They’re putting Gremlins in everything nowadays!
They’re cute. They’re cuddly. They’ll rip your heart out. Gremlins walks a fine line between funny and dark. How well does it do?
The trailer makes the film seem not too scary. A young man is given a Gremlin for Christmas. The narrator explains that there are three rules for the creature: avoid light, don’t get it wet, and never ever feed it after midnight. It looks like someone wasn’t paying attention and the creature gets out of control. It’s a film presented by Steven Spielberg, how scary can it be?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys a mysterious Christmas gift for his son in a Chinatown store from a young boy whose elderly Chinese grandfather (Keye Luke), who doesn’t really want to sell it. In the idyllic town of Kingston Falls, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) walks with his dog Barney to his job at the local town bank. There, grumpy Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday) accuses Barney of breaking her imported snowman, and vows to get that dog and have it put to sleep. Billy’s co-worker and friend Kate (Phoebe Cates) tells him not to worry about her.
Rand returns home and gives the box to Billy who has never seen a creature like the one contained with. He is told they’re called Mogwai, but Rand calls this one Gizmo. He also tells his son that there are three rules for this animal: avoid bright lights, never get it wet, and never ever feed it after midnight. When a young friend, Pete (Corey Feldman), delivers the Peltzer’s Christmas tree he accidentally spills water on Gizmo’s fur causing the creature to multiply.
Billy creates another Gremlin from Gizmo and takes it to the High School science teacher Mr Hanson (Glynn Turman) to study. That night the newly created Mogwai, led by one with a stripe on its head, trick Billy into feeding them after midnight. The next morning they have transformed into pulsating chrysalis’. The one in Mr. Hanson’s room hatches and kills the teacher, leaving a syringe sticking out of the man’s butt.
The other five hatch at Billy’s house and come after his mom, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), who manages to eliminate three of them by executing them in a blender, with a knife, and in the microwave. Billy decapitates a fourth, but Stripe escapes, and jumps into the swimming pool at the local YMCA creating hundreds of Gremlins. The local veteran, and plow driver, Mr Futterman (Dick Miller) complains about foreign machinery and the gremlins they contain (WWII slang for bad parts) when some of the mutated evil Mogwai attack his house with his own plow.
The local police respond to several calls about strange incidents but don’t believe what they are witnessing, and don’t believe Billy when he tells them what has happened. Meanwhile the Gremlins kill Mrs. Deagle by short circuiting her stair chair lift, which shoots her out an upstairs window. They also kill a man dressed as Santa, and the radio DJ, Rocking Ricky Rialto (Don Steele). Kate escapes from the bar which is overrun with monsters and explains to Billy that she hates Christmas because it was when her father had died, tragically.
As the sun starts to come up, the Gremlins hide in the movie theater watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Billy and Kate create a gas leak and blow up the theater, but once again Stripe escapes into the local Montgomery Ward department store. Billy tracks Stripe down, getting injured by the monster. Just as the evil Gremlin is about to replicate itself again in a fountain, Gizmo arrives and opens a window shutter allowing in bright sunlight and` causing Stripe to melt into a pile of goo. The Chinese grandfather returns to collect Gizmo shaming Rand for not following directions.
“They put em in cars, they put em in yer TV. They put em in stereos and those little radios you stick in your ears. They even put em in watches, they have teeny gremlins for our watches!” – Murray Futterman
Gremlins was one of a handful of scary movies released in the early 80s that were rated PG. Three of the ones I’m thinking of all have one thing in common: Steve Spielberg. Poltergeist, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Gremlins were all produced by Spielberg between 1982 and 1984. A fourth scary PG film was Something Wicked This Way Comes, released by Disney, was also guaranteed to give kids who saw it nightmares. This matters because Gremlins was basically the last straw for the ratings board. It is usually cited, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, as the impetus to adopt a new rating, PG-13. While Poltergeist was a no-nonsense haunted house chiller (originally rated R), Gremlins might warrant a little more slack. Director Joe Dante created a film that was a slightly more comical than scary, which is part of his style (see Piranha or The Howling for similar black comedy moments). However, Gremlins may have one of the darkest moments of all horror films from the early 80s, whether they’re rated PG or R.
