Directors love an in-joke. There are an awful lot of movies out there that contain the odd knowing reference, cameo or other visual gag. For some filmmakers they are as much a part of cinema’s language as dollying and panning. More often than not they are references to other movies from the work of the star/director/producer of the movie you are watching, or signature moments which recur throughout that particular director’s filmography. Much of the time these gags will go unnoticed by the majority of the audience, but for the movie geek they are little golden nuggets, a secret code which only those in the know can decipher. It’s all pretty sad, perhaps, but we geeks will take any opportunity to feel special. And, yes, mildly superior.
Hitchcock was famous for giving himself cameos in his own movies, appearing in 39 of his 52 pictures. Almost every John Landis movie includes the line ‘See you next Wednesday’ somewhere within. And Sam Raimi will always get his Oldsmobile into his films if he can. But few directors have crammed as many of these little gags into a single movie as Joe Dante did in 1984’s Gremlins.
So, because it’s Christmas and watching Gremlins is one of my yuletide rituals, I present to you my visual list of the great movie’s many in-jokes. I’ve time-indexed each one, both to help you watch out for them and because I’m a big, anal geek.
Now, I don’t claim this to be a comprehensive list, although I hope it’s close. You’d have to be a fool to say you’d spotted every gag in a movie by a director who confesses he likes to ‘doodle in the margins’ of each frame. These are just the ones I know. If I’ve missed any out, please let me know. I’ll be your geek friend forever.
05:13 – Speaks for itself, this one. Kingston Falls resident DJ Rocking Ricky Rialto bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain famous adventurer. And that logo looks just as familiar, too. This is the first of many nods to Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg.
08:22 – Billy passes a cinema showing two movies with titles which will be familiar to informed Spielberg fans. A Boy’s Life was the original title of E.T. and Watch the Skies was the original title of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
08:49 – Billy’s walk to work is highly reminiscent of George Bailey’s run home at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, which was a big influence on the look of Gremlins. The town is called Kingston Falls, after the classic movie’s Bedford Falls. Look, there’s even an Emporium. Merry Christmas, Emporium!
13:31 – Billy’s friend at the bar is none other than the late, great Chuck Jones, legendary animator for Looney Tunes. Director Joe Dante is a huge fan of the Warner cartoons, and there are several references to the characters throughout Gremlins, including a later scene in the same bar where a Pepé Le Pew cartoon is playing on the TV in the background.
23:55 – If you look closely at the back wall of Billy’s bedroom, you’ll see a rolled up poster for Twilight Zone: The Movie, which Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante both directed sequences for.
38:07 – The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is showing on the TV, paying homage to another Dante favourite and another movie featuring creatures born in pods. Also, Invasion of the Body Snatchers starred Kevin McCarthy, a regular in Joe Dante’s movies.
43:23 – Multiple gags in this single frame. Billy’s dad calls home from the Inventor’s Convention. Behind him, in the cowboy hat, is composer Jerry Goldsmith and behind Goldsmith is the machine from the 1960 movie, The Time Machine. In the foreground, zooming around in a weird cart, is none other than Spielberg.