A movie like Gremlins falls into the same clique of movies like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. It’s set at Christmastime. It has a Christmas theme, but people will argue with you that it’s not a Christmas movie.
Granted, all three movies didn’t hit the theaters at Christmastime, but neither did While You Were Sleeping. But Gremlin was supposed to be released around Christmastime. But Warner Brothers moved up the release from the late fall to the summer to compete with other blockbusters Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
This caused some problems because Gremlins was supposed to be a totally different movie than what was released. In the early 1980s, a young aspiring filmmaker named Chris Columbus was working on a script that was more horror-related. It found its hands into Steven Spielberg who would produce it through his production company Amblin Entertainment. Also, horror director Joe Dante, who had hits with Piranha and The Howling, was hired. It wasn’t bad for Columbus who was only in his mid-20s at the time.
But there were some problems. Columbus’ script was darker in tone. How dark? Well, Barney the dog escapes a fate by Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holiday) but gets eaten by the gremlins. Also, Lynn Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) meets an end worse that than that gremlin who gets microwaved. They chop off her head. And young Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) would discover this when he comes home to see his mother’s decapitated head coming down the stairs.
Oh, and also, cute little Gizmo would become a gremlin too.
Naturally, Spielberg who had just made grown men cry at the end of E.T. didn’t like this idea and he changed it while production had already started. This meant, the special effects crew led by Chris Walas hadn’t designed much of cute Gizmo below the waist. This along with the rushed production meant they had to come up with Gizmo to be seen from the waist down, which is why he spends half of the movie peeking out of a backpack.
If you’ve seen Gremlins, you know the plot. Billy is gifted Gizmo by his father, Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), an inventor who hasn’t had much luck. Rand finds Gizmo in a basement antique store owned by the elderly Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) while in the Chinatown district of an unnamed city. Told by Mr. Wing’s grandson that Gizmo is a Mogwai, Rand becomes fascinated with it and offers to buy it. Mr. Wing refuses regardless of how much money Rand offers.
Later, the grandson sells the Mogwai when his grandfather is away, but he tells Rand that the Mogwai can’t be exposed to water, nor should it be exposed to bright lights and sunlight which can kill it. But most important, the Mogwai can never be fed anything after midnight.
Billy and Gizmo have an instant connection. Billy is working as a bank teller in Kingston Falls, a Normal Rockwell/Mayberry town presumably in the Upper Atlantic or New England areas or maybe even the Midwest. It’s never specified. My guess Kingston Falls is one of those towns where the first snow comes around the first of December and stays until February. It’s also one of those towns where everyone seems to know everyone and all the houses are located within a good walk of all the businesses so there’s really no reason to have a car. Filming was mostly done on soundstages at Warner Bros. as well as Courthouse Square and Colonial Street on the Universal Studios backlots. To be honest, the fact that the movie doesn’t really have much on location scenes adds to its fantasy look.
Billy has a special connection with a co-worker, Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) who we gather is one of those young women he knew from school but I can tell he doesn’t know much about her history, as she has a childhood trauma we find out later. My guess would be that Kate and her mother moved to Kingston Falls to get away from the bad memories.
Billy is dealing with complaints from Mrs. Deagle, who is the red-headed stepchild of Old Man Potter. She has a lot of money and a lot of pull at the bank. Naturally, it’s the only bank in town. She gets in front of customers in line. She has no sympathy for parents looking for extensions. And the bank president, Mr. Corben (Edward Andrews) caters to her every needs. Sycophantic vice-president Gerald Hopkins (Judge Reinhold) is very critical of Billy. You can tell there is a history between them too. My guess is Gerald and Billy went to school but Gerald was older and holds the fact that he’s 25 and in a big position over Billy.
A subplot that was cut but later emphasized in the novelization and TV extended cuts show the bank is working on foreclosing on people’s homes. Billy and Kate notices this. Later in the movie when they seek shelter in the bank while the gremlins are terrorizing people, they noticed that the gremlins have killed Mr. Corben and Gerald locked himself in the vault seeking shelter, but goes mad thinking Billy’s attempt to get him out is to win brownie points for a promotion. This subplot actually turns the titular creatures into anti-heroes as Mrs. Deagle meets her fate when one of the gremlins tinkers with her staircase chair lift causing it to rapidly speed up the stairs propelling her out a second-floor window.
Even though Billy is technically an adult, he’s still irresponsible in how he takes care of Gizmo. He’s given a pet he doesn’t have to give water to, doesn’t ever take outside during daytime and can’t feed it much. What exactly constitutes “midnight” was a joke that was emphasized in the second one. Yet, still, Billy puts Gizmo in a position where he gets wet when Pete Fountaine (Corey Feldman) drops off a Christmas tree and Billy shows him Gizmo. Pete tries to pick up Gizmo and accidentally spills a cup of water on him that contain paintbrushes. And five new Mogwais pop up, literally. At this point, Pete doesn’t seem as interested in them.
It seems with Christmas just less a week away from this posting, people still give their kids pets for gifts. Pets that sometimes end up in animal shelters or on a four or five foot chain outside. While Mrs. Deagle is awful, Barney still destroys her showman statue. And Billy even brings Barney to work with him. It’s obvious Billy has isn’t too responsible. That’s why Mr. Wing shows up at the end to take Gizmo back with him. He even tells Billy, “You are not ready.”
While it is extreme as the gremlins kill a few people and wreck havoc, it shows what happens when you don’t get animals spayed or neutered. Look at what Bob Barker and now Drew Carey say at the end of every The Price is Right. More people now considered their pets as their kids, i.e. “furbabies,” and are cautious and protective of their pets.
Sadly, there are still people who don’t take good care of their pets. And this is a warning of what happens when the pets fight back. Sometimes, it’s a lot worse than what you give.
Gremlins was a success making about $213 million off of a $11 million budget and spawning a sequel that took a lighter approach which hurt at the box office. But its effect would change the movie industry. You see, some of those parents who took their kids to Gremlins expecting a silly little comedy were horrified to see the creatures being microwaved as well as decapitated and have their heads burn in the fire.
Back then, PG was a very wide rating. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was also a cause for concern. So, the PG-13 rating was invented over the summer of 1984. Gremlins does have some comedic elements. The creatures have a hilarious time at the movie theater or local bar even though drinking beer could constitute the same as water, especially if it’s American beer. Also, when the creatures run around in the snow, why don’t they multiply? I don’t know. Probably one of those plot holes they should’ve addressed in the sequel.
Regardless, Gremlins like so many of movies still manages to be timeless even though it’s almost 40 years old.