Today: February 25, 2024

Gremlins: A Retrospective

By Edward Boff – As Christmas edges ever closer, FilmJuice asked Edward Boff to take a look at one of the seminal seasonal films of all time: Gremlins.

By Edward Boff

As Christmas edges ever closer, FilmJuice
asked Edward Boff to take a look at one of the seminal seasonal films of all
time: Gremlins. Now come on, surely you haven’t forgotten Phoebe Cates and THAT Santa
story? So join us as we take a look at the film which looked like It’s A
Wonderful Life but played out like Zombie Apocalypse. And, if you’re currently
looking for that perfect Christmas gift, remember with a Mogwai comes much responsibility
and a fair amount of needless slaughter …

The Summer of
1984 was a good time for film fans. Within a few days of each other, two titles
that merged comedy, horror and amazing effects were released after ingenious
marketing campaigns. Both went on to be big successes and spawned much-loved
sequels. These movies were of
course Ghostbusters and Gremlins,
but it is the latter, back in our cinemas on 7th December, that
concerns us today.

Although it
was a big summer blockbuster, Gremlins was set very firmly in the Yuletide
season. Not the only Christmas classic to do this; Miracle On 34th Street didn’t even mention Santa in advertising its
May release. In the years since,
it has become more and more a fixture of The Season, almost as much as Dickens
and It’s A Wonderful Life. For a
film about little green monsters wreaking havoc in small town America, that may
seem a pretty odd, but if you look closely, you may find that in many ways it
reflects Christmas better than you might think. Let’s see how, and why, these green hellraisers are still
close to our hearts.

The trouble starts when someone doesn’t
follow the instructions with their new gift…

Stories of
gremlins had been around since at least WWII, as the things pilots would blame
for inexplicable flaws with their planes, and films featuring them had been
proposed for almost that long.
Famously, a version of this creature did end up on screen in the Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Interestingly, that got remade as part of Twilight Zone: The Movie a year
before Gremlins came out, and it was also produced by Steven Spielberg; co-incidence?

Regardless,
this film’s creatures are now pretty firmly the first image we think of when we
hear the word gremlin. Of course,
the film makes it clear that they’re technically called Mogwai – at least in
their cute fuzzy form – and that form was undoubtedly one of the film’s most
marketable strengths. Gizmo the
Mogwai was, in the original script, to become one of the monsters but Spielberg
felt it would be better having him as a good guy throughout. He was absolutely right. Above and
beyond the (pretty well played and written) human characters, Gizmo is by far
the heart and soul of the film. A
true innocent who inadvertently has utter chaos follow him but who’s ever ready
to stand up and take responsibility for ending the carnage (and he’s just plain
cute too!). If only they
remembered the rules…

More problems emerge as a result of
overeating…

It’s taken
many years to firmly entrench in pop-culture monster ‘rules’ such as those that
govern werewolves and vampires.
It’s interesting, then, how solidly screenwriter Chris Columbus sets up the three big rules for the creatures from
the word go. Anyone who’s seen the
film can recite off by heart: “Keep them out of bright light, don’t get
them wet and never feed them after midnight”. As soon as they’re mentioned, you just know that, in true Chekov’s Gun style, they are going to get broken and there
will be big, big consequences.
Mind, these rules have more than a bit of fridge logic to them (why
doesn’t snow set them off?), but this doesn’t matter much. Just having rules
helps build the creatures into something unique. Though that didn’t stop the sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, from having a scene where people poking
holes in these very rules.

Of course
breaking the rules unleashes the gremlins themselves. Designed by FX whiz Chris
Wala
s (who’d later do the stomach churning effects for The Fly), these reptilian rascals were iconically designed and
perfectly puppeteered. Using a mix
of animatronics, hand puppetry and marionettes, with voice work from, among
others, Megatron and Dr. Claw voice actor Frank
Welker
, were imbued with a definite personality you don’t see often in
monster movies.

The kitchen ends up an absolute mess as
Mom’s rushed off her feet…

At heart,
Gremlins is a monster movie in the classic vein with the old “kid finds
out about monster attack, authorities don’t believe until too late”
formula. Director Joe Dante was best known previously for films like Piranha and The Howling and he bought his love of the genre with him on this
project. This did mean, though,
that, for a family film, Gremlins is, at times, far darker and more suspenseful
than many were expecting.

