3rd December: Gremlins

Image: Warner Bros.

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 1984

Director: Joe Dante

Writer: Chris Columbus

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Corey Feldman

May contain spoilers.

I thought this was going to be the one. After two supposed holiday staples turning out to be fairly middling, I thought Gremlins was going to be the film to really light up this movie-shaped Christmas tree. Alas, Gremlins – in which a cuddly pet ‘Mogwai’ ends up unleashing an army of evil gremlins on Christmastime suburbia – is frequently a hoot, and probably my favourite film so far, but it’s not quite the home run I was hoping for.

Maybe it’s something to do with my age. When Joe Dante’s film came out in 1984, I imagine its anarchic spirit, adult jokes and deranged comic violence would have shocked and enthralled more than it does today. The actual gremlins, a marvel of practical effects, may in themselves have been a wonder to behold, whereas today their influence and spirit has become so ubiquitous that the extended scenes of the creatures just cackling away feel tedious rather than revolutionary.

I wish my first viewing of Gremlins had been at a cinema, too. I wish I was settled into a seat at the Prince Charles with stale popcorn wafting up my nose, joined by fellow film-lovers as we collectively gasp and guffaw at the old lady ejected from her chair lift or the gremlin exploding in the microwave. Yeah, Gremlins in a packed theatre in 1984 would probably have blown the roof off.

In the cold light of a 2020 day, however, the characters seem underdeveloped, the romance shoehorned and the humour repetitive. That’s not to say there’s a lack of things to love about Gremlins, of course, but there are issues that, in my mind, hold the film back from the top-tier status I hoped it would reach. Take it as read that the film is an absolutely joyful, wicked and consistently entertaining antidote to Christmas cuddliness. It just has a few drawbacks latched onto that.

Gremlins is an appropriate title, because it is only really the creatures that Dante’s film is interested in. Our hero Billy, whilst amiably enough played by Zach Galligan, is a fairly bland lead. A similar story goes for everyone around him, especially Phoebe Cates’ Kate, who, beyond one riveting scene, has little to do. The romance between the pair feels a bit pointless and half-arsed as well. 

That said, I was a big fan of the way Chris Columbus’ script dealt with Billy’s Dad (Hoyt Axton). The failed inventor cuts a tragicomic figure throughout the film, but it’s never overdone and we mercifully never get a hackneyed ‘you’re an embarrassment’ rant from Billy directed at his father. The whole thing is delicate and well-judged. There is more individuality and artistic skill in the crafting of this relationship than elsewhere in the film, where most characters are either bland clichés or, in one case, an offensive racial stereotype.

Thankfully, this lack of originality only extends to the film’s character drama. The rest of it is packed with fun, wit and invention. Discussing The Holiday, I bemoaned a lack of individual flavour and personality, which Gremlins has by the bucket-load. Dante and Columbus have an identifiable mission with this film – to take a clean commercial Christmas and obliterate it with death and destruction – and they execute it with aplomb. The kitchen massacre, the department store finale, and more, are sequences of pure giddy energy on screen, and that is what Gremlins is beloved for.

A brief final note here on the brilliant design and effects on display in Gremlins. The Mogwai have that lovingly crafted feel that ‘better’ CGI would never be able to achieve, and Gizmo himself, the one who never becomes a gremlin, is outrageously adorable. That’s the film’s design masterstroke right there, to not just mock cuteness but to really embrace it, and then offset it with the wild carnage of those pesky monsters.

Andrew Young

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