Billy Peltzer is an unlikely hero. He doesn't have muscles. He doesn't have a whip or a light saber. He has little personality…although he does have a nice style when drawing comic books. But although drawing Mrs. Deagle as a dragon is hilarious, it's also passive-aggressive, and shows a general limpness on Billy's part.
Not willing to take a stand against the old woman, he hides behind drawing nasty pictures of her instead.
Because he doesn't walk like a hero or talk like a hero, no one treats him like a hero. Even the sheriff tells him to go home, as we see here when Billy tries to get help controlling the gremlins:
SHERIFF: You listen to me, kid! Go on home, take little Gizmo there, sit by the fireplace, and open your Christmas presents, okay? Atta boy.
Why is this walking saltine our protagonist? In essence, he's the target audience for the movie. Gremlins was produced by Amblin Entertainment, headed by none other than Steven Spielberg. Spielberg's primary demographic is himself. Well, himself as a teenager.
Like Elliott from E.T. or half the cast of The Goonies, Billy is white 'n' nerdy, but handsome, brave, and able to get a hot girlfriend and save the day. It's the fantasy of every young heterosexual boy in the 1980s.
It's hard to pick out even one personality trait from the walking bland mush that is Billy. If we had to (and we do) we'd select fearlessness.
Yes, we know we said he was too cowardly to stand up to an old lady.
But when the Gremlins hatch, Billy suddenly develops a spine of steel. He saves his mom and pursues Stripe, the evil Gremlin, determined to stop him. Even when Stripe multiplies, and there are dozens of bad Gremlins, Billy doesn't back down.
He blows up a movie theater, and who hasn't wanted to do that after being charged $42.50 for a box of Milk Duds? And Billy gets knocked down by a Gremlin with a chainsaw, he gets up and keeps going. He's our kind of guy.
Aside from Billy's bravery, which is the only trait you need in a popcorn horror/action movie, Billy's character development is either subtle or non-existent, depending on how you look at it.
Billy's only non-Gremlin drama involves his family struggling financially at home. Billy works at the bank to bring in money because his dad, a failed salesman, isn't pulling his weight. As Mrs. Deagle demonstrates with her rude comments here, the Peltzer family finances are a town joke.
MRS. DEAGLE: Excuses, excuses. You're just like your father. I've listened to his miserable excuses for ten years, the loser!
Let's be real about what we said about Billy's cowardice toward Mrs. Deagle. If Billy stood up to her, he would likely lose his job. Considering how ineffective Billy's father is at sales, the family needs all the money they can to get by. It's up to Billy to bring home the bacon.
Looking at it this way, we see that Billy is willing to sacrifice his integrity for his family. Hey, this kid is more admirable than we thought.
…just don't feed the bacon you bring home to the mogwai after midnight.
If Billy is your typical '80s boy, then Kate is the ideal girl for the typical '80s boy. She's the cute girl-next-door, like Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. But Kate has a dark secret.
When she reveals it, Billy is presented with the perfect opportunity to show his sensitive side. He wins his way into her pants…er, her heart. Her heart. We meant heart.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
When we meet Kate, her first lines show us that she's a girl with her heart in the right place.
KATE: Billy, will you sign this petition? […] We're trying to have Dorry's pub declared a landmark. Mrs. Deagle's trying to take is lease away.
She's trying to preserve local heritage and keep the town drunks from having to look for a new place to call home. What's not to love?
But Kate's actually very much like the season this film is set in: Christmas. It seems sparkly and pretty on the surface, but it can get pretty grim. Our first glimpse at Kate's inner darkness is when she talks about what a depressing time the holidays can be here.
KATE: Well most people are, but some aren't. While everybody else is opening up their presents, they're opening up their wrists.
If they had emojis back in the '80s, Billy would never use a frowny face. He thinks it's a crime to be sad, and he can't believe Kate hates Christmas. She responds like anyone who's sick of hearing "Jingle Bells" every five minutes would:
KATE: God! Say you hate Washington's birthday or Thanksgiving, and nobody cares. But say you hate Christmas, everybody makes you feel like you're a leper or something.
This is when Billy asks Kate out, and she says yes. We often don't give Billy enough credit, but many boys would be scared away by a girl who actually lets her feelings show.
Other than be cute, Kate doesn't have much to do. We give her props for fending off a bar full of Gremlins with nothing more than a Polaroid camera. She bravely uses its flash to disarm them and make a path for her own escape. Plus, she fearlessly tags along with Billy at the end as they get closer and closer to danger.
