Two Dissolve writers keep the Gremlins conversation going…
Scott: Man, I love Joe Dante. I feel like I have to start this conversation with that sentiment, which kept running through my head as I rewatched Gremlins. He’s a cinephile’s director, in that the more people know about movies (and cartoons, and pop culture more broadly), the more affection they’re likely to have for his work. In Gremlins, he wears his influences on his sleeve, in the old black-and-white science-fiction movies that run on late-night television, and in It’s A Wonderful Life, with which it shares an affection for family and small-town life—and more, as Keith gets into in his Keynote. Though Kingston Falls is a contemporary setting, it’s like a town that time forgot, one of those idyllic old burgs with a town square and a single-screen movie house, a place where everyone knows each other. This isn’t the suburban sprawl of Steven Spielberg, who produced the film, but a town that belongs more to movies-ville than to the world we live in. And in that context, Dante is free to saturate the film with references to the classic science-fiction films and old songs he loves, which is a pleasure in itself, separate from anything the story has to offer. (This is a Chris Columbus script, after all.)
Apart from the violence, little in Gremlins strikes me as contemporary to its time, especially in the setting and the supporting players. Zach Galligan’s Billy and Phoebe Cates’ Kate are the closest we get to ordinary teenagers, though even they are a bit old-fashioned. But scratch deeper than that, and you get types that wouldn’t be out of place in films from decades earlier: There’s Mrs. Deagle, the miserly old woman who wants Billy’s dog dead, like the Wicked Witch Of The West menacing Toto. Billy’s father Rand has a whimsical career as a failed inventor, a career that at one point leads him to a convention filled with futuristic wonders out of old science-fiction movies. Dante favorite Dick Miller turns up as the town drunk, whose ravings about the gremlins in foreign cars and machines gives the film its title. Gremlins is 30 years old now, which puts it at roughly the same distance from us as it was from the films that inspired it, but it has a timeless feel that seems deliberately baked in. What about you, Nathan? Were you similarly warmed by the film?
Nathan: Yes, and that’s a strange way to feel about a film filled with such raucous, violent emotion. To me, Gremlins benefits from double nostalgia: I feel an intense longing both for the timeless 1940s/1950s period the film is riffing on, and for the 1980s Spielberg heyday so essential to me and members of my generation. When I was a kid, movies like Gremlins made me fall in love with the medium.
Gremlins represents the purest and most successful attempt to fuse the gee-whiz, idealized America with the anarchic forces lurking just under the patriotism and the shimmering Christmas lights. It’s as if the Mad magazine or National Lampoon gangs managed to crash through one of those hokey parables about the joy and sharing of Christmas, and they corrupted and subverted every clean-cut, freshly scrubbed, Betty Crocker-ready element in them. In that respect, Gremlins feels like the movie Spielberg set out to make when he directed 1941. Gremlins is the rancid id lurking under all that shiny gloss, which may be why it endures. But while you’ve singled out the film’s timelessness, are there are than any aspects of the film that do feel timely? And what do you make of the film’s politics? Is it a sinister allegory about the darkness we repress at our own peril, or just an unusually silly, scary monster movie?
Scott: If there’s anything “timely” in the movie, then perhaps it’s just the impulse to subvert, period. Dante’s relationship to Kingston Falls is ambivalent: The mischief-maker in him delights in dismantling all the wholesome feel-goodisms of an idyllic American small town during Christmas. At the same time, who wouldn’t want to live in Kingston Falls? There’s real warmth to the place and its inhabitants—Mrs. Deagle and Judge Reinhold’s snivelling bank teller notwithstanding—and it isn’t that far removed from Punxsutawney in Groundhog Day, or any other movie town that’s held up as a refuge for big-city types who have lost their bearings. It’s even possible for a failed inventor to afford a two-story house, support a single-income family, and fork over $200 in cash for an exotic animal in Chinatown. Maybe that’s the Chris Columbus influence: Here and in the other movies he wrote (The Goonies) or directed (Adventures In Babysitting, Stepmom, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone), there was an implicit faith in small towns and suburbs as fundamentally good places to live and raise a family. The conflict in a lot of those films is about keeping the bad elements out, whether they’re the bumbling robbers of Home Alone, the Chi-town riff-raff of Adventures In Babysitting, or the gremlins here.
