40 for 40 – #25. Gremlins
#25 in the 40 for 40 again straddles the fine line between horror and comedy, while at the same time re-creating a mythos in the most 80s way possible.
They told us the rules. And thankfully, we didn’t listen.
So turn off the lights, refill your water glass and grab a midnight snack.
Just don’t wipe your nose on my curtains…
#25. Gremlins (1984) Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Howie Mandel. Directed by Joe Dante.
I think Gremlins may have been the first ‘horror’ movie I ever saw.
I was six years old when I originally watched it on VHS, and I remember being unnerved by certain aspects of the film. It wasn’t anything specific, more of an after-thought and a side-effect of having an admittedly-overactive imagination.
But something about the film just didn’t sit right. It disturbed me. It made me anxious.
And yet, I loved it.
While there are some genuinely non-kid-friendly themes, Gremlins also has a multitude of juvenile, out-and-out comedic moments, and the latter kept me coming back for more.
Written by Chris Columbus, the man who directed the original two Harry Potter films, as well as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, at its core, Gremlins is a story about a boy and his dog.
Well, his other dog.
It’s just, in this instance, his other dog happens to be an ancient Chinese monster with the potential to end the world.
Right away, the movie sets an eerie tone, as wannabe-inventor, Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) skulks around Chinatown in search of the perfect Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan) and stumbles across the keepers of a creature known only as a Mogwai.
A smart man once said, “With great power, comes great responsibility…” and that mantra is epitomised by the Mr. Wing character (Keye Luke), whose refusal to sell the Mogwai “at any price” hints at a baleful side of things to come. And like all morality fables, the good advice is ignored in exchange for immediate materialistic goals; Rand obtains a present for Billy, and Mr. Wing’s grandson pockets the cash.
This opening scene sets up Gremlins as an old-fashioned cautionary tale. Like The Twilight Zone before it (which had its own Gremlin story), the movie does a wonderful job of creating that feeling of unease that precariously hovers over the rest of the story until all Hell breaks loose.
On a side-note, Gremlins is rather unique in that there is no comeuppance for those responsible for the chaos they (even unintentionally) cause. Like Mayor Vaughn from Jaws, Rand and the grandson, the ‘enablers’ of the forthcoming disaster, face no real consequences for their actions.
Perhaps this is the influence of producer, Steven Spielberg, whose fingerprints are all over this movie, despite not actually being in the director’s chair. Instead, Joe Dante takes the helm. No stranger to horror, Dante’s earlier work included The Howling, and he would later continue his comedic outings with Inner Space and The ‘Burbs.
I’ve always considered Dante a darker, grittier version of his mentor, Spielberg, and with Gremlins, his ability to mix humour with horror pays off in spades with one of the best black comedies ever made.
But make no mistake, Gremlins owes a lot of its success to its unique creatures, and none is more important than the aforementioned Mogwai, Gizmo.
This merchandise machine is properly introduced to the audience through Billy’s eyes. We share his immediate adoration for Gizmo and sympathise with the little guy when he’s startled by Billy’s mother’s camera flash.
In one short, sharp scene, Gizmo is instantly imprinted on us a something to love and care for, despite knowing next-to-nothing about his true origins. The same scene also reminds us of the now-infamous ‘rules’, ominous-yet-innocuous warnings for caring for a Mogwai.
- Keep them away from bright lights, especially sunlight.
- Don’t get them wet.
- And most importantly, never feed them after midnight.
I love how the rules float in and out of the story as though they’re a character in their own right. I also love the varying degrees of danger involved in breaking any particular rule, in combination with any particular situation.
Sure, when Gizmo is accidentally splashed with water (breaking Rule #2), the results are rather tame. While odd, learning that contact with water causes Gizmo to multiply and produce five more Mogwai seems a rather tame result given the earlier emphasis placed on obeying the rules.
The new Mogwai are of course, different than the meek and rather sweet Gizmo. All five of these mischievous critters (no, not those Critters) slowly raise the tension as their mean-spirited-yet-harmless pranks soon turn malevolent when they fool Billy into breaking Rule #3.
This is where Dante’s horror expertise really comes into play. When we see that the post-midnight snacking Mogwai have cocooned themselves in spooky pods Adam Warlock would be proud of, the following few scenes are definitely the movie’s darkest.
Firstly, like Jaws and Alien before it, the movie takes a while before showing us a Gremlin. When the cocoons hatch, we only see Gizmo’s terrified reaction, another less-is-more technique which Dante uses to tease the audience. The first time we actually see one of the fully-formed Gremlins is when Billy is attacked inside the high school, after the (admittedly-mistreated) former Mogwai straight up murders science teacher, Mr. Hanson.
The scenes of Lynn Peltzer creeping through her home in fear of the unknown are excellently directed by Dante. Just seeing the Gremlin’s shadow again adds tension, as do the flying plates out of nowhere, and the booming Do You Hear What I Hear? triggered by the little green men is creepy-yet-amusing at the same time.
