Study Guide

Gremlins

Gremlins Introduction


Release Year: 1984

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Horror

Director: Joe Dante

Writer: Chris Columbus

Stars: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Howie Mandel (voice)


Every few years, an exciting new toy comes along that every kid must have for Christmas. In 1934, it was the Shirley Temple doll. In 1996, Tickle Me Elmo. In 2006, the Nintendo Wii.

In 1984, if the movie Gremlins is to be believed—and it is, because all movies are true, right?—the world came this close to a new fad: the mogwai. A mogwai is a cuddly little creature who loves to sing and watch TV. But if you get him wet or feed him after midnight, he'll multiply and mutate into vicious green gremlins who love to play violent, and sometimes deadly, pranks.

The thought of your pet mutating into a creature that will kill you is terrifying, but it's still less scary than that time Cabbage Patch Kids started biting children. (True story.)

Gremlins, directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, is a genre-defying hit film. It's part dark comedy, part horror, part holiday movie, and it's hard to tell which part is which. The best way to describe it is as a Christmas movie for people who hate Christmas.

The film stars first-time Zach Galligan as Billy Peltzer, your average, everyboy who receives a mogwai for Christmas from his father. Billy only has to follow three rules: 1. Don't expose him to bright light. 2. Don't get him wet. 3. Don't feed him after midnight.

Place your bets on how long it takes him to break all three.

The movie is like Stripe himself. It starts off cute and cuddly, and, before you know it, things get weird, violent, and scary. Billy is assisted in battling the gremlins by Kate, played by Phoebe Cates, whose times at Ridgemont High weren't nearly this fast. The one good mogwai, Gizmo, is voiced by notable germophobe and Deal-or-no-Deal-maker Howie Mandel.

Joe Dante, the director, got his start with gory horror fare, like Piranha (1978), and producer Steven Spielberg had made a name for himself in the family-movie genre with E.T. (1982). Together, the two took a script by writer Chris Columbus, who would later go on to write The Goonies (1985) and direct Home Alone (1990), and made it into a film that confused everyone. Combine piranhas with aliens, and you basically get gremlins.

  

The film angered parents who took their kids to see it, expecting something more like E.T. They got something much darker. Even film critic Leonard Maltin criticized the film's violence. (Source)

The PG-rated film, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom became talking points that year to push the MPAA toward a PG-13 rating.

Despite the controversy—or, more likely, because of it—Gremlins was a hit, bringing in over $150 million. It spawned – get it, spawned? – a sequel six years later, which featured the return of Gizmo along with about two hundred new gremlins taking over New York City. Rumors still persist of a Gremlins 3, proving that to this day people still don't know how to follow simple directions.

Here's a simple direction for you: if you haven't seen Gremlins in a long time, watch it again. You might see these creatures in a whole new light. Oh dang, you're supposed to keep them out of the light. Following directions is hard.

What is Gremlins About and Why Should I Care?

Gremlins is a film that takes genre restrictions and chucks them out the window…much like the gremlins blast mean old Mrs. Deagle out her own window to a snowy death. Watching a mean old cat lady get brutally murdered by monsters has never been funnier.

Or is it even funny at all?

Nothing is simultaneously more entertaining and philosophically rigorous than a movie that insists that we contemplate the fine line that separates "hilarious" from "freaky and potentially scarring."

And Gremlins is just such a movie.

Today, movies love to walk the fine line between "pee your pants laughing" and "pee your pants shrieking." We've got The Cabin In The Woods. We've got Shaun of The Dead. And we'd be bad horror movie nerds if we left out Army of Darkness.

But before Gremlins, movies that packed punches with laughs and punches (slices?) with chainsaws were few and far between. In fact, apart from the cult classic The Evil Dead—which was only partially meant to bring the yucks—most of the "funny" horror movies were funny because they lacked a certain technical je ne sais quois…which we believe is French for "Wow, special effects used to be bad."

Enter Gremlins.

This wasn't just some low budget horror flick. This was Amblin Entertainment-approved mass entertainment. And it had cute fuzzy-wuzzies and not-so-cute stories about dead fathers stuck in chimneys, not to mention sociopathic, fanged critters.

