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5 Things You Might Not Know About Joe Dante's 'Gremlins'

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by Oliver Lyttelton
June 8, 2012 3:02 PM
1 Comment
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Gremlins

June 8th, 1984 was a great day for movie nerds, particularly those with an affection for special effects, scares and belly laughs. Not only did they get "Ghostbusters" in theaters that day (as we've already looked at, but they also got "Gremlins," the subversive PG-rated horror-comedy from the A-list trio of writer Chris Columbus, director Joe Dante and producer Steven Spielberg.

The film, which involves young Billy (Zach Galligan), who fails to obey the strict rules regarding looking after his new pet (all together now: don't get them in bright daylight, don't get them wet, and whatever you do, don't feed them after midnight) and ends up unleashing a plague of monsters on his suburban town. It was the first film released under Spielberg's Amblin logo, and embodies much of what that company came to represent, although "Gremlins" was also violent enough that it helped give birth to the PG-13 rating. With the film being released 28 years ago today, we've assembled five facts about the much-loved picture. Pay more attention to them than Billy did to the rules of the mogwai, or you may end up regretting it...

1. Chris Columbus' original script was much, much darker, and was toned down by producer Steven Spielberg.
When he wrote the script, Chris Columbus (who would go on to direct megahits like "Home Alone" and the first two "Harry Potter" movies) was a 24-year-old NYU grad -- a classmate of Charlie Kaufman, curiously -- living in the garment district of Manhattan. The young screenwriter was inspired by the scurry he heard at night, later relating, "By day, it was pleasant enough, but at night, what sounded like a platoon of mice would come out and to hear them skittering around in the blackness was really creepy." The spec script was intended as a writing sample, but found its way to Steven Spielberg, who snapped it up. There were some conditions, however: the Bearded One found Columbus' take too dark. For instance, in early drafts, the gremlins attack a McDonalds, eating the customers, kill science teacher Dr. Futterman with a fistful of hypodermic needles in the face, and kill both Billy's dog and his mother, throwing the latter's head down the stairs. All that being said, Spielberg did back up Joe Dante when he fought to keep Phoebe Cates' excellent monologue about her father's death, which the studio hated. But the film's violence (including Gremlins meeting deaths in blenders and microwaves) was still enough to cause complaints and walkouts from the PG-rated film. Together with Spielberg's own "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom," which had opened a couple of weeks earlier, "Gremlins" caused the MPAA to use the PG-13 rating as a halfway house.

2. Judd Nelson or Emilio Estevez nearly headed up the cast, which includes a host of cameos.
Columbus was thought to be too inexperienced to direct, so after flirting with the idea of a young Disney animator turned short film director named Tim Burton, Spielberg settled on Joe Dante, who'd melded horror and comedy three years earlier with "The Howling." Once he was on board, they started assembling the cast, with future "Breakfast Club" stars Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez among those in the running to play Billy. Meanwhile, Phoebe Cates was always the first choice to play his girlfriend Kate, although the studio was concerned about her risque reputation thanks to "Fast Times At Ridgemont High." Dante always wanted Hoyt Axton to play Billy's father, Randall, thanks to his performance in "The Black Stallion," but came close to casting future "Batman" star Pat Hingle (Dante says on his commentary that he gave the best audition, but felt he might have pulled focus), while Pat Harrington Jr. of TV's "One Day At A Time" was also in the mix. Elsewhere, both Japanese actor Mako ("The Sand Pebbles," "Conan The Barbarian") and British former "Doctor Who" Jon Pertwee were considered to play the mysterious Mr. Wing, who sells Gizmo to Randall in the first place, before Chinese actor Keye Luke (the original Kato in "Green Hornet" serials) got the gig. The film's stuffed with cameos: look out for Cates' 'Fast Times' co-star Judge Reinhold as Billy's superior in the bank (the actor had a much bigger part, which was cut down in the edit), cameos from Spielberg, composer Jerry Goldsmith and future "Dancing With The Stars" host Tom Bergeron as a reporter, while the great Nicky Katt ("Dazed And Confused," "The Dark Knight") appears as a 13-year old schoolkid.

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1 Comment

  • BL | June 9, 2012 12:45 AMReply

    Re: the racism thing.

    The early draft of the script was much more racist. In it, the "Oriental Man" (who has a "rotted smile" according to the script) actually SELLS Mogwai to Mr Peltzer. AND, in this draft, Mogwai was evil from the start -- just pretending to be cute -- intentionally spawning offspring and turning murderous on its own. The evil machinations of the Orient laying waste to middle America...

    Chris Columbus' other scripts from that time -- "Goonies" and the unproduced "Indiana Jones 3" -- are also notable for their racism.

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