Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
Continuing with our look at winter movies, today we’ll be examining the nuts and bolts of 1984’s Gremlins. Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, Gremlins merges comedy and horror and assisted bringing the PG-13 rating into being.
The movie deals with a father who finds his son Billy an unusual pet for Christmas—a Mogwai—with only three rules to follow:
- Don’t expose him to bright light, especially sunlight.
- Don’t get him wet.
- Don’t feed him after midnight.
Note: Don’t think too much about the rules. This is kid logic at its greatest.
Gremlins being a horror/comedy movie, of course all the rules are broken in short order, and hilarious hijinks result. The Mogwai, named Gizmo, painfully reproduces when exposed to water. Then, when fed after midnight, the new Mogwai become mischevious killer Gremlins that go on one heck of a bender through town.
With only the opening scene taking place outside Kingston Falls, the rest of the movie’s location is set in small-town USA. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the main square of town is the same one used in Back to the Future for Hill Valley. (Interesting note—neither of these films seems to like movie theaters.) There’s a running theme in the film dealing with small towns and the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer, which is not a surprise given this film was written by Chris Columbus at the height of Reaganomics. Another interesting note—between writing, directing, or producing, a majority of Columbus’s films take place on or around Christmas.
There are quite a few nods to other sci-fi films running through Gremlins, from a quick shot of Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet) to the films that the kids watch on TV to a quick homage to Spielberg’s E.T. The tone of the film is a definite throwback to the Abbott and Costello horror comedies from the ’40s and ’50s but has been updated to capitalize on the “anything goes” nature of the early ’80s. In fact, Gremlins walks the line so tightly trying to appeal to kids, teens, horror buffs, and comedy fans that between it and Temple of Doom, the MPAA decided to bring in the new PG-13 rating that we still have today.
There are two great scenes that showcase this tightrope walking. The first happens when the Gremlins attack Billy’s mom for the first time in the kitchen and she finds a unique way to fend them off. (You’ll never look at a TV dinner the same way.) The second deals more with subject matter than a graphic representation and comes about when Billy asks his girlfriend, Kate, to explain why she hates Christmas so much. This scene was so serious and pitch perfect that audiences didn’t know whether to feel sad or laugh. It is even sent up in Gremlins 2 when Kate has to explain why she hates a different holiday.
The practical effects of Gremlins are very well done and utilize quite a few puppeteers. The visuals of both Gizmo and the other Mogwai/Gremlins are fun to watch. There’s a scene in which the Gremlins take over the bar where Kate works part-time, and it’s chock-full of nods to various types of image, from a jazz club to Flashdance to a puppet performing a puppet show.
While rewatching this film and doing some research, I found out that there have been some charges of racism over the years targeting Gremlins for reflecting negative African American stereotypes. While I think there are certainly elements that are pulled out of ’80s black culture, I’m not convinced the Gremlins are uniformly commenting on that culture. There is a break dance scene that is sometimes criticized in this way, but to me it is pulled straight out of Flashdance and has more to do with that film having been popular in the era Gremlins was made (rather than any racist connection the food they ate after midnight happening to be fried chicken). I would bet Billy and his family had fried chicken that night for dinner, since it’s those leftovers he feeds to the Mogwai.
Now, with that being said, there is an Asian man at the beginning and end of the film who is definitely, without a doubt, acting the Asian stereotype of the wise, old Eastern mystic. So I don’t want to sugarcoat what a lot of ’80s films were like, and this one definitely embraces that racist stereotype; be warned there. This is, however, a horror/comedy, so it’s playing with a lot of cultural stereotypes and tropes, from the naïve boy next door to the evil, land-grubbing rich person, who just happens to give almost a dead-on impression of the Wicked Witch of the West when she goes after Billy’s dog.
Gremlins is a fun winter diversion that is perfect for a family film this holiday weekend. Of course, that family has to be a little demented and prepared for some gross-outs. Also, be warned: if you decide to do a double feature with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the sequel falls squarely into the comedy side of things. It’s a not a full tonal departure from the original, but it definitely plays the comedy and film references a lot broader and louder.
Have a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend, and if you welcome any new pets into your home over the holidays, make sure to follow their care instructions! It’s important!
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.