I’m carrying on the loose theme of ‘alternative Christmas films’ today with this film. It’s another one I hadn’t seen until recently as well, so no one can accuse me of not broadening my horizons at least.
As I said in my Bad Santa review, I think there’s a sizeable market for this kind of thing. After all, one of the appeals of movies is the sheer variety involved. Not everyone wants a sappy Christmas experience, they crave something else, and that’s why films like this exist.
Not that this film is a completely dark experience. It’s very much a comedy-centric film with bits of horror sprinkled in. It’s not so much like Black Christmas, for example, but is certainly leaning towards that territory at times.
In a mysterious back alley shop, Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys a strange pet for his son, a Mogwai. These creatures come with rules though, and when these rules aren’t followed, things swiftly go awry and the small town they call home descends into terror.
From the opening scene, Gremlins was wearing its influences on its sleeve. In a very noir-esque opening scene, we’re introduced to our main characters bumbling inventor father, as well as the central creature of the film, even though its first appearance is kept suitably mysterious, making the audience wait for its first glimpse of this exotic creature.
I’ll admit straight out of the gate that I enjoyed Gremlins a lot more than Bad Santa; I think its ideas are better formed and presented, and its characters uniformly fit into place. There’s a central character that’s easy to get behind, an adorable creature, and a suitably hated character that you want to see get their comeuppance, it’s a well-worn setup, yes, but also one that is utilised well.
Although Billy, the central character, is a likeable audience surrogate, he doesn’t have any great distinguishing personality or quirks that make him stand out. He’s perfectly acceptable as a placeholder character and Zach Galligan does well to make him as sympathetic as possible, his importance shrinks in direct contrast to that of the creatures around whom the film revolves.
To this end, the Gremlins (or Mogwais, as they’re also called) are the real stars of the show. Starting with just the singular creature, Gizmo (who my fiancé believes is cuter than Baby Yoda, I’ll let you all decide if he’s right or not) they eventually multiple and transform into creatures that seek mayhem and tear up the town.
There are a few changes in tone when it comes to the Gremlins themselves. After their initial metamorphosis, they are quite devious and murderous in equal measure, creating a few moments of tension as they reveal themselves to unsuspecting victims. The more the film goes on, however, the more their murderous instincts are supplanted by cartoonish mischief that seems them destroy buildings, re-wire electrics, and send nasty old ladies flying.
The later sequences are a real blast to watch as the nasty Gremlins get to show a degree of personality that extends beyond their previously-cute exterior, far from being one-note creatures there to sell cuddly toys, they become a real threat to life, leaving a surprisingly brutal trail of bodies in their wake.
I was surprised by the level of violence present in some parts of the film. I was expecting a fun creature-feature jaunt at Christmastime, and I got that, but I also got scientists being partially eaten alive, and a farmer being crushed to death by his tractor. It wasn’t all one-sided though, and some of the Gremlins themselves meet sticky ends at the hands of Billy’s mum, of all people, who shows herself to be made of tougher stuff than her son.
Gremlins is a film that pays homage to many different genres and manages to do them all justice. There are elements of film-noir, science-fiction, and of course, creature-feature horror films. All of these are presented with an extra slice of personality to them, with the creatures seeming more and more fun, without ever losing their dangerous edge.
As tends to be the case in properties like this, the humans end up playing second fiddle to the more marketable creatures. But there are a few memorable performances from the actors involved too. Remember that hateable old lady I mentioned earlier? That’s Mrs Deagle (played by Polly Holiday) who manages to be infinitely more unlikeable than the Gremlins themselves, and I couldn’t wait to see how the creatures would dispatch her. Hoyt Axton is also very enjoyable as a slightly clueless inventor, who seems to be modelled on classic noir detectives in a very enjoyable caricature.
The creature work is also stellar. Judging by the look of them, they were mostly puppets with digital embellishments (although I could be wrong), and it’s in the puppeteering where the Gremlins come to life; a great example of this is the scene where they’ve taken over the bar, and they’re just a ball of mischievous energy, and it’s a blast to watch.
I can see the great appeal of Gremlins, and why it has become such a beloved Christmas classic, it’s because there aren’t any other Christmas films like it, and it has something for everyone. It’s cute but grisly, funny, and yet tense. It’s a grab bag of influences strung together that somehow works and manages to keep its moving parts working coherently, never letting its pace drop, and never biting off more than it can chew. A very enjoyable festive watch indeed.