Gremlins is one of those Christmas movies that, like Die Hard, isn’t always remembered for its seasonal festivity. The bulk of Gremlins‘ action might unfold on Christmas Eve, but director Joe Dante wasn’t peddling the kind of wholesome family fun that a 1984 audience would have associated with the season of goodwill to all men.
And while the film may have received a December release in the UK and across most of Europe, those who noticed a spate of recent articles marking the film’s 30th anniversary will have realised that in the US, Gremlins was given a prime summer slot. It actually arrived in American theatres on June 8th, the very same day as Ghostbusters.
But Gremlins does have a lot in common with one Christmas classic, perhaps the very best of all yuletide movies. Indeed, It’s a Wonderful Life even makes a personal appearance in Gremlins as Billy Peltzer‘s mother tearfully chops onions. It might be the vapours, or it might the parallels between George Bailey’s onscreen plight and the situation her own family finds themselves in.
In both Gremlins and It’s a Wonderful Life, an evil tycoon threatens families in a small, snowy town on the eve of Christmas; each film has a young man who works in a bank for its lead character; and these two fellows ultimately find their town’s salvation with the help of some kind of fantastical intervention.
But rather than an angel, Gremlins‘ Billy is visited by a Mogwai named Gizmo. When Billy inadvertently breaks the three key rules of caring for this creature, he unleashes a particularly anarchic kind of evil. Funny as it is, the gremlins’ kind of killing isn’t too commonplace in the average Christmas movie. Once the beasties arrive, Gremlins quickly marks out its territory as one of the most violent and blackly comedic family films of all time.
Nearly 25 years on from the last appearance of the Mogwai in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Warner Bros are keen to recreate that unique black magic. We’ve learned that their new take on Gremlins will very likely benefit from the writing of Subdivision screenwriter Morgan Jurgenson and Alex Ankeles, and that the film will include story elements from the original 1984 movie, marking it out as a remake rather than sequel.
Jurgenson and Ankeles’ pitch apparently went down a storm with Christopher Columbus’ 1492 Entertainment, and they moved on to the final hurdle of getting Steven Spielberg‘s approval. If or when that happens, this New New Batch should be a go.
And while there’s no reason to believe that a fresh take on Gremlins couldn’t work, we would be particularly encouraged to hear that Warner Bros. are keen to secure Joe Dante’s involvement again. We live in hope.
My quick test to see if Jurgenson and Ankeles have the right stuff to deliver another Gremlins will be checking if their outline has a scene that could stand alongside Phoebe Cates‘ finest moment. And, with apologies to Fast Times fans, I don’t mean just her finest moment in this one movie.
Half an hour into Gremlins, Cates’ character Kate tells Billy that a lot of people get depressed at Christmas. “While everybody else is opening their presents, they’re opening their wrists,” she says. This is just prep work for the big moment.
Then, 45 minutes later, in the first moments after Billy has saved Kate from a gremlin infestation in the tavern where she works, she exclaims that there’s now another reason to hate Christmas.
And so she fills Billy in on the first reason. Here’s her extraordinary monologue in full:
The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom 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… his arms loaded with presents. 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.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best scene in the movie. It’s Gremlins in a nutshell. Kate’s is actually a harrowing story, and it’s delivered completely straight by Cates, illuminated just by a dramatic, flickering Christmas light.
But at the same time, the ending of the story seems inevitable from the moment she begins, and there’s something so inherently ridiculous about it. The imagery conjured up by the story is borderline slapstick. You almost can’t help but laugh.
Contrast the spine-chilling line, “That’s when I noticed the smell,” with the blunt way she draws the story to a close, “And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus” and you’ll see just how Columbus blended extremes of horror and humour into the same monologue.
With the aid of Cates’ performance and Dante’s direction, the conceit comes off superbly. The timely cutaways to Gizmo and his brilliant, incredulous reactions as he listens intently are just the icing on the cake.
We should also consider where the scene falls in the story. The scenes in the lead up are possibly the most disturbing, Stripe’s final demise aside, in the whole movie. First Billy finds his school teacher dead, killed by a gremlin, and then races home to find his mother injured after a furious battle with the newly hatched creatures. She’s wounded, but did already make short work of three of her five attackers in a vicious kitchen fight.
It’s also in this sequence that Stripe makes his way to a swimming pool and exponentially multiplies, unleashing swathes of gremlins upon Kingston Falls to wreak terror. The newly birthed hordes kill Mrs Deagle and drive Mr.Futterman’s snow plough into his house, so for all the audience knows, he and his wife are dead as well.
The monsters are winning and we’ve just seen the full extent of their cruelty. This is the lowest point for our heroes, and that’s exactly when Kate delivers her speech. The timing couldn’t be any better, with Kate underlining the life and death stakes before deftly swerving the tone and allowing us, despite the seriousness of the events, remember that this is a comedy.
Columbus’ original draft contained a lot more murder. The gremlins went so far as to kill and eat Billy’s dog, and Billy would have come home to find his mother decapitated. Spielberg reportedly fought hard for the removal of these elements, but Kate’s monologue remains and keeps the stakes high while leaving the film suitable for younger audiences.
With Columbus’ original, bleaker elements in place, Gremlins may have become a cult horror picture, but the changes create balance that, as exemplified by the monologue, maintain the disturbing tone while opening the film up to a family audience. It’s a combination that’s particularly special.
But, of course, the speech still proved problematic with the MPAA and Dante had to fight to keep it in his final cut of the film. Then some parents were horrified by the picture receiving a PG rating and Gremlins and Temple of Doom are cited as the reason for the MPAA creating the PG-13 rating.
Dante won for the big screen, but took a hit on the small screen as the scene is routinely cut out of Gremlins’ TV screenings.This is nothing short of a travesty. The murders remain, but the greatest moment in Phoebe Cates’ career is adjudged to be too traumatic for channel-hopping audiences.
This at least speaks to the power of the scene, and the discomfort it engenders. We will laugh freely at a gremlin exploding inside a microwave, but it’s a little more troubling to think of a little girl smelling her father’s flesh being cooked after he went missing at Christmas.
Dante parodied the scene in his Gremlins sequel. This time, Kate is interrupted just as she’s about to dive into another monologue that promises to be at least as bleak as the first.
This callback is a funny riff on the original scene, but isn’t without its own streak of darkness. Kate’s story is cut off but the audience are left to assume that, as a very young girl, she met some cruel interference at the hands of an Abraham Lincoln lookalike.
This is what Morgan Jurgenson and Alex Ankeles have to compete with. If they can fashion moments that weave tones as brilliantly as this one then I say bring on the Gremlins remake.