claimed Gremlins 3 is being written by Carl Ellsworth. In a interview with /Film in 2017, a script was written by Chris Columbus. His script explored the idea that has been on the fan's mind for a long time: "if all the gremlins come from getting Gizmo wet and feeding his mogwai offspring after midnight, should Gizmo be eliminated?" He desepcribed his script as "twisted and dark".
In 2017, gremlins were featured in the animated film The Lego Batman Movie, with director Chris McKay explaining he loved the characters. The gremlins were among numerous villains from outside of the Batman franchise playing a role in the film, with many of the added antagonists owned by Warner Bros.