Joe Dante’s Gremlins is a cautionary tale about Christmas… A cautionary tale about the dangers of buying the wrong Christmas gift for your son from an old man smoking what appears to be opium in a poorly lit emporium. A cautionary tale about not following the instructions written on the back of the box your Christmas present came in. A cautionary tale about the incorrect use of Christmas lights. A cautionary tale about opening the door to Christmas carollers. Most importantly it’s a cautionary tale about dressing as Santa and climbing down the chimney laden with presents to surprise your family.
Gremlins opens with Rand Peltzer visiting a disturbingly dark emporium in Chinatown in an attempt to get the owner to stock one of his impossibly awful inventions. Behind the counter is Mr Wing, an old Chinese man, patiently listening to the sales pitch for the “Bathroom Buddy”, possibly only able to do so thanks to the contents of the opium pipe he is smoking. During his interminable sales pitch Rand sees the “mogwai”, an impossibly cute ball of fur, which he thinks would be the perfect present for his son Billy, but Mr Wing refuses to sell it. Saying that his grandfather needs the money (almost certainly because Mr Wing’s debilitating opium addiction has driven the family to poverty), Mr Wing’s grandson agrees to sell the mogwai to Rand for a thick wad of green bills. The fact that Rand Peltzer has been able to sell enough of his crappy inventions to buy Billy more than a couple of pencils is probably the least believable thing in the movie. Anyway, the grandson then warns Rand of the series of rules for caring for the mogwai, that we fully expect to be broken as soon as it humanly possible: “Keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight”.
When Rand arrives home in Kingston Falls he gives the mogwai to his son Billy (Zach Galligan) as a Christmas gift, giving it the rather rubbish name Gizmo, almost certainly in reference to his series of crap inventions. We’re then given a whirlwind introduction to the town of Kingston Falls as Billy rushes to work. We meet his “love interest” Kate (Phoebe Cates) a co-worker at the bank who needs to also work at Dorry’s Tavern, probably for reasons of plot device rather than financial, particularly as Billy’s wage for doing much the same job seems capable of keeping the Peltzers in their comfortable middle class existence even though his father must be a walking black hole for money. We also meet Mrs Deagle the town’s resident evil rich person who is obsessed with killing Billy’s dog Barney, we immediately assume that she will die horribly later. In order to date the film, Judge Reinhold is introduced as Billy and Kate’s yuppie co-worker at the bank who we see is already a bit of a dick, even before he becomes a little bit sexual harrassy towards Kate. There’s also the crotchety, drunk and more than a little bit racist Mr Futterman, played by the always great Dick Miller.
In what can only be defined as more than a little bit creepy, Billy’s best friend is thirteen year old Pete (Corey Feldman). While Billy is hanging out late at night in his bedroom with his very young friend, Pete spills a glass of water over Gizmo and five mogwai shoot out of his back. The leader of this new pack of mogwai is Stripe, who is a nasty piece of work and turns all of the other mogwai against Gizmo, as well as stringing up Barney in the Christmas lights. The new mogwai trick Billy into feeding them after midnight and when Billy wakes up he finds that they are all in some nasty, slimy green cocoons.
The cocoons hatch and the mogwai all emerge as the green and reptilian gremlins. As Gizmo hides, the gremlins attack Billy’s mother who is able to dispatch a few of them using methods somewhat unexpected for a PG movie (including blowing one up in the microwave). All of the gremlins except Stripe are killed by Billy and his mother, however Stripe is able to make his way to the YMCA swimming pool, where he jumps in and is able to create a giant army of gremlins. The army of gremlins wreak a cartoon like havoc on Kingston Falls, killing and injuring a significant portion of the population. Billy rescues Kate from Dorry’s Tavern, enabling her to recount one of the most memorable monologues of all Christmas movies which, tempted as I am, I wont quote in full, but it does end with “…and that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus”.
With the destruction of Kingston Falls pretty much complete, the gremlins are all gathered at the cinema transfixed by Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Billy and Kate are able to release gas into the cinema to create an explosion which kills all of the gremlins except Stripe. Billy follows Stripe to a department store and the two battle it out with whatever weapons come to hand, including a chainsaw with a foolishly short electrical cord. Just as Stripe reaches a fountain and is about to spawn a new army of gremlins, Gizmo crashes through a wall with a motorised toy car enabling the sunlight to burst through and kill Stripe. Mr Wing promptly shows up and after berating the Peltzers, he retrieves Gizmo and wanders off into a matte painting, most likely to meet his opium dealer.
Unlike a number of the “Christmas movies” I have watched in the past week, Gremlins is very much a movie about the holidays. That said, the holidays are not shown in a particularly flattering light. The process of giving gifts in Gremlins is one which regularly leads to violent death, with the gremlins killing several residents of Kingston Falls and the combination of a bag of gifts, a Santa costume and a chimney killing Kate’s father. Although it is Phoebe Cates as Kate who says in the film “You say you hate Washington’s Birthday or Thanksgiving and nobody cares, but you say you hate Christmas and people treat you like you’re a leper”, I can’t help but think how Grinchy the screenwriter Chris Columbus (not the 15th Century explorer) who wrote those words must be. All that said, Gremlins is great fun and always worth watching at some point in December, I give it seven out of nine reindeer.