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GREMLINS is a Spooky Holiday Staple

GREMLINS is a Spooky Holiday Staple

Tis the season, folks, and by that I mean the season when I attempt to watch more horror movies that are Christmas themed but aren’t ones where Santa Claus is an evil monster or something like that. I dunno, those just don’t do it for me. Last year I wrote about Silent Night, Bloody Night, and the great Black Christmas, but for this yuletide, I thought I’d go a little more mainstream. In fact, a lot more mainstream. A movie that somehow was a horror flick, a goofy comedy, an It’s a Wonderful Life riff, and a huge money-maker: Gremlins.

On the one hand, this trailer is really bad. It doesn’t show anything, and focuses on weird, sort of uninteresting side moments in the film. But on the other hand, that’s kind of exactly what you want. There’s a promise that something there is worth looking at and gives you enough moments where the titular little buggers could be that it probably made audiences in 1984 go crazy with anticipation.

But that’s sort of what puzzles me about Gremlins. It’s seemingly a movie that’s not FOR anybody. It’s too dark to be a straight-up kids or family movie, and it’s a bit too juvenile and tame to appeal to the horror hound of the ’80s. This famously is one of the two films that prompted the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, because it wasn’t dark enough to be R, but nowhere near safe enough to just be PG. So the fact that it was successful at all is something of a miracle.


You no doubt know the story: A traveling inventor and salesman (Hoyt Axton) buys a strange tiny creature called a Mogwai from a antique shop in Chinatown. He’s going to give the cute critter–which he names Gizmo–to his fully grown adult son Billy (Zach Galligan) who works at the bank in their small town and basically supports his whole family. The rules of the Mogwai are simple yet weird: 1) Don’t get them wet; 2) Don’t subject them to bright lights; 3) Don’t feed them after midnight. Without much hesitation at all, Billy gets Gizmo wet, which causes him to reproduce rapidly, and then the new birth trick him into feeding them after midnight, transforming them into green, scaly, ravenous beasts. Billy and his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates, who has perhaps the movie’s weirdest and darkest moment with an out-of-place monologue about why she hates Christmas) have to stop the onslaught that will destroy the town on Christmas Eve.


I’ve become a massive fan of director Joe Dante in recent years (he of The Howling, Piranha, and many other great movies) so, even though I’d seen Gremlins when I was a kid, I didn’t know too much at the time. Now, I’ve done so much research on it, I almost can’t watch it for pure fun because all I can see is what the movie could have been. The story goes that up-and-coming screenwriter Chris Columbus wrote a hyper violent, super gory version of Gremlins as a spec script, never intending it to be made, but more as a writing sample for potential other film work. Lo and behold, however, Steven Spielberg, the hottest producer and director in Hollywood, read it, loved it, and wanted to produce it. He hired Joe Dante as the director after Dante’s impressive segment in The Twilight Zone: The Movie and they were off to the races.


However, Spielberg wanted to soften the movie a bit, in keeping with his general take on everything; hard-edged but still for a wider audience. He insisted on changes, including lowering the violence, allowing the Gremlins to be mischievous and could still result in deaths, but they were no longer man-eaters. The original draft also had Gizmo be the one to turn into the ringleader of the Gremlins, but Spielberg thought Gizmo was too cute to lose, so the character of Stripe was created to stand in as the main villain. Spielberg also, for some reason, thought Gizmo was the hero of the movie, which is why Gizmo — who had essentially been sidelined since the Gremlins started marauding — is directly involved in the finale, driving a toy car(?) around a store to help Billy kill Stripe. These are, for my money, dumb changes that lessen the impact of the movie.


That being said, they only lessen the impact of the movie if you’re watching it as a horror movie. Dante’s sense of humor, which is heavily referential to ’50s horror and sci-fi and comedians like the Marx Brothers and Looney Tunes, shines through quite a lot in the movie, which, it could be argued, is more attuned to a lighter comedy film than a horror movie. However, Dante is ALSO really adept at creating tense, visually interesting horror sequences, and the movie wouldn’t be the same without the scene where Billy’s mother dispatches a handful of Gremlins using household gadgets, or a later scene with the Gremlins attacking and causing grievous harm to the townsfolk, or especially bits of the finale where Stripe gets hit with sunlight and starts to melt while attempting to reach a fountain to replicate again.


So, really, Gremlins is a movie of brilliant individual scenes. It’s a great set-up and the town and townsfolk are suitably believable; there are some really funny bits with slapstick humor and darkly hilarious scenes of mayhem that work like a twisted Warner Bros cartoon (fitting since this is a Warner Bros movie); and the straight-up horror sequences are some of Dante’s best. So maybe I just don’t cotton to the cutesey stuff with Gizmo being adorable, and I definitely don’t care for the lengthy bar sequence where all of the town’s Gremlins overtake Kate’s place of work and act out everything from aerobics to flashers to dogs playing poker to just being dumb drunks. But that’s the reason the movie made so much money, and kids bought the merchandise in truckloads, so what do I know?


Even with my grouchy, I-wanted-a-horror-movie gripes, Gremlins is still a highly delightful watch, and a movie everybody should add it to their Christmas watching, because even a not-quite-perfect Joe Dante movie is something to celebrate.

Images: Warner Bros

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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