80s Movie Challenge Week 49: Gremlins (1984)

Welcome back 80s chums to our penultimate #80sMC. This week we are joined by a very special guest to look at the second of our Festive Trilogy – Andrew Lyall of the YouTube channel Grumpy Andrew’s Horror House (and who joined us for some of our Great Monsters Who Aren’t… series for Halloween) takes us back to 1984 and wonders whatever happened to those unlikely little rascals, the Gremlins!

I can’t remember the first time I saw Gremlins.

The concept is so perfect, so fundamental and archetypal, that if you told me Joe Dante’s film was an 80s riff on a Scandinavian folk tale or an Old English saga then I’d believe you without hesitation. Those creatures seem to have sprung fully formed. Monsters from the Id refracted through a Looney Tunes lens. In short: if gremlins didn’t exist, you’d have to invent them. However, I can clearly remember the first time my partner saw Gremlins, about four Christmases ago, and I’d like to tell you about that.

First, though, a brief history of the gremlin:

The gremlin myth began – as far as I can tell – among airmen in the 1930s and gained traction within the Royal Air Force during World War II. Malfunctions and accidents were blamed on these little creatures. In 1942 Roald Dahl – doubtless familiar with the buggers from his own military service – wrote his first novel The Gremlins, about tiny men who lived on, and broke, RAF fighters.

A year later and none other than Bugs Bunny was battling a gremlin at an airfield in Falling Hare. Twenty years after that, in 1963, William Shatner was having his own airborne troubles in The Twilight Zone’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

In Joe Dante’s 1984 film Gremlins the character of Murray Futterman is clearly familiar with the notion of these mechanical menaces:

“Gremlins,” he says, somewhat the worse for drink. “You gotta watch out for them foreigners ‘cos they plant gremlins in their machinery. It’s the same gremlins that brought our planes down in the big one. That’s right! World War Two! WWII.”

But Dante’s little imps weren’t content to remain tinkering with machinery anymore. In the era of Reaganomics, it seems only natural that these monsters would want to branch out from their aeronautical niche, expand their portfolio and seek opportunities in other markets. Indeed, with their own brand of aggressive growth strategy, they set their sights on the ramparts of that most 80s of strongholds:

  • Pop Culture
  • Capitalism
  • Consumerism
  • The commodification of nostalgia
  • The commercialisation of Christmas
  • The existence of Santa Claus
  • Disney
  • Flashdance

Nothing was off-limits. World domination beckoned. And yet, by the tail end of 2016, I learned that my partner had never seen Gremlins.

The Festive Season was upon us and the internet was engaged in its annual round of “Die Hard is the greatest Christmas film ever” versus “Die Hard isn’t really a Christmas film” hot takes, memes and Facebook posts (Er, those folks who believe the latter might not like next week’s grand finale to our 80s Movie Challenge, Ed.). I casually mentioned that while I loved Die Hard, I thought that Gremlins was the greatest Christmas movie of all time. She casually mentioned that she’d never seen it. The signs were there for even the most novice of clairvoyants to scry: we would be watching Gremlins that Christmas.

It can be extremely rewarding to watch a familiar and well-beloved film through someone else’s eyes. What I wasn’t expecting was stone-cold silence. Please understand that when I suggested we watch Gremlins I took it for granted that Hannah understood I meant: “We should watch Gremlins. You know, with the demonic Muppets and all the dressing up and anarchy and flashing and carolling and watching Snow White wearing cardboard 3D glasses and hanging from ceiling fans and pretending to be Humphrey Bogart”.

Please also understand that by this point Hannah had settled into the comfortable groove of acceptance which comes (I assume) from living with someone who adores horror films. She has, in our years together, been subjected to cinematic horrors the likes of which she would never have known had she decided not to go to the pub that one night we met.

I had completely forgotten how much Dante played the opening act of Gremlins with such a straight bat. Apart from the child-baiting Mogwai, the story unfurls much like any other creature feature. As soon as those leathery eggs appeared I’m sure Hannah had mentally settled in for another one of my 80s monster movies. And there was nothing in the subsequent fate of Mr Hanson the science teacher or the attack on Billy Peltzer’s mother which would have disabused her of this notion.

None of this occurred to me at the time. All I knew was that Gremlins was bombing. Until that is, Mrs Deagle heard Christmas carollers at her door.

Up to this point, Mrs Deagle had been the de facto villain of the piece; an amalgam of Henry F Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life and the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. When she opened the door to a quartet of scaly, green singers dressed in woollen hats, earmuffs and scarves – and the score turned into the gremlins singing their own theme tune – Hannah exploded into laughter.

