Decapitated mothers, troubled executives and outraged parents: welcome to the chaotic world of Joe Dante’s Gremlins
PG-13. For preteens across America I’m sure there was no sweeter sound back in the mid-1980s, and no greater disappointment. On the one hand, there was something deliciously taboo about the MPAA’s newly-founded rating, which states: Parents Strongly Cautioned ― some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Kids were still permittable if accompanied by an adult, so if you had liberal-minded parents or a cool older sibling willing to break down barriers, you could boast to all and sundry about seeing a movie that was technically unsuitable. If, however, you had the kind of parents who did things by the letter of the law and were unwilling to take any chances regarding violent or risqué content, you were pretty much handed a jail sentence.
Growing up in the UK, there was no PG-13 certificate. Instead we had U – suitable for all, PG – Parental Guidance, 15 and 18. It wasn’t until August 1st 1989 that the dreaded 12 certificate was introduced. Man, how I resented the 12 rating as a seven-year-old! For one thing, it ended my dreams of seeing Batman thanks to Tim Burton’s darkening of the superhero genre that summer, a filmmaker who was initially considered to direct Gremlins. It also prevented me from seeing Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory ― no big loss in hindsight, but absolutely devastating back then. Just imagine my reaction when I was forced to see comedy sequel Three Men and a Little Lady instead. My friends and I were in uproar (though I secretly adored the movie, renting it several times the following year, and I’m almost positive each of them did too). The original Young Guns was one of my absolute favourite movies back then, and I had already become desensitised to the likes of Fred Krueger by the time I was seven. I’d survived a physically repugnant child killer with razors for fingers, surely I could survive a cowboy movie without any serious repercussions to my mental health.
Gremlins, a movie that directly contributed to the establishment of the PG-13 rating, was before my time cinema-wise, but in England it was lumbered with a 15 rating. This wasn’t your typical festive movie, but with none other than Steven Spielberg having creative control over the project, his name plastered all over the press material, you best believe that kids were queuing up to see the latest film from the man who had brought us Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Gremlins was also a Christmas movie released during the Christmas holidays, which didn’t help matters. In the US, the movie’s release was pushed forward as Warner Brothers lacked a summer blockbuster to compete with the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ― the latter also directly responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating ― which meant that hype for the movie and the controversy surrounding it had reached fever pitch by the time of its UK release on December 7th 1984. In June, a heavily cut version of The Temple of Doom had been released with a PG rating. As for Gremlins, it would be a long wait for anyone under the age of 15 to find out exactly what all the fuss was about.
Kate Beringer: You say you hate Washington’s Birthday or Thanksgiving and nobody cares, but you say you hate Christmas and people treat you like you’re a leper.
Unsurprisingly, it was Spielberg himself who pushed for and ultimately had the PG-13 rating sanctioned following outrage from parents in the midst of ‘video nasty‘ moral panic. Thanks largely to the removal of a still-beating heart, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was crucified by concerned parents, and Joe Dante’s Gremlins would become the subject of a similar backlash. It was with this in mind that the influential filmmaker decided there should be an additional rating sandwiched between PG and R, and Spielberg was one of the few industry players with the clout to get such a move sanctioned. It was the first time the ratings system had been altered since November 1968, something that didn’t sit well with many in the industry, but what did Spielberg care? As executive producer of Gremlins, he was able to appease parents who had taken their children to see yet another magical Spielberg adventure and had ended up with something else entirely.
There are still shades of Spielberg in Gremlins, from the kids in peril elements to the endless movie nods and gadget-laden shenanigans, but family cinema had suddenly turned to the dark side. While Indy’s nemesis was performing macabre surgical procedures, the adorable Phoebe Cates, who almost missed out on the role of the immaculately wholesome Kate due to her topless scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High two years earlier, was depicting Christmas as a dismal, depressing season, reeling off lines like, “While everyone else is opening their presents, they’re opening their wrists!”
Cinema had matured during the 1970s, thanks in large part to the eye-opening events of the Civil Rights Movement, the fallout of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s ‘Watergate’ debacle. War movies ditched the blind patriotism for anthropological studies about disaffected victims of society, thrillers such as Coppola’s The Conversation were steeped in paranoia and distrust, and the horror genre eschewed supernatural villains for masked killers existing in suburban America’s very own backyard. By the 1980s, viewers had become so hardened to life’s horrors they began to accept it all with a cynical shrug, turning to irony and satire in the face of such realities. Cinema would reflect those feelings, and the time-honoured Christmas movie, once a bastion of festive good cheer, embraced those sentiments and then some.
