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‘Gremlins’ Imitators of The 1980s

After Joe Dante’s Gremlins became a surprise hit in summer 1984, it spawned a small but popular bunch of imitators.  Like the gremlin creatures that spawned from Gizmo in the original movie, these imitator movies are ruder and cruder than their originator – but sometimes highly entertaining.

In several interviews Dante has admitted that his own career began with an imitator film (Piranha, 1978, that imitated Jaws), so he doesn’t begrudge anyone imitating him.

What all the imitators share with Gremlins is the mix of comedy and horror that arises when grotesque otherworldly creatures invade a peaceful, normal American town.

The imitators skipped all the holiday stuff, though several of the films unfold during a special town event of some kind.

Whereas Gremlins gave us hundreds of creatures by the climax, most imitators constrain themselves to half a dozen creatures or less, presumably from budgetary constraints.

Most imitators give us diminutive creatures, though a few films feature one or two creatures grown to human size.  Killer Klowns (if it counts as a Gremlins imitator) features all human sized creatures.

In two films the creatures are magical, but in most cases the creatures come from outer space.

At least two of the films are of infamously poor quality, yet all the films offer some entertainment value even on their own terms.

So let’s get to it.  There are 5-8 imitators depending how you count.

GHOULIES (Nov 1984) and GHOULIES II (Oct 1988).

Everyone assumes Ghoulies is an imitator, but it’s actually a weird Black Mass devil movie where a budding young Satanist conjures five little demons (ghoulies) to do his bidding.  The demons are only one small part of it.

The movie was actually conceived and completed before Gremlins was released.  It’s a decent movie too, and more of a real horror film than Gremlins was.

But Charles Band and Empire Pictures appropriated Ghoulies‘s reputation as an imitator when producing Ghoulies II.  Accordingly, Ghoulies II is the true Gremlins imitator.

With puppets and stop-motion animation, four ghoulies of different types run amok at a carnival.  One ghoulie changes form.

The carnival setting is inherently fun, and several characters are strong and likeable, which makes Ghoulies II a fine imitator, possibly the second or third best on our list.

TROLL (Jan 1986

Phil Fondacaro, only three-foot-six, has a pretty impressive genre film resume, appearing in Return of the Jedi, Ghoulies II (see above), Willow, and this one, Troll, in a troll suit.

Because there’s only one troll, and he’s amoral rather than sinister, this movie doesn’t really fit the Gremlins pattern.

But in the second half, the troll conjures a bunch of gremlin-like fairy creatures to take over an apartment building.  So it starts to feel somewhat like Gremlins, perhaps with Ghostbusters thrown in.

It’s a mediocre movie, and Noah Hathaway (NeverEnding Story) gives a disappointing performance as the young hero, but many of the puppet and transformation effects are very good.

CRITTERS (April 1986)

Here we go: the best of the imitators, rivaled only by Killer Klowns.  It’s funny, fast, uncompromising with some surprising gore and death scenes, yet – like Gremlins – somehow good-hearted beneath it all.

The glove puppets move naturally onscreen.  Instead of walking, they roll!  Yet the sharp-toothed alien critters are only half the fun.  The other half is the pair of bounty hunters chasing the critters, heedless of any damage they do along the way.

The Chiodo Brothers, who did the effects, made Killer Klowns next.

 

MUNCHIES (March 1987)

This sub-par imitator at least gains points for not taking itself seriously.  It’s the most comedic film on the list, mostly a showcase for Harvey Korman to play an outrageous, tacky junk food maven whose main source of ingredients is a secret storehouse of toxic waste.

The “munchies” are re-animated aliens who multiply when cut into pieces, like worms.  They don’t have much motivation except mischief.  The half dozen “munchie” puppets are stiff and unconvincing.

Much of the humor is strained and overstretched.  Harvey Korman fans might want to watch it.  Or maybe Harvey Korman completists.

Historically, it’s interesting that the director – Tina Hirsch – was the editor of the original Gremlins.

KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (May 1988)

Not everyone counts this as an imitator since the invading creatures are human sized, but it fits the main pattern where grotesque creatures make havoc in a small American town.

It also feels similar to Gremlins: weird, spooky, funny, subversive, yet never cruel or sleazy, so you could watch it with kids as young as 10.

It has the highest production values of any 80s film on this list, incredible costumes and sets, bizarre colors, and brilliant scripting that takes every opportunity that evil clowns could offer.

It’s a personal favorite, and it’s the only film on this list that I actually like better than the original Gremlins.

HOBGOBLINS (July 1988)

If you know this one at all, it’s probably from the MST3K version.  That version is fine but it cuts several sleazy lines that illustrate why Hobgoblins is unique among these imitators: sleazy and shameless, with implied sexual content and many sex jokes, it targets an audience of teens.

By contrast, all other films on our list could be viewed by adolescents or even kids.

Targeting teens with sex jokes might actually have been a good idea… except that the jokes are stupid and flat.  Whereas Munchies had jokes that were overstrained, Hobgoblins simply has jokes that are feeble.

Add low production values and amateurish acting to the mix, and you have a pretty bad movie.  As for the hobgoblins themselves, they number fewer than 10.

The stick and glove puppets are obviously cheap, with almost no movement or expressiveness.

See it if you want to laugh at the foolishness.  Otherwise, avoid it.

GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (June 1990)

I know this is a sequel, not an imitator, but I wanted to mention it since I think it’s underrated (e.g. it has fewer than half the vote tally of the original Gremlins on the IMDb).

Joe Dante was bullied by Warner Brothers into directing, but he responded by secretly crafting a surreal satire on corporate (and movie studio) impetuousness and greed.

Ultimately the satire concludes gently, but Gremlins 2 itself is nutty and unrestrained, with hordes of gremlins wrecking their way through a huge corporate office building, smashing, bashing, crashing, and singing and dancing, all the way.

The script is hilarious and the effects (from Rick Baker) are excellent.

It lost a lot of money when first released, but forget about that, go see it now!

 

 

 

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