Gremlins (1984)

It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn't home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire...and that's when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top, and me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird...and instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He'd been climbing down the chimney on Christmas Eve, his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck, died instantly. And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.
--Kate Beringer

Ahh, it's Christmastime again. The most wonderful time of the year. The season of joy and giving, of warm feelings and happy memories, of holly and mistletoe and eggnog and presents and figgy pudding.

Let's do a horror movie.

Written by the director of the first two Harry Potter films as well as the only two Home Alone movies that anyone really remembers, Gremlins is one of several movies from the early 1980s, along with PoltergeistIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and a few others, which drew fire from critics and patrons for some particular scenes of violence and horror that many felt pushed the boundaries of a PG-rated film at the time. The complaints eventually got so loud it led filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who produced and/or directed many of those movies, including this one, to petition the MPAA for a new rating for films that were not PG, not quite an R. They agreed, and two months later Red Dawn became the first film ever to be released with the brand new PG-13 rating.

Thank you, Santa Spielberg.

In the nondescript Midwestern town of Kingston Falls, USA, a town that is so straight out of the past it may as well be Bedford Falls or the set from Back to the Future, lives an aspiring cartoonist named Billy, played by Zach Galligan, the son of an inventor with high aspirations whose inventions never work quite right and should probably just stick to acting and country singing since, well, he's Hoyt Axton. Every day he gets up and goes to work at the savings and loan and has to put up with the daily threats and rantings of the richest cat lady in town, Mrs. Deagle (played by Polly Holliday a.k.a. Flo from Alice), the resident grumpy old bat who enjoys metaphorically whizzing on poor people, drenching carolers and stringing up people's pets on their front porches every time they poop on her lawn. Then he goes to a bar to drink away work stress and listen to his suck-up coworker lord over his new house and how he'll usurp the bank once the boss dies and how superior he thinks he is in every way.

I wouldn't sell this kid short, though. I mean, not only is he a talented artist, but look who he's getting drawing tips from:

"Yeah, I know how you feel, Billy. I've dealt with Grinches before."

The things that keep him going every day are his art (more power to him), a coworker at his bank by the name of Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High) whom he is trying to work up the nerve to ask out on a date, and quite recently a new addition to his household: a small, furry, pointy-eared new pet his father has given him as an early Christmas present. Purchased at a curio shop within the Chinatown district of the nearest major city to Kingston Falls via the grandson of its more hesitant curator, the creature is a "mogwai" (the Cantonese word for "demon") and is just the cutest-wootest widdle ball of fwuff you could ever lay eyes on.

He also comes with three very important rules for his proper care which I'm assuming every 80's movie nut knows by heart but I'm repeating here anyway: don't expose him to bright lights as sunlight in particular will kill him, don't get him wet, and absolutely under no circumstances feed him after midnight.

"For every piece of poop I find on my lawn...I BOIL A KITTEN."

Seems easy enough. The adorable little nummy-muffin is given the name Gizmo, and he and Billy become fast friends. He sits around on Billy's bed a lot watching old movies on TV and being pwecious.

Of course the thing is, with movies that revolve around rules that absolutely positively must not be broken under any circumstance, one or more of them will at some point in its running time, be broken, for if not, the plot would not naturally progress. And I'm afraid that this film is no exception. The trouble starts around the time when Corey Feldman stops by to deliver a Christmas tree and accidentally knocks a paintbrush jar full of water on the poor creature.

All together now...AWWWWWWWWWWWW.

As it happens, pouring water on these creatures causes them to reproduce, which raises a lot of questions as to what kind of mammals bore offspring via skin growths which drop off the body and sprout brand new creatures whenever they get wet. Then questions are further raised when Billy accidentally feeds these newborns past midnight, discovering too late that his alarm clock's wires have been eaten through. This has the result of the gremlin babies forming chrysaliseseses...chrysalees...chrysalii?...that hatch before too long and form larger, scaly-skinned creatures that have somehow lost all their fur. And these new creatures are less like the docile, harmless little fuzzball voiced by Skeeter from Muppet Babies and more like monstrous, foul-tempered, mischievous little trolls voiced by Optimus Prime, Megatron and that one guy from the Police Academy movies. One in particular has a mohawk and is named Stripe for ease of convenience.

That poor gingerbread man. Have they no scruples?