Why is Kate so brave? She has nerves of steel because of a trauma she went through when she was nine. Her speech is one of the best things in movies, so we've reproduced it here in its entirety.
KATE: The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was nine years old. Me and Mom were… were decorating the tree... ...waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn't home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That's when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He'd been climbing down the chimney on Christmas Eve, his arms loaded with presents. And he was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.
Thank goodness this is just a movie…
In a way, Gremlins is about the end of innocence. At some point, we all learn there's no Santa Claus. We don't always have to battle bloodthirsty creatures on Christmas, but we all have a few bad Christmas memories. The holiday isn't the snowy white perfection that popular culture makes it out to be.
If you found your dad in the chimney, nothing would be scary after that. Not even gremlins with chainsaws.
Everyone and everything in this movie adorable. Billy is cute. Kate is cute. And Gizmo is cuteness incarnate.
Sure he has way too big eyes and weird little toes with humanoid toenails, but this was the '80s. Many kind of gross and creepy things were considered cute: Gremlins. Cabbage Patch Kids. Judd Nelson.
Gizmo is the face of Gremlins, an adorable puppet (sorry, kiddos, Gizmo isn't real) and wonderful merchandising opportunity. But, Gizmo didn't become a huge sensation until Gremlins 2. That's the movie where Gizmo dresses as Rambo and kicks gremlin tail.
In Gremlins, Gizmo basically sings, acts cute, and cries about bright light. It's adorable, but not much more.
However, Gizmo's the good mogwai. When Stripe and the others trick Billy into feeding them chicken after midnight, Gizmo has the opportunity to eat it too. Here's Billy offering it to him.
BILLY: Now maybe you guys will be quiet. You guys are really hungry. Hey, Giz, you want some? Do you want some chicken?
But Gizmo says no. In this moment, Gizmo proves to us that not all mogwai are created equally. Plus, Gizmo reading in bed and saying no is about the cutest darn thing we've ever seen in a movie.
Gremlins gives its cute characters one opportunity to shine. Kate gets to defend the bar with a camera. Gizmo hops into a pink toy car and zips around a department store. He almost collides with Barney the dog, but, like everything Gizmo-related, it's more adorable than scary.
Seriously: cute mogwai meets cute dog is some serious cute overload.
Gizmo also gets to pull the blinds open and fry Stripe at the end. It's brave, because if the sunlight touches Gizmo, he, too, would roast. But Gizmo risks himself to destroy his ill-behaved offspring.
Before we go, we have to remind you that Gizmo is voiced by Howie Mandel. Yes, that Howie Mandel, the germophobe host of Deal or No Deal and judge on America's Got Talent. Mandel, with squeaky perfection, delivers Gizmo's only full line at the end: "Bye, Billy."
It's sad when Gizmo is taken away, but the movie leaves the opportunity open for a sequel. And it gives Mandel the greatest dramatic acting opportunity of his career.
Stripe puts the nature vs. nurture argument to bed, at least in regards to the cuddly mogwai species. Stripe is born evil. When still a cuddly mogwai, he's cute, but 100% devious. Billy's friend Pete wants to take Stripe home, and he admires Stripe's unique appearance:
PETE: Hey, look, that one's got a cute little stripe on its head.
Then Stripe bites him. Yeowch.
From there, Stripe ties up the dog, tricks Billy into feeding him after midnight, and then evolves from fuzzy and mean, like an ill-tempered Chihuahua, into a cold-blooded murdering machine. Spike, and the other mutated gremlins, are responsible for killing multiple people, blowing up cars, and getting popcorn all over the floor at the movie theater.
In the bar, we see the gremlins drink beer from the tap, smoke, flash Kate, play croquet on pool tables, gamble at poker, and shoot at humans and each other with guns. And we haven't even gotten to the one who's wearing leg warmers.
Stripe is evil incarnate, making him an antagonist who's easy to root against. But consider this. Stripe hatched from Gizmo. In the weird world of mogwai asexual reproduction, Gizmo is still Stripe's father. Could Gizmo be responsible for his terrible son? Maybe Gizmo's absentee parenting is to blame.
Polly Holliday was previously known as Flo on the TV show Alice. Flo was a sassy waitress who smacked her gum and spouted, "Kiss my grits."
That attitude makes her perfect for the cruel Mrs. Ruby Deagle, a woman who would evict a tenant on Christmas Eve if they were overdue on rent.
