Saturday, June 08, 2024

40 Years Ago: Gremlins (1984)

Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) 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

Yet 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.

On 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.

But 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.

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 American-made products.  

His (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.

That 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 technology.

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.

Secondly, 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 --  a 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.

The 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.

Next 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. 

All 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.  

And 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.

When 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 again, 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. 

All 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.

Being 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…gasp!...watching television.  

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.

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