Christmas movie review: Gremlins

9 December 2011

Written by: Matthew Smith

I remember being a young child and finding Gremlins both horrifying and hilarious – I didn’t know whether to hide behind the couch while watching the movie, or laugh. I probably did both. It sent such a mixed message of cuteness, comedy, and gore that I found it compulsive watching.

The story sees young Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) receive a mogwai named Gizmo as an early Christmas present. A mogwai may look furry and cuddly, but with it comes a strict set of rules which are nonchalantly broken – keep them out of bright light, don’t get them wet, and don’t feed them after midnight.

Getting them wet makes them multiply, and feeding them after midnight makes them turn into gremlins; nasty, green, all teeth and claws, they proceed to cause terror across the middle American town that Billy calls home.

The gremlins and mogwais were brought to life through a combination of advanced puppetry and stop-motion animation. While it might be the humans headlining the credits, it is these critters that are the real stars.

It was the mixing of comedy and horror genres that gives this movie its real strength. A scene with a gremlin exploding in a microwave is soon countered with a group of them standing on a doorstep in winter clothing singing Christmas carols. Moments later, they’ll be killing an old lady by speeding up her stair lift.

The characters are all flawed in their own ways, whether it be Billy’s inability to follow three simple rules, or his next-door neighbour, a xenophobic alcoholic. This was a country town ripe for some puppet mayhem.

Mixed in with this is a solid Christmas theme. The town is preparing for the holiday season, with trees, food and family. The tension of some scenes is heightened with the innocence of Christmas carols.

At one point, Billy’s love interest Kate (Phoebe Cates) decides to lift the mood with the cheerful tale of how her father died, dressed as Santa and lodged in their chimney, where he remained undiscovered for weeks.

Gremlins is very much a product of the 80s. Released around the time when there was a trend of combining comedy and horror (it hit the big screen the same day in the United States as Ghostbusters), it was aimed at a younger audience without treating them like children. These days it would involve 3D animation and a set amount of fart jokes.

Just like Die Hard and Batman Returns, Gremlins is almost an anti-Christmas movie, with the festive season just the setting in which the action takes place. Released in 1984, its director Joe Dante was the first to taint the portrayal of Christmas, and his morbid sense of humour in this film has had a lasting impression.

Matt Smith is a Masters of Global Communications student at La Trobe University, and the co-editor of upstart. You can follow him on Twitter: @nightlightguy.

upstart will be reviewing Christmas movies in December 2011. Full details for contributing and a list of Christmas movie reviews are on this page.