And then, there’s that kitchen scene. It’s simply fantastic.
What starts as a potentially terrifying ordeal turns comedic when Mrs. Peltzer blitzes the first Gremlin in the cookie maker, compete with Evil Dead–styled blood splatter, followed by an outright nail-biter when she brutally stabs the next Gremlin to death with her best Michael Myers impression.
Mrs. Peltzer gives MacGyver a run for his money when it comes to improvising with household goods as she uses an aerosol spray to force the next Gremlin into the microwave to cause what is possibly one of the most well-remembered creature deaths in cinematic history. As gross as it is hilarious, watching the Gremlin explode as the microwave chimes its customary ding is just magnificent.
The scene really showcases the technical marvel used in bringing the Gremlins to life. The puppetry and animatronics holds up incredibly well, especially when you consider this was released in 1984, a time without the crutch of modern-day CGI.
Even the Gremlin sounds fit perfectly, thanks to veteran voice actors like Frank Welker, Peter Cullen and Michael Winslow, not to mention Howie Mandel’s sugary-sweet interpretation of Gizmo and his teddy-bear-like vocals.
While we’re all recovering from laughing off the kitchen scene, the movie turns a full 180 yet again when Mrs. Peltzer is assaulted by the Gremlin hidden in the Christmas tree. This attack is one-hundred-percent a horror movie moment, defused only by Billy’s timely arrival and his use of the (previously foreshadowed) loose decorative swords on the wall.
The ups and downs of the household attack really are a testament to Columbus and Dante’s storytelling, especially the way the scene ends. We finally see the leader of the group, Stripe, in all his Gremlin glory. But the movie only teases the confrontation, as Stripe (like all good villains) escapes to fight another day, but not before blowing his nose on the curtains in one final riotous middle finger to the Peltzers.
Now the story moves into overdrive. As soon as we see Stripe sink to the bottom of that YMCA pool, we realise that the s**t is really about to hit the fan.
The following Gremlin rampage through Kingston Falls highlights the heavy lifting the movie’s script does in the first act. Almost every major beat of the Gremlins’ night of terror is foreshadowed early on in the film, so when we get these payoffs in the middle, they feel all the more natural and familiar.
Gizmo watches Clark Gable’s To Please a Lady and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which predict both his love of driving and the fashion in which the Gremlin ‘pods’ bust open.
Kate’s (Phoebe Cates) disdain for Christmas is briefly touched upon as well, only seconds after we first see the local neighbourhood Christmas carollers singing in the background. The carollers in particular are a clever little insert, as their replacement at the hands of several (badly) harmonising Gremlins leads to the downfall of the film’s true villain.
Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holiday), a nasty mix of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Wicked Witch of the West, is established early on in the movie as the scourge of the town. She seems to be ruling Kingston Falls through her business dealings with the bank, sucking every penny from most of the locals without a hint of holiday spirit.
Her quest to capture and kill Billy’s dog, Barney, and her overall spiteful, two-faced behaviour makes her the perfect victim for the Gremlins and their strangely-karmic attack on her home.
I personally wonder what other horrible deeds Mrs. Deagle has been responsible for over her lifetime. When the Gremlins arrive at her home, she does gasp at how “They’ve come for me…”
What? Who’s come for you? And what have you done to deserve being haunted by little green monsters? Hmmm… Signs of a guilty conscience for sure.
No matter though, because however you view her, Mrs. Deagle gets a worthy comeuppance, while at the same time delivering the movie’s out-and-out funniest death scene.
You heard me. Funny. Death scene. Again, proving how perfect the juxtaposition of horror and humour is handled in this movie.
While her demise is a darkly-comedic thrill, the Mrs. Deagle character in general actually hints at the bleak undertones of the entire story, some of which is only briefly touched upon.
One subplot that mostly seems to go unnoticed is the sad tale of Murray Futterman (Dick Miller). Loveable Mr. Futterman is a tragic figure when you examine him a little closer. A war veteran, recently unemployed and suffering from some kind of PTSD, Futterman is the first character to introduce the concept of gremlins into the movie, telling the legendary tales of many World War II fighter pilots before him.
But Futterman is also more than a little paranoid, spending his nights drinking up a storm at the local bar to forget his troubles. When Kate helps him head on home after a night of hitting the sauce, we can tell it isn’t the first time this has happened. And Murray’s xenophobic mistrust of anything foreign such as Billy’s Volkswagen or his own television set, gives us a slight peek into his uneasy existence.
To make things even worse, Futterman is ultimately proven right about the Gremlins as they drive his prized snow plough through his home to kill him and his wife.
I know what you’re going to say; “Killed? He’s alive in the sequel…”
Yes he is, but that movie wasn’t in the works when this script was written. I mean, watch that scene again. The Gremlins and their hijacked snow plough come to a halt with a sudden jolt of impact. Also, check out the sheriff’s reaction when he hears the news. It’s the reaction of someone learning of a death (or two).
