Dante's 'Gremlins' mixes humor and horror

''E.T. with teeth'' is what director Joe Dante calls the stars of his new picture, ''Gremlins.'' And that sums it up. Sure to be a superhit of the summer, ''Gremlins'' gives the dark side - the sly, sneaky, out-of-control side - of our brightest film fantasies. It's an unexpected twist on the fuzzy-doll fables of ''E.T.'' wizard Steven Spielberg, who served as executive producer here.

''Gremlins'' is also a bubbling stew of movie styles and memories. Think of ''A Christmas Carol'' visited by ''The Birds.'' Think of ''The Muppet Movie'' run amok. Imagine a berserk film editor splicing ''It's a Wonderful Life'' to ''Invasion of the Body Snatchers,'' with quoting from ''Snow White'' and a nod to ''The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.''

It's only a lark, of course, and everything comes right in the end. But it's a dizzying trip, with more leaps from humor to horror (and back again) than any picture in quite a while. It's fun just watching the filmmakers pull it off - by a squeak, treading every thin line in sight and wobbling nearly off balance with each goofy turn.

The story has two heroes. One is Billy, a wholesome young man with a nice family and a dull job. The other is his Christmas present from dad: an adorable something-or-other called Gizmo, which has the cutest face this side of Yoda in the ''Star Wars'' saga. Nobody knows exactly what Gizmo is, but he (she? it?) comes with instructions - and if you break the rules, you get baby gizmos that aren't so cuddly. Zillions of them.

Most of Spielberg's fantasies, from ''Jaws'' to ''E.T.,'' want us to (a) love a good guy or (b) loathe a monster. ''Gremlins'' is the first to zap its viewers two ways at once: We get to squeal over Gizmo while we boo those bratty offspring.

This isn't complicated, but it calls for real filmmaking skill, especially when it comes to striking an emotional balance. Dante and his cronies don't quite succeed. The movie is best when dousing us with Spielberg sentiment and whimsy. It's weaker when the more demonic sensibility of director Dante takes over. As the gremlins change from mischievous to malicious, the human characters strike back with a ferocity that goes too far. The result is a weird mixture of cartoon and carnage.

Other failings also sprout from the movie's effort to have things both ways. It's hard to get a handle on Billy, who is old enough to work but childish enough to read comic books and stammer at girls. He lives in a chummy town, but when the gremlins strike there's hardly anyone else in sight.

And it's hard to guess what screenwriter Chris Columbus had in mind when Billy's girlfriend gives a maudlin monologue on why she doesn't like Christmas; at a preview I attended half the audience tittered while the rest sat in stony silence. Perhaps such oddities crept in (like gremlins!) during the various script rewrites that Dante describes in a recent Film Comment interview, which includes his admission that he never really figured out what audience ''E.T. with teeth'' is aimed at.

In many ways, though, ''Gremlins'' is ingenious. Gizmo yanks at your heartstrings with both furry fists, then sits out a few scenes while suspense builds, then plunges back with more vim than ever. The small-town setting, right out of a gushy Frank Capra movie, manages to be timeless, nostalgic, and slightly ridiculous all at once.

And the director's delight in old movie references is great fun. For just one example, even children will recognize the neighborhood sourpuss, Mrs. Deagle, as a takeoff on Margaret Hamilton in ''The Wizard of Oz.'' And when Mrs. Deagle meets an end as nasty as her personality, our last sight of her - with two red shoes, just like the Wicked Witch of the East - turns sadness into silliness.

I also enjoyed Hoyt Axton's performance as Billy's father, a sincere but bad inventor whose crazy gadgets are the movie's best running gag. And it's a pleasure to see Keye Luke, the ''Number One Son'' of Hollywood's ancient Charlie Chan movies, as Gizmo's original keeper. The rest of the cast ranges from capable to strong, and Chris Walas should take a special bow for creating the title characters.

Until now, the most impressive film by director Dante was the segment in the ''Twilight Zone'' movie about a little boy whose strange powers turn his family's house into a nightmare of TV pictures and junk food. ''Gremlins'' combines the visual inventiveness of that episode with a new storytelling maturity -even adding, at the end, some of the social awareness that lurked in the depths of his early ''Piranha.'' Although he isn't a master filmmaker yet, Dante's career holds great promise, especially if ''Gremlins'' is seen as a way station rather than a destination. 'Star Trek III'

Of all the movies in the current science-fiction boom, the ''Star Trek'' epics have the zaniest mix of fantasy and philosophy. Talk about Big Issues! A human being merged with a machine in ''Star Trek - The Motion Picture.'' A project called Genesis created life on a dead planet in ''Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.''

The latter movie also threw a curve at ''Trek'' fans by killing off Mr. Spock , the most popular denizen of the Starship Enterprise. But the rules of fantasy are easy to break. Although he hardly makes an appearance in the latest ''Trek'' adventure, Spock is at the center of the story, and it takes five actors to play him when he does show up. Or six, if you count a character who has all of Spock's thoughts inside his head.

''Star Trek III: The Search for Spock'' picks up where the last installment left off. The action revolves around the Genesis planet, where Spock was laid to rest. It turns out to be an unfriendly place, and to make matters worse, a shipful of nasty Klingons is headed there to make trouble.

The yarn takes an ontological turn when we discover Spock isn't exactly dead. He isn't exactly alive, either, but his old friends aren't fussy. Led by the intrepid Admiral Kirk, and not quite sure what they're supposed to do, they set out to salvage what they can of their late colleague. Meanwhile, a pair of explorers on Genesis - including Kirk's son - have stumbled on part of the puzzle, and a lot of hot water as well.

Much of the tale is standard space opera, especially when the Klingons move toward their showdown with the heroes. The settings have more of the sound stage than the cosmos about them, and the screenplay is never afraid to be arbitrary.

But there's a quiet, autumnal air to the movie that I found refreshing. It extends right down to the colors of the film, which begins in black-and-white and ends in a wash of browns and golds. Except for the big action scenes, which don't amount to much, the plot moves at a sober pace and doesn't mind slowing down for moments of emotion and reflection.

There are some bad miscalculations, to be sure, as when a Federation ship (those are the good guys) gets wiped out and the plot barges ahead as if it didn't matter. But there are chillingly effective scenes, too, as when a secret of Spock's death is uncovered by the close, repeated viewing of a videotape. Most important, the camera cares far more about the people than the showpieces and effects - a welcome change from other recent fantasy, including the noisy shenanigans of Indiana Jones.

It's fitting that ''Star Trek III'' was directed by Leonard Nimoy, who normally plays Spock and knows the character to the tips of his pointy Vulcan ears. Aboard his ship are figures who have been familiar to ''Trekkies'' from the days of the ''Star Trek'' television series, including the witty James Doohan as chief engineer Scotty and DeForest Kelley as ''Bones'' McCoy. The screenwriter was Harve Bennett.

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