Gremlins (1984)

Prompt

Christmas-themed horror movie of the 1980s.



Limerick of the week

“There beneath the Christmas tree

a Mogwai tried to sleep.

But the water was splashed,

And the zero hour crashed.

To the town the Gremlins reaped.”




Gremlins (1984)


Why this prompt

Christmas has come and gone by now, and with it so have the stresses of the season. With the prompt of finding a horror movie of the 1980’s era, I hoped to narrow down the selection of films. Anyone that is playing along will realize there are maybe a half dozen horror Christmas movies produced in the 1980s but it is the era when the slasher is coming into fruition. A couple of these are Christmas Evil, and three of the Silent Night, Deadly Night films, which all have a place in my heart, but this Christmas I was looking for something a little more light-hearted, and something to enjoy with my fiance and baby.

I’ve always heard such great things about this film, and I had vague memories from when I was a child, but it never seemed important to revisit, till now. Joe Donte’s Gremlins charmed me in a way that I don’t think I would have respected before. The 1980s were a pivotal point in film history because multiple blockbusters were being released every year. Some films were crammed down the throats of the youth throughout the 1990s and 2000s, at least this is how I feel about 1982s E.T. yet Gremlins is almost the opposite film in every way, and I can’t get enough of it.



Where can you find it?

Gremlins is available on HBO Max and it looks like an animated take on the property called Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai has been green-lit. You can also find it on Netflix for the time being.


The cast

The biggest name in this film is a very young Corey Feldman who plays the friendly neighborhood kid who takes a gig selling Christmas trees during the first portion of the film. We get to witness him dressed in a ridiculous tree costume, so that’s fun. I am not familiar with very many of the other actors, except for the main protagonist who is played by Zach Galligan, who is someone I’ve seen, but I can’t think of any other notable or leading roles. By hiring actors with less experience, or older actors who have already fallen from the spotlight, allowed Joe Donte to save some money and invest more in the practical effects. Not knowing the actors offers more of an authentic feel to the film as well, by not recognizing them as celebrities we’re able to relate better. Hoyt Axton was a very believable father figure, and I relish the opening scene between him and Keye Luke, the Asian shop owner that sells him the Mogwai.


The overview

The film opens with the father of our protagonist, Randall Peltzer, making his way through a fictional Chinatown. He’s narrating, which is something I wish continued throughout the film. His voice is deep, calming, wise. Randall explains that he’s an inventor as he continues past a wrecked Ford Pinto, and is ushered down to a store by a child. The lighting of this scene and Randall’s wardrobe is reminiscent of noir films, or perhaps Blade Runner which came out two years prior. The shop is the boy’s grandfather's and they seem to sell trinkets of sorts. The music swells with wonder! The opening to this movie is memorable, yet out of place story-wise when compared to the rest of the film, and as problematic as it is with the Asian stereotyping, I think it helps build the darkness that Gremlins eventually captures.

We’re then introduced to the fabled creature, the Mogwai. There are three rules pertaining to the Mogwai:

  1. Keep him out of the sunlight, he’ll die in the light.

  2. Keep him away from water, it’s not good if he gets wet.

  3. Never feed him after midnight. Period.

After some bartering, and perhaps some theft the Mogwai ends up in the hands of Randall.

Christmas shenanigans ensue in the town of Kingston Fall, which I immediately felt comfortable in. The set has the feeling of a child’s dream like everything is as it always should be. The town center is so familiar in fact that it is the same set and studio used for one of my favorite films of all time Back to the Future.

We get to know some of the characters around town, for better or worse *cough* fuck you Mrs. Deagle *cough*. Billy’s life unravels for us as well and he starts off seeming like your average man in his early twenties, that is until you realize he lives at home and is almost treated like a ten-year-old throughout the rest of the film. Billy’s best friend is Pete and Pete is the very age you would think the protagonist of this film should be. This all adds to the quirkiness of this movie. It may hurt when you start to get stuck on these inconsistencies, but I think that the film rolls along in a wondrous fashion that helps you ignore the hiccups.