Dante was not best pleased with the MPAA’s impositions or the PG-13 compromise that followed, and though the UK was a much smaller market, he must have been pretty miffed about the BBFC’s even harsher rating. This was a horror comedy aimed primarily at kids, and his chances of competing with another horror-themed hit in Ghostbusters, which had also managed to land a PG rating, would not have sat well with executives who were displeased with sections of Gremlins that Dante had fought to keep. One particularly macabre moment comes when Kate relays the now infamous story of why she hates Christmas. Occurring during a saccharine stroll through the neighbourhood that ends with protagonist Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) asking his sweetheart out on a date, it is utterly startling for a movie aimed at such a young demographic, particularly at the time of year. For those of you who don’t remember, here is the monologue in full:
The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple of hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. And that’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney on Christmas Eve, his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.
The fact that Gremlins openly suggests that Santa Claus isn’t real is the least of it. With moral outrage reaching its apotheosis that same year, it was a cavalier commercial move from Dante, one that Spielberg had begrudgingly accepted against his own best judgement based on the fact that Gremlins was Dante’s project, despite Spielberg owning the rights. Just like those concerned executives at Warner Brothers, Spielberg was worried audiences would fail to grasp whether the moment was supposed to be sad or funny, but as a fellow filmmaker decided to go with the force of Dante’s conviction, and who could blame him? A movie as daring and as offbeat as Gremlins is a rare thing indeed, and the ever-courageous Dante was insistent that it was the right move.
In a 2015 interview with Film Comment, Dante would explain, “The tone of the movie is summed up in that speech. She’s telling a story that’s completely ridiculous. However, if it actually happened to you, it would be horrible! It’s like the guy falling on a banana peel. It’s funny if you’re across the street, but not funny if you break your back. I like the complexity of it. Originally, it wasn’t her character who told that story, it was a guy who owned a McDonalds. At the McDonalds the Gremlins would come in and eat the people but not the food. When that character and that bit disappeared, I said to Chris, I hate to lose that character and that speech. Let’s give it to Phoebe’s character, Kate, because she doesn’t have much stuff going on except being the heroine, and this gives her a secret. The audience has to find out what it is. She doesn’t like Christmas—well, why not? And now we find out why. And that’s a better character arc for her.”
Kate is the personification of a movie that delights in going against seasonal convention. On the surface she’s as oven-ready for a sentimental yuletide flick as a tray of freshly-baked gingerbread men, or at the very least the cute-as-a-button housewife from a blithely misogynistic Christmas card. In terms of wholesome Americana she appears to be straight out of the 1950s, and the fictional Kingston Falls is very much of that era. Initially, it resembles the fictional town of a dozen traditional Christmas movies. Kids build snowmen, older residents flock to buy trees, and Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score, pre-empted by the kind of Motown foray that fills your belly with combustible Christmas warmth, begins like any other wish-fulfilment outing attached to the Spielberg name. Kingston Falls is not dissimilar to the town found in the most traditional of all festive movies, It’s a Wonderful Life, a comparison that is inevitably and transparently drawn. Not only does a clip from the movie appear in Gremlins, it appears in the very kitchen where one of the film’s most shocking scenes unfolds in a display of irony that punctuates Dante’s deliciously warped vision.
Deputy Brent: Let me drive.
Sheriff Frank: No, you’re drunk.
Deputy Brent: You always get to drive.
Sheriff Frank: That’s cause I’m the sheriff, asshole.
For a wild monster movie, Gremlins is right on the nose culturally. The movie has one foot planted very firmly in the world of make-believe, but there is an undercurrent of social satire that threatens to spoil Christmas long before gremlins wreak havoc on the community with ostentatious drunken forays and all manner of despicable deeds. From the very offset, a mild xenophobia lurks behind the white picket fence at a time when foreign manufacturers were invading American industry. This is not the picture-perfect community most associated with Christmas flicks. Its residents are grouchy and flawed and in some instances downright reprehensible.
When we think of the 1950s, an era that is very much burlesqued in Gremlins, we think of the perfect nuclear family, not an oppressed generation struggling to keep up appearances in a society of changing values, and when a character as cute as Kate harbours the kind of macabre resentment synonymous with sweetly suppressive American suburbia, you wonder what else lies beneath the community’s snow-driven façade. The idealistic notions Dante initially peddles are a brief and tenuous illusion, and the Gremlins essentially become the physical manifestation of all of the community’s worst fears.
