Film discussion

Gremlins – Looking back at Joe Dante’s chaotic Christmas classic

Don’t you just hate it when Christmas carollers show up at your door, but instead of being human they’re actually scaly Gremlins that are about to make your life a living misery, or possibly put your kitchen out of commission when they’re violently dispatched by the blender and the microwave when you try to protect yourself?

Suffice to say such onslaught of green, splatter-filled terror is the type of thing that will most likely not only ruin one’s Christmas, but possibly lead the MPAA to create a new rating because the content is too strong for a PG, but not strong enough for an R-rating (you can also thank some heart removal from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for such a decision).

When Gremlins made its way to UK cinemas several months later in 1984, there was nothing in-between the PG and the 15 rating, and as a result anyone under the age of 15 was deprived of the Joe Dante-directed Christmas subversion. Despite a 12 rating for a theatrical 2012 re-release, the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film still carry the 15 marker.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, scripted by future Home Alone and Harry Potter helmer Chris Columbus, and directed by Joe Dante, the film would throw itself into a mixture of comedy and horror with confident abandon and would become one of the most iconic films of the era and from the cycle of films to bear the Amblin/ET logo.

Everything about it feels like the quintessential Spielberg production from the decade that also gave us Back to the Future and The Goonies. We have young protagonists; a fantasy element; superb in-camera special and visual effects; a brilliant score, in this case, courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith, and a wealth of imagination and creativity at work. The thing that gives the film a little bit of added magic? Christmas.

As is typical for a Hollywood blockbuster set during the Yuletide season and which has become a firm Christmas favourite, Gremlins made its way into movie theatres during the summer of its year of release, just like other ‘alternative’ Christmas favourites Die Hard and Batman Returns. Interestingly, its release date of June 8th 1984 would also be the day that Ghostbusters made its way to US movie theatres. While Ghostbusters claimed the top spot of the American box office chart for that week, Gremlins more than held its own to become the fourth highest grossing film of that year.

With its small-town setting and lead characters played by Zack Galligan and Phoebe Cates in their early twenties, the film has a youthful enthusiasm, a twisted love of Christmas, and a brilliant eagerness to suppress all expectations of the clichés and tropes that come from a film set in the Holiday season.

Set in the snow-covered town of Kingston Falls, (a town straight out of any Frank Capra inspired holiday film but in actuality filmed on the backlot of Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California), Gremlins throws us into what looks initially to be a charming Christmas fantasy comedy about a young man and his curious new pet: a Mogwai named Gizmo – officially the cutest movie character in history. Gizmo comes with an even more curious set of rules when it comes to looking after him, before said rules are broken and complete anarchy takes over for the second half of the film.

Always remember: never expose them to bright lights, especially sunlight, which can kill; never expose them to water; and never feed them after midnight. Since these rules are so important it goes without saying that they’re going to be broken, and when they are, the results are fantastic, albeit it horrible for the characters in the film.

The poster campaign was headed by a superb one-sheet designed by the famed John Alvin, consisting of a pair of hands holding a box which Gizmo’s hands are reaching out from. It feels both mysterious and yet also invokes the feeling of Christmas; the film is very much a Yuletide-themed horror, but it’s one that is very much of the Spielberg brand.

Unlike Poltergeist and the question of whether or not it was Spielberg or Tobe Hooper who called the shots, one can still walk away from Gremlins knowing full well that while Spielberg was in the room with the film (so to speak – he even makes a cameo appearance) this is very much a Joe Dante-directed film.

The subversion of small-town tropes, the high level of movie references dotted throughout (which amazingly never call too much attention to themselves), a Jerry Goldsmith score, an appearance from Dick Miller (sadly we’d have to wait until the sequel for Robert Picardo to show up), and horror and comedy going hand in hand together with witty aplomb. Gremlins is never too silly you to the extent that you can’t take it seriously, nor is too violent or dark as to be truly disturbing, (even though earlier drafts of the script did push it into more full-on horror territory before the decision to lighten it up).

With its creature effects going into overdrive once Billy (Zack Galligan) breaks the all-important three rules in looking after Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel), the film becomes a free-for-all comedic horror show that brilliantly  throws in all sorts of chaos, grisly set pieces, and violent, cartoonish comedy, backed up by a score that goes from gently whimsical to an almost Looney Tunes-level of energy.

Best of all, its Christmas setting means that Gremlins is guaranteed to be given at least a viewing every year. With the movie chock full of in-jokes and movie references, Kingston Falls feels like every small town in a Hollywood Christmas movie, and repeat viewing simply leads to new discoveries.

It’s the subversion of Christmas tropes that also helps make the film a festive favourite. The Scrooge-like character of Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday) never becomes a redemptive figure like the Charles Dickens character, instead becoming viler until the Gremlins dole out some cartoonish justice involving her Stairmaster. Someone dressed as Santa Claus is viciously attacked; the Gremlins themselves show up carolling; a Christmas tree is used as a means to elicit a very intense jump scare; the Johnny Mathis version of “Do You Hear What I Hear” is used in the prelude to the film’s most notorious sequence; and the character of Kate (Phoebe Cates) has a tragic backstory involving her father dressing up as Santa Claus, which is both incredibly disturbing and yet strangely hysterically funny at the same time. All the while Kingston Falls looks as snowy and as pretty as Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life.

That this is backed by great production values, superb Chris Walas-created practical effects, and moments that can make you snigger uncontrollably and then jump out of your chair, means that, like Die Hard, Gremlins is suitable for any time of the year, but is perfect mandatory Christmas viewing.

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