I feel like I’m the only person who has figured out Rule Three, the one about not feeding them after midnight. “But it’s always after midnight,” people argue. This is apparently such a conundrum that a scene in Gremlins 2: The New Batch is dedicated to making fun of it.
It’s not that hard to figure out, really. The rule is akin to a curfew, the same way your mom might have said “I want you back in this house before midnight,” or the surgeon warns, “Do not consume solids or liquids after 12 AM.” By that logic, 11:00 AM would be the perfect time to feed a Mogwai. Come on, people.
Gremlins is what happens when you take It’s a Wonderful Life and splice it with a black comedy. In this case our George Bailey would be Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan). Billy lives in a snowy postcard New York burg, the kind of small town where everybody knows each other, their parents got engaged at the same tavern, and there’s a hilariously ’80s Burger King across from the bank.
Downtrodden Billy spends his days working as an unappreciated bank teller while either exchanging glances with pretty co-worker Kate (Phoebe Cates) or ignoring arrogant company man Gerald (Judge Reinhold). Returning to the It’s a Wonderful Life comparison, Billy also clashes with the town’s ruthless old money mogul Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), who may be the movie’s true monster.
At home Billy is supporting his family, including his mother Lynn (Frances Lee McCain) and his father Rand (Hoyt Axton). Lynn appears to be a plain unassuming housewife, though we’ll find out later that you don’t enter her kitchen uninvited. Rand is a dedicated inventor whose inventions, unfortunately, have short shelf lives. The fact that Billy’s best friend is a 10-year-old played by Corey Feldman is more kindling on the fire.
Altogether, Billy is quiet and polite. He dreams of being an illustrator, as evidenced by the scene where he shows his work to a blink-and-you’ll-miss it Chuck Jones cameo. But he’s the type content to stay put in his living situation.
That is until Rand brings home a most unusual Christmas present: little Gizmo. Gizmo is a ‘Mogwai,’ a sentient creature that looks like a bipedal rabbit with bat ears. Though cute, friendly and self-aware, he comes with three rules attached: do not expose him to sunlight, get him wet, or feed him after midnight. And if you’re Tiger Electronics you can assimilate his design into the 1998 holiday season’s hottest toy.
As careful and nurturing as Billy is, it’s inevitable that the rules will be broken. An accidental spill causes Gizmo to pop out five Mogwai spawn. These Mogwai, in stark contrast to the docile Gizmo, are his conniving and vicious polar opposites. They trick Billy into feeding them past the cutoff hour, and after hatching from their cocoons, the real fun begins.
The Mogwai metamorphose into Gremlins, three-foot tall slime covered goblin monsters with razor claws and teeth. They multiply by the thousands, turning the sleepy town’s Christmas Eve into hell on earth. Their prime motive is to have as much anarchic, destructive fun as they can while mimicking human caricatures. Unfortunately, humans themselves are a nuisance at this party and they must be maimed or killed on sight. For a Gremlin, imitating the worst of us is a preferred substitute over the real thing being alive.
Billy teams up with Kate to fight the Gremlin scourge while the town collapses around them. Cars explode, hands are bitten, snowplows are turned into weapons, and yes, lives are lost. The movie wears the black comedy moniker well, striking an ever delicate balance between humor and horror. As hilarious as the monsters are when they parody Flashdance, cheat at cards and stuff themselves senseless with junk food, it’s hard to forget that they are murdering people during the rampage. But they’re so cute in their tiny archetypal costumes that it almost begets a pardon. Where do they find those outfits in such small sizes, and so quickly?
Some of the Gremlin antics are brutal, but the carnage could be a lot worse. The original script was much darker, crueller, and meaner, featuring such bits as the Gremlins killing the Peltzers’ beloved dog and visibly dining on human flesh. The screenplay was altered to make it more ‘family friendly,’ although family friendly in this case still contributed to creating the PG-13 rating. Overall, I like the end result. Whatever meanness the Gremlins inflict in the final version doesn’t overshadow the sheer amount of fun onscreen. Replacing entrails with candy bars was a great idea.
The fact that Gremlins takes place around Christmas scores bonus points with me. I love the holiday season, with all the joy, togetherness, goodwill, friendship and everything else that it stands for. But I’m not opposed to seeing Christmas turned sideways on its ear, either. What’s wrong with a little aversion? A bit of evil makes Christmas more fun.
Given the time of year the movie is set in, I was always under the impression that it was released in December, officially making it a Christmas movie. My research (browsing IMDB) reveals that June ’84 was the release date. Regardless, I still consider Gremlins a holiday classic and annual tradition alongside Die Hard, which also debuted in the summer.
There’s not much fault I can find with Gremlins. Director Joe Dante, writer Chris Columbus and producer Steven Spielberg crafted a welcome alternative to the recycled network Christmas special. Frosty danced, Santa got acquitted, George lived, Rudolph got his day, Ernest saved Christmas and the Grinch found redemption. Billy faced down monsters. And what a damned fine Christmas it makes.
Does it stay? Of course it stays. It’s Gremlins.
FINAL GRADE: A-