Should I Watch..? 'Gremlins'
What's the big deal?
Gremlins is a horror comedy film released in 1984 and was the first big success enjoyed by screenwriter Chris Columbus. Directed by Joe Dante, the film follows the misadventures of a young man given a strange creature as a pet who unwittingly unleashes a horde of mischievous monsters that threaten his hometown over Christmas. The film stars Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton and Frances Lee McCain with supporting appearances by Corey Feldman, Judge Reinhold and Frank Welker. The film was a commercial success with global takings over $153 million while critics also praised the film for its unusual blend of Christmas, slapstick comedy and bloody horror. However, the film was criticised by some for being too violent and for being mis-marketed as a family film instead of a dark horror. Together with Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, it was one of the films that led to US censors adjusting the rating system and introducing the PG-13 rating. The film was followed by a sequel in 1990 while a rumoured third film is said to be in the pipeline.
What's it about?
Struggling inventor Randall Peltzer discovers an obscure store in Chinatown while shopping for a Christmas gift for his son Billy. Despite the owner Mr Wing's reluctance to sell him, Randall acquires a small and mysterious creature Wing calls a 'mogwai'. They are special rules to abide by: keep him out of bright light, don't give him water or get him wet and never feed him after midnight. Naming the mogwai Gizmo, Randall gives Billy his present who quickly finds himself intrigued by his new pet.
Naturally, Billy accidentally gets Gizmo wet and soon discovers a number of similar-looking offspring that literally spring from Gizmo's back. At first, Billy is delighted with the new mogwai and takes them to his high school science teacher Mr Hanson to determine what exactly Gizmo is. But as Hanson's experiments continue without being made aware of the rules, the mogwai quickly mutant into something smarter and more deadly than anyone supposed. As Billy realises what has happened, it's up to him and his girlfriend Kate to save the town of Kingston Falls before chaos takes over.
Randall "Rand" Peltzer
Frances Lee McCain
Release Date (UK)
7th December, 1984
12A (2012 rating)
Comedy, Fantasy, Horror
What's to like?
Gremlins was far from being the first horror comedy but few have matched the technical aptitude that Dante brings to the picture. The visual effects might have aged in this era of CG but I think the puppetry works in the film's favour. Gizmo, Stripe and the others all have a physical presence as well as defined personalities despite the relative lack of dialogue. Some of the best scenes involve the hordes of monsters causing havoc such as the bar where Kate works (and is inexplicably still trying to serve them instead of running for her life), swinging from the lights and playing cards, drinking themselves into a stupor in the process.
The film manages the tricky blend of comedy and horror well, feeling reminiscent of Shaun Of The Dead by combining genuine comedy with violent, bloody darkness. The reason this works is due to the picture-postcard setting, a rural town covered in snow lit up by Christmas lights presumably designed to mimic Bedford Falls in It's A Wonderful Life. Gremlins is a film that delightfully hams things up, helped by the presence and influence of executive producer Steven Spielberg who has an innate ability to give audiences exactly what they want.
- The 'Santa' monologue delivered by Cates proved controversial with both Spielberg and studio executives not keen on its inclusion. Dante, however, refused to cut the scene because he felt the speech's tragic/comic ambiguity perfectly summed up the film as a whole. Since Spielberg felt that the film was Dante's project, he let the director make the final choice.
- Keep your eyes peeled when Rand calls Lynn from the convention. In the background, you'll see cameos from Spielberg and composer Jerry Goldsmith as well as Robby The Robot from Forbidden Planet, who even repeats several lines of his dialogue from that film.
- The film makers initially planned to have monkeys in costumes act as the gremlins but this was scrapped after they panicked once the face mask was put in place. After the monkey trashed the office and defecated everywhere, Dante called for the trainer before turning to makeup artist Chris Walas (who created the Gremlins) and said "So, puppets?"
What's not to like?
It shouldn't be a surprise that the human cast are overshadowed by their bat-eared co-stars but it is a disappointment. Galligan, who never managed to escape B-movie purgatory, is perfectly suited as the slightly nerdish hero in over his head but I struggle to see what Kate sees in him. Speaking of Cates as Kate, her role feels horribly underwritten and she's only given one scene of any real importance - a jet-black monologue that sets up a grim joke about why she hates Christmas so much. If anything, the only character I felt sympathy for was McCain who stalks the little critters throughout her house in proper, horror movie fashion.
There's also the little matter of plot-holes. Given that bright lights adversely affect Gremlins, why didn't people simply switch the lights on instead of skulking around in darkened rooms hoping to sneak up on them? Yes, the Gremlins might have disconnected the power (they never did, though) but given that nobody ever switches the lights on anywhere, why would they? The characters behave as stupid as teenagers in a slasher film, blindly wandering around in the dark with little real idea of what they're doing. Lastly, the film derails itself after the monsters multiply significantly by turning itself into a more family-friendly comedy. Take the aforementioned scene at the bar or the rows of Gremlins singing in time when they go to the movies. I wanted the film to be more adult than it is and while it's not especially suitable for younger viewers, it's not that suitable for mature audiences either.
Should I watch it?
Gremlins is certainly one of the more unusual films set at Christmas but the film is a dark and gory attempt at subverting the various festive traditions that appear in such films. It may turn into more of an anarchic comedy the longer it goes on but the film's essence is one of a genuine horror, even if its monsters aren't as scary as other classic cinema fiends. But the film is still a lot of mindless fun and technically solid.
Great For: parents looking to freak out their kids, cementing an actor's cult status
Not So Great For: viewers under the age of 10, anyone expecting a traditional family / Christmas movie, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
There is a noticeable change in tone for Gremlins 2: The New Batch which is a much more family-orientated comedy, despite still clinging to familiar horror tropes. But it's much more fun, featuring cameos from the likes of Christopher Lee, Kathleen Freeman and Hulk Hogan and has an even more anarchic feel. It's also more imaginative with different types of Gremlin popping up but is still undermined by the human cast being outclassed by puppets.
Christmas-based horror films tend to be strictly B-movie efforts, heavily reliant on their festive gimmick instead of generating any actual tension. Examples include the extremely missable Don't Open Till Christmas and the very silly The Gingerdead Man. Far better examples are Tim Burton's classic musical animation The Nightmare Before Christmas and the forthcoming Anna And The Apocalypse, a zombie film set at Christmas also peppered with musical numbers. Strange but true, folks.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox