You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, Joe Dante’s Gremlins.
In 1984, Golden Books, the home of the Poky Little Puppy and the meta classic The Monster At The End Of This Book, published a pair of Gremlins tie-in volumes: A New Friend and To Catch A Gremlin. Both are short, with big, full-color illustrations and sentences like, “Billy thought Gizmo had enough excitement for the day, so he tucked him safely in bed.” The first book tells the story of Billy Peltzer getting a special present for Christmas, an adorable creature he names Gizmo. The second book tells how Gizmo, Billy, and Billy’s wannabe girlfriend Kate work together to defeat a group of horrible monsters called Gremlins that are destroying the town.
The story, as it stands, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Billy gets a pet! There are monsters to kill! But then, there’s a lot that’s strange about these books. Like the drawings, which almost, but not quite, capture the actors’ faces; or the way A New Friend describes every part of Billy’s day—his car won’t start, mean old Mrs. Deagle yells at him, his dad’s inventions are terrible—but without any purpose or context; or, strangest of all, the matter-of-fact terrors of To Catch A Gremlin, which, in a panel that could have been taken from a page of Tales From The Crypt, has a man getting pulled into a mailbox so far that all the reader can see is one shuddering leg.
It’s clear from the selective editing and “See Dick run” prose that these books were intended for younger children; sixth-graders and up could see the movie themselves in theaters, but for the little ones, this was as close as it got. And even this was probably too close. Picture-book novelizations were big business for Star Wars, E.T., and other kid-friendly franchises, but Gremlins is a horror movie. There’s gore and scare scenes, nasty beasts and jumping skeletons. Someone uses a blender in a way not encouraged by the instruction manual. Murderous creatures roam the streets. There are consequences all over. People die.
Yet for the first half-hour, Gremlins plays more like a Spielberg knock-off than a movie made by Joe Dante, a director at that point best known for his work on The Howling. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan, whose main job is to be nice and act well with puppets) is just a regular guy, living with his parents, working at the bank, feeling too nervous to ask the girl of his dreams out on a date. He lives in Kingston Falls, an idyllic, Bedford Falls-inspired small town. (The movie makes this debt explicit when it shows Billy’s mom watching It’s A Wonderful Life in the kitchen; she’s crying, but only because she’s cutting onions, which is probably a tip-off.) His life is the sort of pleasant but not quite satisfying existence that serves as the starting point for so many modern comedies. Billy is in a rut, content to draw sketches and hang out with the neighborhood kids, but not quite ready to make the step into real adulthood. Galligan seems just a little old for the part, too, like he’s wearing clothes that he grew out of a few months ago. When his dad (Hoyt Axton) brings Gizmo home, it’s nice, but sort of random. Is he so out of touch with his son’s life that the best gift he can think of is a bizarre animal semi-stolen from an old Chinese man’s junk shop? Billy starts bonding with the Mogwai faster than you can say “Phone home,” which is adorable, but again, slightly off. Where is this going? Who does Gizmo need to call?
All of this would make sense for a children’s book, and it makes sense as a Christmas movie, too. Gremlins is saturated with Christmas, from the song off of Phil Spector’s Christmas album that rings in the credits to the fake snow coating every inch of the studio lot. Kingston Falls is aggressive in its good cheer. Pine trees for sale! Lights everywhere! The evil rich lady down the block has a special snowman she imported from Bavaria! This is what small towns are supposed to do during the holidays. It goes back to that short scene from It’s A Wonderful Life. Almost everyone is in it together; nearly everyone gives a little and gets back so much more. Sure, there’s a woman who’s losing her house because her husband is out of work, and the neighbor, Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller, the best That guy! ever), is a sweetly xenophobic drunk who can’t go 10 minutes without complaining about foreign cars, but this is December. Everyone has to be happy in December, because that is the rule.
That mask starts to slip a little when Billy walks home from work with Kate (Phoebe Cates, who between this and Fast Times At Ridgemont High had the Most Crushworthy Girl Next Door title locked down). It’s nothing untoward, and only really obvious in retrospect, but the two pass a group of carolers, and in the midst of that awkward I-like-you-but-do-you-like-me small talk that happens between developing couples, they get to talking about the season. Billy is firmly in the pro-Christmas corner, so much so that he’s openly shocked when Kate takes a contrary position—so shocked that he makes the rookie mistake of trying to argue her into enthusiasm. In response, Kate tells him how the holidays are actually a really difficult time of year for a lot of people. For those without loved ones to keep them warm, the start of winter is a cold, lonely, harrowing time. I can’t verify her stats on suicide rates rising during the Noel, but it sounds right, doesn’t it? The older one gets, the harder it is to face a Christmas morning with a bare carpet floor and last night’s beer in the fridge. Nothing makes a bad day worse than knowing you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.
