For whatever reason, I never thought of Gremlins (1984) as being a Christmas movie. In fact, I watched it at the end of my seasonal run thinking it would be a good movie to transition back into non-holiday fare. It had been years since I had seen it. Indeed, I cannot remember the last time I viewed it before recently. What I do recall is how popular it was growing up in the 1980s. Everybody wanted to have their own Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel), the diminutive, furry creature, called a mogwai, that is as cute as it is potentially deadly. The toy version was one of those gifts that you see fist fights over in the aisles of Walmart. So popular was this franchise at one time that I am surprised there has not been one of those nostalgia sequels or reboots that you see with films like Top Gun (1986) or even The Matrix (1999). There have long been rumors of them making one, and a Google search of a Gremlins sequel will reveal a third part in the works. Who knows if it will get made? In the meantime, you can settle in for this particular blast from the past.
Gremlins does not begin with the title creatures, but with a struggling inventor named Randall “Rand” Peltzer (Hoyt Axton). He is away from home around the holidays, and he happens on a Chinese gift shop where he encounters Gizmo. Thinking the mogwai would make a neat gift for his animal loving, late teenage son Billy (Zach Galligan), Rand attempts to purchase it. The shop’s owner (Keye Luke), however, does not want to part with the creature. This problem is solved when the owner’s grandson (John Louie) sells Rand Gizmo when his grandfather is not looking. Still, the boy hands over the mogwai with some stern warnings: it does not like bright lights, stop feeding before midnight, and do not get it wet. Rand repeats these instructions to an intrigued, but pleased Billy when dad gets home and presents his son with the gift. Billy takes this seriously. It is a neighbor kid named Pete Fountaine (Corey Feldman) who upsets the natural order when he accidentally spills some water onto Gizmo. With some squeals, Gizmo immediately spawns five seemingly identical versions of himself. What differentiates the others from the typically placid Gizmo is their appetite for mischief. The ringleader for the troublemaking set is Stripe (voiced by Frank Welker). Under his direction, the other mogwai trick Billy into feeding them after midnight, except for Gizmo. Doing so causes a metamorphosis, complete with a pupae stage. Think the eggs from Alien (1979) and you got the picture. What emerges from the cocoons are nothing that resembles their cute, cuddly versions. Instead, they have green, leathery hides, and sharp teeth. At this point, their only goal is to cause as much damage as possible. Their first target is Billy’s mother Lynn (Frances Lee McCain). Though she manages to kill a few of the little beasts, she is still being harassed by Stripe when Billy returns home. Stripe is the last, but he manages to make it out of the house before Billy can take care of him. Billy follows the tiny monster to a nearby Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) pool. Before Billy can catch Stripe, the gremlin jumps into the pool, setting off a chain reaction that spawns hundreds more of the dangerous little devils. They then set upon the town to wreak as much havoc as possible. Billy’s main concern at this point is getting to his girlfriend Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates), who works at a local bar that the gremlins are currently terrorizing. Once accomplished, they take refuge in the bank where Billy works. Meanwhile, the gremlins all congregate in the town movie theater, where they decide to watch Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Billy sees this as an opportunity to destroy them all by locking them inside and blowing up the cinema. This kills them all, except for Stripe, who had gone across the street at that moment in search of more candy. Billy and Kate, along with Gizmo in Billy’s backpack, hunt Stripe in the store, dodging various traps set by the gremlin. In the process, Stripe spots a working garden fountain, thinking he can jump in it and spawn more allies. Two things are working against the gremlin’s plan. The first is Gizmo’s own determination to stop Stripe, and the second is fact that it is now morning. Sunlight is deadly to mogwai and gremlin alike, but Gizmo uses a toy car to help open up the sky lights in the garden section where the fountain is located. Stripe melts gruesomely, but Billy saves Gizmo from a similar fate. Not long thereafter, with much of the town in shambles, the elderly shop owner where Rand purchased Gizmo arrives at the Peltzer residence to take back the mogwai. Though the Chinese man sees the bond between Billy and Gizmo, he says that Billy is not ready to care for the mogwai. Until that day comes, Gizmo will be waiting.
Gremlins is a Christmas disaster movie of epic proportions. I do not mean that the film is awful. What I mean is that it speaks to how sometimes the worse things happen to us on Christmas. Broadly speaking, there are few more trying events than your entire town being overrun by small green menaces with an appetite for destruction. Yet, the most poignant example comes from Kate. While she and Billy are hiding in the bank, she muses about how much she hates Christmas. It started when she was younger when her dad attempted to dress as Santa Claus and come down the chimney with their presents. He died after getting stuck in the flue. This was also how she learned that Santa Claus did not exist. Taken together, you can understand why she might be a little bitter around this time of the year. On a societal level, seasonal affective disorder is a real issue. Usually this term pertains, in general, to people being tired of winter. Short days, it being too cold to go outside, and the monotony of being inside, among other things, can lead to feelings of depression. The same concept can be applied specifically to the holidays, especially when you have traumatic occurrences tied to them. God love you if this describes you. Of course, He did not send His only son into the world for sadness. Rather, it is supposed to be a season of joy. More specifically, and related to issues that many face this time of year, it is supposed to be a time of new beginnings. With Jesus’ birth, the world was made new. There is a reason why there is an Old and New Testament. Hence, if you are like Kate and have experienced loss, or gremlin invasions, around Christmas, look forward to the next one to start over and build happier recollections.
I know that Gremlins does not immediately strike one, or at least myself, as a Christmas movie. I have also talked about the Christmas spirit ad nauseum in my reviews of other films of the season. Yet, I would like to focus on this one as a good representation of the notion of new beginnings that also comes with this time of year. Billy and his family and friends were ushered into a world they did not previously know to exist. While it did result in a great deal of pain and suffering, it does solidify relationships in new ways. That is something, right? Think about that the next time you have a fight with a loved one around the holidays.