Original release: December 7th, look 1984
Running time: 104 minutes
Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Chris Colombus
Cast: Zach Galligan, pills Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lynn McCain, Poly Holliday
There are several VHS cassettes I remember very fondly from my childhood such as a copy of Watership Down, recorded from the TV, which scared the living hell out of me (and still does). There was also the family copy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which I knew every word to and which was completely worn out from all the re-watches. Then there was the blue cover with a little green monster ripping through the paper and the words ‘We’re Here’ scrawled in red crayon. A film that was, all at once, cute and terrifying. I’m referring, of course, to Gremlins.
Released the year I was born, Gremlins is arguably the first horror film I ever saw. Whilst it’s not something that haunted me like, for instance, A Nightmare on Elm Street, it contains some truly creepy moments. It also has, in the form of the eponymous critters, one of cinema’s most iconic monsters which spawned a sequel and in the form of both mogwais and gremlins, a great source of merchandise.
The film’s plot follows the exploits of a young man named Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan). For Christmas, his travelling salesman-come-inventor father, Randall (Hoyt Axton), brings him home an especially unique gift. Procured from a smoky and mysterious subterranean store in Chinatown, Billy’s gift is a small, furry and incredibly cute little creature. The new Peltzer family pet, a now famous mogwai named Gizmo. With every mogwai comes three rules which most film fans are now aware of even if they’ve never sat down to watch the movie. 1. Keep them out of bright light; sunlight will kill them. 2. Never let them near water, not even to drink. 3. And no matter how much they might cry, no matter how much they may beg; never, ever, feed them after midnight.
Naturally, no sooner has Billy been made aware of these vital rules than they’ve been broken. When his friend Pete (Corey Feldman) comes to visit, a splash of water is accidentally spilt on Gizmo and all of a sudden, the mogwai population’s shot up. But the new ones are different to the original and trick poor Billy into feeding them after midnight. Next thing we know, there are grotesque cocoons around the bedroom and they’ve soon hatched to reveal the mischievous and vicious little green monsters of the title. Billy and girlfriend, Kate (Phoebe Cates), must fight back to save the unsuspecting town.
Gremlins is a film littered with cinematic references both to monster movies and those set around the festive season. In Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), Dante’s given his town it’s very own Mr. Potter. A wealthy woman with a particular vendetta against our protagonist, she feels very much like a call-back to Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (which actually also gets a few seconds screen time). I remember, as a youngster, the creatures themselves never struck fear into my heart like Mrs. Deagle did in her early visit to the bank.
Convinced that Billy’s dog, Barney, has destroyed her model snowman, she goes all Cruella de Ville and wants Barney’s head. This always seemed much more evil to me than the antics of the gremlins, despite them being significantly more malicious. The debt owed to film and television was clear in not only references to the films of Steven Spielberg (who produced this film) but by the constant presence of a TV set with the whole cast watching movies or television at some point.
Admittedly though, it’s the little green beasts and their cute little precursor that steal the show. The gremlins are consistently funny throughout the film, often coming across more as cheeky than evil but the bloodshed and destruction that they rain down is clearly no laughing matter. Characters are dispatched wantonly – including the evil Mrs. Deagle – as their very own brand of anarchy overwhelms the town.
Rumour has it that the original script saw Gizmo transformed into a Gremlin at some point and it was Steven Spielberg who convinced them not to do so. This is an absolute masterstroke from Spielberg as the cuddly little mogwai’s not only what people have gone crazy for, but it’s his relationship with Billy that gives the film its heart. As the latter keeps his little friend safe, Gizmo also steps up to fight back against his brethren, inspired by the racing exploits of Clark Gable in To Please A Lady.
On top of that, there are of course the wonderfully creepy and gory moments, and none of these are more well known than when Billy’s mum (Frances Lynn McCain) finds the first batch of gremlins infesting her kitchen. The critters are microwaved, blended, and stabbed with blood splattering and flaying everywhere. Not to mention a now iconic devilish Christmas tree.
Gremlins is a film I’ve come back to time and time again and it never disappoints. It is a Christmas film undoubtedly, but easy to watch at any time of year regardless. It’s fun, it’s wicked, it’s disgusting and it’s cute. It’s also a warning – that if ever your DVD player goes on the fritz or your smartphone blows up or your internet conks out; before you call the repairman, turn on all the lights, check all the cupboards, look under all the beds, ’cause you never can tell there just might be a gremlin in your house.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.