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Forty years later, “Gremlins” remains a rare and perfect blend of horror, heart, and humor that’s as magical to adults as it is to kids.

Gremlins

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Joe Dante and Chris Columbus’ Horror/ Fantasy movie Gremlins may take place over Christmas, but it first tore its way onto theatre screens on June 8th (1984). In honor of the film’s 40th anniversary, let’s dive into what makes it such an enduring classic to this day.

Gremlins was one of the first films to prompt the PG-13 age rating (in the U.S. and Canada), the other being Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom. Interestingly, Spielberg was involved in both movies, serving as an Executive producer on Gremlins and director on Temple Of Doom.

I remember seeing part of a television trailer for Gremlins one night when I was around 7 years old. I was utterly intrigued by the brief spot, which featured a young man opening an ornate wooden box to reveal a bizarre yet utterly cute creature inside. One night during early winter, I caught the full trailer for Gremlins 24 hours before it was due to air.

I was horrified because I had not anticipated that the cute wee guy from the trailer I’d seen (Gizmo) wasn’t the only creature in the movie; other creatures appeared gruesome and terrifying to my young eyes.

This felt like a challenge, an endurance test of which I could prove my fearlessness around things that initially frightened me to my parents, proof that I could indeed be trusted to watch Horror movies at home without any tearful tantrums. So, the following night, I stayed up until 9 p.m. with popcorn in my lap and a blanket draped around my shoulders, and my parents, my brother, and I all sat down to watch the weird Christmas Monster Movie.

I chickened out just as the transformation pods scene climaxed, running out of the room, crying, and jumping into the safety of my bed.

Thus began my lifelong fascination with everything Gremlins.

The beauty of Gremlins lies in its ability to appeal to young and older audience members.

The movie’s dark humor appeals to enthusiasts of all ages, bridging the gap between child and adult content.

Joe Dante himself has commented on one particularly divisive scene that the Warner Bros. Executives hated and ultimately wanted to be removed from the script. The scene in question was the heartbreaking monologue when Kate (played by Phoebe Cates) relives her childhood trauma and explains to Billy that she hates Christmas because her father died during an ill-fated stunt where he dressed as Santa and became stuck in the chimney of their home before perishing; just out of reach of his mourning family.

The 1980s was a different time. People weren’t so precious, and we were self-aware enough, even as kids, to understand that one can derive comedy even from the darkest of themes.

Movies like Planes, Trains, And Automobiles and Home Alone dealt with grief and abandonment through a comedic lens, and Gremlins was no different.

The infamous Flasher Gremlin scene was later deemed a little too sick for child audiences and was removed from DVD copies in the UK. However, I laughed at it then, and I laugh even harder when I watch it now as a grown-ass adult.

The film opens in Chinatown in Downtown New York, where a businessman named Randall Peltzer (played by the iconic Country musician Hoyt Axton) is scouring the streets for a last-minute Christmas gift for his son back home in Pennsylvania. Randall happens upon an old antique store full of novelty items and what appear to be genuine treasures. When nothing catches his eye, and he is about to give up, he is distracted by the sound of ethereal singing and humming emanating from the shadows.

When he follows the sound to the back of the store, he meets a strange creature in a cage with whom he instantly becomes enamored.

He pleads with the elderly Chinese owner to sell the creature; however, the old man insists it is not for sale. In typical White, Western fashion, Randall sneakily makes a deal with the elderly man’s young grandson, who agrees to sell him the creature he refers to as a ‘Mogwai’ (Mogwai is the Cantonese word for ‘Devil’ or ‘Monster’) because they desperately need the money.

There is a valuable lesson in cultural self-awareness here from the writers.

What ensues is a Monkey Pawesque tale of greed and irresponsible pet ownership that almost destroys an entire town.

All the ensuing chaos results from man interfering with nature’s natural order, which he is too ignorant and irresponsible to comprehend fully.

Randall returns home to his wife Lynn (played by Frances Lee McCain) and son Billy (played by Zach Galligan) on Christmas Eve with a surprise gift in his arms. When Randall warns his son that opening the box cannot wait until Christmas morning, Billy assumes that the gift hidden within the beautiful wooden box must be a puppy (again calling out the irresponsibility of gifting living beings as holiday presents)

When the family gathers around the fire to open the box, they squeal in fear and delight when it opens to reveal a cute yet mythical creature inside. Gizmo pops his head out, and it’s love at first sight for Billy; his large Manga-eyes, adorable oversized bat ears, and white furry body call to mind a hybrid of Yoda and a Lemur.

In the original script, the Mogwai was the size of a hamster, and Spielberg initially wanted him to resemble his beloved Beagle dog, Chauncey. Creature designer Chris Walas described his nightmare of designing the Mogwai alongside special creature FX maestro Rick Baker because Spielberg continued to demand changes to the creature’s appearance throughout production. In the end, Spielberg entrusted Walas with the final design, with the condition that Gizmo’s fur matched his dear Beagle’s.

Walas applied Chaunce’s fur color to his sketches inspired by the Tarsier primate of the Philippines, and finally, a cultural icon was born.

Columbus’ original script was a flat-out adult Horror affair.

Columbus has described his original script ideas, which included a scene where the Gremlins break into a local McDonald’s and eat everyone there and another scene where they kill Billy’s mother, decapitating her before bouncing her head down the stairs.

The decision from on-high (directly from Spielberg and Dante) to tone down the horror, to permeate the story with a hefty dose of humor, and to introduce a sympathetic Gremlin (Gizmo) was purely for marketing and merchandising reasons.

Aside from the darker tone, Columbus’ script was prone to repetition and genre tropes, and his characters were largely unlikeable. In hindsight, Spielberg’s input was invaluable; he is, after all, the king of writing movies that kids and adults fall in love with equally.

