Talking Movies [Christmas Countdown]: Gremlins

Talking Movies

Released: 8 June 1984
Director: Joe Dante
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $11 million
Stars: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Howie Mandel, and Hoyt Axton

The Plot:
Struggling inventor Randall “Rand” Peltzer (Axton) purchases a mysterious, cute little creature known as a “Mogwai” as a Christmas present for his son, Billy (Galligan). The creature, nicknamed “Gizmo” (Mandel) comes with a strict set of rules that see it react in pain to bright light, multiply when exposed to water, and its mischievous progeny metamorphose into mean-spirited, destructive, aggressive little monsters that wreak havoc on Billy’s hometown on Christmas Eve.

The Background:
Produced at a time when blending horror and comedy was quickly becoming a popular trend in media and fiction, Gremlins was the brainchild of Chris Columbus, who was inspired to write a spec script after being creeped out by the sounds of mice in his attic. The concept has its roots in both Chinese mythology and Second World War propaganda warning of potentially faulty or sabotaged machinery, and the script was never intended to be a film but was pushed into production after Steven Spielberg became excited enough by the concept to buy the script. Joe Dante was brought in to direct and worked closely with Spielberg to design the look of Gizmo and the Gremlins, who were brought to life using puppets and animatronics designed by Chris Walas. The script was initially much darker, and Spielberg nixed the idea that Gizmo would transform into a villainous Gremlin, though the final film remained violent and disturbing enough to help forever change the way that films were rated. While the more violent aspects upset many parents, Gremlins was a massive hit; it made over $212 million at the box office and has been widely praised for its biting dark comedy and special effects. The film was succeeded by a great deal of merchandise, videogames, and a much more light-hearted sequel, as well as kicking off a trend towards vicious little creatures in horror cinema. Another of the formative films of my youth, Gremlins has long been a favourite of mine; it’s a staple of every Christmas, and I’m keen to see how the long-awaited third entry turns out.

The Review:
Gremlins begins framed as a story told to us by Rand, though his narration simply bookends the film to add to its whimsical nature as a kind of suburban legend, or campfire story, told to caution the viewer of the dangers of meddling with the unknown. Rand is an inventory, specialising in all kinds of wacky household doohickeys that are targeted at making life easier for the lazy and the dim-witted. A running gag in the film is the unreliability of his inventions, such as an orange juicer maker that explodes in Billy’s face, a remote phone (what a crazy idea!), and the Peltzer Smokeless Ashtray that produces a great deal of smoke! His pride and joy is the Bathroom Buddy, an all-in-one bathroom assistant that actually is pretty neat, but constantly malfunctions, usually right when he’s trying to sell it. Rand means well, and his heart’s definitely in the right place, and his passion and enthusiasm for science and inventions is certainly admirable but, sadly, he really hasn’t seen much in the way of success with his patents and is therefore heavily motivated to make up for his failures as a salesman and a businessman by getting his son a gift to truly make his Christmas.

As his father’s inventions are unreliable, Billy is forced to set aside his dreams to support his family.

After trawling the streets with no luck, Rand finds himself on the imposing streets of Chinatown, where a young boy (John Louie) leads him to the dingy, treasure trove of his grandfather, Mister Wing (Keye Luke). Mr. Wing’s shop is full of curios and antiques, and Rand is taken by the old man’s offerings, but is immediately besotted by a curious, singing creature unlike anything he’s ever seen before. Despite Rand slapping down $200 for the Mogwai, Mr. Wing refuses to part with the critter since it “requires much responsibility”. His grandson, however, slips Rand the Mogwai behind his grandfather’s back, desperate for the money to help the struggling shop, and emphasises the importance of following three rules to care for the creature: Don’t get him wet, keep him out of the sunlight, and never feed him after midnight. Off screen, Rand dubs the chirpy critter Gizmo and triumphantly returns home as a boisterous and much-loved figure to his wife, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), and son Billy. While Lynn is a stay-at-home-mum and fills her days either struggling with Rand’s inventions or cooking, Billy is a hard-working lad in his early twenties (maybe?) A gifted artist, Billy works a full-time job as a bank clerk and is practically supporting his entire family with his meagre income; while the likes of Gerald Hopkins (Judge Reinhold) are far more successful and dynamic and local elderly miser Mrs. Ruby Deagle (Polly Holliday) constantly cause him headaches, Billy longs for more but is incredibly loyal to his family and willing to sacrifice his own dreams in order to support them.

Both Murray and Kate have their quirks, but at least Kate is quite the cutie.

