It’s a dark laugh a minute in a classic seasonal creature feature that all but cancels Christmas altogether
WITH GREAT ‘AWWWW’, COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY
INVENTOR, RAND PELTZER (Hoyt Axton) is determined to buy the very odd, but strangely cute whistling creature he has chanced upon in the cluttered candlelit basement of a Chinatown store. He offers the elderly owner (Kaye Luke) $100: ‘Look, I’ve got to have him. It’s a present for my son for Christmas. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for and I’ve been everywhere. I’ll give you $200. That’s $200.’ The Chinaman is nonplussed: ‘I’m sorry. Mogwai not for sale.’ He explains: ‘With Mogwai comes much responsibility. I cannot sell him at any price.’
Except the old man’s more Amercanised grandson will surreptitiously sell Mr Peltzer the Mogwai, instructing him to follow three important rules: ‘Keep him out of the light. He hates bright light, especially sunlight. It’ll kill him. And keep him away from water. Don’t get him wet. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget no matter how much he cries or how much he begs: never, ever feed him after midnight.. You got it?’ Peltzer is barely listening: ‘Sure, kid, whatever you say. Listen, thanks. And have a Merry Christmas.’ He heads back to his family in the snow-covered, small-town, Kingston Falls with his prize. Of course, we all know that one by one, the rules will be broken, with dire consequences.
Countdown To Chaos In A Crummy Little Town
Kmgston Falls may remind us of the town of Bedford Falls from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) Rand’s son, Billy (a career highlight for Zach Gilligan) even works at the bank, and runs along the street like George Bailey at the end of the post-war film, but it feels more like Pottersville, the name it would have been called had Bailey never lived. A 23 year old yuppy colleague who plans to be a millionaire by the time he’s 30 tells Billy: ‘The world’s changing. You gotta change with it. You gotta be tough.’ Eighties’ Kingston Falls is also a place of suspicion and xenophobia (neighbour Mr Fudderman hates foreigners and anything foreign) and the Scrooge-like landlady, Mrs Deagle has no sympathy for those ‘deadbeats’ on the brink of eviction who plead ‘It’s Christmas!’ She tells one young hard-up Mom with two hungry children in tow: ‘Well, now you know what to ask Santa for, don’t you?’ (She also regards Christmas carollers as ‘screehing-voiced little gluesniffers.’)
The town is due a reckoning of some sort, and when Billy’s Mom, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain) watching It’s A Wonderful Life on the kitchen telly as she cooks, can only sniff away tears because ‘It’s a sad movie’, and her husband arrives home with his gift advising his son to ‘Open it now. It won’t wait until Christmas,’ – itself a portent of doom – the countdown to chaos has unknowingly begun. A new generation of Mogwais – fierce and evil unlike the cute original Gizmo – will evolve with destruction on their minds when one-by-one the rules are broken.
Adult Hilarity Disguised As Children’s Monster Romp
Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) is a very clever and funny horror movie that belies its initial made-for-teen-boy appearance. (It proved a film difficult to classify owing to the mix of comedy, horror, and too much that did not seem suitable for a family audience. Awarded a PG in the USA, the British Board of Film Classification listed it as a ‘I5’ until 2012 when it was redefined as a 12A certificate for a theatrical re-release.) Chris Columbus’ script is sharp enough for adults to enjoy too. Beneath the ‘when monsters attack’ theme is a deep recognition of Christmas’s melancholy side for far too many people. Phoebe Cates’ Kate is empathetic to others’ seasonal out-of-sortness because she herself has her own deeply sad (or blackly hilarious) Santa tale to tell.
A bemused Billy doesn’t understand because he has never walked in their shoes: ‘I always thought that everyone was happy during the holidays. No matter what.’ ‘Most people are, but some aren’t,’ explains Kate. ‘While everybody else is opening up their presents, they’re opening up their wrists.’ (What a line!) And then she admits she doesn’t celebrate Christmas and Billy cannot compute: what’s not to like? ‘God, say you hate Washington’s birthday or Thanksgiving, nobody cares, but say you hate Christmas, everybody makes you feel like you’re a leper‘ Kate has a point.
Darker And Darker, Scarier And Scarier
We listen intently because it is the pretty Kate who is explaining. She’s compassionate and caring so has to have a sound reason against the season. Her (at this stage) unexplained hatred of Christmas ratchets up the film’s horror. Incrementally Gremlins turns darker and darker. It’s A Wonderful Life on the telly was sad for Billy’s Mom, but the also monochrome Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) playing on the box in Billy’s room asks: ‘Can’t you see they’re after you? They’re after all of us. Our wives, our children, everyone. They’re here already. You’re next!’ The Gremlins audience has been warned!
It is almost an hour in before the penny drops for Billy and he desperately phones home: ‘Mom, they’ve hatched. Get out of the house!’ His Mom, already armed with a kitchen knife when he calls is as game and murderously efficient towards Gizmo’s evil offspring as Billy’s Dad is inventively inefficient. (In fact, Mr Pelzer’s telling of this tale – his voiceover bookends the film – is, presumably, his most successful project. Everything else he creates does not work properly.)
The Worst Thing That Could Ever Happen In A Christmas Film
Lynn is like Norman Bates’ “Mom” with a knife in her hand, jabbing at the scuttling wicked little intruders and screaming: ‘Get out of my kitchen!’ The horrors have put Johhny Mathis’ gentle carol, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ on the record player which proves a hugely ironic soundtrack to their wild presence. Lynn dispatches with an incredible resourcefulness and viciousness the intruders who swarm over the centre of her home. Her kitchen gadgets are used to full effect to kill them off. And then with the fight taken to the traditionally decorated living room, she will effectively be attacked by the Christmas tree when a hidden gremlin almost strangles her through the foliage. Every standard yuletide trope is given a malicious purpose in the wrong hands. Even poor Benji, Billy’s much-loved dog will face being strung up with a line of Christmas lights. (It could have been far worse. Columbus’ original screenplay had dog and Mom killed off.)
In the event, producer Steven Spielberg toned down the violence against humans and their pets. In a vision worthy of The Day of the Triffids (1962), an entire cinema-worth of the vile alien creatures is blown up, but it is another ‘out-of-towner’s demise that likely leaves more audience scars – and for some, ruins the film. Kate, in revealing ‘the worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas’ lets the cat out of the bag (spoiler alert!): ‘And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.’
No wonder the BBFC were concerned! That’s at least as devastating a cine-reveal as the slaying of Bambi’s mother.