Yes, The New Batch essentially ‘ret-conned’ the fate of the Futtermans (which sounds like the sub-heading to the next Fast & Furious film) but for all intents and purposes, in this movie, Murray and his wife are killed.
This scene also gives us our first real taste of Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible theme. It’s zany, it’s wacky, yet also slightly-disturbing at the same time. Like a broken-down carousel, the now-signature piece of music is synonymous with Gremlins, symbolising the proverbial inmates running the asylum.
Goldsmith is also responsible for Gizmo’s soothing lullaby. Like a calm before the storm, Gizmo’s sweet, almost melancholy song is as simple as it is beautiful, and the little Mogwai crooning for Billy has always been one of my favourite parts of the film.
My earlier interpretation of the Futterman (death) scene stems from the overtones and hangover of the original script, which was a flat-out horror movie, with many scenes ‘lightened up’ before shooting. For example, Barney the dog is not just strewn up with Christmas lights, but rather eaten by the evil Mogwai, Gizmo turns and becomes Stripe, and bad-ass Mrs. Peltzer has no such kitchen scene, since in the original script, Billy watches as her decapitated head rolls down the attic steps.
Thankfully, Joe Dante knew that comedy was the way to go with most of the film, and the montage of the Gremlins’ ‘Big Night Out’ is proof of that. The bar scene where Kate is basically held hostage by a bunch of inebriated Gremlins, evokes the traditions of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, when the movie becomes a series of homage-laden Laugh-In or SNL-styled sketch sequences for a few minutes.
Speaking of Kate, she is an interesting character for sure. Smitten with Billy, she is originally portrayed as a prize to be won, an example found in many films of the time.
But Kate is more than that. She isn’t some damsel-in-distress. While trapped in the bar, her discovery of the Gremlins’ aversion to light (especially fire), lets her escape her predicament on her own. When Billy does arrive, Kate is already well in control of her own fate.
Kate also completes the trilogy of characters with dark backgrounds that started with Mrs. Deagle and Mr. Futterman. Her revelation about the Christmas-time death of her father stops the film in its tracks. Borrowing from the famous urban legend, Kate’s story drops a sombre moment into the movie that, in all honesty, adds nothing to the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Kate’s story. I just question why it’s in the film. It certainly gives Phoebe Cates some character to play with as Kate, but if you removed that scene (as the studio wanted to), would it affect the story?
The Gremlins and their particular sense of fun leads to another of the film’s iconic moments, in which Stripe and his minions gather to watch Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs. While these scenes are undoubtedly funny, they also serve a purpose, allowing Billy to strike down (almost) all of the little monsters in one foul, fiery swoop.
The finale is one of the best in any horror movie, especially one based on the ‘scary monster’ premise. As Stripe seeks out a way to eliminate Billy, he employs a virtual gauntlet of movie serial killer armaments. Using saw blades, a crossbow, a chainsaw and finally, a handgun, Stripe comes this close to victory when he finds himself ready to gun down Billy while knee deep in fountain water that will regenerate a whole new batch of followers to continue the fun.
Billy does an admirable job, but Gizmo is the true hero. Risking his own safety, he zooms into the fray in his very own Barbie Convertible (in a moment foreshadowed earlier with the Clark Gable film) and manages to douse Stripe in sunlight.
After being told that sunlight is lethal for Mogwai / Gremlins, when we finally see the result, it doesn’t disappoint. Stripe’s death and disintegration is disgusting-yet-perfect at the same time. He even has one last clichéd horror movie jump scare left in him, before he succumbs to his gooey fate.
A worthy death for one of the eighties’ great movie villains.
The final wrap up of the film, where Mr. Wing returns to reclaim Gizmo is excellently handled. It keeps the story self-contained (for now), but also reminds us of the morality tale the film began as. When Mr. Wing reminds Billy (and in essence, Western Society) that ‘we’ are not ready for such a responsibility, well, it’s hard to argue.
Gizmo’s final line, “Bye, Billy…” is still a bittersweet moment. Triumphant-yet-heartbreaking.
All in all, Gremlins still holds up incredibly well. Unlike many other films of the time, it hasn’t become dated or campy over the years. The mix of comedy and horror has probably never been equalled. For every break-dancing, beer-swilling, Hi-Ho-singing moment, there’s a murdered high school science teacher, a terrorised Mr. Futterman, and not one but two dead Santas.
So before I go, I aim to answer a question that has plagued viewers for over three decades now.
Is Gremlins a Christmas movie? Long story short: Yes, it is. Deal with it.
And don’t get me started on Die Hard…
Rating: 4 out of 5 evil Mogwai.
Favourite Moment: The kitchen scene.
Honourable Mention: Stripe’s last stand.
Next week: #24 – “Every man dies. Not every man really lives…”
Don’t break the 4th rule: grab an Unfunny Nerd Tangent shirt! Santa Claus may not be real, but Mon Milfma certainly is!
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