Even though Christmas day itself is typically used as a dumping ground for films on which studios have all but given up, we each have our own cinematic tradition for the holidays. Old softies often revisit It’s a Wonderful Life (1944), for example, and the more cynical carolers tend toward Bob Clarke’s A Christmas Story (1983). Action lovers may pop in Die Hard (1988) in their DVD player, while rom-com junkies go to Love Actually (2003), but most old-school scary movie fans like me hold Gremlins as their season favourite.
Yes, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, about furry little pets that turn into dangerous monsters if you don’t take proper care of them, is a bona fide horror flick. I found out the hard way as a child, when my parents took me on a two-hour drive to the big city so we could attend its premiere. Once there, we waited an additional hour in a block-long line filled with wide-eyed kids asking when they would get to see that cute Gizmo critter advertised on television. Then the theatre manager came out and advised the crowd that the film was rated PG-13, and we all went home in tears.
Though I started watching monster flicks at the tender age of four, I can’t reproach the MPAA’s call on this one. Gremlins is indeed shockingly violent at times, such as when the hero’s mother (Frances Lee McCain) dispatches a few of the titular creatures with various kitchen appliances, including an electric mixer, a carving knife, and a microwave (yikes!). More to the point, while light in tone, Chris Columbus’ screenplay addresses an adult audience, warning of the dangers of consumerism from a parenting perspective.
The movie opens in Chinatown, where Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) purchases a rare animal not for sale in a last-ditch effort to get his son Billy (Zach Galligan) a cool “gizmo” for Christmas. Given the latter has given up his studies to work at a bank and help pay his parents’ mortgage, you’d think the old man could find better use for his time and money, but then that’s the holiday spirit for you. At any rate, the creature comes with three simple rules, which our heroes systematically break, of course, on account of their being suburban Americans in the eighties.
The first rule: shield your mogwai from bright lights. Aversion to the sun is a common weakness amongst cinematic monsters, not to mention a convenient plot device for the third-act wrap-up. However, in Gremlins, the directive serves the central metaphor as much as it does the mechanics of the story. Simply put, it pertains to sheltering our kids. The same way a gremlin might turn into gooey slime if exposed to sunshine, a child could get seriously hurt if navigating the world without protection. Also, the sight of Gizmo bouncing away every time someone so much as shines a flashlight in his direction is adorable.
The second rule deals with the notion of care: keep your mogwai dry at all times. If it gets into contact with water in any way, you may end up with a house full of the little critters. At first glance, the newcomers will seem just as cute as the original, but they’ll constantly scheme against you, bullying their nicer sibling and playing vicious pranks on the family dog. In other words, if you don’t provide a safe environment for your kids, they’ll end up relying on each other more than on the adults in their lives, taking their first hazardous steps toward delinquency.
This leads us to the third rule: never feed your mogwai after midnight. Now, you might ask how that applies to daylight savings time or argue that any given hour could be considered before and after midnight simultaneously, but you’d be missing the point. It’s about discipline, you see. Without structure in their routine, your cute little monsters might turn into full-fledged hoodlums or, in this case, scaly green demons with sharp claws who go around town causing random mischief like hiding in mailboxes to bite unsuspecting correspondents and tampering with traffic lights. It’s worth noting that the gremlins don’t feed on human flesh or hunt down scantily clad women in dark alleys. They just act out and giggle with little to no sense of consequence.
I explain all of this to demonstrate how clever Gremlins is in conveying its message without feeling like it’s lecturing the viewers. Its subtlety could easily go unnoticed in the midst of such gorgeous special effects. Consider all the work that’s gone into Gizmo’s many facial expressions or the natural quality of his animatronic movements. Not once did I look at the mogwai and doubt his existence as a real live creature. Sure, Howie Mandel’s voice work deserves some credit for my suspension of disbelief, but I can’t help thinking, even today, just how far CGI still has to go in order to match this level of puppeteering.
What I appreciate most about Gremlins, though, is its irreverence. Take, for example, the flurry of pop culture references as the gremlins hang out at a local bar or the scene in which Billy’s love interest, Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates), tells the harrowing and largely non-sequitur tale of the night she learnt to hate Christmas. Whereas most holiday movies hammer us with saccharine platitudes about the spirit of the season, this one proclaims with neither shame nor vitriol that parents should perhaps concern themselves with their kids’ upbringing rather than spoil them rotten with Santa packages, that those hunting for the perfect gift should consider paying off their debts instead, and that, to quote Kate, “while most people are opening their presents, some are opening up their wrists.”