It’s not all bad, though; Billy has a rambunctious dog, Barney (Mushroom), a loving family an supportive friends, such as local boy Pete Fountaine (Corey Feldman), who shares Billy’s love of comic books and is equally overworked as a Christmas tree delivery boy, and his neighbour, Murray Futterman (Dick Miller). A former World War Two veteran and fierce patriot, Murray likes a bit of a drink and tends to go off on rants about the unreliability of “Goddamn foreign cars” and other items produced outside of the United States, but also tells Bully a harrowing story about how “Gremlins” sabotaged bombers and other vehicles during the war. Billy largely ignores Murray’s ramblings, and many of his other issues, to instead focus on pining after Kate Beringer (Cates), his beautiful co-worker who also works a double shift at a local bar. Although Gerald arrogantly tries to win Kate over with his wealth and higher class of lifestyle, she is far from impressed with his bravado and is as smitten with Billy as he is with her. Kate also campaigns against Mrs. Deagle’s attempts to strip their sleepy little own of its most sentimental landmarks, and is hiding a bizarre childhood trauma that keeps her from celebrating Christmas.

The Mogwai may look cute but they’re mischievous little critters, except for the adorable Gizmo.

All of these character’s lives are forever changed when Billy excitedly opens his father’s present and is met by the cute little Gizmo. A strange little creature, Gizmo is inquisitive and adorable and surprisingly intelligent; he sings a little tune and purrs when he’s happy, plays with toys and musical instruments, and can even read comics and play videogames. Gizmo develops a fascination with television, and becomes particularly inspired by the racing classic To Please a Lady (Brown, 1950) and its depiction of fast cars and romance, and can even communicate using simple, childish words. Billy and Gizmo form an immediate bond and Gizmo delights in experiencing the delights of the modern world, but is mindful and responsible enough to be fully aware of the rules he must abide by to stay safe. When Billy enters a room that’s fully lit, Gizmo squeals “Bright light! Bright light”, he dutifully sleeps by Billy and Barney’s side rather than eating after midnight, and stays far away from water at all times because the last thing he wants is to get hurt or die…or worse. As capable as Gizmo is, however, he’s subject to the mishaps of the ignorant and, when Pete accidentally spills water on him, the Mogwai reacts in a violent and disturbing way that Billy certainly wasn’t expecting: a handful of smaller, equally cute but far more mischievous and ill-tempered Mogwai pop out from Gizmo’s back and, all of a sudden, Billy’s new pet becomes a litter of ill-behaved critters.

Cruel and vicious, Stripe desires only to lead his fellow Gremlins on a merry jaunt to cause chaos.

While Rand sees a potential business opportunity in marketing the Mogwai as a hot new family pet, Billy takes one of the batch to Pete’s science teacher, Roy Hanson (Glynn Turman), who immediately experiments on it and produces even more of the Mogwai and is far less mindful of the rules. Unlike Gizmo, the other Mogwai are loud and demanding and mean-spirited, hogging all the toys and being disruptive; they’re led by “Stripe” (Frank Welker), a cruel and vindictive little critter who easily manipulates events to ensure that he and his fellow Mogwai are fed after midnight. The result is Billy waking to find them all encased in disgusting cocoons, and Gizmo distraught at how quickly things have gone south, things go from bad to worse for him, and the entire town, when the cocoons hatch and aggressive, vicious little demons emerge. These Gremlins, led by Stripe, quickly spread across town and cause all manner of havoc from shorting out traffic lights, causing fires and explosions, and even resulting in some violent deaths as they send Mrs. Deagle flying out of a window! Stripe delights not just in causing mayhem but in torturing poor Gizmo, and leads the Gremlins on a merry jaunt to find more havoc, food, and water to increase their numbers and keep the party going.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Gremlins starts off as a quirky little family movie about a struggling family in a nice little town where the wealthy oppress the working class and the character’s main concerns are trying to provide for their loved ones and mustering the courage to ask out the pretty girl. Even when Gizmo arrives in Billy’s life, things don’t really change all that much right away; he treats the Mogwai as a friend and a pet but life carries on as normal and it’s only when Gizmo is exposed to water that things take a dramatic turn sideways. The Gremlins really shake up the film and turn it more into a dark comedy as the vicious little creatures turn the town into an absolute disaster area; the once quiet and peaceful streets are soon strewn with debris, burned out cars, exploded shop windows, and people fleeing in panic and terror as the Gremlins spread anarchy in their search for food, entertainment, and procreation.

The Gremlins cause havoc across town, attacking and even killing people simply for fun!

The Gremlins are impish, wicked little monsters who delight in causing trouble, pain, and destruction all over town. Although mischievous as Mogwai, they completely lose all their inhibitions as Gremlins and become obsessed with playing cruel pranks, gorging themselves, and reproducing at every opportunity. They’re also incredibly dangerous; Mrs. Deagle might have been a miserly old bat who deserved some comeuppance but they send her blasting out of a window at high speed to a cruelly amusing death, they string up Barney and leave him to freeze in the cold before Billy rescues him, and there’s a particularly harrowing scene where Lynn is attacked by a Gremlin hiding in the Christmas tree! Stripe is the clear alpha, directing the others in cutting the power to Billy’s clock so they can metamorphose and fleeing to the local swimming pool at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), where he savagely attacks Billy by clawing his chest before jumping in the pool and birthing a veritable army of Gremlins! While he delights in causing misery, Stripe is much more composed and sadistic than his brothers, best seen when they take over Kate’s bar and they’re all causing trouble, but he’s sat playing poker and executes a fellow Gremlin for daring to beat him. The Gremlins’ greatest strengths are their nimble size, sheer numbers, and vicious nature, but they’re quite fragile and easily bested if caught unawares; Lynn takes advantage of this to mince, stab, and explode the little monsters when they wreck her kitchen.