According to the news report, Mrs. Deagle is the "widow of convicted stock-swindler Donald Deagle." She's the Ebenezer Scrooge of Kingston Falls. What's the female equivalent of Ebenezer? Ebenezra? Ebenezerette?
She's also a bit of a Wicked Witch who took a wrong turn trying to get back to Oz. You can imagine the Wicked Witch's iconic theme song in Mrs. Deagle's first scene, where she storms through Kingston Falls. She even walks in front of cars, because Mrs. Deagle doesn't stop for traffic; traffic stops for her.
Mrs. Deagle doesn't just threaten Billy's job. Here she is threatening to put his dog in her dryer.
MRS. DEAGLE: I'll catch the beast myself. Then he'll get what he deserves. A slow, painful death. Maybe I'll put him in my spin dryer on high heat.
Let that sink in: she threatens to murder a dog in the dryer.
Because of that, it's easy to root for the Gremlins when they kill her at the end of the movie. So, if you want to continue enjoying that grim scene guilt free, stop reading here.
Before Mrs. Deagle dies, we get a glimpse of her in her home. She's too weak to climb the stairs on her own. Her husband is dead, so her only company is her cats. (No wonder she hates dogs.) The cats' names are Kopeck, Ruble, and Dollar Bill, showing us Mrs. Deagle's sad, loveless life, where her only goal in life is money.
It's pathetic, really. And we almost feel pity for her. When the Gremlins attack, Mrs. Deagle pleads to God, or some other deity, to spare her.
MRS. DEAGLE: They're here! They've come for me. I… I'm not ready. I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready.
In a less cartoonish movie, this would be a horrific scene. The villain repents, but it's too late.
However, this is Gremlins, not Citizen Kane so we, and everyone else, rejoice when Mrs. Deagle's motorchair goes haywire and flings her out a window to her death.
Face it, we all have a little bit of gremlin inside of us.
Billy's dad is an inventor. Some men invent useful things, like the telephone, the light bulb or bird feeders that electrocute squirrels. (We'll take two.)
Rand Peltzer invented…the Bathroom Buddy. Here's his pitch.
RAND: I'm an inventor. I made this. The Bathroom Buddy. It's the invention of the century, friend. It eliminates the need to carry heavy luggage and things when you travel. You got yourself your shaving mirror, you got yourself your toothbrush, you got yourself a toothpick. You got toenail clippers, you got a nail file, and you got yourself a dental mirror. This is gonna revolutionize traveling.
If Rand were on Shark Tank, Mr. Wonderful would show him to the door before he took his first breath.
Dad gets the plot rolling by buying Gizmo as a Christmas gift for Billy. After that, he's comic relief.
But dad does pop up in the middle of the movie with one horrifying suggestion.
RAND: I bet every kid in America would like one of these. They might even replace the dog as the family pet. Think about it, the Peltzer Pet. This could really be the big one.
Okay, even if the mogwai wouldn't mutate and kill the entire country, this is a bad idea. Rand is suggesting taking an exotic creature and mass breed it to sell them to children. That's cruel and unethical. But it also, in a chilling act of prophecy, predicts the rise of the '90s cult toy Furby.
Hmm. Maybe ol' Mr. Peltzer isn't such a bad entrepreneur after all.
In Billy's character analysis, we briefly speculated where Billy's bravery comes from. The answer is simple: it comes from his mom.
Because Billy's mom is like the love child of Martha Stewart and Rambo.
Even Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 would stay away from Billy's mom, especially if a microwave was nearby. When the gremlins mutate, Billy's mom wipes their scaly butts off the map without hesitation. One is a blender. Bam, he's juice. One is near the microwave. Ding, that thing is never being cleaned. Another throws things at mom. She slices, dices, and juliennes him with a carving knife. Mom: 3 Gremlins: 0
Unfortunately, a gremlin in a Christmas tree gets the jump on mom, once again showing us how Christmas ruins everything. Billy arrives just in time to save mom and whisks her to safety. He should have brought her with him. She'd have turned that chainsaw on Stripe and shown him the true meaning of buzz cut.
Mom isn't 100% guerilla warrior. She has a softer side. She lets the family's financial troubles roll off her back, and she lets Rand think his inventions actually work. The woman is a freaking saint.
But did you ever consider that she's been repressing anger toward her feckless husband? The gremlin attack is just what she needs to vent her rage.
