“They’re singing ‘Deck the Halls’/
but it’s not like Christmas at all.”
-Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Growing up in the 80’s, it was impossible to not see Gremlins (1984); in retrospect, it’s as key to that decade of film as Indiana Jones and John Hughes. But it’s very difficult, in 2011, to conceive of such a film being made: it wasn’t based on a known property (and it wasn’t a sequel or a remake); the director, Joe Dante, wasn’t a household name at the time; the gremlins themselves would be represented as puppets; and, most critically, the tone was very hard to describe. It didn’t fit into any one genre. The Muppet movies were a success, but these Muppets would kill people. To top it all off, the film is a Christmas movie, one in which Phoebe Cates (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) gives a speech about how she’s always hated the holiday ever since discovering her father, dressed as Santa Claus, dead and stuck in the chimney. Dante had to fight to keep that speech in the finished version of the film. He had some clout behind him: he was making the film for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and Spielberg made sure Dante got his way. There wasn’t anything to compare Gremlins to, so executives had to take the risk. Luckily, a riotous test screening suggested they might have a sleeper hit on their hands, and a rushed merchandising campaign began.
And you couldn’t have lived through the 80’s if you don’t remember the toys. It seemed every kid had a Gizmo stuffed animal (I suppose some had Stripe and the other, nastier gremlins too). I had an activity/puzzle book and a picture storybook of the film as well. Parents would take their excited children and for the first half of the film, all would go smoothly: some goofy comedy with the father’s malfunctioning gadgets, some holiday music including the great “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and, most of all, cute and cuddly Gizmo. Then all hell breaks loose. Gremlins spawn and go on a murder spree. Mom stuffs one gremlin in a blender, and another explodes in a microwave. Did kids leave the theater screaming and crying? You’d think so, but honestly, all I remember is the splattering gremlins, I mean my God. Certainly there must have been outrage, because this and the also-PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (released the same year) prompted the institution of the PG-13 rating, which, these days, seems to have become America’s Most Popular Rating. It’s the sweet spot for studios: PG seems too kiddie for the teenage market, and R means no one under 17 can attend. PG-13 announces: don’t worry, this film’s for everybody, but it’s just a little edgy so the wee tykes can stay home (though they never do). Never mind that the rating has softened over the years, to the extent that Dreamscape (1984), one of the first films to receive the rating, would probably get an R today because of topless female nudity. Gremlins would enjoy the PG-13 that was created for it, but the kids would still cry, the parents would still complain to the theater management about false advertising.
I can say with confidence that the film still works exactly as it should because Joe Dante came to Madison earlier this month for a weekend of film screenings launching a November series called “Joe Dante Selects.” At a 9:30 screening at the brand new UW Memorial Union South, Dante introduced his personal copy of the Gremlins preview print – that is, the version of the film which played test screenings (the film is about six minutes longer than the final version, and is preceded by a title card apologetically explaining that some of the music and sound effects are unfinished). I was under the assumption that most of the audience had seen the film before, but it became evident as it progressed – with its vicious right-angle turn from gentle holiday comedy to black-humored horror romp – that many of the college students were new to the experience. Gremlins played the crowd beautifully. The laughter turned to screams, and then back to laughter. Sure, there were a few giggles at some dated references and fashions, but this movie worked. I was surprised to hear a student tell his date that it was the best horror movie ever made. Because, you know…it’s PG and has cuddly puppets for God’s sake.
This was not a film I frequently revisited – which is why I can’t get specific about what those extra 6 minutes entailed, though Dante says they’re included on the “deleted scenes” supplement on the Blu-Ray. When I saw this that recent Friday night, it was surely for the first time since the 80’s. I wondered why I didn’t watch Gremlins over and over as a child; I mean, I did that for so many other 80’s movies, including many of Dante’s (like Explorers and The ‘Burbs). The only conclusion I could draw was that the film somehow bothered me. I’m not sure that I was terrified by it, exactly – not in any traumatic way, at least – but as a child I had a hard time with black comedy. Maybe it was too sophisticated a flavor, but I didn’t want to see characters get murdered in a movie that was also making me laugh. (I remember disliking the 1983 Alien parody Spaceship for that reason, although, in retrospect, why was I watching that if I hadn’t seen – and wasn’t allowed to see – Alien?)
But Gremlins was really introducing me to horror. In 1984 Joe Dante was still best known as the director of The Howling (1981), and the script he was hired to direct (by Home Alone‘s Chris Columbus, of all people) was for a harder, R-rated horror film. The gremlins were supposed to kill the dog, not just abuse it. There was bloodshed and decapitation, as well. It only became apparent when Dante and Spielberg realized how expensive the film was going to be – given the special effects, puppetry, and specially-constructed sets to accommodate the puppeteers – that the film would need to be softened and made more accessible to general audiences, not just fans of The Howling and Piranha (1978). Still, this black humor was black as pitch. There’s Cates’ speech about discovering her father’s body, and a few vivid murders, including a Scrooge-like old woman in a wheelchair getting rocketed out of her second-story window to hit the pavement hard. Watching this film as an adult, I naturally found the film funnier than I did as a child – I could better appreciate that oddball tone – and rather enjoyed the perversity of the incessant experimentation on Gizmo and his offspring; I mean, this is not a Muppet movie. A decent role for Roger Corman regular Dick Miller and cameos by Chuck Jones, Robbie the Robot (spouting Forbidden Planet dialogue), and George Pal’s Time Machine also add to the film’s value for any genre buff; there’s even a climax which deliberately apes the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee showdown in Horror of Dracula (1958). I’ve grown up, but maybe I had to grow into Gremlins. There aren’t very many holiday movies like this one. The gatekeepers just don’t let them through.