The perfect
example would be the scene just after the gremlins emerge and Mrs. Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) has to deal with
several in the kitchen. By deal
with read; stab, liquefy, blow up in a microwave and decapitate into a fire, as
green gore goes everywhere! This,
and another Spielberg production around the same time, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, were criticised for being PG
rated in the US with this content (“Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the
CHILDREN!”). In response
Steven suggested to the MPAA that maybe there should be something between PG
and R (it’s remarkable it took them that long to think of that). Thus Gremlins is actually kind of a
landmark in the industry, for helping to establish the PG-13 rating.

Someone wheels out the most inappropriate
family anecdote.

As dark as
Gremlins is, the original script was even darker, with scenes like the gremlins
attacking McDonalds, eating the customers but leaving the meals well
alone. Most of this extra grisly content
was toned down in the finished film, except one thing. The moment that really sticks out is
Phoebe Cates’ monologue on why she doesn’t like in Christmas. Outside of the ridiculous fantasy
monster horror, we get this quite shocking description of a far more realistic
(though still darkly comic) tragedy that ends with “And that’s how I found
out there’s no Santa Claus.”
Y’now, for kids.

Many who
really criticised the film latched on to this moment in particular and it’s not
hard to see why. That being said
it’s extremely effective and one can see why it’s there. It’s an extension of an ongoing theme
in the film; that Christmas can be, at worst, a painted smile, enforced jollity
while people pretend that there’s nothing wrong in the world when there
is. In a sense, it’s the film’s
whole thesis in a nutshell. Mind,
it was another scene The New Batch made fun of … twice!

Not even the Disney film on in the
afternoon can quiet the overexcited little brats down.

The film’s
main strength beyond all this, though, is its unrestrained, anarchic
humour. Joe Dante had done a
blending of Looney Tunes-esque madcap comedy in live action with remarkable
results for his instalment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (and he’d later direct Looney Tunes: Back In Action). Gremlins is definitely an extension of
that and when the creatures arrive en masse so do more pop-culture references
and off the wall scenes. The key
to the gremlins is that they are childish in the very worst sense of the
word. They simply do whatever
seems funny to them at the time, regardless of any consequence; they’re all
id. The cinema scene shows this
perfectly; as a cartoon being on is pretty much the only thing to keep their
attention. That being said they’re
still the rowdiest, messiest cinema audience ever. And you think someone
leaving their phone on is bad!

The humour doesn’t just come from the
titular characters and their antics.

There are a
lot of fun side characters, like cranky old Mr. Futterman from next door (Joe
Dante regular Dick Miller) and miser
Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), who
gets the film’s biggest laugh from her fate at the gremlin’s hands. Best of all though is Mr. Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), who inadvertently causes
all the mayhem in buying (sort of…) Gizmo. Seeing all his failing inventions, wondering how they’ll
backfire this time is always a laugh. His trip to a convention out of town is
the excuse needed for some great sight gags, like The Time Machine and Robby
The Robot
(not to mention Steven Spielberg himself) in the background
(Dante showing off his fanboy side again).

At the end of the day, the best gift of the
lot has to be taken back to the shop on Boxing Day.

Beyond all
this Gremlins is still a family film and it does have its eye on a few family
films in particular. For a start,
with the Gizmo plotline, it does feel like a sort of evil version of ET and
there’re a lot of overt references to it; well, when you consider the producer… They’re both tales of a heart-warming
friendship between a boy (Zach Galligan)
and his… thing, only for there to be a touching farewell at the end. Also, the small town location, Kingston
Falls, is more than a little reminiscent of Bedford Falls from It’s A Wonderful
Life. That’s what’s important to
the film’s feel, it’s like a traditional, somewhat saccharine Christmas special
invaded by pure chaos. And that contrast is probably why it’s gone down well as
an alternative Christmas classic.

Gremlins was
a big success at the time, spawning many an imitators like Ghoulies, Critters and
Munchies
. Spielberg and Chris
Columbus also teamed up again on projects like The Goonies and Young
Sherlock Holmes
, and Dante would, of course, return for The New Batch, a
sequel that really ups the comedy to unbelievable levels. It and Ghostbusters led to a new wave
of 80s FX filled horror comedies such as The
Monster Squad
and Killer Klowns From
Outer Space
. Above all though,
this film has joined the ranks of great Christmas movies by actively breaking
all conceptions of what a Christmas movie should be. So with its re-release thanks to Park Circus, if you haven’t
felt joy to the world at the sight of green monsters on a rampage before, now’s
the time to experience it for yourself.
Just remember; a Mogwai’s for life, not just for Christmas!

Park Circus are bringing Joe Dante’s 80s cult classic Gremlins back to
the big screen on December 7th.

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