Gremlins initially starts out seeming to be a return to the territory of winsome innocence that Steven Spielberg explored so well in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). However, about halfway through, Joe Dante turns this completely on its head. He gets loose on the pretty Christmas-card town with a gleefully grotesque adolescent perversity as the gremlins go flashing, chainsaw wielding, tormenting Phoebe Cates and conducting malicious practical jokes, all the while cackling evilly. Where Steven Spielbergs films affirm a suburban view of childhood, that the universe is an unthreatening place of wonderment to be beholden with child-like innocence, Joe Dante more perversely lures us into something initially cute and unthreatening but then lets loose a force of anarchy that wilfully subverts and turns Spielbergs vision of suburban heaven on its head.
Gremlins is also an undisciplined film Joe Dante fires his showcard puppet effects gags off one after another. The film is overrun by gremlin sequences and the plot pushed into the background until the film becomes more like an unplotted stand-up routine that uses cartoon gags in live-action. Dante throws in the characteristic genre in-jokes that have become his trademark cameos from animator Chuck Jones and 1950s genre star Kenneth Tobey, an appearance from Robby the Robot at an inventors fair, as well as the time machine from The Time Machine (1960), which suddenly vanishes in a puff of smoke. (In one background scene, a cinema billboard is screening a film entitled A Boys Life, which was the shooting title for E.T.). The human scenes pale by comparison. These, with the emphasis on the inventors family and failing gadgets, lapse into something more like a wet-eared US tv sitcom. Still, there is a certain amount of amusement to be had from Gremlins it feels like 90 minutes of schoolboys having been let loose with chemistry sets.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) was a sequel that reunited most of the principals, although failed to find the same audience as this.
Gremlins was the greatest success that director Joe Dante ever had. He has never replicated the same success with any of his subsequent films. Dante has since made: Explorers (1985), probably his best film about backyard teen inventors; Innerspace (1987), a parody of Fantastic Voyage (1966); episodes of the comedy skit anthology Amazon Women on the Moon (1987); the urban paranoia black comedy The Burbs (1989); Matinee (1993), a homage to filmmaker William Castle; The Second Civil War (1997); Small Soldiers (1998), a film about warring toy soldiers that copied Gremlins; the toon film Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003); The Hole (2009); and Burying the Ex (2014) about a zombie ex-girlfriend. Dante also created the delightful smalltown paranoia tv series Eerie Indiana (1991-2), and produced the genre series The Osiris Chronicles (1998) and Jeremiah (2002-4), as well as the film adaptation of the comic-book The Phantom (1996). Screenwriter Chris Columbus would go on to direct Home Alone (1990), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), the sf film Bicentennial Man (1999), Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone/Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (2001), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) and Pixels (2015).
Following the success of Gremlins, a number of films attempted to imitate its success featuring hordes of small malicious creatures. These included Ghoulies (1985) and its three sequels, Critters (1986) and its three sequels, Troll (1986), Munchies (1987) and Hobgoblins (1988), even a softcore take Possessed By the Night (1993).