Picks and Pans Review: Gremlins

updated 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Here's the season's most delicious and unexpected surprise. Despite the horror-flick title, Gremlins is a movie of wicked wit and startling invention, and it has a heart that's at least a match for the special effects. Executive producer Steven Spielberg (remember him?) bought the script from New York University film student Chris Columbus, hired B-movie master Joe (The Howling) Dante to direct and came up with an $11 million movie that puts most of the summer's bigger budget bombs to shame. Gremlins opens like a Frank Capra movie in a small, picture-perfect, middle-American town called Kingston Falls. Newcomer Zach Galligan plays a shy bank clerk with a nice girlfriend, Phoebe (Private School) Cates, nice parents (country singer Hoyt Axton and Frances Lee McCain) and a new pet, called a mogwai. (Dad picked up the cute, four-toed little fuzzball as a gift during a visit to Chinatown.) The creature, which the hero christens Gizmo, has the charm of E.T. and the wisdom of Yoda. But mogwais tend to multiply, and there are special rules for their care and feeding. When the rules are broken, mogwais become gremlins who like to play tricks that aren't always funny. The film changes course dramatically in the second half, and the sudden turn to violence is jarring (parents take note). To say more would be dirty pool. But Spielberg, Dante, Columbus and company prove to be expert at raising laughter, tears and goose-flesh—all in a good-humored, fascinating way. Galligan and Cates are an exceptionally appealing couple, and Polly (Flo) Holliday as the town's richest and meanest citizen has a high old time taking off on Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. It's Gizmo who will win you over, though, and the gremlins who will jangle your nerves. They may represent the dark side of Disneyite fantasy, but assure as the Seven Dwarfs, they're on the march into screen legend. (PG)

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