(Written in 2007 for the “Retro Cinema” feature at Cinematical.)
“Gremlins” was released in 1984, the summer I turned 10. I saw it with my cousin. We loved it. I bought the novelization and read it repeatedly. (It says Gizmo is an extra-terrestrial!) I bought a plush Gizmo toy that squeaked when you shook it. My school folders were festooned with Gremlins stickers, drawings, and other merchandise. To me, “Gremlins” was a perfect horror movie — scary and fun with some humor thrown in for good measure.
Then I grew up and the Internet happened and I started to read other people’s views on the film. Apparently it was a dark comedy? What?! That scene where Kate tells Billy how her dad died on Christmas Eve — that was supposed to be morbidly funny, not sad? Huh.
With new eyes I watched “Gremlins” again recently, the first time in at least 15 years. Sure enough, it does play better as a macabre spoof of 1950s monster movies — in fact, that’s the only way the illogical and arbitrary “don’t feed them after midnight” rule can even work: as a parody of illogical and arbitrary rules. Kate’s story really is funny, as are the other juxtapositions of horror and Christmas (Santa Claus mobbed by gremlins, the monsters posing as Christmas carolers, etc.).
A few things struck me in particular this time around. First, as a protagonist, Billy (Zach Galligan) is pretty useless. He’s painted as a nice guy with ambitions of being a cartoonist, but for some reason he still lives in his parents’ attic, has a dead-end job at a bank, and drives a car that doesn’t work. He’s a loser. He manages to save his mother from a gremlin (after she’s already taken care of three others by herself, thank you very much), and he succeeds in dispatching a theater full of others later on by doing something that doesn’t take much brains or bravery: he sets it on fire. In the climax, it’s Gizmo who saves the day while an injured Billy watches helplessly.
Billy is also kind of stupid. When Kate tells him she doesn’t celebrate Christmas, he says, “What, are you Hindu or something?” That’s not just insensitive, but clueless, too: In the United States, wouldn’t Jewish be your first guess? I’m just sayin’.
The larger theme that struck me is the movie’s fascination with other movies, something that makes sense now that I’m familiar with director Joe Dante’s work. (His 1993 film “Matinee” is about a guy making films similar to the kind “Gremlins” is spoofing.) We see actual clips of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which Billy’s mom amusingly refers to as a “sad movie”), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and “To Please a Lady.” The last one is the Clark Gable racecar flick that gives Gizmo his bright idea at the end; without it, he might not have defeated Stripe! “Gremlins” has homages to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” within its own plot, too, of course.
Furthermore, the villainous Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) is a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge, the Wicked Witch of the West (she threatens to get Billy’s little dog), and “Wonderful Life’s” Henry Potter. In fact, the portrait of her dead husband hanging above her staircase is actually that of Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter.
Other movie references abound, both obvious and subtle. Rockin’ Ricky Rialto’s billboard is clearly an Indiana Jones tribute. The titles on the movie theater marquee are “A Boy’s Life” and “Watch the Skies” — the working titles of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” respectively. An E.T. plush doll appears in the department store toy aisle where Stripe hides. The guy in the bar who praises Billy’s artwork is the legendary animator Chuck Jones. The list goes on and on; check out the IMDb trivia page for more.
How was the 10-year-old me supposed to catch any of this?
A random observation: “Gremlins” was a Warner Bros. release, but it uses footage from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Can you imagine that kind of inter-studio cooperation today? Not only would Disney say no, but I doubt Warners would even let it get that far. They’d probably “encourage” the filmmakers to use some Warner product instead. (“Couldn’t the gremlins be watching ‘I Am Legend’?”) Not that 1984 was some golden age of filmmaking or anything, but the business has certainly become more cutthroat since then.
And then there are the plot holes. I don’t mean the “don’t feed them after midnight” dichotomy. (Isn’t any time of day “after midnight”?) I mean things like Billy taking his dog to work with him when there’s no reason for it — no reason except that the screenplay wants to have the dog attack Mrs. Deagle, and it’s the only way to get them together. I mean things like the kids still being in school on Christmas Eve, when in real life public schools recess for the holidays long before then. Speaking of which, why is there an inventors convention on Christmas Eve? If you want to get Billy’s dad out of the film for an hour — a questionable decision in and of itself — there are more logical ways of doing it.
I assure you, the 10-year-old me had no problem with any elements of the screenplay. What the 10-year-old me loved — and the 33-year-old me concurs — is the scene where Billy’s mom (Frances Lee McCain) battles gremlins in the kitchen. The gremlin in the blender is fantastic enough, what with the liberal spattering of green blood and gore. She stabs another one to death with a knife, and you’re disappointed because it’s shown from an angle that minimizes the gruesomeness. But then they make up for it with the microwave! It was this scene that had many parents concerned about the film’s PG rating, and everyone knows that “Gremlins” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” were the key instigators in the creation of the PG-13 classification. Thank goodness for that exploding microwave gremlin! I’m as delighted by it today as I was 23 years ago.
I don’t find the movie the least bit scary or horrific anymore, but I do think it’s entertaining. The outrageousness of the bar scene where the gremlins imitate humans; the genuinely impressive puppets and models used for Gizmo and the others; the sick joke of the science teacher winding up dead with a hypodermic needle having been stuck in his leg by a revenge-minded gremlin — that’s good stuff. The useless hero and his bland girlfriend don’t really matter when you’ve got hundreds of monsters singing “Heigh Ho.”
B+ (1 hr., 47 min.; )