For the sixth film of Christmas my true love gave to me a lovely friendly furry little creature called a Mogwai. There are three rules that MUST be followed when caring for one of these cute little creatures:
RULE 1: Keep them away from light;
RULE 2: Don’t get them wet; and
RULE 3: Never EVER feed them after midnight.
So what happens when Billy Peltzer (played by Zach Galligan) breaks one of these rules? More importantly, what happens when he breaks ALL THREE of them at once?
All hell is let loose, that’s what – and when the rules get broken these ugly things pop out of the Mogwai’s skin and they are not very nice. In fact, they are mean spirited little devils that create almighty havoc and they are called . . . Gremlins!
From then on it’s up to Billy and his girlfriend Kate to save the day.
Like Miracle on 34th Street, Gremlins was for some strange reason released in the middle of the summer. Well, not so strange if you are movie producer and the movie you have just released is a sure- fire box-office blockbuster. That was probably Steven Spielberg’s thinking when he released Joe Dante’s brilliantly subversive Christmas movie in the sweltering summer of 1984. In Britain it wasn’t released until the 7th December – which just goes to show how reserved and traditional we are.
Chris Columbus would go on to write and direct some of the most popular family films ever – The Goonies (1985), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Home Alone (1990), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), the first two Harry Potter films (2001 & 2002) and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010).
Joe Dante is probably one of the most underrated directors there has ever been, providing cinema goers with magnificent and imaginative films all done on a small budget – as well as Gremlins he also directed such gleefully anarchic films as Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), Matinee (1993) and Small Soldiers (1998). He’s also directed episodes of Night Visions, CSI NY, Hawaii Five-0, Eerie Indiana, Amazing Stories, The Twilight Zone and the cop show that gave the world Frank Drebin, Police Squad!
Gremlins is not a Christmas film that you can sit small children in front of, unless of course you want them to have nightmares for about a week afterwards. It’s a dark, crazy and inventive Christmas film that’s too scary to be a kid’s film and not quite intense enough to be an out-and-out horror like Black Christmas by Bob Clark (more about him closer to Christmas Eve).
Gremlins have been a part of modern culture for years – they were the unseen things that caused problems on aircraft – as seen in Richard Matheson’s classic episode of the Twilight Zone, Terror at 20,000 Feet. But no writer or director had so full-bloodedly brought them to life on the screen until Columbus and Dante came along.
The film is a hoot from start to finish. The music by Jerry Goldsmith is fantastic and the special effects team do a terrific job. The Gremlins themselves each have their own personalities and you do feel a pang of guilt when you laugh at some of their highly inventive demises. The one in the microwave is my personal favourite. There are a number of uncredited cameos throughout the film – including the great animator Chuck Jones and directors Steven Spielberg and John Landis and, as usual in Joe Dante’s films, there’s also a part for Dick Miller, who was born in 1928 and has appeared in more than 170 films and (as well as appearing in everything Joe Dante has ever directed) he seems to have worked with just about every major director in Hollywood throughout his long career.
Anyone wanting a Ho-Ho-Happy Christmas film with a nice warm cuddly ending better look elsewhere. Even Phoebe Cates as Kate has a tragic story to tell that manages to be oddly funny at the same time. It’s worth transcribing the whole speech for you and so here is Kate telling Billy why she has another reason to hate Christmas:
“The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God, it was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney . . . his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”