Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching.
Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
Black Christmas felt like a cheap excuse to piss off people who enjoyed the holiday season. Its strange brew of Christmas aesthetic against serial murders, while novel in concept, seem to defend its existence. By the same token, Gremlins screams dissent — but unlike Bob Clark’s slasher, it also calls itself out for it.
Gremlins begins on a seasonal note, with Billy Peltzer’s father finding a cute and furry mogwai in the basement of a sketchy Chinatown store. Though the stereotypical shop owner refuses to sell his exotic pet, Mr. Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) sneaks a deal with the man’s grandson, who warns him of three rules: don’t get the mogwai wet; keep him out of the light; and never, ever feed him after midnight.
Gremlins is committed to Murphy’s Law and sure enough, a water spill sees Billy’s pet “Gizmo” multiply into five ill-tempered duplicates. They proceed to trick Billy into fetching a midnight snack, forming Alien-like chrysalises and then hatching into larger, scaly tricksters, much to the chagrin of Billy’s mother (Frances Lee McCain). While director Joe Dante adds plenty of levity to Chris Columbus’ blackly comedic script, Gremlins holds it cards to its chest up until their big kitchen reveal, where McCain fends off several of the creatures with household appliances.
The production’s effects team, combining marionettes with scale wizardry, really nail their execution of Gizmo and the Gremlins — convincing creature effects 28 years later is as good a compliment as any. It’s the puppets that truly sell the first action set piece. A gremlin’s legs kick when stuck facefirst in a food processor and a similarly improvised kill with a microwave is gloriously gory — or as the MPAA later argued, too gory for a PG rating.
In addition to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (another product of Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg), Gremlins sparked enough parental outrage for the creation of a PG-13 rating, and in hindsight it’s easy to see why. Gremlins are fast learners and have an uncanny understanding of cynicism and dark humor. When they tease an ambush on crotchety spinster Mrs. Deagle with some faux caroling, the moment is an en pointe smirk at the holiday warmth it’s attacking.
At other moments though, like when Gremlins learn to fire guns or shoot crossbows or smoke Winstons, Dante’s playful direction seems more like a ringing endorsement. Gremlins isn’t an overly violent picture, but its blithe approach to character deaths comes too far into devil may care territory, and when Billy Peltzer isn’t all that likable or even interesting, it turns him into just another expendable target. Similarly, Billy’s romancing of Kate (Phoebe Cates) only surfaces when there’s a lull in all the Gremlins magic, and apart from recounting her father’s death via Santa suit accident in a house fire, her character is little more than a pretty face.
Gremlins sneers at small town America and our forced fakeness of holiday cheer. Dick Miller, as Billy’s cranky neighbor, is an all too appropriate human voice of disillusionment, griping about foreign cars and the damn television set. Gremlins might have failed if its dissent only sprang from supernatural fiends, but even Jerry Goldsmith’s grim reworking of “Silent Night” is a sign not every small town simpleton enjoys his cup of cheer.
Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie
Way #2: The Santa Clause
Way #3: Die Hard
Way #4: Bad Santa
Way #5: The Family Man
Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Way #8: Black Christmas
Way #9: How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Way #10: The Star Wars Holiday Special