The Story Behind Gremlins

It's hard - and scary - to believe that it's really been 25 years since Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg unleashed Gremlins on the world.

But the chattering, chaos-causing critters are indeed celebrating their silver cinematic anniversary this year, and they don't look a day over 600 (it's the faces).

Take a stroll with us back through time and down the main street of the picturesque small American town of Kingston Falls. As Christmas creeps up, the craziness is about to begin.

And all because one bloke couldn't follow a few simple rules…

1. A Brief History Of Gremlins

Long before the movie entered the minds of Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus and Joe Dante, gremlins had been causing problems for humanity.

The term "gremlin" originated with the Royal Air Force, becoming a slang term with pilots and technicians around the late 1920s. But it was truly popular among servicemen during World War Two, where the imaginary creatures were blamed for equipment failures and sabotage.

Despite the presence of faults and errors in the RAF, it seems that the annoying little beasts didn't favour one side or the other - the German military reported similar problems and "gremlins" as the cause for mechanical failure have long since passed into common use.

That's partly thanks to author Roald Dahl, who was familiar with the myth following his military service with the 80th Squadron of the RAF in the Middle East and a crash landing in Libya.

He was inspired to write a novel titled The Gremlins in 1942, in which he describes males (widgets) and females (fifinellas) of the species. Dahl submitted his story to the head of the British Information service, Sidney Bernstein, who suggested it get passed on to Walt Disney.

While Disney loved the idea and considered it as a film project, it never came to pass, though he helped push it out into the world via a few publications, which meant the concept become popular beyond the armed services.

Since then, the troublesome gremlin has spread through pop culture, cropping up in Warner Bros cartoons (Falling Hare, part of the Merrie Melodies series) and even more famously, the 1963 installment of The Twilight Zone, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which sees William Shatner's nervy passenger bothered by a wing-ripping monster only he can seemingly see.

The segment was remade as the fourth segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Not, perhaps, coincidentally, the film featured contributions from both Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante...

Next: Columbus explores the idea


Next: The team - and story - comes together


Next: Creating the critters


Next: Finding the humans


Next: Lights! Camera! Action! Terror!


Next: Gremlins gets loose


7. Gremlins Gets Loose

Gremlins arrived in the wild on the weekend of 8 June 1984 (we'd have to wait until December to see it in the UK). Dante and Spielberg opted to release the movie in the summer so as not to have it seen as just a Christmas film.

The plan was a successful one - despite launching the same weekend as Ghostbusters, Gremlins scored an impressive $12.5 million first weekend. It would go on to be the fourth highest-grossing film in the US that year, behind Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Spielberg's own Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.

And that's partly thanks to a canny marketing move that saw it promoted as a much sweeter film than the chaotic final result. Still, the trailer and poster campaign caused a few problems, as some audiences walked out, thinking they'd been duped into thinking this would be as cute as ET. "So 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," chuckles Dante. "They felt like they had been sold something family friendly and it wasn't entirely family friendly."

The film scored a PG in the US (and a 15 here), but is famously credited - alongside The Temple Of Doom - with encouraging US censors to create the PG-13 rating.

It was helped overseas by Mandel, who learned to say what legible dialogue Gizmo uses ("bright light!") in a variety of languages, which meant jokes coiled translate well overseas.

Gremlins scored mixed reviews - with Roger Ebert approving and Leonard Maltin calling out the film's violence. His comments earned him a cameo in the sequel, where he's throttled by the creatures.

Ah yes. The sequel…

Next: The New Batch


Next: And More?


9. And More?

"I guess I did it right, there's been no Gremlins 3 as yet...but sooner or later there will be, even if it's direct-to-video. The title is too well known not to exploit again," is how Joe Dante tells it.

Naturally, that hasn't stopped all the rumours, whispers and possibilities springing up in the years since The New Batch.

Even if something does happen, however, Dante is sure he won't be involved and that it won't have much of a direct link to the first two. “Well, I’m sure there will be one. I know I won’t have anything to do with it. They won’t ask me. But the goal with Gremlins 2 was to make sure there wouldn’t be a third. If there is one, they’re welcome to it.

"I think what’s holding it up is that they can’t conceive of what to do because the first movies were defined by the technology, it was what the puppets could do and do well and not do and that’s what the movies became.

"Now you could do anything with CGI so the field is so open that nobody could focus on what exactly it should be. I can’t say I’m looking forward to seeing it."

Us neither, if we're honest. Leave the puppet pests to history and the fans, like the amazing short above, which is fully Dante approved...

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.