Movie Advent #5: Gremlins
05 December 2018 15:52
Joe Dante’s 1984 postmodern horror flick Gremlins has all the ingredients that make up a quintessential Christmas movie. It’s set in a picturesque and snowy American suburb called Kingston Falls, family togetherness and traditional values are central themes, there is a Christmassy romance, and it had such an impact on my childhood that I’m still talking about it to this day. Creating the perfect equilibrium between comedic, heart-warming and horrifying viewing, it’s a favourite when it comes to the holidays.
Released by Warner Bros, with Steven Spielberg as the film’s executive producer, the black comedy draws on mythical legends, involving evil little creatures called gremlins, that date back to the Second World War. It received rave reviews after hitting cinemas in the 1980s and spawned a tsunami of merchandise and influenced popular culture immensely – the makers of Furbies even had to pay Warner Bros seven-figure damages after being sued for a copyright infringement, thanks to the toys’ resemblance to the movie’s titular stars.
The tale begins when an eccentric gadget salesman and floundering inventor (Hoyt Axton) is looking to source his mild-mannered son Billy (Zach Galligan) an interesting gift for Christmas. His search takes him to a dusty, run-down, back ally shop in New York’s Chinatown; a candlelit Aladdin’s cave of curious items. Within the cornucopia of odd trinkets, he comes across a cute Furby-esque, nonsense-gabbling creature with adorable wide eyes.
After hearing the animal sing a beautiful melody, he immediately decides that he needs the lovable fuzzball, called ‘a mogwai’, and offers the owner of the shop $200. But the owner, a wise-looking man with a lengthy grey beard, smoking from a long-stemmed pipe, is reluctant to sell the pet. Eventually a deal is struck, but the transaction comes with strict instructions and serious words of warning: never expose him to bright light, water, and – most importantly – never feed him after midnight.
Despite the best efforts of Billy – who is enamoured by his special Christmas gift, which he calls Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) – and his father, all of the above unfortunately happens. On the first night, a small jar of water, containing used paint brushes, is inadvertently knocked onto Gizmo. We then find out why it is so important not to get Gizmo wet, because he immediately multiplies into other creatures who, after tricking Billy into feeding them after midnight by tampering with his alarm clock, morph into mischievous and evil monsters called Gremlins.
Much to the dismay of Billy, his father and the local drunken and incompetent cops (Scott Brady and Jonathan Banks who went on to play Mike in Breaking Bad), the Gremlins tear through the postcard-worthy neighbourhood, leaving a hideous trail of destruction, chaos and carnage. The resulting orgy of violence reaches a crescendo with the local movie theatre being burnt to the ground.
I’m sure that at the time of its release, some social commentators saw this film as a morally righteous reaction to current social issues. A warning, if you will, against acting responsibly and taking heed of critical advice. The US could, at the time, have been described as an elaborate scaffolding of moral panics and acute paranoia. The HIV/AIDS crisis – fuelled by an ugly amalgamation of misinformation, ignorance and discrimination – was burning brighter than ever, and there was a mounting fear of an impending nuclear war.
There’s also probably a point to make here about how – in a world grappling with Brexit, climate change and the global proliferation of far-right politics – this notion is still relevant today. But I’m not going to make it. Let’s be realistic here, people don’t love this movie because it preaches a message. The reason this film has enduring appeal is clearly because of childhood nostalgia; we all fondly recall how, as children, it made us laugh out loud (long before ‘LOL’ was an abbreviation) and recoil in fright simultaneously. The creatures’ special effects – and the creative camera angles masking the limitations of the them – are pretty thrilling (especially for the 1980s) and even hold up today. Horror and comedy is, I’m sure you will agree, a hard line to toe. Gremlins undoubtedly does it well.