If you were to make a list of Christmas movies that influenced the culture of cinema, you might see some familiar names. Mirace on 34th Street, Babes in Toyland and Scrooge would likely appear on many of your lists. And then we have the infamous horror comedy Gremlins. Could Gremlins rightfully be called a Christmas film simply because it takes place around the holiday? I think there are other reasons to classify it as a Christmas film but the fact remains it is also a horror movie – and a lot of fun too. On top of all that, this little film caused havoc within the motion picture industry. This movie is over thirty-four years old so expect spoilers in this review.
Before we get into the movie itself, let’s take a moment to do some location spotting. Gremlins is set in a small town called Kingston Falls but it bears a striking resemblance to Hill Valley from Back to the Future. Seriously, look at the establishing shot of Kingston Falls and you can see this is the same town square used a year later in the time-traveling romp. You can even see the building holing the iconic clock on the right.
Another shot shows the same movie theater that a certain DeLorean would crash into…
The story of Gremlins begins with dubious inventor Randall Peltzer who is searching for a Christmas gift to give to his son, Billy. He finds a tiny creature called a Mogwai in a Chinese shop but the owner does not wish to sell it. After making a deal with the owner’s grandson, Randall returns home and gives it to Billy. Now you mustn’t suppose that Billy is an adult who lives in his parents’ basement and draws comics. No sir, Billy lives in his parents’ attic and draws comics. To be fair, it seems that Billy’s job as a bank teller contributes significantly to the family income. In any case, Billy is absolutely charmed by the adorable Mogwai who is now named Gizmo.
Who wouldn’t want one of these cute little fluffballs? Of course, there are three rules you absolutely must follow when taking care of a Mogwai:
As is often the case in horror films, it does not take long for one of the rules to be broken. A friend of Billy’s accidentally spills some water on poor Gizmo and we learn that this is how Mogwai reproduce. Several new critters pop off of Gizmo’s body and while they look a lot like their sire, these Mogwai are different. They are more aggressive, cruel and manipulative.
A number of strange incidents occur and the new Mogwai eventually trick Billy into giving them food after midnight. The next morning the Mogwai are found in bizarre cocoons in Billy’s bedroom.
And this is the moment when Gremlins stops being about adorable furry critters and becomes a horror movie. What comes out of those cocoons are no longer cute and cuddly. They are reptilian little monsters that are quite violent and are absolutely gleeful when they cause death and mayhem.
Remember when I wrote above how Gremlins caused a bit of havoc? The kitchen scene is one reason why. Billy’s mother defends herself from three of the little beasts. She kills one with her kitchen mixer and then brutally stabs another several times with a knife. The third gremlin to die in this scene is forced into a microwave oven where it delightfully explodes.
All of these scenes may sound tame these days and truthfully, there are more brutal scenes in other movies. However, remember that there was no PG-13 rating back then. A movie like this one wasn’t quite brutal enough to get an R rating so the MPAA bestowed a PG rating upon it and some families were unprepared for the violence within. Director Joe Dante recounts that one mother pulled her daughter out of the theater after the kitchen scene and chewed him out. For her part, the daughter is said to have ran back into the theater and evaded her mom long enough to finish watching the film.
After Billy and his mother have killed most of the gremlins, the lone survivor – Stripe – manages to escape. Billy tracks him to the local Y.M.C.A. but is unable to catch Stripe before the critter jumps into a swimming pool and breeds himself an army. These creatures are not born as Mogwai – they are pure gremlin from their very first moments of life.
The gremlins go crazy all over town and this brings us to Mrs. Deagle who is this film’s version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Mrs. Deagle is wealthy and has a cruel streak within her. She shows her obnoxious character by cutting to the front of long bank lines and how she seemingly takes delight in denying even the smallest of niceties to those around her. It is only proper that such a character receives her comeuppance and wow – the gremlins certainly deliver here. The little beasts have a knack for causing mechanical devices to go haywire and they manage to get their little claws on her stair lift. Curiously, Mrs. Deagle gets a good look at several gremlins singing Christmas carols outside of her house (look this scene up; it is hilarious) and she believes they are some sort of demons of Death coming for her. She wasn’t entirely wrong, I suppose. When she uses her stair lift she is flown out the upper story window with impressive velocity as you can see below.
Do the gremlins love anything more than causing death destruction? Well, they really love to party and watch… animated Disney films.
After most of these gremlins are dispatched by blowing up the movie theater, Billy follows Stripe to the department store. While the gremlin attempts to kill Billy, little Gizmo manages to find a Barbie convertible and drive to Spike’s location. After making an Evil Knievel style jump off a shovel, the mogwai opens a window blind which allows the sunrise to shine directly on Stripe and his gruesome death scene gives that PG rating one last middle finger.
As you can tell, this movie along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom directly led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. And this is after the script was drastically toned down. The original script had little Gizmo turn into a gremlin as well and he would become their leader. Billy’s mother was also supposed to be killed – the gremlins would even have tossed her down the stairs. I sometimes wonder if the gremlins were symbolic parodies of the darkest aspects of human nature but that is another discussion entirely.
With that in mind, Gremlins remains one of my all-time favorite films. If it has been a while since you have seen it, why not get reacquainted with the little guys?