The Gremlins That Could Have Been By Chris Cummins. Joe Dante’s Gremlins is one of the most consistently entertaining films of the 1980s. It’s a perfect blend of horror and comedy with the added bonus of countless in-jokes for movie fans...
Joe Dante’s Gremlins is one of the most consistently entertaining films of the 1980s. It’s a perfect blend of horror and comedy with the added bonus of countless in-jokes for movie fans. However, what most people don’t realize is that Gremlins was originally intended to be a straight-out horror film. Gremlins’ screenwriter, Chris Columbus was urged by Dante along with Executive Producer Steven Spielberg to eliminate some of the darker aspects of the film and punch up the too-subtle humor in early drafts of the script. It took Columbus eight drafts until he presented a script upon which all parties agreed. The result was the Gremlins that audiences are familiar with today.
But what of its precursors? I was recently able to get my hands on the second draft of Gremlins, and it offers a view of a much different, and ultimately much less entertaining film.
This screenplay opens with Rand Peltzer (here a businessman instead of the Ron Popeil, gone-wrong inventor from the finished film) looking for a gift for his son Billy. A wizened Asian shopkeeper sells him an intriguing pet called “Mogwai.” The man instructs Peltzer to be sure to keep the mogwai out of bright light, as it would kill the animal. On the return flight to his town of Kingston Falls, PA, Peltzer asks an Asian stewardess if she knows what “mogwai” means. She informs him that the word translates as “devil.” Roll credits.
Meet Billy Petlzer. In this early draft, Peltzer is the stereotypical geek down to the wire-framed glasses. Billy is an aspiring writer who dreams of penning tales about King Arthur while working a dead end job at the local bank. Here Billy pines for his co-worker, Tracy Allen (name changed to Kate Beringer in the completed film). Unfortunately, the security guard of the bank is Gary Lucia-Tracy’s semi-boyfriend and all-around jackass.
Billy is pals with Pete Fountane, a local teen who shares many of the same interests. The two often visit with Dorry Dougal, a local antique proprietor who has custom made a sword for Billy. Back at the Peltzer household, we discover that Billy’s mom, Lynn, is the extremely nervous type who enjoys popping Valium every two minutes. With the character set up and exposition out of the way, the story begins.
Rand returns from his trip and gives Billy the unusual gift of Mogwai (at no point in the film is it referred to by any other name). Billy instantly dislikes the cute creature and he’d rather not be bothered with it. After mogwai knocks over Billy’s precious new sword and damages it, Billy is so enraged that he actually considers killing the creature. Instead, he inexplicably becomes sympathetic to it.
Soon enough water is spilled on Mogwai and it spawns several more creatures. Pete expresses a great interest in adopting one of the new mogwai and Rand immediately sees them as a great money making idea. There’s only one problem: the mogwai hate to be separated.
Enter Roy HansonBilly’s biology teacherto examine the creatures. Hanson discovers that the creatures are drawn to water and if one is separated from the group, the others will follow. (Can you smell the foreshadowing?) Later that night, while the Peltzers sleep, the mogwai move downstairs and eat Billy’s dog! Rand grabs all the mogwai and locks them in the sealed attic, planning to release them into the morning daylight to destroy them. When the Peltzers awaken, they discover that the mogwai have undergone a transformation, and are in cocoons. Rand has to go away on a business trip, and the family unrealistically decides to wait until he returns to remove the cocoons from the house.
As Billy heads for work, his mother stays at home preparing for Christmas. At the bank, Billy receives a panicked phone call from his mother. The cocoons have hatched! By the time Billy gets home, however, Lynn Peltzer has been fatally attacked by the mogwai, who have now transformed into the monstrous gremlins we all know and love. Billy grabs his sword and proceeds to behead, blend, and microwave the creatures. He is wounded in the attack and when he tries to call the sheriff a gremlin pulls the phone wire from the wall. Billy pierces the creature’s arm with his sword. When the gremlin escapes, Billy pursues.
Meanwhile, Billy’s friend Pete is Christmas caroling with a group of teens. Pete stands at the back of the line of singers and is pulled away and killed by the gremlin. His cries aren’t heard over the festive singing. A pissed-off Billy chases the gremlin into the local YMCA where a battle ensues. During the scuffle, Billy and the creature stumble and fall into the pool. The water instantly causes the gremlin to multiply. Billy flees the scene and runs to the sheriff’s office.
Billy tells his story to Sheriff Frank Lucia as well as Officer Brent. They don’t believe a word of it, but eventually the sheriff relents. At the Y, Officer Brent leaves Billy handcuffed in the police cruiser before going in to investigate. Officer Brent is soon overcome by gremlins. The creatures spy the cuffed Billy who, luckily, has his sword with him! He cuts himself free from his cuffs and rushes to Tracy’s home, which is under siege by the murderous gremlins.
After they escape, they discover Gary Lucia in an overturned police car. Gary had gone with his Dad, Sheriff Lucia, when Frank was attacked by a gremlin and lost control of the vehicle. Billy rescues Gary from the car, but it’s too late for Frank. By now, the gremlins are taking over the town, eating everyone in sight. Tracy, Billy, and Gary drive to Dorry’s antiques store on the outskirts of the town. Billy predicts that the creatures will head to the nearby water tower. “If they get to the water tower...they could spread all over the state...maybe the country. They’re like inhuman divining rods,” Billy surmises.