As the story progresses, Billy continues to make mistakes in caring for Gizmo; he accidentally injures him when he shines the light from a mirror in his eye, and when his young friend Pete is introduced to Gizmo, Pete makes the grave mistake of spilling Billy’s paintbrush water onto the poor creature. Here, we are introduced to the biggest revelation of Mogwai lore thus far: Mogwai reproduces if exposed to water.

When Billy sheepishly owns up to his father about his mistake, rather than scold him, Randall senses an opportunity to market Gizmo’s offspring as patented pets to America, exclaiming, “Every kid in America is gonna want one of these!”

Things do not go to plan when Billy realizes that Gizmo’s babies don’t have the same innocent demeanor as their daddies; these little guys are chaos personified, and Billy’s home of Kingston Falls will reap the consequences of his careless actions.

What is interesting is the film’s meditation on the dangers of people becoming too reliant on technology to function or attain a sense of fulfillment.

Billy’s father is a failed inventor whose crappy contraptions malfunction daily. Yet, the family still relies upon them in their domestic lives, calling to mind Western society’s obsession with everything electronic.

One may also view the idea of Gremlins as a fear of foreign immigration; think of Murray Futterman’s paranoia around ‘’foreign engines’’ malfunctioning because they were made overseas, not in the US.

The Gremlins themselves may be viewed as a natural force of moral order. They attack the greedy and abusive landlady, the racist man, and the biology teacher who represents the scientist obsessed with playing God, leaning into the common trope of the moralization of death.

The Gremlins (in their fully mature form) cause chaos, but they are also a cleansing entity when they band together. They first destroy the town’s technology, which the inhabitants completely rely on, forcing the entire community to unite to destroy the larger threat. The community is ultimately forced to rely upon one another through devastating circumstances when their coveted tech fails them.

We also see the overenthusiastic science teacher become obsessed with studying the creatures, recalling man’s vivisection of animals to satiate his egotistical curiosity.

Despite the anarchy that ensues when Gremlins reproduce in vast numbers, we must remember that they’re just animals acting on their baser instincts; they want to destroy, yet equally, they want to party.

During a chaotic scene when Stripe and his new gang/ brood take over the local pub, Dorry’s Tavern, we see them indulging in adult entertainment such as over-consumption of alcohol, dancing, gambling, and the age-old patriarchal tradition of relentlessly harassing barmaids.

However, when the Gremlins experience a children’s movie for the first time — a theatre screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves — we see a more wholesome side to their demeanor. The large group of monsters laughs, cheers, and even sings along to the Disney classic. We begin to view the Gremlins as the dumb kids that they are, reminding us of innocence lost in a world plagued by alcoholism and chronic consumerism.

Gremlins made me question my emotional maturity and social awareness at the tender age of seven, and as silly as it sounds, it helped me grow.

I grew up in a poor household. Films were escapism from a violent household, and I sided with the Gremlins’ plight. The dangers of over-consumerism were apparent to me despite my youth. I noted how greedy many of my schoolmates were when they bullied their parents into buying the latest devices like Walkman’s, Talkman’s, and Sega MegaDrive consoles.

We were forbidden from having pets larger than my hamsters, which I adored. However, when I became lazy about cleaning out their cages, the underlying morals of Gremlins opened my eyes to my own terrible pet care habits. Therefore, I aimed to do better, and I even began rescuing local wounded animals and nursing them back to health from the comfort of my own bedroom.

When I felt unsafe at home or when I experienced horrific bullying and abuse at school, I retreated inwards and secretly wished for my own wee Gremlin to protect me from the Baddies. I drew Stripe on the backs of school textbooks and rewatched the movie religiously, even during the summer months.

As an adult, I still find the movie to be a deep sense of comfort.

As someone who has experienced a ton of trauma associated with family Christmases, I vibe even more with poor Kate and her choice to no longer celebrate such a revered holiday for the world because of the painful memories it invokes within her.

I got my boy Stripe tattooed on my arm a few winters ago during an emotionally abusive relationship, and I still smile like a mad Mogwai whenever I look down at him.

Gremlins may not be everybody’s comfort movie, but its enduring legacy continues to capture the hearts of old and new audiences alike.

Walk into any Forbidden Planet in the U.K. or any Hot Topic store in the U.S., and you will likely see a plethora of Gizmo plushies, Gremlins figures, and shelves filled with pajamas, shirts, and jewelry emblazoned with Gizmo and his mischievous brood.

In the movie’s closing scene, we are reintroduced to Gizmo’s original owner, Mr Wing, who returns to collect his exotic pet after seeing the destruction of Kingston Falls on national television. Filled with sadness and regret, he tells the Peltzers, “You do with Mogwai what your society does with all of nature’s gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready.”

It is a brutal accusation of man’s mistreatment of nature, of giving into one’s greed. However, there is also a moment of hope when Mr. Wing turns to Billy and tells him, “Perhaps, one day, you may be ready… until then, Mogwai will be waiting.” These closing lines instill a sense of hope in the viewer; they evoke a feeling of trust that perhaps future generations will have the cultural awareness to do better and to take better care of nature.

Gremlins spawned a highly satirical, hilarious sequel that deserves its own explorative article. We also have a recent animated series that younger audiences surely adore, cementing the “Little Green Monsters” as enduring cult favorites forty years after the original movie aired.

Whether you learn a lesson in morality from watching Gremlins or you simply adopt it as a holiday viewing tradition, remember this:

“If your air conditioner goes on the fritz or your washing machine blows up or your video recorder conks out… before you call the repairman, turn on all the lights, check all the closets and cupboards, look under all the beds… ’cause you never can tell — there just might be a gremlin in your house.”