If ever I were given the task of choosing the grimmest Christmas-themed movie in existence, Gremlins would have to be a strong contender for the title. This weird yet strangely entertaining fantasy, with its back story of a dead dad stuck up a chimney and dressed as Santa Claus, is (unbelievably) thirty-five years old – and here’s the anniversary re-release to prove it. Produced by Steven Speilberg shortly after the success of ET had powered him to prominence, it’s directed by his protégée Joe Dante.
Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Ashton) is an inventor of (mostly useless) kitchen gadgets. It’s coming on Christmas and he finds himself in an unfamiliar town, desperate to purchase a last minute gift for his ‘kid,’ Billy (Zachary Gilligan). The fact that Billy is in his twenties, with a dull but responsible job in a bank, feels decidedly odd. Why not make him a teenage boy? Surely that would be more convincing?
Anyway, in a bizarre little shop on a quiet back street, Randall buys Gizmo – a cute little animal called a ‘Mogwai’ – and he comes away with just three care instructions. He must never expose Gizmo to bright light, never get him wet and, most importantly of all, he must never NEVER feed him after midnight. (This third instruction is annoyingly vague. At what time after midnight is it OK to start feeding him again? Go figure.)
Of course, Billy blithely disregards all the instructions, whereupon the little ‘Wonderful Life’-style town he lives in finds itself overrun with voracious, scaly beasties who seem determined to over-indulge in all the vices associated with the festive season, half destroying the town in the process.
I haven’t seen this film since its cinematic release in 1984 and my memories of it were that it was ‘quite scary,’ but, in 2019, it plays more like the the Muppets on acid. It’s great fun provided you can overlook the sheer unlikelihood of the plot and the inescapable fact that the majority of characters here act like no real person ever would in such a situation. Also, there’s fun to be had spotting things you might not have been quite so aware of first time around. Isn’t that Steven Spielberg making a silent cameo as an inventor at a convention? Look how young Corey Feldman is! (I’d like to kid myself this is his screen debut but according to IMDB, it’s actually his 28th.) And wait… that hopelessly inept local cop with the oddly shaped nose. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks, AKA Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad? With hair! It is, you know! (And just for the record, this is his 48th screen appearance.)
Like many films from the 80s, there are elements that don’t pass muster now. Making the proprietor of the shop where Gizmo is found, an ‘exotic,’ half-blind, pipe-smoking, Chinese man, for instance, is not something that any responsible filmmakers would attempt in this day and age. But there’s also plenty to enjoy, not least the extended sequence where Billy’s Mom, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), takes on five Gremlins that have invaded her house and uses a range of electrical kitchen implements to despatch them. I love the fact that the evil invaders personify everything that’s wrong with seasonal over-indulgence. And Chris Walas’s scaly creations – while representing what was state-of-the art animatronics thirty five years ago, and now looking a littly bit shonky – are still never less than a delight.