“What’d you call this? The putrid stage?”
There had been gremlins in existence before the diminutive green monsters screenwriter Chris Columbus, director Joe Dante, and creature creator Chris Walas imagined and yet theirs are the ones we immediately think about when the word is uttered. The design is a far cry from Bugs Bunny’s colorful adversary in 1943’s “Falling Hare” or the human sized counterpart opposite William Shatner in the 1963 “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and by far the creepiest. From their reptilian skin, mucus covered sharp teeth, and mischievous grins of pure malice, these creatures are exactly what WWII Veteran Murray Futterman (Dick Miller) describes as wreaking havoc in foreign electrical machinery. These Gremlins are also quite easily the stuff of nightmare despite the film’s PG rating.
It’s no surprise then that Dante’s vision would prove one of the major impetuses for the MPAA creating the PG-13 designation. There’s copious amounts of blood and gore to make you wonder if the film was supposed to be an adult horror film and not the family-friendly Christmastime black comedy classic it’s been regarded as for almost three decades. But I don’t think it would have worked as great as it does had it gone that route because the laughter brilliantly cuts through its destruction. And it all stems from cute and cuddly little Gizmo the Mogwai (voiced by Howie Mandel)—an appearances-are-deceiving, dangerous fur-ball found in China and brought back to the US as a pet for fledgling inventor Rand Peltzer’s (Hoyt Axton) son Billy (Zach Galligan).
The story is one of man’s hubris and perhaps a portrayal of animal cruelty since almost everyone involved seems to care less about what happens to poor Gizmo despite being given three very distinct rules. Do not put him in bright light—sun can kill him. Never get him wet with water. And above all else do not feed him after midnight. So what does Billy do? He deflects a beam of light into Gizmo’s eyes with a mirror and laughs when the Mogwai freaks out and falls, injuring his head. While still laughing he brings Gizmo into the bathroom and continues to blind him. For someone who treats his dog Barney like a member of the family, his actions are hardly the stuff of responsible pet ownership.
Worse than he, though, is Rand. Not only is his first reaction upon seeing the Mogwai to throw money at its owner (Keye Luke), he refuses to take no for an answer and practically steals it with the help of the old man’s grandson. What happens when rule number two is broken and Billy is saddled with five Gizmo clones in the aftermath? Rand thinks about the marketing possibilities. They’re all too busy readying themselves to willingly torturing these poor things for monetary gain that they miss how hurt and scared Gizmo is in the corner. This lack of remorse all but guarantees a comeuppance of some sort and the quintet of multiplying offspring has the intelligence and brazenness necessary to hatch their plans for that chaos.
From cuteness comes evil as post-midnight feeding trickery turns the excess Mogwais into the titular Gremlins. These things live to laugh at the pain of others and feel no sense of guilt reacting however they see fit against the pursuit of silly humans with candy-bar bribes. It’s this over-zealous nature that provides both the dark scares and light-hearted chuckles. Billy’s Mom (Frances Lee McCain) fends off their attacks in a brutal war of attrition—her Lynn is by far the best and most bad ass character of the whole—while those Gremlins who survive delight in singing carols before plowing through people’s front doors. Dante moves from spooky smoke-filled swimming pools with cat shrieks screaming to a rambunctious hoard excitedly watching Snow White at the local movie theater.
The juxtaposition is fantastic and in 1984 a somewhat new hybridization that’s all the rage today. It’s also a brilliant comment on American society that something so unique as Gizmo can be disregarded so easily. No hints of mysticism or danger can stop a kid from forgetting his responsibilities or ignoring he’s a living thing. Even neighborhood friend Pete (Corey Feldman) is so desensitized to the wonders of the world that he can quickly go back to reading comics despite having watched five balls of fur pop out of the little dude’s back while he squealed in agony. “Eh. It’s just a pet.” I think kids should be made to watch Gremlins as a rite of passage. “Take care of your dog or he’s going to eat you.”
It seems absurd and it is, but that doesn’t make it less effective. This is why Dante and Columbus’ work plays as a fantastical farce of epic proportions wherein Billy’s love interest Kate (Phoebe Cates) can be left alone inside the bar where she waitresses serving these beasts as they wreck the place. They have no money to pay, they’re drinking booze that contains water without multiplying, and their stunning comprehension of everything earthly is astounding. Do we question any of this in the moment? Maybe now since I’ve seen the film so many times, but on first blush you’re merely enjoying the ride. We allow the Gremlins space to be conniving, homicidal jerks because some people (Polly Holliday‘s soulless witch Mrs. Deagle) simply deserve a reaping.
While I relished her demise twenty years ago, however, it’s hard to watch today and not wish the Peltzer boys got what they deserved too despite being “heroes”. They carelessly disobeyed rules owning a Mogwai entails, continue doing so out of scientific wonder (Are they docile enough to sell so we don’t risk lawsuits?), and ultimately believe themselves guiltless in the matter of the buildings burning around their town. If I were Gizmo I’d do my best to rid the world of the Peltzers because they are obvious the type of humans who will always fail his existence’s “test”. If they can’t care for a cute Furby they surely can’t care for themselves. Except for Lynn—but she’s used to picking up the pieces of her family’s failures.