Sunday, 27 February 2011

80s Movies: Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins is yet another fine example of a standalone 80s movie. Sure, they made The New Batch in 1990, but that wasn't planned from the outset. Gremlins was never the 'first' film in a franchise (as far as I know) - it was just a one-off, cute comedy-horror movie.

It stars Gizmo, the wide-eyed mogwai who pretty much personifies the concept of Pandora's Box, along with his human friends, Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, who play Billy and Kate. This is Gizmo's show though, along with the eponymous Gremlins who later emerge - the humans are basically cattle waiting to be slaughtered.

This movie pushes slapstick to its acceptable limits - if it's Christmas and the protagonists are puppets, is it OK to fire an old lady through her own skylight on an overclocked stairlift? The answer, happily, is yes. I was one when Gremlins was released so can't have been more than four or five the first time I watched it on TV. I don't remember ever actually being scared of the Gremlins - but then, I may have been too busy thinking Gizmo was awesome.

The Plot

It's nice when a plot has rules. It's particularly nice when a film begins with somebody being told not to do certain things - you know they're bound to come into play at some point. Long before Scream set out the rules of survival for horror films (never, ever say "I'll be right back"), Gremlins laid down its own rules on how to keep your mogwai happy, safe and sane.

Rule One: Keep him out of the light

Mogwai don't much like the light. Bright light is intensely uncomfortable for them; sunlight is fatal. I guess you could say they're basically nocturnal. It's probably reasonable to expect them to eat at night too, then...?

Rule Two: Never get him wet

Forget cooking him dinner or nibbling his ear. If you want to make babies with Gizmo, just bathe him. The smallest drop of water will make new mogwai fire out of his very flesh as tiny furballs, which then uncurl into little monsters. It's never really explained why Gizmo is the only pacifist in the bunch, but his offspring are severely unbalanced creatures.

Rule Three: Never, ever, feed him after midnight

Oh. Forget that nocturnal thing, then. Because if you feed him after midnight, Gizmo will not be a happy bunny. More precisely, he'll form a cocoon, gestate for a bit and then emerge as a demonic lizard-bunny that'll make you wish a facehugger had come out of that pod.

Naturally, all three rules are broken at one point or another. It is by accident though - with the exception of Gizmo's second spawning, which happens at the hands of Billy's science teacher. The eating after midnight thing is thanks to the Gremlins themselves, who stop Billy's clock to make him believe it's still safe to feed them. And the sunlight - well, that's not so accidental either, but it's the only option once the rampant little funnymonsters take over the town.

Expect lots of screams and genuinely dark moments. The reason Gremlins is so believable is that the little lizard guys really are totally homicidal - as opposed to the more fun-loving goblins in Labyrinth, for example. Despite that, it's the kind of violence even well-adjusted kids should find pretty funny, so don't be put off.


I can't help but give Gizmo special mention. He's a true action hero, a character in his own right - despite hardly ever saying anything recognisable as words - and totally believable as a separate entity, rather than just one more puppet in the show.

He is the vehicle for the slapstick, frequently suffering at the hands of his brethren for being a pacifist. His near-mute status harks back to the silent movies and even more recent slapstick successes (Mr Bean and, though I hesitate to say it, The Baldy Man). But he also has something deeper to offer.

Gizmo is also Gremlins' voice of reason. His insistence that he will not fight is surely inspired in part by the Vietnam War. When he does take up arms - particularly in The New Batch - it is as an action hero rather than as an all-out aggressor. In all instances, he seems keen only to sort out the chaos that, whether deliberately or not, initially arose from his own flesh.

While the mindless violence is lots of fun, and the Gremlins' torture techniques genuinely ingenious, it is little Gizmo, forever caught in the crossfire, who carries the true message of hope and harmony in a troubled world that makes this movie one of the all-time greats.

80s Movies

In February, POPSICULTURE are dedicating the month to a look back at the iconic films of the 1980s - a decade whose films continue to draw massive audiences when they are shown on TV. To follow posts in this series, check the 80s Movies label or sign up to the dedicated RSS feed.

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