One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
The Films of 1984: Gremlins
Dante’s Gremlins (1984) is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, right up there with Die Hard (1988), and Rare Exports (2010). But Gremlins is more than just a film for the season, it is a brilliant and wickedly funny horror movie
that concerns “corruption and violence
beneath the surface of small-town American life,” according to William J.
Palmer’s The Films of the Eighties: A Social History.
perhaps Gremlins’ greatest quality involves the fact that the film's central threat --
which Harlan Ellison once termed “The
Muppet Chainsaw Massacre” -- can be analyzed or viewed in so many competing ways.
the surface, of course, the film is all about a small, Norman Rockwell American
town -- Bedford Falls -- overcome by violent mischievous critters at Christmas
time. One might also view the film as a story of friendship involving a young man, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his unusual pet, a Mogwai called Gizmo.
peel back the onion a little bit, and one can detect how Gremlins might be read from
any number of different view-points, or according to a variety of societal
critiques. What's a bit amazing is that the film stands up to scrutiny no matter which lens one chooses to apply.
One monster -- the diminutive, green-skinned, sharp-toothed Gremlin -- stands in, essentially, for many (cultural) monsters. Or, as one character in the film asks of Gizmo: "how come a cute little guy like this can turn into a thousand ugly monsters?
First, for example, there’s the ethnocentric/technophobic
angle, which sees WWII veteran Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), lamenting the
rise of foreign imports, and suggesting that people should only purchase and trust
(protectionist?) argument is essentially that foreign goods come replete with saboteur gremlins and should thus be avoided. The Gremlins, essentially then, are the second coming of Pearl Harbor, an attack concocted by "foreigners" to bring America to its knees.
Since the Mogwai do
originate with a dealer from the Far East according to the film’s narrative,
there’s a certain plausibility to Futterman's stance, one might conclude. But this particular reading grows more complicated when one considers the fact that original
masters/owners/care-givers of the same Gremlins are able to control them safely,
without violent incident. Why can’t Americans
accomplish the same feat? The Old Man, Mr. Wing, suggests that we are not ready to control Gremlins/technology. That we are not wise enough.
the Gremlins are equated with new-fangled technology is established, in large
part, by Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score, which creates a conflict or
dichotomy in terms of musical choices.
Much of the film is traditionally orchestral, creating an epic, lyrical sweep. But the actual Gremlins Theme is
electronic in nature, signaling the creatures' origin as something from modernity, from
Also notice that a cold metallic hue is applied or seen in many of the scenes involving Gremlin attacks. This color equates them either with electricity (again, a technological creation), or the blue static-y glow of television (another technological toy.) The images below reflect this palette.
there’s the economic angle, or
critique in Gremlins.
In Billy Peltzer’s America, the rich are getting richer, even if it
means bank foreclosures for middle class families. At the same time, yuppies
(represented by Judge Reinhold) reign supreme...plotting to be millionaires by thirty and bragging about their cable TV. Meanwhile, artists and other creative
personalities, like Billy, are being shoehorned into “business” jobs that make them miserable. The pursuit of money has become everything -- the gold standard -- in this version of eighties America.
Significantly, absolutely everything is a commodity in this world as it is rendered, even the Gremlins themselves. Consider
the old Grandfather’s (Keye Luke) horror upon hearing Mr. Peltzer’s description
of Gizmo being “sold.” It was really a
scam, not a fair transaction, wasn't it? The
Grandfather had no say in it, no choice.