It confused people.

Gremlins is seen as a benchmark movie because it helped usher in the era of the PG-13 blockbuster (before Gizmo & Co, there was only PG and R). But it also was phenomenally successful, probably because it was so emotionally bewildering. Were you supposed to laugh? Cry? Root for Billy's mom as she microwaves gremlins? Shield your eyes?

The answer, of course, was "All of the above."

Today, mixing comedy and horror seems as obvious as mixing mint and chocolate. But back in the Aqua Net Era otherwise known as the 1980s, it was a bold move. And we think it's a move that digs deep into questions of the nature of comedy, the nature of horror, the nature of cuteness, and the nature of being a human in the world. (Whoa, man.)

Because to watch Gremlins is to ask yourself, pretty much from the time the "Don't get the mogwai wet" rule is broken to the final garden foundation showdown, what the difference between funny-ha-ha and funny-oh-god-that's-creepy is.

Freud would be proud.

Don't worry, though. You'll be asking yourself these questions even as you watch gremlins carol, disguise themselves as Christmas trees, watch Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, and—oh, yeah—wreak havoc on small-town America.

Trivia

Need more Gremlins? The sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, has more gremlins than you can shake a stick at. There's a smooth-talking gremlin, a gargoyle gremlin with wings, and even a girl gremlin. But if that's not enough, there are rumors of a third movie in the works. The latest rumor fire was stoked by Zach Galligan, Billy himself. That's what happens when you feed Mr. Galligan after midnight. (Source)

When the Furby came out, prompting dozens of Toys R Us brawls on Black Friday, Warner Bros. almost started a fight of their own with Hasbro, the maker of the talking toy. They noted a similarity between the Furby and Gizmo from Gremlins. But the big WB had a good working relationship with the toy company, and instead released an officially licensed Gizmo Furby. See, Gremlins can play nice if they really want to. (Source)

We like the mogwai before they become gremlins. Why can't everything be cute forever? There are toys that fit that niche, like the Popples, which debuted in 1986. They roll into furry balls and pop out like cute little mogwai. No need to keep them dry, either. (Source)

The movie Dear White People speculates that Gremlins is about white fear of black culture because the Gremlins "are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken, and freak out when you get their hair wet." Dear Shmoop people, what do you think? (Source)

Gremlins Resources

Websites

Little Monsters Online
There are gremlins in your computer, and they tell you things about Gremlins news.

Book or TV Adaptations

Novel Ideas
The Gremlins novelization has many scenes not in the film, like Corey Feldman's character running away. Bye, Corey.

Articles and Interviews

Gremlins Is Racist? Take 1.
Here's an opinion on xenophobia/racism in Gremlins. It's not easy being green.

Gremlins Is Racist? Take 2.
Here's another opinion on xenophobia/racism in Gremlins. It's still not easy being green.

The Internet Buddy
Rand didn't release a catalog of his inventions, so this guy did it for him.

In Treatment
Zach Galligan isn't a therapist, nor does he play one on TV, but he acknowledges how Gremlins scarred scores of kids when it was released.

Specially Affected
Gremlins wouldn't be Gremlins without gremlins, and they were brought to life with the help of effects master Chris Walas.

Video

Gene Splicing
The dude with the largest gremlin collection in the world – yes, that's a thing – made an amazing video splicing the creatures into famous films, like Batman and Indiana Jones.

Disasterpiece
If you asked us what's wrong with Gremlins, we'd say nothing. CinemaSins disagrees.

Audio

Ho Ho AAARRGGGHH
Don't forget to cycle the Gremlins theme into your next Christmas Mix.

Going, Going, Gone
If you want to start your own gremlin collection, you missed your shot. Monster Maker Rick Baker auctioned his collection in 2015.

Images

Gizmo Saves the Day
If you can't collectgremlins, collect vintage Gremlin trading cards like this one.

Hurts So Good
Here's an actual vintage propaganda poster that would give Mr. Futterman nightmares.