Kate’s revelation may cut the deepest in that regard, but the film is awash with residents who harbour something that puts them on the precipice of all-out ruin. Some of them, like modern-day Scrooge Mrs Deagle, are obvious cases in point. Deagle carries around the kind of deep-rooted resentment that would have swallowed her whole without the intervention of the marauding mogwai, but her dizzyingly cruel punishment at the hands of her unscrupulous aggressors is far from textbook. Her mean-spiritedness may portray her as a distinctly deserving villain, but nobody was expecting to see her shoot through a plate-glass window in what proves one of the movie’s most startling moments. It’s that blurring of traditional values that truly defines Gremlins, and as we watch Mrs Deagle careen towards her stair lift-driven fate, our own morals come into question. Is it right to laugh at a pensioner, however mean, hurtling toward destruction? The answer, semi-regrettably, is yes. In fact, we will that particular atrocity every supped-up step of the way.
Less obvious, and perhaps the biggest example of the cynical truth buried behind the suburban smiles, comes in the form of curmudgeon Murray Futterman (Dick Miller), a distinctly 50s man who spends his days damning the foreign-made idiot box he remains glued to as his queerly contented wife flutters about the place. Routine is all that is left of their marriage it seems, and you best believe their complacency comes to a crashing end. Again, his punishment is extreme to say the least. Murray’s crankiness is enough to warrant a snowball in the face or a burnt turkey dinner, but the Gremlins aren’t a species made for punitive half-measures.
You don’t have to be a heel to feel Dante’s indomitable wrath; in this movie, everyone’s fair game. Billy’s parents are of a similar age to the grouchy Murray and years of marriage have also resulted in a degree of complacency, though a much more loving and contented one. A tireless inventor of second-rate products, patriarch Randall (Hoyt Axton) is also feeling the sting of foreign industry as the unconscionable Mrs Deagle dreams of unpaid bills and mass evictions, particularly when he visits a convention featuring the kind of vastly superior products that immediately make him obsolete in his field. Looking like he just stepped off Madison Avenue during its advertising infancy, Randall is a glorified huckster with a huge heart, a flaw in the cutthroat world of 80s sales, and wife Lynn is content to smile through a deluge of catastrophic, homemade kitchen appliances, going about her duties with the kind of blind geniality that only true love can inspire. Still, if anyone is going to snap, it’s the inhumanly supportive Mrs Peltzer, and in the film’s standout scene she undergoes the kind of transformation that puts our resident pests to shame.
Kingston Falls may be distinctly unprepared for the film’s seasonal onslaught, but some are more adept at adapting than others, and a handful of Gremlins end up ruing the day they ever decided to fuck with Mrs Peltzer, who goes from dutiful wife to remorseless killer in the blink of an eye. She may be strong enough to hold it together in a haphazard kitchen of rogue machines, but when a foreign agent infiltrates her home, all bets are off. Her all-out domestic assault with whatever she can get her hands on is intuitive, primal and as wicked as her cackling aggressors, but it’s the only language they understand, their only suitable punishment. Against all odds she becomes a survivalist of the most unrepentant variety, a long-dormant skill unleashed in a barrage of brutal stabbings and microwave explosions. This particular scene could belong to a slasher movie. It is violent, excruciatingly tense and buoyed by a series of creative kills that would have seen the film banished to commercial purgatory if Mrs Peltzer was replaced with a masked killer and her victims teenage girls. The fully fledged Gremlins may be nasty, but you don’t mess with a housewife’s territory. Just ask the poor sucker marmalised in Mrs Peltzer’s blender. Gremlin schmemlin!
Ironically, an initial draft of the Gremlins screenplay was much darker, treating audiences to the grisly decapitation of Mrs Peltzer and the eating of Billy’s pet pooch, Barney. The earliest known draft of the script ― Chris Columbus’ second, dated April 27, 1982 ― didn’t even feature cutesy marquee attraction Gizmo, replacing him with just another vicious mogwai set for all-out destruction. “Steven was very instrumental because I was a young writer and I was like a kid in a candy store getting to work with Steven Spielberg, and he steered me into,” Columbus would later recall. “He said, ‘This needs to reach a wider audience.’ He goes, ‘What you’ve done could be great, but it’s an R-rated horror film. There’s a way that what you’ve written can reach a much wider audience.’ So we worked on several drafts of the script.”
In the finished screenplay, Gizmo develops a close bond with Billy that is something akin to that which exists between Elliott and E.T. Bought as a Christmas present by his beguiled pops after a visit to the kind of exaggerated mystical Chinatown that wouldn’t make it past an initial treatment in 21st century Hollywood, Gizmo is an often hapless ‘stranger in a strange land’ who belongs nowhere near late 20th century suburbia thanks to a series of unfortunate rules that must be obeyed at all costs: 1) Don’t get them wet. 2) Don’t expose them to bright light, and 3) Don’t feed them after midnight. Good luck with that!