This is hard stuff for a family-friendly, kiddie-safe film, but it’s not over the edge yet. Sure, Kate and her mother’s house lacks lights, unlike every other house on the (very fake-looking) block, but a Christmas movie needs a few humbugs to make things interesting. If there were some way to watch this movie without any idea of what happened next, to pause the DVD and write down a prediction for the next 40 minutes, said prediction would probably involve Mrs. Deagle learning a lesson about the importance of charity, presumably at the hands of Billy, Gizmo, Kate, and, what the hell, Mr. Futterman. In addition, Billy and Kate’s love would blossom, Gizmo would warm Kate’s Christmas-hating heart, and maybe Billy’s dad would finally make an invention that works. All very safe, very sweet, and with a minimum of at least two pratfalls into snow banks. It would make for a pleasant, forgettable holiday feature.
That’s not what happens, though. Not exactly. See, there are rules. Mogwais can’t get wet; bright lights will kill them; and whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight. Billy, of course, breaks the rules, even though he doesn’t mean to. So Gizmo gets wet and spawns a litter, and the litter, operating on some kind of mysterious inner compulsion to swap genres, tricks their supposed owner into giving them food after 12:00 a.m. It is at this point that the family-friendly portion of the film ends and the horror movie begins, because this is when the Gremlins show up, hatching out of oozing, scaled cocoons that strongly resemble the face-hugger eggs from Alien. The morphed Mogwai are not cute or cuddly. They drink, smoke, shoot guns, sabotage brake lines, and hide in dark places in search of vulnerable limbs. They bite, and once they get their teeth in, they don’t let go.
Gremlins is a messy movie, its gear-shift plotting jumbling up black comedy, sappy drama, straightforward scares, and the sort of cartoony madness that would end up defining Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Dante’s more consistent, far less financially successful sequel. Plot threads are introduced in the first act, never to be revisited. Billy’s sketching seems like a big deal (Chuck Jones himself approves), but it’s never really relevant. Mr. Peltzer’s inventions, whose constant breakdowns and failures are a harbinger for the monsters to come, never move beyond a mildly funny running gag. While most of the townspeople we see early on end up suffering at the hands of the titular characters, they all disappear for the third act, to allow Billy and friends to face off against the horde alone. The original script by Chris Columbus was far darker than what ended up on the screen (on the DVD commentary track, Dante discusses a scene in the original treatment that had Billy coming home just in time to see his mom’s head rolling down the stairs), but there’s still enough misery here to generate an uneasy kind of power. We know the people making the movie are joking, but we never know how much they’re joking. When the Gremlins run Mr. Futterman’s snowplow through his house, are he and his wife actually killed? And if they are, should we be laughing?
These are uncomfortable questions, and they can’t be overlooked entirely. They go to the heart of the movie’s DNA, and are the reason why, for all its awkward transitions and schizophrenic tone, Gremlins remains one of the all-time great Christmas classics. Yes, Gizmo is cute, the Gremlins are a riot (the bar scene, which has Dante and crew trying out a dozen random, mostly inspired gags, is a dry run for the sequel), and any holiday film that doesn’t force seasonal cheer down its audience’s throat is to be treasured. But the real genius of the movie becomes apparent when Kate explains why she hates Christmas.
It happens roughly three-quarters of the way through the film. Chaos reigns outside, and our heroes have taken refuge in the bank where they once worked. While Billy tries the phones, Kate, with very little provocation, launches into her big speech:
That’s horrible. It’s also kind of funny. But it’s awful. But it’s obviously a joke. But the man died. And on, and on. Cates delivers the monologue like someone who can’t stop haunting herself, and the scene is not played for laughs; even Gizmo is troubled by it. No one tells us if we should snicker or cry, and Kate doesn’t get any sort of resolution to the awful, awful thing that happened to her. Dante had to fight to keep the sequence in the final cut, which isn’t surprising. It’s honestly shocking that a mainstream movie has such an uncompromising, bleak exchange. This is the part they try and leave out of kids’ books, but it’s also the engine that drives this occasionally cruel, frequently hilarious, and bizarrely heartfelt film. Christmas is a wonderful time of year, except when it isn’t, and when it isn’t, it’s the worst. Kate’s dad didn’t just die; he died stuck in a chimney, dressed like Santa Claus. That’s not a tragedy; that’s a fucking novelty song.
But he’s still dead, and Kate is still fatherless. And the Gremlins are still tearing up the town. It’s only funny when it’s not your home being destroyed, when it’s not your loved one rotting just a few feet away. It’s only merry when you’re happy and safe and get to spend the holidays with the people you care about. If it’s December 24 and your parents are gone, and your siblings won’t speak to you; if you’re getting older, and your future stretches out like a wasteland of broken promise and barren ambition; if you know that the next time you hear “Wonderful Christmastime,” you might finally snap and crash your junk heap of a car into the nearest Salvation Army Santa, then all of those holiday greetings can sound like the shrieks of the mocking damned.
There’s a reason the Gremlins glow red and green when they spawn.
Tomorrow: The 13 Days Of Christmas comes to an end with one of the most famous holiday movies ever made.