Unlike Easter, New Years Day or the summer solstice there’s a wealth of Christmas themed films. Ranging from the saccharine Miracle on 34th Street to the bitter Bad Santa, there’s a Christmas movie out there for every taste. So, in the run up to Christmas, we got our writers to tell us about their personal festive favourite. Up now is Joe Morrison who wants to tell us how the Christmas-set creature feature Gremlins gleefully subverts the very notion of Christmas movies.
I’ve always had a soft spot for monsters. As a kid I was transfixed by the duelling skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts and fascinated by the likes of Medusa from Clash of the Titans. Even the lumbering rubber-suit monsters found in the Godzilla movies and the – barely monstrous at all – Apes from the Planet of the Apes would draw me like a moth to flame. So maybe it’s not too much of a surprise that the Festive Favourite I plumped for is Gremlins; Joe Dante’s bizarre mash-up of Christmas film, creature feature and comedy-horror. After all, no matter how good It’s a Wonderful Life and The Muppet Christmas Carol are, they don’t feature a reptilian monster exploding inside a microwave.
It was definitely the monsters – the murderous little scamps of the film’s title – that appealed to me as a boy. Mean, green and a little obscene, the gremlins are a cackling force of chaos, bringing disarray and mayhem to proceedings from the moment they hatch. Whether tampering with equipment, overrunning the local bar or singing along with the dwarves in a screening of Walt Disney’s Snow White, they show all the self control of a rabble of drunken nine year olds and all the social graces of a cranky Donald Trump. They also have a savage, sadistic side to them; ringleader Stripe in particular is a malicious little bastard who seems to take genuine pleasure in menacing Billy and his family. The gremlins are funny and terrifying, a strange hybrid of demon and Dennis the Menace and, for a weird monster-obsessed kid like me, Gremlins was just as cool as Star Wars or Indiana Jones.
The gremlins themselves, a combination of stop-motion, animatronics and puppetry, are brilliantly tactile. Just imagining a contemporary remake and all the flashy but hollow CGI they’d use instead makes me shudder. Instead, these gremlins, dripping with slime and coated in snow, actually feel alive; their presence on the set gives the human cast something tangible to play off of, or kick in the face. Even more impressively each creature is given a little bit of character and personality, from the pervy flasher gremlin in one corner to the downcast, zoot-suited gremlin sitting alone in the other.
It’s not just the titular characters who bring a sense of anarchy to proceedings, the filmmakers are at it too. Director Joe Dante, screenwriter Chris Columbus (who would go on to direct Home Alone and Harry Potter) and executive producer Steven Spielberg neatly establish traditional Christmas movie tropes before gleefully subverting them. The small town setting of Kingston Falls is like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life; a picture postcard vision of festive Americana where the streets have a thick blanket of snow and the surrounding houses are festooned with twinkling lights. It’s the kind of place where every year a local man dresses up as Santa and the town square is packed with children who run whooping in aimless circles, stopping every now and then to throw a snowball at the snowman proudly standing by the stall selling Christmas trees. Only, in Gremlins, Santa Claus is attacked by monsters, dogs are strung up in the Christmas lights, and the wealthy but embittered landowner doesn’t see the folly of her ways and change overnight. Instead she’s launched out of her bedroom window at high speed, courtesy of an errant stair lift.
The most radical thing about Gremlins isn’t the appearance of monsters about halfway through, or the grotesque, slapstick violence. What’s most ballsy is that it suggests that maybe, just maybe, not everyone is happy during the holidays. We’re constantly shown families struggling to make ends meet and the threat of poverty and unemployment looms large over much of the townsfolk of Kingston Falls. Billy’s father Rand, a struggling inventor, travels seemingly without hope trying to convince people that his latest hokey product is worth investing in; Billy’s girlfriend Kate tells a horrifying story about a tragic Christmas in her past. Everywhere we look we see folks struggling to cope with demands of the season, lonely people, stressed out people, greedy people, you know, the way that people can get sometimes at Christmas. Even the central premise – man buys cute animal for his son’s Christmas with no thought for any consequences – is perhaps the most effective example of a pet being for life and not just for Christmas.
It’s that honesty about Christmas that really makes Gremlins stand out amongst its snow-dusted peers; it doesn’t shy away from showing the dark side of the holiday period. After all, there’s something inherently stressful and chaotic about Yuletide. Sometimes it’s the shopping, sometimes it’s the relatives and sometimes it’s little green monsters rampaging through a small town.