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How 'Gremlins' Spawned a Mini-Monster Trend 30 Years Ago

May 28, 2014

There’s no better sign of success for a horror movie than it inspiring multiple shameless rip-offs. By that measure, the creature feature Gremlins, which came out 30 years ago next month, ranks among the greatest scary movies of all time.

The Steven Spielberg-produced horror story follows a small-town teenager who lands a cute, furry critter named Gizmo as a pet, only to discover that his sweet new pal hatches evil green monsters when three key rules are broken. (As, of course, they are. Early and often.) Gremlins made almost $150 million at the box office and studios immediately saw a blueprint for box-office gold, rushing out their own tiny-monster movies. “It’s a grand cinematic tradition,” Gremlins director Joe Dante tells Yahoo Movies. “I started my career with a rip-off — Piranha, which was a rip-off of Jaws. So I don’t have much street cred to complain about people ripping me off.” While the Gremlins' thirtieth birthday is grounds for celebration, it's also a good opportunity to pay homage to every Ghoulie, Troll, and Hobgoblin that followed in its wake. Here's our roundup of the imitators, with commentary from Dante and a special Gizmo rating of how well they transcended the charade.

Ghoulies (1985)

The Creature: Ancient demons — some bald, some hairy, all gross.
The Story: After performing a ritual in his creepy basement, a man becomes possessed by a powerful force that gives him control over a handful of hideous monsters.
Rip-off Rating: 2 out of 5 Gizmos. Empire Pictures couldn’t even wait a full year to offer up the first in a long line of Gremlins Xeroxes. Though producer Charles Band began developing his pint-sized demon flick before Gremlins hit theaters, Ghoulies’ quick arrival and low production values made it look every part the knock-off. And it certainly has some leftover Gremlins glow to thank for its $35 million box office gross.
Dante says: “Pretty low budget and low rent in a lot of ways.”

Critters (1986)

The Creature: Foul mouthed, furball aliens.
The Story: A group of bite-sized aliens goes on a killing spree in a small Kansas town after escaping space jail and crash-landing on earth.
Rip-off Rating: 4 out of 5 Gizmos. Director Stephen Herek has said Critters was in the works before Gremlins came out and the script was rewritten to reduce similarities, but it’s impossible to ignore the overlaps, including a small-town setting and teenaged lead. Still, Critters won fans in its own right with bloodthirsty monsters who had more attitude than the cutesy Gizmo.
Dante says: “Much more clever than others and the same tone” as Gremlins.

Troll (1986)

The Creature: A shuffling old troll with a wispy beard and sad, sunken eyes.
The Story: When a young girl is possessed by an evil troll, a dark wizard’s plot to take over a San Francisco apartment building is revealed.
Rip-off Rating: 2 out of 5 Gizmos. Troll veers into fantasy territory with its witches, wizards, and magic jewelry. It rates as a rip-off though thanks to this line in the trailer: “The weirdest, the rowdiest, the most mischievous and the scariest little creature of them all.” Troll’s legacy was further sullied by its sequel, considered by some to be the worst movie ever made.
Dante says: “The Troll movies are not quite [a rip-off]. Maybe it’s because the villains are taller. It doesn’t seem to fit the Gremlins mold for me.”

Munchies (1987)

The Creature: A prehistoric alien with a soft spot for junk food.
The Story: When a reanimated, prehistoric monster is chopped up by an evil snack food mogul, it multiplies and turns from fun-loving peanut butter junkies into vengeful demons.
Rip-off Rating: 5 out of 5 Gizmos. From B-movie master Roger Corman comes this goofy rip-off about refrigerator-raiding monsters that wreck havoc on a small town. The tone is sillier and the monsters are better dressed, but the similarities are unmistakable. Perhaps that’s no surprise considering the director was Gremlins' editor Tina Hirsch.
Dante says: “I was very encouraging. I came to the set and supported it in every way.”

Hobgoblins (1988)

The Creature: Little evil aliens with skeletal chests and reptilian faces.
The Story: When a security guard releases the vengeful extraterrestrials from a vault, they begin to elaborately massacre young people just after making their wildest dreams come true.
Rip-off Rating: 1 out of 5 Gizmos. The final film that tried to ride Gremlins coattails was also the worst. Hobgoblins, which is probably best known for its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000, hit theaters in summer 1988. Along with being late to the party, the movie was undeniably awful. It was so bad that it earned a rare distinction of being labeled by MST3K writer Paul Chaplin as “the top of the list of the worst movies we’ve ever done.”
Dante says: Not much at all. Asked if he was aware of the film, he says, “vaguely.”

Photo credits: © Everett Collection, © YouTube