Gremlins

What childhood movie did you love? Which scared you? And how does it play now, watching it again as an adult? In this new feature, our writers revisit the films that affected them as kids.

Admittedly, I didn’t remember all that much about 1984’s Gremlins when I sat down to watch it about a week ago. I vaguely recalled a plot about some Furby-lookalikes that morphed into nasty looking monsters when they got wet. I didn’t remember much about the plot, other than there was a young boy who, after the evil Furby-things began wreaking havoc on the small town, had to stop them with good old-fashioned pre-pubescent willpower. Despite my foggy memory, I did remember one thing about the film; it scared the shit out of me as a child. I was probably about eight years old when I caught Gremlins on TV and I recall having a childhood filled with nightmares involving drooling, fanged Gremlins chasing me around my house trying to eat me.

I expected to laugh at my childhood self and find a certain amount of relief in what I was sure would be a huge load of camp. As it turns out, Gremlins is as frightening a film for a young child as it is for an adult. There’s enough creepy, disgusting imagery in the film to scare the crap out of a relatively happy child, and enough oddly placed adult subject matter to make any sane adult uncomfortable.

When the film began, I was wondering how it could ever have induced nightmares. It seemed like a childish play on fairy tales and mythology; a children’s movie meant for children. After losing my shit when I learned the little creatures are called Mogwais – a light bulb moment; that’s where the band gets there name from! – things started to get creepy as the cute, furry critters transformed into small demons with a bad attitude. They aren’t just monsters acting on some sort of instinct; they have cognitive abilities. They have a hunger to kill you and the clever mindset to follow through with that desire. One scene, near the end of the film, sees a Gremlin pick up a chainsaw after getting flung across the floor of a general store, start its chain and run after our hero Billy. With nasty foam frothing around its mouth, the main Gremlin, nicknamed Stripe, slowly works his way through the one defense Billy has, a wooden baseball bat. This scene alone would have scarred the eight-year-old me. When you couple it with the disturbing “birthing” scenes, one where a Gremlin stabs and kills a teacher with a needle, and another where the Gremlins rig the cords to an old lady’s power chair that then shoots her out of the window in her home, and you have a perfect recipe for childhood insomnia. These Gremlins don’t fuck around. There may not be gore, but there’s plenty of death and tension to burrow its way into the impressionable brain of a child.

Gremlins movie poster

I was shocked by a lot of the heavy, depressing subject matter at the core of the film. Not only is it a semi-allegorical tale of the economic and political threat the Chinese poses to America – in fact, one character spends the entirety of his screen time bitching about the unreliability of foreign cars and televisions – but the script boasts the occasional bit of “light” racism and gut wrenching hopelessness. Firstly, when Kate, Billy’s love interest, says she doesn’t celebrate Christmas, he replies with this swift bit of cultural ignorance: “What are you, Hindu or something?” As if that wasn’t enough, Kate replies to that comment with a cheery societal observation totally appropriate for the target audience of this film: “While most people are opening presents, others are opening their wrists.” Yep, just a depressing little side note tossed in there for good measure. It wouldn’t be so hilarious if it weren’t so out of place.

To cap it all off, near the end of the film, when the town has been saved from the gremlins after Billy burns down the local theatre with all of them inside, Kate decides to ruin the mood one more time with an epically miserable monologue. Over the course of about three minutes, she details her worst Christmas ever: her father never came home, then three days later, a fire was built in the fireplace and they smelled something funny… After calling the fire department, she recalls, “…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, his arms loaded with presents. He was going to surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”

I had two thoughts after my recent viewing of Gremlins. Firstly, I felt I had justified my childhood fears; those Gremlins are legitimately disgusting. Secondly, and most importantly, I couldn’t help but wonder what age group this film was meant for. There are many scenes that are far too graphic for children under eight or nine years old, while its camp will bore most teenagers. Gremlins exists in this weird cinematic ether where everything is slightly off balance; where the American economy is on the verge of collapse, the familial unit is threatened by freak chimney accidents and suicide references are as common as climate observations. Welcome to my childhood.

by Kyle Fowle

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