This was the point where the rollercoaster had completed is deliberate, steady chug to the top and everything after was a riotous speedway descent into unfettered anarchy. Hannah didn’t stop laughing and I was being shown a favourite film anew as every joke hit and each new piece of wilful mania vied to outdo the last.

By the time it was over we had agreed to make it a tradition to watch Gremlins every Christmas thereafter.

We also agreed that it was bewildering that the gremlins had not achieved their world domination. Of course, there had been toys. I’d had my own Gizmo and a Stripe.

And I’d sure as heck spent all my pocket money for a good few months trying to complete a collection of Topps’ Gremlins bubblegum cards. But somewhere between 1984 and 2016, Gremlins dropped off the pop culture radar.

It seemed ludicrous to us that there weren’t five different iterations of a Gremlins cartoon by now. I mean if Beetlejuice and Ace Ventura can get their own cartoons for Pete’s sake, what moron wouldn’t put the green light to a Gremlins cartoon the moment they came out of the first test screening?

Chris Columbus struck gold with a phenomenal concept and a wonderful script, but I think the true alchemy happened somewhere between the Roger Corman schooled excess of director Joe Dante and the slightly more commercially weathered producer Steven Spielberg. You are a short Google away from details of how much darker Dante intended to go with the story, only to have Spielberg reign him in. Likewise, you will find stories of Spielberg shielding his director from the pressure to make the film ever more family-friendly and palatable to younger children.

Along with Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Joe Dante’s gleefully irreverent film was pushing hard against the boundaries of existing film certification. A tug of war which eventually led to the creation of the 12 certificate in 1989 to accommodate Tim Burton’s Batman.

You can see that struggle played out in the BBFC notes and comments from the time here: https://bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/Gremlins.pdf

Warner Bros clearly knew they had something special on their hands, but they weren’t quite sure what. In the film, you simply produce more gremlins with a splash of water and a late-night snack. In the boardrooms, it seems the alchemy required to reproduce more Gremlins was beyond the ken of anyone who had their hands upon the levers of production. 

A sequel eventually came in 1990, Gremlins 2: The New Batch – hardly striking while the iron is hot. This only materialised with the return of Joe Dante, and he only agreed to return with the assurance of complete creative control.

The imp of the perverse was clearly still sitting on his shoulder, whispering into his ear. Rather than providing a cookie-cutter sequel Dante set about satirising his own first movie. I’ll brook no argument here, The New Batch is a fantastic sequel, but it left Warner Bros perhaps two steps back rather than one step forwards in their desire to commodify their property.

In the six years between Gremlins movies the void had been filled with cheap, not quite copyright infringing knock offs (how 80s can you get?): Critters; Ghoulies; Troll; Hobgoblins and Munchies, oh my!

In 2021 we are finally to have a Gremlins cartoon with Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. Joe Dante has acted as a consultant, but I won’t hold my breath and hope that some other creative team has found a way to unlock the rampant, post-modern, toddler rampage of fun which should signify a Gremlins project. Why the pessimism? Because instead of a rule-shredding Muppet Babies with a Sex Pistols soundtrack Secrets of the Mogwai is going to be that most 21-century of propositions: a prequel.

Andrew Lyall is the creator of the YouTube channel Grumpy Andrew’s Horror House. His first short story, Crowthorne, was published earlier this year in Local Haunts, a charity anthology written by horror YouTubers, which you can buy here. He featured again in the Christmas Horror Stories anthology published by our good chums over at Horrified Magazine. Follow Andrew on Twitter (@GrumpyAndrew).

Next week…

Sob. We can barely bring ourselves to write it, but next week without fiftieth movie we will finally bring our Year Long 80s Movie Challenge to a close. The world was a very different place when we started this labour of love and we hope our tales of fun, nostalgia and behind the scenes factoids have brought a little bit of light to the dark days of 2020.

But all things come to an end, and end we must on Friday 18th December as Paul Childs revisits the Ultimate 80s Movie, which also happens to be the Ultimate Christmas Movie.

Normally we’d tell you the title of next week’s film, but this time we’ll leave it as a surprise instead.

One thing is certain – no matter what anyone tells you, next week’s film IS DEFINITELY a Christmas movie…

Andrew, along with our own Paul Childs and Jane Roberts, as well as writer Libby Harris, podcaster and folklore expert Icy Sedgwick, Bram Stoker nominated author Gemma Amor and Jed Shepherd, creator of this year’s smash horror movie HOST, will each be reading a spooky tale at the Zoom based Night Of Ghost Stories For Christmas – a festive fright-fest on Friday 18th December at 7.30 pm (GMT) which promises to be a good night, and is also in aid of Multiple Sclerosis Society.

At the time of writing tickets, costing £5.50 each were still available and you can get yours here.

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