Which brings me to a key point: Dante and Columbus are at odds with each other in Gremlins. Columbus’ script has the gremlins as the bad guys, a metastasizing threat that grows out of something sweet and innocent, and must be destroyed. By contrast, Dante is most in his element when these little chaos-agents are running roughshod through Kingston Falls. There’s wonderful cartoon justice in the sight of Mrs. Deagle flying through her upstairs window after the gremlins mess with the wiring on her chair-lift. And there’s joy in the sight of gremlins packing a theater showing Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, or even in the way they’re sacrificed in the bloody showdown with Billy’s mother. Dante made his affinity for the gremlins—and his hostility toward Gizmo, the one good mogwai—abundantly clear in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, when Warner Bros. gave him the keys to the kingdom and he handed over a subversive masterpiece of black comedy. But that impulse to favor the troublemakers comes through in Gremlins, too, and perhaps not in the way Spielberg or Columbus might have envisioned. They’re looking to deliver a crafty, merch-friendly Christmas comedy for the whole family. He’s making a Joe Dante movie.
Nathan: Dante is a student and product of Frank Tashlin, Roger Corman, and Looney Tunes, and he brings that freewheeling aesthetic contempt for propriety to every scene. He delights in mischief—the darker and more morbid the better. Thirty years on, it’s still remarkable that Gremlins contains a long, laugh-free monologue about a dad trying to surprise his family by sliding down the chimney to deliver Christmas gifts, and dying in the process. And this is ostensibly a children’s film, with Spielberg’s name first in the credits.
If it weren’t for cuddly, cooing, endlessly marketable Gizmo, Gremlins would be the best kind of nightmare—one completely unpalatable to a mainstream audience. We need to know that this deranged, depraved evil originated someplace good, or it would just seem like a horrible pox descending upon an innocent small town for no reason.
Gremlins borrows a beat from Spielberg’s 1979 comedy 1941: Both films prominently feature scenes in movie theaters showing Disney classics, as befits giddy, goofy, irreverent works from a couple of movie brats. In 1941, General Stillwell finds a safe haven from the madness of the outside world by gently weeping over Dumbo, whereas the gremlins run amok during a screening of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. The implication is clear: Whether you’re looking to escape violence or indulge in it, the movie theater is the place to do it. Gremlins is a quintessential movie-movie, so why shouldn’t it prominently feature its title characters tearing up a theater?
Scott: I’m glad you bring up the harrowing Santa story, which certainly accounts for Kate’s aversion to Christmas. (It also may blow a hole in my theory that the film’s darkness is owed primarily to Dante, not Columbus. Adding to that, Dante says the original script dealt Billy’s mother a macabre fate.) The violence in Gremlins, along with that in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, started a national conversation about the inadequacy of the PG rating, leading to the adoption of the cinema-ruining PG-13. But I’m not convinced that Dante approached Gremlins with the idea of pushing the PG rating as far as it could go. He was making a live-action cartoon, particularly in the final third, and the cartoons that inspired him are built on slapstick violence. Kate’s monologue is the darkest moment in the film by far, but it’s technically G-rated: All the gruesome images are conjured up in viewers’ heads. Beyond that, the film also scrapes some of the luster off the Christmas season, which is violence of another kind, but also G-rated. There are scenes here that are legitimately violent and disturbing, but the film’s tone is what pushes it over the edge.
One last word on the gremlins themselves. As Dick Miller’s sad-sack drunk defines them onscreen, there’s a distinct whiff of xenophobia to them: “You gotta watch out for them foreigners, because they plant gremlins in their machinery.” And he goes on to talk about gremlins bringing down American planes in World War II, and infecting foreign cars, TVs, radios, and watches. Based on that monologue, you could interpret Gremlins as an anti-immigration movie, about dispelling these foreign bodies that muck up the country (and that don’t last like Miller’s snowplow). But I don’t think the movie bears that out, not least because the gremlins appear as a result of irresponsible Americans who illicitly acquire a mogwai and don’t take care of it properly. And then there’s the notion, even stronger, that Dante likes chaos, and sees it as a necessary, exciting part of life. After all, the first gremlins we see in the movie aren’t the little green monsters, but Rand Peltzer’s misfiring inventions. And you’d hardly call him a villain.
Nathan: As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that Preston Sturges, whose prankish spirit pervades the film, was an inventor himself.
As for Gizmo, it’s one of the film’s best jokes that he’s an item as well, purchased for $200. That makes him both a sentient, adorable creature with a will of his own, and a consumer product who in turn could be transformed into a doll or stuffed toy. He’s custom-made both for lovers of cute creatures, and for those fond of movies that make a blood-splattered mess of the Christmas season.
Our look at Gremlins starts with Keith Phipps’ Keynote on the film’s connections to Frank Capra’s America, which it subverts and subsumes. And Thursday, Chris Klimek dives into the history of PG-13 movies, and looks at where the rating is 30 years after its inception. Stay tuned.