Of the many hundreds of movies to fall into the “Christmas” genre, a good majority are tainted by empty cheer and goodwill to all mindless consumers. Rom-coms and Hallmark holiday romances are still trotted out year upon year; endless cash-cows with posters showing off quirky straight couples clad in red and green, surrounded by tat and tinsel and probably holding a puppy (with a bow on its head, or something). It’s sickening. Recently, the likes of Last Christmas and The Knight Before Christmas have proudly carried on the trend and done well financially for it; some from the 2000s have even managed to transcend into supposed “yearly tradition” territory, like The Holiday.
What’s the antidote, then, to this tidal wave of cinnamon-spiced saccharine bullshit? What film could give us the same level of festive joy as the aforementioned mistletoe-mikers, but also viciously oppose every single thing that they stand for? Friends, I present to you: Joe Dante’s 1984 masterpiece, Gremlins.
How you currently view Gremlins probably depends on a couple of different factors. Firstly, there’s the question of how old you are, and secondly, how old you were when you first watched it. If you were a kid in the ’80s and got caught up in the hype, you might rightfully think of it as the Christmas classic that it is. If not, there’s more of a chance that, in your mind, it’s a goofy creature feature which serves more as a relic of the decade it was produced in than a genuinely timeless piece of cinema magic. Personally, I first caught the movie at the age of eight or nine, which means I was the perfect age to lose my mind at that bit where Frances Lee McCain blends a gremlin into a chunky milkshake and then microwaves another until it explodes. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I began to come to realise that this is still, for all intents and purposes, a perfect movie.
Like Steven Spielberg (executive producer here), Dante has always been able to capture the intrinsic sense of childish wonder in a motion picture absolutely perfectly. You only need to watch Matinee, Explorers, or The Burbs to realise how deeply the man understands this art form as entertainment… and with Gremlins, he also manages to cinematically reproduce the youthful excitement of the festive season. The story follows Billy (Zach Galligan), a dorky young bank teller in the small town of Kingston Falls, who is given the gift of a Mogwai for Christmas. Affectionately named Gizmo, this Mogwai (“evil spirit” or “demon” in Cantonese) is a strange (and strangely adorable) creature practically stolen by Billy’s bumbling father (Hoyt Axton) from a mysterious shop in the underbelly of Chinatown. There are three simple rules to keeping it as a pet:
1. Keep him away from bright light.
2. Don’t get him wet.
3. Never feed him after midnight.
These ominous caveats are now ingrained so deeply into pop culture that even people unfamiliar with the plot would be able to name you at least one. Of course, each presents a logical fallacy of incredible significance, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest when it all kicks off, and (spoiler) the rules are broken one by one. Before long, Kingston Falls is embroiled in festive violence and bedlam, and it’s all a direct result of the carelessness displayed when one of nature’s gifts is placed in clumsy, Western hands. You may not think it, but an explicitly anti-consumerist moral tale runs through the heart of Gremlins – whether it’s the character of evil Mrs
. Deagle (Polly Holiday) and the comeuppance she gets for being a miserly money-grubbing capitalist, or the words of wisdom imparted by Mr . Wing (Keye Luke) in the final scene: “You do not understand! You are not ready.”
Sure, this film goes pretty insane. There’s murder by syringe, stairlift, and snowplough, and numerous gremlins meet a gory end via immolation, decapitation, and implosion… but in the middle of all the ridiculous action, it’s sometimes easy to underappreciate the artistic value of this black-comedy classic. From the lighting and shot composition to the music, to the goopy practical effects (and Chris Walas’ iconic monster designs), Gremlins is simply a step above the rest when it comes to kid-friendly horror. The visual presentation sometimes borders on expressionistic, with shots doused with dry ice and bathed in neon reds, greens, and blues to mirror the fairy lights hung all around. Jerry Goldsmith, as he always did, creates a perfect accompanying score; brimming with menace and mischief, and yet subtly beautiful at times.
There’s one scene specifically which I think captures the best of it all: Billy, Kate (Phoebe Cates), and Gizmo venture out into an eerily deserted town in the dead of night, lit only by the moon, the street lamps, and a subtle rainbow of Christmas lights. It’s snowing gently, and the magical atmosphere is enhanced by Goldsmith’s take on Silent Night in the track ‘After Theater‘. It’s moments like this – the calm before the storm of the finale – which can turn a silly creature feature into a bonafide classic, and one which tugs on my heartstrings to no end.
It almost seems obvious that Gremlins would be so perfect; after all, isn’t it a melding of the minds of three masters of cinema in Dante, Spielberg, and writer Chris Columbus? Of course – but it’s also, by all accounts, an accidentally great film. Originally intended as a straight-up horror flick, the filmmaking process here has been described by the director as “anarchic”, as more studio backing from the Spielberg camp meant that certain scenes of violence had to be cut in favour of family-friendly antics. The original script was incredibly dark, written by Columbus when he was under no impression it would actually be made. This explains the arguably uncertain tone, with several surprisingly bleak moments nestled amongst the fun – including Cates’ infamous monologue about the death of Santa Claus (so depressing it’s almost funny).
All of this, though, results in a tonal balance of horror, comedy, and festive adventure so spot-on that the movie was ultimately responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating, at least in part – supposedly too adult for kids and too childish for adults. To me, though, that’s the timelessness of Gremlins: no matter how old you are, or which way your taste in film leans, there will always be a place for you in the chaos of a small town ravaged by little monsters on Christmas Eve.
“So if your air conditioner goes on the fritz or your washing machine blows up or your video recorder conks out; before you call the repairman, turn on all the lights, check all the closets and cupboards, look under all the beds… ’cause you never can tell: there just might be a gremlin in your house.”