Gremlins – 1984 – dir. Joe Dante
Sporting Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and released under the auspices of his Amblin Entertainment production company, Gremlins attempts the tricky feat of fusing the cuddly sentiment of Spielberg’s E.T. with the monster movie mayhem of Jaws. It just about succeeds on that count, offering a solid mix of gross outs and laughs, and in the wildly imitative world of 1980s horror films, that meant that there was soon a rash of similar tiny-monster flicks, from the tolerable knockoff Critters to the dire Ghoulies and the laughable Hobgoblins. But what makes Gremlins such an interesting film to revisit is not so much its (admittedly transitory) influence as it is the tensions that pervade a film formed from such contradictory impulses. Much like 1982’s iconic Poltergeist, which was produced by Spielberg but directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur Tobe Hooper, Gremlins was helmed by a horror movie veteran in Joe Dante, late of Piranha, The Howling, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. What results is a strange fusion of a big ‘80s adventure movie and something a bit spikier.
The film’s most recognizable and beloved character is Gizmo, a fuzzy critter adopted by a suburban family at Christmas, and he looks like a living, breathing plush toy. In other words, he’s a marketing bonanza waiting to happen, a fact blithely acknowledged in the film itself. When the family patriarch Randall Peltzer discovers that his family’s unique pet can reproduce simply by adding water, Peltzer imagines that every kid in America will want their own Gizmo, and it’s certain that the studio saw his marketing possibilities as well. But the reign of terror perpetrated by Gizmo’s decidedly un-fuzzy brethren, the scaly creatures that emerge once the gremlins are fed after midnight (Incidentally, isn’t it always sort of “after midnight”? I digress.), pushes the bounds of family-friendliness, even if the film did sneak by with a PG rating. There’s a moment where the nastiest of the nasty gremlins, Stripe, peeks out of a pile of stuffed animals in an obvious pastiche of a scene from E.T. Stripe actually casts aside an E.T. plush toy at that point, but it’s a tough moment to read. Is Stripe meant to be acknowledging his own creepy unsuitability as a child’s plaything, or is he just claiming his place as your kid’s new favorite toy? Like much of Gremlins, it may be an attempt for the film to have-its-cake-and-eat-it, simultaneously striving to be a crowd-pleaser and to push the proverbial envelope.
More than twenty-five years later, it may be the edgier bits that keep us watching Gremlins. It’s true that elements of the story have a notably conservative, and at times even xenophobic, bent. While the film takes on Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of its main reference points, including an extensive clip of Kevin McCarthy’s shouts of, “They’re here already!”, the film never takes the opportunity to suggest that there is something sinister about the pervasive suburban conformity of its fictional town, Kingston Falls. (Tim Burton would seize the opportunity a few years later with his own cracked Christmas story, Edward Scissorhands.) Indeed, “They’re here already!” seems instead to refer to actual outside invaders. As other critics have noted, Gremlins appears to reflect, rather than satirize, American anxieties about the rise of imported technologies in the States.
Although the Peltzer’s intensely xenophobic neighbor Murray Futterman is presented as an over-the-top creation (He grumbles about seeing a “foreign” Jean Cocteau film crop up on his TV.), his fears are – troublingly – all but justified by the events of the film. Futterman insists that “foreigners” plant gremlins in machines: “They put ‘em in the cars. They put ‘em in the TV. They put ‘em in the stereos or the radios you stick in your ears. They put ‘em in your watches…” The fact that Gizmo originates from a stereotypically mysterious Chinatown shop, and that the film’s nominal hero, Billy Peltzer, will eventually assert that the creatures are “gremlins…just like Mr. Fudderman said,” allows the film to be interpreted as a cautionary tale against foreign invaders seeking to disrupt a quintessentially American, unabashedly consumerist way of life in towns like Kingston Falls.
But intriguingly, and perhaps happily, this reading doesn’t entirely suit Gremlins, if only because as a director, Dante seems to take his greatest pleasure from smashing up the suburban status quo, and the audience is invited to view the gremlins’ chaotic behavior with a certain vicarious glee. The gremlins mount their teddy bear-like relation, Gizmo, on a dartboard. They smash up stores, trash houses, and ruin Christmas. As a film, Gremlins seems to want to trash the holiday movie genre from the inside out. In one of Gremlins’ best-known scenes, Billy’s girlfriend Kate expounds on why she hates Christmas with a story so excessively grim one doesn’t know whether to laugh or shriek. It’s this genuine mischievousness that still feels daring and fun in Gremlins, and if it doesn’t quite cancel out the film’s obvious concerns with marketability and merchandising, or indeed its distressing subtexts, it at least complicates them, making for a fascinating tangle of mixed messages and a funky blend of the best and worst that 1980s Hollywood had to offer.