Directed by Joe Dante.
Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller and Judge Reinhold.
A small town is invaded by a gang of destructive creatures at Christmas.
“There’s a man out there. I-I-I don’t mean a man, I mean, I don’t know what I mean. I mean, maybe a…what did they call them during the war. You know, the pilots?…Gremlins. Gremlins!”
William Shatner whispers the above in his uniquely staccato way during The Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, arguably the most famous of Twilight Zone episodes. Boy, he sure looked like Orson Welles when he was younger.
He’s accompanied by melodramatic music and filmed in a distressed close-up, but the immense terror of the situation blinds you to its exaggerated style. Shatner, playing a man recently recovered from a nervous breakdown, keeps seeing a figure on the wing of his plane. He’s aware it might be only a figment of his imagination – an understanding futilely strengthened by the fact no one else can see it – but is as successful of shaking the fear as Michael Shannon’s character in the recent Take Shelter. “Gremlins!” he later repeats in horror as he watches it rip away at the electrical wires of the wing.
“You gotta watch out for them foreigners ‘cos they plant gremlins in their machinery,” the xenophobic Marty Futterman (Dick Miller) warns Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) as he climbs inside his car during an early scene in Gremlins. “It’s the same gremlins that brought down our planes in the big one” – a distinct echo of the sentiments in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
Gremlins is a Christmas film written by Chris Columbus (later the director of Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films) and directed by Joe Dante (Piranha, Small Soldiers, The Hole and, to further the connection, an episode of the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone). You’d imagine the two to cancel out each other’s respective sentimentality and horror. Instead Gremlins, although leaning more towards the dark, contains measures of each.
Billy is a teenager in a small town. It’s Christmas, but everyone is more hard-up than festively merry. His father, Randall (Hoyt Axton), is an inventor. His machines are kooky – a mechanised egg cracker, a portable bathroom – but all stop working properly after a few weeks. The contraptions litter the house to show faith in its breadwinner. Perhaps ‘loyalty’ is a better word, as the rest of the family approach each machine with caution and dread. But Randall’s a kind man, and they humour him out of love.
It means Billy is a central source of income for the Peltzers. Next-door’s Mr Futterman has recently lost his job, along with many in the neighbourhood. Kate (Phoebe Cates), Billy’s love interest, works two jobs. “I thought everyone was supposed to be happy at Christmas,” ponders Billy, looking a bit like the broken Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life that plays on the Peltzers’ small, black and white television in the film’s first few scenes.
However, not having enough money – a well-trodden theme for Christmas films – is both inconsistent and often ignored. In the film’s prologue, Randall purchases a cute creature called a mogwai from an old Chinese toyshop as a present for Billy. He initially offers $100, and then jumps to $200 for his subsequent haggle. These are not the actions of an impoverished man. Nevertheless, he buys the mogwai on three conditions from the previous owner:
1. Do not expose to sunlight. It could kill him.
2. Never expose to water. Not even to drink.
3. And probably most importantly, never feed after midnight.
As is the way with rules in films, all three are broken after a short while. The second one makes the mogwai replicate at an alarming rate, whilst the third transforms them into a dangerous, reckless gremlin-like creature.
The initial mogwai, Gizmo, stays cute and loyal to Billy. The others, led by one with a mohawk called Stripe, go about destroying the town and creating absolute chaos. They even murder a few of its inhabitants. It is here where the film becomes a sequence of set pieces and action scenes, forgetting the tales of economic woe of before. The scenes of destruction are both brilliantly executed and often very funny, but the previous warmth and subtext is pushed aside. The town’s many poor folk over Christmas are turned into mere fodder for the gremlin invasion, and the central characters only afforded a single, but heartfelt, scene to develop further.
If Gremlins were to be made now, the mogwai wouldn’t be puppets. Rather, they’d be generated digitally using CGI. Even though the gremlins are limited in what they can do, and their movement appears awkward in the way that stop-motion animation often does, their visibly tangible nature makes them far more believable, threatening and empathetic than the chipmunks, smurfs or Dobbys of today. Be thankful for Attack the Block.
But this is where we return to that man on the wing. There is a more distinct subtext than poverty that runs throughout the film – that the gremlins are a product of foreign, specifically Chinese, economic invasion. Anghus Houvouras wrote recently on this very site about the matter – “…we are shown the Godless communists attacking an American institution: Christmas.”
The observation is a perceptive one. The original mogwai, from where the gremlins came, was purchased from a Chinese man. Mr Futterman slips in at least one reference to foreigners every time he appears onscreen, specifically in relation to their manufacturing exports. Randall is an inventor, attempting to realise the American Dream, but is thwarted by overseas quality at a convention he attends. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an allegory for the Communist invasion of America, plays in the background of a few scenes. However, subtexts are rarely that simple. Instead, Gremlins is a mirror held up against suburban America, demonstrating their self-imposed siege mentality and paranoid fears.
The old Chinese man never wanted to part with the original mogwai. Mr Futterman is a caricature, a recently made-redundant patriot channelling his anger towards foreign countries rather than the reasons for his unemployment residing closer to home. Randall can’t sell any of his inventions because they don’t work. He is an impatient man who peddles his prototypes, becoming uninterested once they start to go wrong, adding on a new feature rather than addressing the fundamental problem. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was never anything more than scaremongering, and has an argument itself that the true threat comes from Senator McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts at the time.
No, the gremlins are not symbolic of a Chinese threat. They are too unruly, too politically unmotivated. They are depicted twice playing video games in separate instances. Their leader, Stripe (as in ‘Stars and…’) wears a mohawk like an 80s punk. They drink until they pass out and roar inappropriately at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, making a mess of the cinema whilst they do. The gremlins are an articulation of America’s constant fear of the moral deterioration of its youth. They are mischief-makers, not political insubordinates.