GREMLINS, Joe Dante, 1984


The horror-comedy Gremlins was released in America in 1984 and, like the effect that the creatures bearing that name had on the inhabitants of its fictional town of Kingston Falls, it caused a bit of a stir. Not in the sense that people fainted in movie theatres but in that it seemed to draw attention to a deficit in the MPAA’s (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system. Up until that point films were given either the PG rating (Parental Guidance) – similar to the BBFC’s (British Board of Film Classification) PG rating – or R where under 17s needed to be accompanied by an adult. Gremlins, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom released the same year, encouraged the MPAA to create a new rating for films that seemed to creep between the two certifications. The film underwent a couple of considerably more violent scripts before the final draft was completed. Joe Dante was brought in to direct the film by Steven Spielberg who wanted something akin to what Dante had directed in his other films such as The Howling, which was acknowledged both for its horror themes and also its comedy. Dante’s influence of horror history can be clearly seen in the film. A number of actors in the movie were cast in horror films from the past such as Little Shop of Horrors and The Thing (From Another World).

The gremlins themselves possess the same features as Dracula (arguably Cinema’s most arch horror villain). They can be killed by sunlight. They don’t drink water, like Dracula, but they would presumably drink blood – one of Dracula’s hallmarks – if they stopped from having fun in causing mayhem all around town to devour the humans they take pleasure in terrorising (though there is a scene which has long baffled me where one of the Gremlins is drinking a pint of beer in Katy’s tavern). In addition, water has adverse and painful effects on both Gizmo and the gremlins which could be linked to Dracula’s aversion to holy water or to water being seen as something pure. Furthermore, food is also portrayed as harmful to gremlins and this has parallels to Dracula too, particularly when one considers his aversion to garlic.

The original scripts were much darker than the finished film, with scenes involving Lynn Peltzer being killed by the gremlins including one where her head is thrown down the stairs. In other cut scenes in the earlier scripts: Billy’s (the protagonist of the movie) dog gets killed; the gremlins invade a McDonald’s joint devouring the customers; and at the beginning we are told that the word Mogwai means devil or demon and consequently Gizmo (the adorable, cute Ewok-like animal) becomes the lead Gremlin (Spike, the leader of the Gremlins, was a later creation). The above elements were removed to stop the film from becoming too dark.

The film’s success (ranking fourth highest grossing film of that year) can be accredited to its careful balancing between horror and comedy, the theme of which is condensed into the scene where Kate Beringer tells of her father’s tragic death on Christmas day. Spielberg wanted to remove the scene, but Dante urged that it be kept in as it expressed the film’s play between the dark and humorous. The scene itself does leave the viewer feeling confused as to how they should respond to the story, but ultimately, Kate’s deadpan soliloquy makes the scene too obviously sentimental and forced so that it doesn’t work as anything solemn or deep but only works as something humorous (the merging of tragedy and comedy being as old as the Greeks).

The blurring of themes and genre in Gremlins caused the film to be criticised by some. Advertising focused on Gizmo giving the impression of Gremlins as being something for the family. But due to its violent content, parents left screenings with the children dragging behind, undoubtedly having a great time. Leonard Maltin described the film as ‘icky’ and ‘gross’, complaining that its idealistic It’s a Wonderful Life-setting was ‘negated by too-vivid violence and mayhem’. Such reactions today seem overblown. We are the generation that watched Gremlins aired at half five in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. The film’s playing with themes and delivery is carried out excellently and I think it justifies itself as almost a family/children’s film because the violence is almost slapstick and rarely (perhaps never) are we confronted with a scene that is purely horrific or without humour.

One way in which we are distanced from the violence is that it is mediated by technology. Violence isn’t merely an act of brutality and is more physical and embodied. Indeed, technology undercuts the brutality of pure violence in the film (with the exception of a couple of scenes, i.e. where Lynn Peltzer stabs one of the gremlins to death with a kitchen knife, or when Billy Peltzer uses an ornamental sword – however even here both characters are using primitive technology to distance themselves from what would ultimately be brutal, bear-fisted pummelling). In Gremlins, technology is weaponry, the kitchen: an armoury of domestic goods that can be used to kill and destroy. Food blenders, microwave ovens, automobiles and stair lifts are all adopted as means of inflicting harm or violence. ‘Universal history’ according to Adorno, leads ‘from the slingshot to the megaton bomb’ [1]. Technology or science in this sense is a tool whereby humanity has sought to dominate nature, to subordinate and reduce it to an object of instrumentality. In a similar vein, domestic technology in Gremlins constructs the notion that even when we produce something that cooks jacket potatoes and re-heats lukewarm curry at lightning speeds, we still manage to appropriate it in a way to inflict violence [2].

