Movies We Love: Gremlins


Gremlins (1984)

They’re watching Snow White. And they love it.


The world’s worst inventor, and possibly its worst dad as well, Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) comes across an interesting little animal, called a mogwai, in an old antique shop in Chinatown when trying to sell useless junk to its adorable old Chinese owner (Keye Luke). Despite the warnings of the responsibility required to care for it, plus the needed adherence to some of the most scientifically ludicrous rules imaginable, Randall believes the mogwai would be a perfect Christmas present for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). After predictably smashing the rules to pieces, Billy teams up with his love interest Kate (Phoebe Cates) to save a small town from the dangerously mischievous, and completely misunderstood, result of his negligence.

Why We Love It

I have a long history with Gremlins. This is the film that singlehandedly dominated my nightmares and pretty much created all the fear I had of the dark from about ages five through ten. Hell, I’m still scared of the dark. Both my parents worked, so I had to go to daycare during the years prior to starting school and one completely incompetent worker there decided it was okay to show a bunch of five year olds a movie about devilish little monsters. Not only is the film pretty damn violent and terrorizing for children that age, but it also ends with a warning about turning on the lights, checking the cupboards and closets, and looking under your bed if shit starts going down in your house, because there just might be gremlins rollin’ through. What the hell? How am I supposed to sleep after that? “Hey, kids, sleep tight, but you know that noise in your room? Yeah, that may be a gremlin poised to LAUGH MANIACALLY WHILE RIPPING YOUR FACE OFF!” Ehhhhhhhh.

You may be thinking, “Well, if this movie pretty much ruined your childhood, why are you writing about it for Movies We Love?” Easy: because this movie is awesome. It may not have been awesome at five, but it’s definitely awesome at twenty-five. The moments that scared me shitless then make me laugh uncontrollably now. This is a wonderful script, filled with delightfully dark humor, inspired execution of a story rooted in classic myth, and some of the most hilarious, and, as I said, misunderstood movie villains of all time. You have to love a movie where an animal has rules like: 1. Keep him away from bright lights, sunlight will kill him, 2. Don’t get him wet, and 3. Never feed him after midnight. I am going to ignore the glaring scientific logic behind rules like this (as well as the time conundrum), because, let’s be honest, this is a story with very apparent mythic elements and though it’s easy to question, realism is boring and certainly not applicable here. Chris Columbus (the writer/director, not the explorer) knocked this one out of the park, in my opinion, even if his script went through numerous rewrites and a toning down of some of the more violent elements. As we all know, what Steven Spielberg wants, Steven Spielberg gets.

Let me be clear here. I love Gizmo. He’s adorable, sweet, and a wicked good racecar driver. But, honestly, Gremlins doesn’t really bring the awesome until after his hydro-spawn’s metamorphosis. The first part of the film does a good job setting us up, but it’s all about the gremlins. Once they are unleashed, the hilarity begins. And what hilarity it is. I love this film’s dark humor, and it’s easily the best part of the experience. We have gremlins getting blown up in a microwave, sabotaging cars, rewiring an electric assistance chair to send an old lady flying out a window (which gets me every damn time), getting trashed in a bar, flashing pretty bartenders, playing poker, and giving a resounding rendition of part of the iconic song from Snow White. And these are just some of their antics. Personally, I would have liked to see more of them, but I can understand how the filmmakers seemed to want to keep them fairly mystical for most of the film before completely cutting them loose. With more, it may have felt saturated and taken the story to a new level of over-the-top, sort of like what we saw in Gremlins 2. While a fun ride, it’s not nearly as good as the first.

One thing that makes this movie so successful is that it’s set up like a typical creature feature horror flick, following many of the genre’s conventions in the first half of the film (correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Fure). After the gremlins are spawned, though, the movie’s tone begins to shift to a more humorous take on these little creatures, before going full-blown comedy in the bar scene and theater scene. Then, at the end, we shift back and have a final showdown between Billy and Stripe, the leader of the gremlins, that is reminiscent once again of horror. These tone shifts keep the movie interesting, and once the comedy blooms, it’s an almost unexpected turn for a first-time viewer, and an eagerly anticipated treat for the longtime fan.

I want to take a moment to talk about the actual gremlins. As you may have noticed, I called them misunderstood movie villains. You are entitled to your opinion (even if it’s wrong), but I don’t think they are evil. A bit careless? Yes. Mischievous? Yes. Could perhaps make a better first impression? Definitely. But evil? Naw. Think about these guys for a second. All they really want to do is have a good time. Can you blame them? Anyone who has been a teenager or gone to college understands the idea that one has to really make their own fun sometimes. The gremlins hatch in a boring little town on Christmas. What else are they supposed to do? Even their antics that one may call “horrible” aren’t really that bad. One kills a science teacher. Not only did the teacher stick the poor guy with a needle, but this teacher is obviously more malevolent than even the gremlins. What kind of high school science teacher stays at school and does experiments in the dark until 2am? This guy was a threat to our children. And the ones encountered by Billy’s mom? Hell, they just wanted to eat Christmas cookies and play with toys, before being rudely chopped up, stabbed, nuked in a microwave, and decapitated. And finally, what normal individual doesn’t like to get a little drunk and watch Disney movies? Well, how would you feel if you got BLOWN THE FUCK UP at the theater? Jesus, the hazard pay for being a gremlin must be wonderful, otherwise these mogwai would have just stopped eating altogether (let alone after midnight) long ago.

Moment We Fell In Love

There are a lot of things to love about Gremlins, and it’s easy to fall in love when Gizmo is introduced, the mogwai children are born, the gremlins are finally created, or when Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) finally gets what’s coming to her and takes a brilliant trip out the window. But the scenes that make this movie for me are, as I’ve sure you have guessed, the bar and the theater. In the bar, the gremlins are finally unleashed in all their comic glory. They drink copious amounts of beer, smoke cigarettes, play poker, arcade games, and darts, swing around on a ceiling fan, and sing bar songs. One gremlin even dons a trench coat and dark sunglasses and, I suspect after reading a biography on Neil Miller, rips it open in front of Kate, flashing her and showing off his gremlin gibblies (which are suspiciously absent).

But as much as I love it, the bar scene is nothing compared to the theater. I don’t know why, but seeing all those gremlins in the theater, accessorized with popcorn bags, candy boxes, and even a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, singing their damn hearts out along with the dwarfs in Snow White just gets me every time. I can’t hear someone obnoxiously quote, “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s off to work we go” without instantly thinking about Gremlins. For an added bonus, check out some of the gremlins with popcorn tubs on their heads mixed in with the hoard that chases Billy and Kate as they try to escape the theater. Really, it’s these kinds of little touches that take this movie to another level for the observant viewer. Plus, anyone who tries to say they haven’t considered cutting eye holes into a popcorn tub and putting it on their heads is a damn liar.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for a fun flick that is always entertaining no matter how many times you’ve seen it, then Gremlins is for you. It has everything one needs for a drunken night with friends-action, comedy, horror, and mythical Chinese animals that turn into little green monsters when fed after midnight. I can’t imagine a better combo. Before throwing it in the DVD player, however, do yourself a favor. Turn on all the lights. Check all the cupboards, drag your shit out from under the beds, and open the closets. Fine. Laugh if you want, but you can’t blame me if during the Snow White scene you happen to catch a glimpse of little green claws reaching around the edge of the couch.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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