Before long, the entire town is waist-deep in an army of these voracious affronts to God and nature raising untold amounts of hell upon the population. Billy's mother finds three in the kitchen and minces one in the food processor, stabs a second and explodes a third in the microwave in true PG-13 fashion before a fourth attacks her from inside the Christmas tree. A snowplow is driven into the living room of snowplow driver Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), a character who ironically announced his detest of imported goods as he believed they weren't made as properly. ("They put gremlins in everything!") A group of them pose as Christmas carolers to scare the crap out of Mrs. Deagle while one gives her a speedy ride on a stair lift chair. Even poor Kate has her hands full during her night job as a waitress at Dorry's Tavern, where many of these blighted little hellbeasts are in for a night of drinking, dancing, card playing and quick sight gags. She has only just made her escape with the help of a flash bulb off a Polaroid camera when Billy and cutie-wootie Gizmo arrive to pull her out of there.

And of course, during all this, Billy's father is out of town at an inventor's convention and it's no use going to the police because, frankly, a story about how his grandmother got run down by Santa's sleigh would have been more plausible to them. They don't realize he's telling the truth until a ghastly bit of proof that Mother Nature has a sick sense of humor fiddles with his brakes.

Damn American-made snowplows!

Right about here, we get the movie's most famous piece of dialogue, after those three rules, of course. Holed up in the bank with Billy and Gizmo, Kate picks this moment to talk about a traumatic event in her childhood that explains why she doesn't celebrate Christmas. I need not go into too much detail here, as I have recreated her monologue at the top of this page. I'm not exactly sure what it has to do with the rest of the film, apart from a need of the filmmakers to inject a bit of dark comedy into what is already a darkly comedic film.

I have holiday depression now.

During Kate's tale of woe, we find that the beastly little mutants have retreated from the bright lights of downtown Kingston Falls (though as Billy and Kate were running away from the bar, it seemed that they were running around attacking people just fine without fear of injury) and have retreated into the only movie theater in town. Some of them have even defied their own evolutionary process to rig up the projector to play a reel of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and being too savage to grasp the corporate culture of the Walt Disney Company, they all seem to be enjoying themselves.

At the very least, it provides the perfect distraction for Billy, Kate and Gizmo to rig the theater to explode with a flaming rag and a gas leak in the boiler room and incinerate the little buggers.

Unfortunately, the one named Stripe has escaped his deserved burnination by escaping ahead of time into the town's neighborhood Montgomery Ward (remember that place?) setting up a final showdown in, appropriately enough, a department store, the most modern-looking (circa 1984) building in town. Thus begins what turns out to be a race to the working water fixture in the gardening section that would start this whole movie all over again. Billy battles Sprite, Kate gets the lights working, and Gizmo eventually wins the day for good guy cuteness by opening up the blinds to the bright lights of a convenient winter's morning to send the unholy abomination back to Hell where it belongs.

Finally, at the end of the film, on Christmas Day, I assume, the Peltzers and Kate are watching TV news coverage of the aftermath when the Chinatown curio shop owner suddenly appears to take Gizmo back and to deliver the message of this film, saying that man with his modern technology has a tendency to abuse nature's gifts, and they are not ready for the responsibilities of something as delicate as a mogwai. But noticing Gizmo's attachment to Billy, he says that one day HE may be ready.

Maybe around the time Gremlins 2: The New Batch comes out.

These new Muppets look DREADFUL.

The thing that sticks out the most to me about Gremlins, more than the puppetry or the horror-comedy aspect, is its message.

Part of that has to do with its setting - nearly every building in town could easily come straight out of It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, Billy's car looks more vintage than anything, and I swear the only channel they get on cable out there is Turner Classic Movies. If not for the odd 1980s technological advancement, or the department store in the film's climax, or Billy's father's malfuntioning inventions all over his house, I could have sworn this movie took place in the fifties. It sets up a general theme of the introduction of new technology in an old environment.

And then there are the gremlins themselves, obviously named for a term used for a failure in something mechanical like a "bug" or a "kink" as Mr. Futterman is nice to point out for us. Most of the time they are terrorizing people it's something technological, like tinkering with wiring or screwing with traffic lights or hotwiring snowplows. I'm surprised they managed to start up a movie projector.

And of course it takes place on Christmas. The most commercialized holiday on the Gregorian calendar.

Take away the animatronic creatures and the microwave explosions and the chimney story and that's what Gremlins is - a message film about technology and nature. Or you could, you know, leave all that stuff in and get an entertaining movie regardless.

Hmmm...not everyone can successfully lose weight for their New Year's resolution. Maybe they're not so bad after all.

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