Instrumentality in western thought is personified in Randy Peltzer who is Billy’s Dad and an inventor. Randy’s slogan is that he ‘makes[s] the illogical logical’. As an inventor it is his job to take nature (the illogical, the alien) and subsume it under rationalised and instrumental social needs brought about by a work-oriented society i.e. his ‘Bathroom Buddy’ is an invention made necessary because of the busy and stressed conditions of the modern work place. At the beginning of the film Randy is seen haggling with Mr Wing over the Mogwai in a small Chinatown curiosity shop. Like the Spanish colonizers in South America giving jewellery to the Aztecs, Randy is seen paying off Mr Wing’s grandson for the Mogwai, which he decides to name Gizmo. The word Gizmo connotes something novel, a gadget, tool, machine or toy. In western hands, a mysterious foreign creature becomes a tool, a play thing, that, when viewed through the rationalised eyes of a western business man, becomes an object. In the hands of Mr Wing, Gizmo appears to have intrinsic value, in the hands of Randy he becomes a product of exchange-value when Randy sees him as something that can be traded for money, a mere marketable object transformed into a commodity and a stocking filler for Randy’s son (it’s interesting that Gizmo dolls and merchandise were also produced after the film’s release, not to mention the Tiger Electronics blatant Gizmo rip-off, Furby).

The film’s exploration of technology is also mixed with themes of the foreign, alien and xenophobic in a small all-American community. Randy Peltzer deals with the foreign by rationalising it and subordinating it to the western norms of value. However some of the small town inhabitants seem more conservative in that the foreign is so alien to the point of being a danger. This level of xenophobia is most clearly shown in World War II veteran Murray Futterman who persistently complains about foreign technology: ‘You gotta watch out for them foreigners cuz they plant gremlins in their machinery’. The Gremlins aren’t a domestic or national problem; they are a foreign invasive force which is further made clear by Futterman’s jingoistic loyalty to American made technology: ‘Goddamn foreign TV. I told ya we should’ve got a Zenith’. Many of the domestic products used to commit violence in the film are presumably foreign made too and in this sense it’s the sphere of the home where the foreign and the domestic clash. Technology can be used as a tool by humans, yet it can also turn against them as Randy Peltzer’s inventions tend to; try as he might to place order on the world, the chaos rises up and covers him in toothpaste.

Both the technology and the gremlins become sort of unmanageable and when they are released out of the hands of their guardians and creators and they take on a new definition or mode of existence. So the gremlins – upon multiplying out of control and abandoning their home with Billy – turn against the residents of Kingston Falls, in a manner reminiscent of previous Hollywood horror movies such as The Blob. The gremlins also capture that autonomy of technology that science fiction writers are often concerned with: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in which the computer’s AI fashions itself in a manner humans didn’t predict causing them to rise against their creators, is one example; the wilful computer Hal 9000 which controls the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft and puts the lives of its crew in danger in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is another.

The film may not be completely innocent in its depiction of the foreign in that the film itself is arguably embroiled in a sort of xenophobia. The community is predominantly white and the one black character it does have (Roy Hanson, the science teacher) is the first to be killed off which by itself could be arbitrary but when taken alongside the representation of black people in cinema this could have some relevance. At the very least there is a decision made on how much film time Roy gets in relation to say Murray Futterman. Also, in her book Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies, Patricia A. Turner claims that the gremlins ‘reflect negative African-American stereotypes’ [3] throughout the film. ‘They are shown “devouring fried chicken with their hands” [4], listening to black music, breakdancing, and wearing sunglasses after dark and newsboy caps, a style common among African American males in the 1980s’ [5]. This takes the theme of xenophobia implicit in the film and makes it potentially explicit: white youth saves his almost-all white community from a mob of violent, destructive creatures that are depicted as representing an ethnic group that regularly gets pinned negatively by a society and media that is already entrenched in such stereotyping.

One possibility is that the film isn’t playing on a zeitgeist of racial stereotyping in a negative way but is rather playing up to what was seen as cool at the time – it is 1984 and Hip Hop is starting to become commercial with groups like Run-DMC, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five and The Sugarhill Gang hitting the charts etc. and perhaps there is a mistake in assuming the viewer is rooting for Billy and not the gremlins who are the focal point of the film’s entertainment. Again this view could be flawed when I think it’s safe to assume that the audience is sided with Gizmo which is why he is the one to end Stripe’s life, not Billy as was originally penned.

The joy of Gremlins is that it has always been a favourite of mine and the challenge to try and take what superficially appears to be a philosophically vacant film and say something that hopefully gives the impression of being substantial was a real joy. What makes Gremlins an excellent film is that it plays with the audience’s pleasure in experiencing the tragic and comic, the violent and slapstick in a way that blurs the distinction between the two. And in the way that good art is aware of its discipline’s historical development, Gremlins is also a comment on the trajectory that made it possible in the first place.

Simon Booth

References:

[1] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 320; also cf. Theodor W. Adorno, “Fortschritt” in Stichworte (Frankfurt, 1978)

[2] ‘Zombie’ films come to mind as involving characters using whatever domestic or mundane objects are available i.e. frying pans, baseball bats etc.

[3] Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture. (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), pp. 151–52

[4] Ibid.