Similarly, Mr. Peltzer seems to view Gizmo primarily as a commodity, noting that he
bets “every kid in America would like to
have one….this could be the big one.” A unique, un-classified animal -- La life form -- is no
more than a get-rich quick scheme. It's something that be used to help one acquire vast amounts of wealth.
picture-perfect Rockwellian appearance of Bedford Falls -- deliberately likened in
the body of the film with the cinematic world of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) -- is thus a contrast to real life there. As Billy learns the hard way, the town is far astray from the American Dream. All the bells and
whistles of the holiday season seem empty and cynical when the eighties equivalent
of the Wicked Witch -- Polly Holliday’s Mrs. Deagle -- controls the bank, real estate, and
the town itself.
up, one might consider the season portrayed in the film more closely. Gremlins might actually be considered
a “gleeful trashing of everything America
holds dear about Christmas,” according to author Mark Connelly in Christmas
at the Movies (page 138). Specifically, the 1984 film seizes on the dark,
unsettled emotions some people feel during ostensibly the most joyous time of
the year. Once more, Dante's film presents a powerful dichotomy: the appearance (of happiness) and the reality (danger and sadness).
For instance, Mrs.
Deagle threatens to throw a family of renters out on the street, informing a mother (Belinda Balaski) and her children that they should wish for Santa Claus to pay the
rent. And late in the film, Kate (Phoebe
Cates) shares a haunting story about a family Christmas gone horribly wrong.
the symbols of the holiday, ultimately, prove dangerous or threatening to Americans. The Peltzer family
dog is strung up or hanged in Christmas lights. A Gremlin eats Christmas cookies and is
killed in the blender along with the cookie dough…which turns green.
a Mogwai even hides inside a Christmas tree, ready to strike an unsuspecting suburban mother.
Few Christmas “symbols” survive the movie intact. We get a dead Santa stuck in a chimney,
Gremlin carolers, and more holiday-themed atrocities.
I reviewed Gremlins in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), I
considered the environmental aspects or argument of the film too. The film seems to
concern, generally, how something innocent, beautiful and unspoiled (in this case Gizmo)
can be perverted, or destroyed by its irresponsible use. The Gremlins are harmless creatures if a
certain set of rules are applied and obeyed, but if those rules are ignored,
the creatures become a hazard.
Yet when I
screened Gremlins for the first time with my son, Joel, I noticed another aspect of the film I hadn’t really
considered fully. On some level, the film seems to involve responsible parenting.
Billy and Mr. Peltzer take stewardship of an innocent life: Gizmo. He will grow
up to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted if the three Mogwai rules are obeyed. These rules are: no bright light, no water,
and no feedings after midnight.
three rules are violated in short order, and the Peltzers soon find themselves contending not
with innocent, cuddly babies, but rambunctious, mischievous creatures who crash
cars, tear up the town, and make life miserable for them.
a father myself, it’s impossible for me not to view the film as an argument directed at irresponsible parents. If you want to raise a kid “right” you have to
establish responsible parameters (the equivalent of the film’s rules), and then stick to them.
If you don’t do so, those babies don’t transform into green, scaly
monsters, but they transform into something worse: irresponsible, defiant
teenagers! Before you know it, they are listening to loud music, drinking beer, and otherwise acting out. Your baby grows up in a terrible way because you couldn't be bothered to be consistent, or responsible. In the film, the Gremlins go on a rampage that is childishly excessive, like a teenager experiencing freedom for the first time.
Even the film’s discussion of
television seems to reflect the parenting angle. Grandfather, or Mr. Wing,
returns to find that his wayward child has been allowed to spend his time….watching
And of course, TV is the most common babysitter in the world, right? Essentially, Gizmo goes from being held in one box (which keeps him safe from the dangers of the world), to being captivated by another box -- the television -- that exposes him to those dangers, at least vicariously.
Gremlins is a manic, unruly film, and one of my all-time favorites The anarchic antics of the wee monsters grant the film
its umbrella of unity, but also permit for a series of vignettes which shine a
light (or reflect a crack’d mirror) on American life in the 1980s.
Bruce G. Hallenbeck wrote of Gremlins in Comedy-Horror
Film: A Chronological History that “there
is a dark and subversive undercurrent that keeps viewers off-guard, wondering in
which direction it will veer next.” (page 131) This is a powerful observation, and helps to
explain how one film can be viewed through so many different lenses
Or how one cute little guy like Gizmo can turn into a thousand ugly -- and relevant -- monsters.