On the sixth day of Christmas: Joe Dante’s “Gremlins”, the greatest Christmas story ever told

GremlinsIt is natural to associate certain holidays with a specific set of zesty colours and particular attitudes. Here in the United States, our pop culture offers many quick and easy examples of this. Consider the plastic spiders and that strange, psuedo-faux-white-hair-cobweb stuff we slather our homes with to spook potential trick-or-treaters. All this before we purchase stationery to make cut-out hand-traced turkeys which we decorate with such festive fervour that is seems surprising when we then in turn devour and digest that which we made so cute. All of which ultimately leads to encrusting the outside of our very homes with so many vibrant electrical hazards that it is surprising we don’t wear sunglasses just as often during winter.

But then again, who cares about decorations. We’re here to talk about movies!

Blending movies and holidays requires a certain finesse. For example, everyone has their perfect list for Halloween horror nights and there is utterly no excuse not to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Thanksgiving, but something special occurs when we arrive at the Christmas film. The same conventions are always there across each and every film – presents, festive colours, family and good will to all men (excuse the traditional but now slightly outdated parlance), and a ribbon-wrapped cookie-cutter ending. These are the things that make the ‘Christmas film’ so recognisable, so unbearably cheesy that any other time of the year they are avoided like a plague rat. But during this special month, we put aside our differences and yield to an exasperated sigh of “well, its Christmas, you just have to watch it”. And when looking at the Christmas movies… well… everyone knows that Gremlins (1984) is the best Christmas Story Ever Told….

Looking back at Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins

Gizmo

Randall Peltzer is an American; he’s a down-on-his-luck inventor, a man working with the ink still fresh on his fingers, trying to pull himself and his family up by their bootstraps. And like any true American, he is out trying to showcase his worth in Chinatown, when he comes across an old store so steeped in oriental cliche one might expect that they are watching a film adaptation of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. Though his invention is lacklustre and finds no buyers, he does find something that is truly special: a strange animal, known as a mogwai, that will make the perfect gift for his son, Billy. The mogwai’s name? Gizmo.

Young Billy is himself striving to help support the family by working a job at a mediocre bank. It is here that he meets the token antithesis to Christmas cheer – Ruby Deagle, a convenient red herring to distract from the oncoming onslaught of granular green gimmicks. Ruby is everything we are expected to hate during the Christmas period, and a reminder of what most of us are like outside of the festive season. But all Billy wants is to prove his love for Kate during that time of year that is almost as romantic (or at least as commercial) as Valentine’s Day itself.

GremlinsBut let’s return to Gizmo! Now let’s be frank, this creature is the perfect Christmas gift. He is as cute and adorable as the red-bowed puppy under the brightly lit tree, he learns fast, sings, can imitate words, and he even learns to communicate in no time. Yet with Gizmo come the three mysterious rules, the breaking of which will result in severe consequences. He is as much of a best friend as he is a constant reminder of the necessity for responsibility, especially during a time that flaunts good will towards man, but often leaves us sticking up our nose like Mrs. Deagle towards Billy’s poor old doggy. Ironically enough, it would seem that Mr. Peltzer did in fact buy a kind of monkey’s paw, and his three cursed wishes are about to come true. Things are going to get messy.

While the film stays faithful to the whimsical writing of Chris Columbus and the often obscene humour of Joe Dante, Gremlins still has enough ‘yech’ in it to shock and awe. Once we begin to understand the true nature of “The Rules” and the ramifications of their violation, we get to see those stellar cocoon special effects straight out of Alien (1979) or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). There are many other snide winks to earlier films – it’s worth watching out for nods to Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Time Machine (1960), and the use of one of the Back to the Future (1985) sets.

GremlinsSoon enough, Mama Lynn Peltzer saves Christmas with the barbarity of Conan, bringing the heat via microwave-explosion, and slicin’ n’ dicin’ her way through the li’l green ghouls with hardly a moment’s hesitation. And yet despite these moments of green globs, gross goo and Spike’s general knack for rabble-rousing and trashing a bar worse than the most cliched of biker gangs, Gremlins is still a film for the whole family. Severe cuts, rewrites and (probably necessary) survival of the dog and non-beheading of the mother were intentionally made to ensure a family-friendly holiday hoopla (even so, in the US it is still a founding father of the PG-13 rating, for better or worse).

Gremlins is a film that should and will continue to taunt and torment youngsters for years, planting little seeds of terror that, when nurtured and watered, will metamorphosize into grotesque egg-like abominations, before hatching into the nostalgia that continues to allow the legacy to continue. Gremlins is everything we have come to expect (whether admittedly or not) from the Christmas season; both favourably and less so.

And it even has Corey Feldman! Seriously, what more do you want from a film?

Anthony Pilloud lives in rural South Korea where he spends his days telling lies to children in the classroom and nights feeding stray cats in between film excursions.

4 thoughts on “On the sixth day of Christmas: Joe Dante’s “Gremlins”, the greatest Christmas story ever told

  1. Pingback: Halloween 2014 Day 13 – “The Hole” Review | loudpilloud

  2. Thanks for a good appraisal of this classic Anthony, it really isn’t Christmas nowadays without Gremlins. (Even though it is shown almost weekly on TV here) I doubt there was ever a cuter character than Gizmo, except maybe Dumbo.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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