It’s hard not to take some pity on parents at Christmas time who feel pressured into getting their kid some must-have toy as a present, often to be left by Santa Claus. My own children are not yet old enough to where I have to concern myself with such, but I know a day will come when I’ll find myself lined up outside a department store four hours before opening in hopes of scoring the latest holiday fad.
Gremlins isn’t quite a film about getting some hard to find toy, like Jingle All The Way, but it does feature a father looking for something unique for his son Billy. Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Paxton) thought he found such a present for his teenaged son when he stumbled into a little shop in Chinatown and bought a gremlin. Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) was his name, and though the shop keeper was reluctant to sell him to anyone (Peltzer makes a deal with the guy’s grandson), Gizmo seems from all angles to be an easy to manage and perfect pet. And he is! He’s a living stuffed animal. He purrs like a cat when happy, is capable of simple speech, yet lacks even the playful aggression of the most well-behaved dogs and cats.
Gremlins is a horror film, the rare Christmas horror film, so naturally things aren’t what they seem with Gizmo. He came with three important rules that the Peltzers were to heed: don’t expose him to sunlight; don’t get him wet; and don’t feed him after midnight. The midnight one also confused me, as on a military clock midnight is 00:00:00 so every second post midnight can be considered after midnight. My guess, is that Gizmo isn’t to be fed between midnight and dawn. Anyways, the rules seem simple enough, but naturally Billy is unable to follow them. When his friend accidentally gets Gizmo wet, they’re shocked to see Gizmo “sprout” six additional and equally adorable gremlins. These gremlins prove to look rather cute, but do not possess Gizmo’s gentle nature. They’re more mischievous, and in the case of the alpha of the group Stripe, may even be evil.
Billy (Zach Galligan), like most teens, has other problems to concern himself with. He has a job at a local bank where a regular has it out for his dog, Barney, and wants to see him put down. He’s also courting a neighborhood girl, Kate (Phoebe Cates), who seems to have a strong dislike for Christmas for some reason. In other words, he can’t watch the gremlins all of the time, and that eventually gets him and every one in town in a whole mess of trouble. It turns out, when gremlins eat after midnight they go into a cocoon and emerge as larger, scalier, more dangerous versions. Stripe and his minions are intelligent, so they find a way to get Billy to feed them and then go on a rampage. Properties are destroyed and people die. Suddenly the movie about the cute, furry, little gremlin is full of carnage and mayhem.
Gremlins is not directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s directed by Joe Dante, but it was produced by him and has that Spielberg feel most of his films possessed in the 1980s. There’s a lot of humor in how events unfold, but Gremlins doesn’t shy away from the horror elements. Obviously, this is what makes the film really stand-out amongst other Christmas films. And since the film centers around a Christmas gift, I think it more obviously can be considered a Christmas film as opposed to Die Hard. The film has a lot of charm and a lot of that comes from the wonderful puppets that bring the gremlins to life. Whether they’re fuzzy and cute, or scaley and sinister, they look great and possess a ton of personality. Stripe is borderline likable because he’s so expressive, even if he is clearly homicidal. Gizmo almost looks believable in the sense that he looks like a living creature. Certain features of his puppet make it obvious that he’s not, but he still possesses a lot of charm as well. The film also strikes a satirical tone at many points. The setting is appropriate for any garden variety classic Christmas film prior to the shift in tone and some of the gags and deaths are obvious throwbacks to classic era thrillers. In that respect, it has a lot in common with the Indiana Jones franchise.
Gremlins also has the distinction of being one of the last PG films to feature such obvious death and violence. It’s credited with being one of the main drivers for the creation of the PG-13 rating, and it’s not hard to see why. Gizmo was obviously very attractive to younger viewers who likely begged their parents for a doll of the character. Many parents, upon viewing the film or even taking their kids to see it, may have regretted it afterwards. I honestly can’t recall how old I was when I first saw it, but I don’t remember it being a scarring experience, though it wouldn’t surprise me if my sister said otherwise. Gremlins 2 would follow a few years later and feature a much lighter tone in comparison. By doing so though, it lost a lot of what made the original so special. If you want to watch a film that has some of that Christmas spirit in it, but not the corn of so many Christmas movies, you could do a lot worse than Gremlins.