The Mogwai himself is adorable! Big loveable eyes, a button nose, and furry ears that stick straight off his head. It takes a good amount of willpower to not roll around in a barn suffocating little Gizmo out of sheer love. Better than his purring is the songs Gizmo sings. This movie immediately makes you adore the furry thing, and I’m surprised that they don’t go the route of turning Gizmo against his owner towards the end of the film.

Just as any horror film goes the three rules set up for us to follow with our Mogwai are immediately and almost deliberately broken. Gizmo first gets wet and produces five other Mogwai, and by the time midnight rolls around all of these Mogwai are ready for a zero-hour snack. As much as this is predictable there are some very endearing scenes in between that make everything, save for the romance, worthwhile.

By the midpoint of the film, we finally begin to see the true horror of the Gremlins. The introducing scene of Stripe follows the science teacher exploring his classroom in the dark, only to be stuck with a needle as the tape rolls off the classroom projector, a great way to let the audience know his character won’t be seen again. Billy’s mother finds herself using the kitchen appliances to take down the Gremlins that are terrorizing her, only to be bombarded by one hidden within the tinsel of the Christmas tree, this is most definitely one of my favorite visuals in all of Christmas horror. Billy arrives in time to behead the Gremlin launching his dome into the nearby fireplace where it burns. My god! If I remember correctly I had seen this movie around the age of seven or so. It seems to me either the social expectations have changed drastically, or the world was a lot “tuffer” back then, but probably both.

Stripe makes it to the nearby YMCA where he takes a dive, in turn producing hundreds of Gremlins. I guess when a Gremlin gets wet they produce Gremlins rather than Mogwai, how this logic works, I have yet to know, but I won’t question it. This is the portion of the film where all seems lost, and chaos ensues. Each member of the town that we were introduced to in the first half of the film now has a run-in with the Gremlins, from tearing down satellites to launching Mrs. Beagle out of her window with a chair elevator. Some Gremlins smoke and drink, some play with puppets… Ironic huh?

A stark contrast to the comedy being portrayed by the Gremlins is the monologue given by Billy’s love interest Kate. Billy and Gizmo listen in content as Kate explains the grueling death of her father, who broke his neck coming down the chimney on Christmas eve and was only discovered because of the smell put off by a fire days later. If this doesn’t encapsulate the dark comedy of this horror flick then I don’t know what does. Phoebe Cates plays it stone-cold serious, and although the tale is a said one, there is an underlying layer of irony always present (ha present). Oh, and by the way, this is how Kate discovered there was no Santa Clause. Did not remember that from my childhood.

The trio continues to follow Stripe through town, attempting to stop him from producing more. There’s a great scene where the Gremlins are just eating up Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the local movie theater. This is interesting because it’s not often that you see Disney properties in a WB film.

Once Billy traps Stripe in the department store there’s a showdown between the two, meanwhile Kate and Gizmo attempt to make contact at the radio station. Stripe corners Billy with a chainsaw, after shooting him with a crossbow, and one of the coolest practical effects happens here where Stripe uses the chainsaw as a getaway on the carpet. I can only imagine what they had to build for the doll to ride along the ground like that. Stripe is ultimately stopped by his nemesis and father, Gizmo, when Gizmo reveals him to the sunlight inside a greenhouse, just as Stripe begins to reproduce in a fountain. Hooray! The melting effect here, so cool, and very reminiscent of other Speilberg films. The movie wraps up with the Asian Grandfather from the beginning of the film taking his Mogwai back from the dumb white family that nearly caused a worldwide catastrophe.


Final thoughts


Gremlins is a quirky movie by director Joe Donte, but it has Spielberg's fingerprints all over it. I enjoy the set design of this film more than anything else. Each space the characters find themselves in feels alive and is lit great for that scene, almost like a comic book or cartoon. The practical effects of this film spawned so many Gremlin clone films like Critters, Ghoulies, and so forth. The dream-like logic of Gremlins allows the audience to suspend their belief in even the craziest of moments. This feels like a film made by people who cared for what they were producing and that is obvious.


Score

8/10


To ponder

  1. How old were you when you first saw this film? How old would you like your children to be to show them this film?

  2. If you could re-cast this film today who would play Billy, Kate, and so on?

  3. Are you looking forward to the HBO animated series? Is it essential to have it be based around Christmas?


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