Following on from Die Hard I thought I’d take a look at another ‘alternative’ Christmas movie of the 80s, still much regarded in certain circles, in Joe Dante’s 1984 festive horror comedy, Gremlins.
Telling the story of a small town over run by green-skinned, reptilian creatures from who knows where it is clear to see why people are so fond of it and, even coming to it with less of the sense of nostalgia many of my age have for the film, its hard not to be swept along for the ride, and a ride it really is.
After a scene setting pre-amble we are dropped into the typical American mid-west small town of Kingston Falls. Here we meet young bank clerk Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and over the course of a few scenes it becomes clear that the picket fences of Kingston Falls maybe aren’t as white as everyone would like to believe, so to speak.
Billy is then introduced to Gizmo, a new pet and from there the ride really kicks into upper gear.
These intro scenes are deftly handled with a knowing nature that hints at what is to come and, while the feel and tone may be a little dated, it works in context of the movie. Galligan, in particular, stands out as the much put upon young man doing his best to live his dream, despite the best efforts of those around him from the Cruella De Ville like Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday) to his over achieving contemporaries like Gerald (Judge Reinhold).
It is when Gizmo’s malevolent offspring trick Billy into feeding them after midnight that things really get going though and the real stars of the film are revealed.
The titular Gremlins are an astonishing creation of puppetry that brings to mind Jim Henson’s Muppets-gone-bad and are the work of Chris Walas.
What is most impressive is the performances delivered between the puppets and the human actors, particularly Gizmo, but also lead Gremlin, Stripe, and a few of the others and, while the creatures aren’t exactly fully rounded characters, at their best they are entirely convincing, particularly when they are at their threatening best attacking Billy’s mother, neighbours (the Futtermans) and Billy himself.
It’s these scenes that give the film its real edge too as, while some of it feels like a perfectly family friendly affair, there is a surprisingly horrific (if not hugely gore-y) nature that gives the Gremlins a genuinely nasty edge – despite their entertainingly theatrical fancy dress leanings particularly seen as they invade the local Irish pub and cinema.
This horror edge is also present from the humans, particularly when Mrs Peltzer deals with a couple of the creatures in her kitchen using a food mixer and microwave.
It seems this mix of comedy and horror caused the film some problems with certification as, at least the American MPAA, had trouble giving Gremlins a reasonable certificate that would please everyone involved and is one of the films that led to their certification overhaul of the mid-1980s.
While the aesthetic of Gremlins may have dated a bit in the 30 years since its first release, its clever mix of humour and horror combined with the script’s sense of knowing fun and the still highly impressive Gremlins themselves means it remains an enjoyable ride of a movie. If you don’t want the more modern family friendly, and above saccharine, versions of the Christmas movie, there are few better places to look than Gremlins.