The film has some initial setup that Phoebe Cates’ character, Kate, doesn’t like Christmas. Later in the film she explains to Billy why. It’s because her father dressed up as Santa one year when she was little, got stuck in the chimney and died. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the family didn’t find him for a couple days when until they lit a fire. Talk about putting a damper on the holidays! For adults, this story may just be black comedy, but imagine being a young child hearing this story. That’s dark! The film also walks that fine line between funny-scary and disturbing-scary. It probably was able to maintain a lower rating since none of the characters that die meet their ends with any blood or other outrageous moments. I think most people get a chuckle when the Wicked Witch of the West contender, Mrs. Deagle (played so well by Alice veteran Polly “kiss my grits” Holliday) meets her comeuppance and is thrown from the window on her chair lift. And most of the Gremlins that are attacking people are not too scary. They have their comical little bits of business in the Bar, and seem more annoying than harmful. It’s Stripe that really scares people, especially when he’s going after Billy in the department store. Dante creates some real cover-your-eyes moments with this character.
But he also creates some super cute creatures as well, with the Mogwai. Who wouldn’t want to own a Gizmo? Such a cut and fun companion that is completely aware of what he is, and would rather read comics than cause mayhem. That probably makes him not really a Gremlin at all, since audiences see what Stripe does to assert his dominance and trick Billy into changing them after midnight when he stops the clock. Gizmo would probably get banned from hanging out with the other Gremlins for not being Gremlin-enough. Dante also infuses a little bit of childlike quality into all the monsters. They’re curious, and a little destructive, wanting to have their way. They enjoy watching simple things on TV or seeing Snow White at the movies. But they can also be destructive little monsters as well. Why the Grandfather keeps the creature around is an interesting point to ponder. Gizmo is cute and harmless unless the owner is reckless with it. I guess the same can be said about many other animals or devices that humans deal with.
Gremlins is a relatively unique film about small creatures that can hide almost anywhere and are always up to no good. It spawned a sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch which had the creatures being studied in a lab and end up taking over a New York skyscraper. Similarly funny, but not as scary. There are also a couple of other franchises that created similar type characters and situations including The Gate, Ghoulies, and Critters, which all came out in the mid 80s. Gremlins can be a fun horror film with older audiences, at least for kids that have outgrown Scooby-Doo scariness, but are not quite ready for actual R-rated films. It provides the shocks and jump scares of it’s more mature brethren and contains lots of fun easter eggs for fans of classic sci-fi and horror films. Just remember to not feed it after midnight, lest it becomes something even more horrible!
- The billboard for Rockin’ Ricky Rialto, the local DJ of Kingston Falls, is modeled on Indiana Jones, a popular film directed by producer Steven Spielberg.
- Kingston Falls main town square, as seen in the title card above, is the same Universal Studios backlot used to film Back to the Future (the clock tower is on frame right).
- The town of Kingston Falls and the character of Mrs. Deagle are probably based on Bedford Falls and Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, a film that also takes place at Christmas.
- Joe Dante’s use of veteran horror and sci-fi film actors is a trademark of his. They included Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph (Little Shop of Horrors) as the Puttermans, animator Chuck Jones as a bar patron, and Kenneth Tobey (The Thing from Another World) as the gas station attendant. He also featured Jonathan Banks, a character actor present in many 80s action films as a bad guy, as Deputy Brent. Banks is also known for his role of Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
- Much of the fun of the film is the references to other films and pop culture elements, which is also a trademark of director Joe Dante. These include Stripe hiding in amongst the stuffed animals in the department store, along with an E.T. doll, as in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, and the appearances of Robby the Robot (from Forbidden Planet) and the Time Machine from the George Pal film of the same name at the inventor’s convention.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.