I love the Gremlins. I know their aim is to destroy, mutilate, and kill, and they come from a cute furry mogwai which would make for a far better pet in the long run but they are rule breakers and I respect that. The gremlins are anarchists who upset the establishment, so forgive me if I get a cathartic glee in watching their horrific destruction.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Gremlins themselves appear in the film only when a rule is broken. There are three rules we are told throughout the film concerning gremlins. The rules are “do not get them wet, do not expose them to sunlight, and whatever you do do not feed them after midnight”. The film is so upfront in instilling us with these three rules, we know it’s only a matter of time before someone breaks one.
Sure enough a young man named Billy (Zach Galligan) accidentally gets his new unique pet mogwai Gizmo wet causing him to give birth to more unhinged versions of himself. These versions quickly cocoon and are then transformed into the green scaly monsters who wreak havoc. What we get after could be called, a partial send-up of B-horror monster movies of the 1950s as well as somewhat of a live action animated cartoon.
The town the film is set in, comes right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, not too far from another classic Christmas movie town; Bedford Falls. We see the people in this town are mostly good people, some of whom are struggling to find work, and make ends meat for Christmas. There are other townsfolk who aren’t so nice, most prominently is Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) who comes from a Hollywood movie playbook of villains. She threatens to kill Billy’s dog much like Miss. Gultch/The Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz”, and also owns much of the land in town like Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. There is a also a brash young banker (Judge Reinhold) who is only interested in becoming a millionaire by the time he is thirty. Meanwhile all of the heroes in the film are mostly dreamers and good-hearted people. Billy is a cartoonist who’s in love with the local bartender (Phoebe Cates) while his dad is a wily inventor whose gadgets never seem to work.
There is sort of this push and pull in “Gremlins” between wholesome and pristine that Billy and his friends represent, while fighting this dark underbelly of greed and contentment. The gremlins come in as sort of palate cleansers, they level out the playing field and in their own way bring balance to the proceedings. They are reminders that darkness and instability are just around the corner. The fact that the film is set at Christmas time also comes into play as it might seem as very cheery to some. Cates’ character, who in some ways is the most bizarre has a strange aversion to Christmas. At the beginning of the film she explains to Billy how suicide rates skyrocket at the holiday season, and later in the film she is given one of the most darkly comic monologues ever revealing how she stopped believing in Santa Claus.
Suburbia has been skewered very often in movies, with filmmakers using it as an opportunity to comment on the darker side that lies beneath its sunny mentality. This was a staple of classic 1950s sci-fi horror such as “It Came from Outer Space” or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” which is one of the many film references “Gremlins” gives a shout out to. This reflection of suburbia had a comeback in the 1980s and can be thanked mostly by producer Steven Spielberg and director Joe Dante.
Spielberg became the new face of subverting Americana themes in his films. Despite his reputation of creating wholesome crowd pleasers such as “E.T.”, Spielberg could be critical of small town life as well. His horror film “Poltergeist” which he produced and wrote the story for (and some would admit directed also) was an indictment on new housing land development, while “E.T.” itself gave us paranoid government officials who were seen more as invaders than the actual alien itself.
Dante, was more of a cult director, a trouble maker, a wise cracker who was the best person to make “Gremlins”. His sensibility was off the wall, cut to the chase anarchy which worked so well. He made other dark comedies such as “The Burbs”, and “Matinee” which also had this 1950s b-movie aesthetic. He was the yin to Spielberg’s yang in much respects, and the two sensibilities complimented each other. The sequel to “Gremlins” felt even more like a Dante movie, where that film became more meta, and more comedic, and the gremlins themselves had more of a personality.
I feel like Dante saw the gremlins less as villains and more like gleeful anti-heroes. They were the classic movie monsters but stripped of any ounce of nuance or subtlety. When we look at Frankenstein, we see a lonely misunderstood outcast, but when we look at gremlins we see annoying pranksters who weren’t invited to the party but came anyway.
I love “Gremlins” as a Christmas movie because I think it speaks for those of us who prefer a little anarchy to the holiday season. Nothing is perfect despite our best efforts. “Gremlins” acknowledges that people can be nice to each other, and pleasant, but also show a world where people can be mean, families are laid off, children can be traumatized by Santa Claus, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” can be thought of as a sad movie. It’s for those of us who don’t buy the perfect little town which this film is set in, in fact this film doesn’t believe in this town as it’s so obviously a movie set. The gremlins throw all conventions out the window, and play by their own rules which is there are no rules. There is sometimes great freedom in that philosophy. It’s a thumb in the nose to complacency and the status quo. The gremlins are there to remind us that sometimes rules are made to be broken.