The inevitable metamorphosis that follows is something akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien as we enter truly dark territory, triggered by the brutal murder of a high school scientist tasked with understanding how a cute little creature could possibly multiply when exposed to a single drop of water, but for me the Gremlins are at their most deliciously wicked in their cutesy fuzzball form. Those post-metamorphosis Gremlins are far uglier, and their increased physical prowess allows for acts of brutality that come with a heftier price tag for some, but there’s something so unnerving about their initial temperament.
They say kids are little more than animals away from parental supervision, and that certainly applies to the distinctly bestial mogwai. In Gizmo, we have the adorable marquee hero who melted a million hearts with his purring lullabies and fascination with all things cinema. There’s nothing more triumphant than seeing a newly hardened Gizmo, imitating his favourite movie, mow down Gremlin leader stripe in a remote control car, especially as a kid (but especially as an adult). Voiced by Canadian comedian Howie Mandel, Gizmo is a wonder of puppeteering that makes you long for those pre-CGI productions of yesteryear. Just look at the dog’s reaction to Gizmo in some of those scenes. It’s absolutely spellbound ― too tentative to approach and too awestruck to even consider marking its territory. It’s pure magic, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Billy Peltzer: It’s the creatures!
Sheriff Frank: [angered] Ah, the creatures.
Billy Peltzer: The creatures are making it look like an accident!
After Corey Feldman’s neighbourhood cutie pie Pete Fountaine accidentally triggers the fastest multiple pregnancy ever committed to celluloid, we immediately realise that Gizmo is one of a kind, the moral exception who almost seems ashamed of what in reality was other people’s carelessness. What we get is a seething litter of malevolence, a whispering, snickering, conniving rabble with the smarts to tamper with Billy’s clock and feed after midnight, thereby unleashing their hellish potential on a community that is quickly torn to shreds. Close-ups of the mogwai devouring slimy chicken legs display their menace with acute vulgarity, and soon enough they’ve graduated to hanging the Peltzer family dog from a tangle of Christmas lights, which is much more premeditated and sadistic than simply eating him. Particularly ruthless is leader, Stripe, fittingly delineated by a punk rock Mohawk, who goes from nipping fingers to wielding chainsaws by the movie’s end. The chaos unleashed on the sleepy town of Kingston Falls is absolutely rampant. I can only imagine the pale faces of 80s parents looking down at their children in an awestruck theatre, some of them shocked, some of them terrified, some of them bursting at the seams to swing from ceiling fans in the very same manner. Monkey see, monkey do. Thanks a bunch, Joe!
Described by Spielberg as “one of the most original things I’ve come across in many years”, Gremlins is considered by some to be the most unconventional Christmas movie ever devised. By 1984, the horror genre had already tarnished the good name of Santa with exploitative slashers such as Christmas Evil, Silent Night, Deadly Night, released on November 9, 1984, pulled from theatres after only two weeks due to a public backlash from parents’ groups appalled with the film’s representation of Santa as an ax-wielding maniac, but a Spielberg-backed movie for all the family was a different proposition altogether. Today, unconventional Christmas movies are ten to the dozen, comedies such as Bad Santa pushing uncouth boundaries to dizzying heights, but such movies were far more acceptable at their time of release. Just imagine the kind of impact Gremlins had on society all those years prior.
Columbus, who never imagined his spec script would see the light of day until it ended up in Spielberg’s lap, came up with his commercial eureka! after a “creepy” infestation of vermin that would keep him awake at night while attending film school at NYU, and never in your life will you find a species more verminous than the Gremlins, sentient creatures who approach their wickedness with a hearty relish usually reserved for jolly old men dressed in red. Though in Gremlins, Santa’s prey just like anyone.
Looking back, it’s incredible that Gremlins ever saw the light of day in its full, uncut form, and without the indomitable industry force that is Spielberg, it likely never would have. Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, Dante would say of his most successful movie, “At the preview, after the scene where one Gremlin explodes in a microwave, a mother watching with her kid came storming up and shouted at me that it was totally unsuitable for children. The Warner Brothers studio didn’t get it at all, didn’t think it was funny. But the picture became a phenomenon, one of the biggest of the year. It came out of nowhere. It was just one of those things you’re lucky to have once in your career.”
Or in our case a lifetime.