Extremely expressive puppets and animatronics bring the film’s unique creatures to life.

The Mogwai and Gremlins are brought to life through the finest puppetry and animatronics of yesteryear; incredibly expressive and capable of a range of motion (and emotion), the puppets do a fantastic job of showcasing a great deal of personality. With his wide eyes, expressive ears, and adorable little paws and chubby, fluffy body, Gizmo is easily one of cinema’s cutest and iconic little critters ever. His fellow Mogwai all look very similar to him, but are notably distinctive; they not only act very different but have different markings, with Stripe being the obvious standout. Two Mogwai at Mr. Hanson’s lab are particularly adorable as the knock on the walls of a box and they’re all just the cutest as they play with toys and games (even when Stripe is spitting orange goo at Gizmo). Gizmo obviously has the most personality and cuteness appeal; he looks absolutely terrified when the Gremlins are torturing him, which is almost as heart-breaking as his blubbering after he cuts his head and needs a bandage and his dismay at having given birth to his mischievous progeny. Although just a short little critter, Gizmo is determined to put an end to the Gremlins’ reign of terror and helps lead Billy to where Stripe and the others are hiding out. This culminates in him getting behind the wheel of a Barbie car and racing to save Billy before Stripe and shoot him and ultimately delivering the coup de grâce to his tormentor even while putting himself at risk.

With the town in disarray, Billy and Gizmo defeat Stripe and bid a tearful farewell to each other…

The Gremlins swarm across the town, leaving it in ruins, before settling down at the cinema to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Hand, et al, 1937) . Even as Gremlins, their needs are incredibly juvenile; they like to dress up and cause disruption, attacking Santa Claus’s and even ploughing through Murray’s house in his beloved Kentucky Harvester, but are equally as happy to sit with a load of snacks and watch movies. Billy takes advantage of this weakness, however, to break open a gas pipe and essentially set a bomb that blows all of the Gremlins to kingdom come…with the exception of Stripe, who was out gathering snacks. Billy, Kate, and Gizmo pursue him to a local toy shop, where Stripe arms himself with a crossbow, a chainsaw(!), and even a gun to find Billy off. Thanks to Kate breaking into the security office and flicking on the lights, and the timely intervention of Gizmo, Billy is saved and Stripe is reduced to a quivering, disgusting mess of goo right in the middle of trying to spawn a new batch of Gremlins. In the aftermath, the Peltzer’s nurse their wounds and the town tries to recover from their long, dark night, something Mr. Wing is far from impressed by. He chastises Rand’s foolishness and arrogance and reclaims Gizmo, but notes that Billy has the potential to be a suitable guardian in time, and heads back to his little shop after allowing Gizmo a heart-breaking goodbye to his newfound friend.  

The Summary:
Gremlins is not only another of those movies that shaped my childhood, and my love of quirky horror stories, but it’s also essential viewing at Christmas time for me. It might be an odd, violent little dark comedy by the end, but my God is it an absolute Christmas, and cinematic, classic. The practical effects are superb and still hold up to this day thanks to being timeless and irreplaceable puppets and animatronics. Gizmo remains one of the cutest little critters to grace our screens, and the Gremlins are some of the cruellest little mischief-makers ever seen and it’s not hard to see why so many other films tried to emulate the viciousness and comedy of these demonic little buggers. One of the things I love the most about Gremlins is the mystery surrounding the titular creatures; we never really know or ever find out where the Mogwai come from, why they are this way, and I’ve always enjoyed how everyday, suburban life was completely disrupted by this mysterious creature from an unknown oriental background. I loved how Gizmo was fully aware of the danger he poses to others, but still delighted in enjoying himself and playing and befriending Billy, and all of the performances are really strong throughout. Rand and Billy and the others hear the rules but don’t really understand them; they respect them enough to actually follow them, though, and it’s only through a mishap that Gizmo is exposed to water. Once the Gremlins emerge, we’re treated to one of the most unique Christmas movies ever made as these vicious monsters ransack the town, spoiling the holiday cheer more than Mrs. Deagle ever could and leaving a lasting impact as some of cinema’s most wicked critters.  

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What do you think to Gremlins? Is it a Christmas tradition of yours or do you prefer another Christmas movie; if so, what is it? What did you think to the puppets and animatronics? Did you find Kate’s Christmas story an odd inclusion? Would you have liked to see Gizmo turn into a Gremlin as originally intended? Which of the Gremlins knock-offs was your favourite? Whatever your thoughts on Gremlins, sign up to leave a comment below or drop a reply on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday for another Christmas movie review!

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