Gary irrationally blames Billy for the death of the entire town and they fight until Tracy breaks it up. Billy, Tracy, Gary, and Dorry (sounds like a troupe of Mouseketeers) hide in Dorry’s antiques shop, hatching an ill-conceived plan to call the authorities to stop the gremlins from reaching the water tower. As dawn approaches, the gremlins leave, fearing the impending sunlight.
Now daylight, the group heads outside in search of rations. In a ringing endorsement for McDonald’s, the group discovers that all the customers at the popular fast food joint have been eaten while the food remains untouched. This is perhaps the cleverest scene in this draft, and it would have been nice to see it in the completed film.
Tracy realizes the gremlins are hiding in the town’s old movie theater. As in the completed film, the group tries to blow up the theater. Tracy turns on the projector, which shows Snow White, to distract the creatures. When the reel ends, the gremlins hear the four do-gooders and begin to chase after them. Gary panics and leaves the others behind. The rampaging gang of gremlins kills Dorry. Billy and Tracy are able to get outside just before the building explodes. Unfortunately, the sprinkler system comes on soon afterwards.
Billy and Tracy find Gary. Billy and Gary start fighting over Gary’s cowardice. Gary goes nuts and grabs Billy’s sword. But, before he can impale the geeky protagonist, Gary is fortuitously attacked by gremlins. Billy and Tracy get into the police car and escape, only to discover a gremlin on the back seat.† Driving away, the creature begins screeching due to separation anxiety. Low on fuel, and Billy stops at a gas station where the gremlin escapes. It climbs into the engine and renders the car useless. Tracy and Billy eventually find the pesky critter and lock him in a toolbox. As the pack of angry gremlins approaches, Billy and Tracy decide to hide in a nearby greenhouse.
Billy puts the imprisoned gremlin on a table and sees the group of monsters right outside. Billy and Tracy climb a high tree where Billy fights the oncoming gremlins with his sword. The creatures surround the tree, eating away at the trunk until it’s knocked to the ground! Billy and Tracy are nearly killed by the impending mass of former-mogwai when the sun comes up and melts all the creatures into nothing. After Billy and Tracy make their way out of the greenhouse “they look out over Kingston Falls. Now a ghost town.”
Exhausted, Billy collapses and wakes up in the hospital. Rand Peltzer has returned from his business trip and sits at Billy’s side. Tracy is in the hospital as well. They will both survive. Billy suddenly remembers about the gremlin locked in the toolbox at the greenhouse.
Cut to a worker cleaning up the sticky mess at the greenhouse. As he leaves, he picks up the toolbox and takes it in his truck. Driving away, the toolbox starts shaking, and noises come from within. The worker throws it out his window, and it lands in a lake. As it sinks to the bottom of the lake, the sound of giggling gremlin can be heard as the credits roll.
Had this earlier draft been made, it wouldn’t have been much more than just another standard horror film. While reading this draft, I recalled all of the post-Gremlins knockoffs like Ghoulies and Critters. The script is rife with pat action scenes and characters lacking clear definition. Rand is simply after money, Lynn loves her Valium, Gary is an asshole, etc. Furthermore, Billy never comes off as a sympathetic character. One doesn’t feel an attachment to anyone, and therefore it doesn’t really mean anything when characters die. Furthermore, when Gary becomes murderous towards Billy, it seems especially forced and unnecessary. The script follows a simple formula of Billy repeatedly making narrow escapes from the gremlins. This was beginning to tire me upon reading the script, and I’m sure that if it were filmed it would have been the same way.
The most important aspect missing from the early draft is the offbeat humor that the completed film provides. For example, take the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Futterman as portrayed by the incredible Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph (who first worked together on the original Little Shop of Horrors). The Futtermans are the perfect comic relief after the film’s scenes of surprisingly intense violence. Also sadly missed are the great invention gags from the completed film. (I would love to own a Rand Peltzer Bathroom Buddy!)
Likewise, in the bar scene where Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) is forced to serve drinks for the gremlins, there was only a brief description of that scene in the finished script. During production, Joe Dante and his crew created a list of visual gags resulting in a visual barrage of strange and hysterical images-gremlins playing poker, a breakdancing gremlin, a mugger gremlin, a flasher gremlin, etc. It is a testament to the genius of Dante to take written lines and expand on them in such an interesting way for the screen.
One of the most interesting subtexts in Gremlins is how deceiving appearances can be. Gizmo is just about the most lovable creature ever conceived, but he is essentially responsible for the destruction of a town. He may look harmless, but the terror he can cause is unimaginable. I was always fascinated about how Gremlins was marketed towards kids. However, in a subversive twist, it is an incredibly dark comic film. While it is always interesting to compare a rough draft to a completed film, in the case of Gremlins, the rewrites drastically aided in helping to strengthen it into a contemporary classic.
†As one knows from the wisdom of David DeCoteau’s Sorority Girls at the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, a monster in the back seat is “the oldest trick in the book.”
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