The two Coreys—Feldman and Haim—were big in the 1980s. But before the two teamed up in the Lost Boys, Corey Feldman was in Gremlins. Like Gizmo, he doesn't have much to do other than be cute. That's why Gremlins is an important film. It reminds us that Corey Feldman was once adorable.
There isn't anything to say about his character. He's a comic relief character who makes googly eyes at Gizmo. He fights off a gremlin with a pair of scissors. We never even get to see what happens to him after the end of the movie.
Oh, we almost forgot: Pete's the one who spills water on Gizmo, starting all the trouble. Good one, Pete.
Kingston Falls must have an amazing public school system, because when Billy finds himself with an exotic creature that reproduces asexually merely by getting wet, he doesn't call animal control or the department of wildlife conservation. He takes the mogwai to his high school science teacher.
Mr. Hanson draws blood, but comes to no conclusion. He doesn't have time, because the mogwai eats a sandwich, mutates, and kills Mr. Hanson. Not realizing the gremlin's homicidal, Mr. Hanson tries to give it a Snickers bar. The gremlin devours him, starting with his fingers.
Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
In the 1980s, Americans were especially wary of China, one of the more powerful communist countries during the Cold War. This anxiety toward China shows in films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Big Trouble in Little China. If your only view of China and Chinese people came from '80s movies, you would think all Chinese people were strange, magical, and maybe a little evil.
Or, you'd think (rightly) that 1980s movies were strange, paranoid, and maybe a little xenophobic.
Grandfather isn't evil, but he is strange and maybe magical. How else did he come into possession of a one-of-a-kind mogwai? Grandfather wastes no time in warning Rand that the mogwai can be dangerous, and he doesn't want to part with it. Here's what he tells Rand.
GRANDFATHER: I'm sorry. Mogwai not for sale. […] With Mogwai comes much responsibility. I cannot sell him at any price.
Grandfather's a big Spider-Man fan, obviously.
You'll note it's the grandson who steals Gizmo and sells it to Rand. Grandfather reclaims Gizmo at the end, after the evil gremlin invasion has been stopped. A little too late, gramps.
When he recovers Gizmo, Grandfather is upset that the little mogwai has been taught to eat junk food and watch TV. Grandfather is old, and a traditionalist. He doesn't want Gizmo being Americanized. And what's more American than potato chips and bad TV?
Mr. Futterman's Billy's drunk neighbor. He complains about foreign machinery and foreign people, but in his rants, he gives us the title of the movie. Check this one out:
MR. FUTTERMAN: Gremlins! You gotta… you gotta watch out for them foreigners because they plant gremlins in their machinery. The same gremlins brought down our planes in the big one. […] That's right. World War II.
Mr. Futterman's ravings recall episodes of Looney Tunes and The Twilight Zone that showed gremlins on planes. It's also a real World War II legend.
But considering America's xenophobic attitude toward China, could Gremlins be an allegory about the Chinese—or any other non-white influence—in America? Or is this monologue just the ravings of a drunk man?
Mr. Futterman's worst fears come true when the gremlins take over his plow and run over him and his wife. The movie frames it as though the Futtermans are dead, but they actually return for the sequel. It was only a flesh wound.
Sheriff Frank's patronizing and ineffective, and his bad policing puts innocent lives at risk. Plus, he tries to get a Christmas tree for free just because he's the sheriff.
During the movie's climax, the Sheriff and his deputy sit and watch a man in a Santa Claus suit get eaten by gremlins. They don't intervene. While they're goggling at this scene, Stripe cuts the brake cable, leading to their car going out of control and crashing. There's an explosion in the background, suggesting that neither the Sheriff nor deputy made it out alive.
Yes, this is a PG-rated comedy movie in which cops die. The '80s were weird.
Every '80s movie needs a yuppie jerk to talk down to the protagonist. In this movie, it's Gerald. Here are a couple of his lines.
GERALD: Peltzer, this is a bank, not a pet store.
And don't forget this one.
GERALD: I would've fired you in a second.
Gerald is literally in two scenes of this movie, for no more than ninety seconds of screen time. In that time he insults Billy and Kate, and he manages to look like a pompous poser by ordering a James Bond martini, shaken not stirred. Who does this guy think he is? We'll never know, because after his one scene, he's never heard from again.
We wouldn't even be able to find his obituary to see if he survived the gremlin attack. Why? Because we don't know what his last name is. Billy calls him "Jones" but the credits say his name is Hopkins. Is he in witness protection? What's the deal?