Ghostly apparitions glide as easily into the Christmas season as they do Halloween. In fact, the traditional association of frightening morality tales with the holiday season stretches at least as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, long before the commercialization of Halloween in the mid-twentieth century. Masters of the craft like M.R. James provided a continual feast of ghostly lore for enraptured audiences decorated with the finest holiday trappings. Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol towered above them all, claiming its spot as both a pioneer of the genre and its best-remembered example. The cultural legacy of holiday horror surfaces in the lyrics of the Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as the composer gathers at the family hearth to hear “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
Writer Chris Columbus and director Joe Dante put an original spin on the holiday horror story in 1984. Gremlins painted a terrifying picture of the sheer carnage that can be unleashed by human irresponsibility. Billy Peltzer’s (Zack Gilligan) new pet comes with three simple instructions. Don’t expose him to sunlight. Don’t get him wet. And never, never, feed him after midnight. How hard could it be? Gizmo embodies toy selling cuteness in his design, all fur and big innocent eyes. But there is a secret menace hidden in his actual name. The ancient Chinese proprietor Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), who owns the store where Billy’s dad (Hoyt Axton) found Gizmo, calls the creature mogwai, a Cantonese word best translated “devil” in English. A barely restrained menace rests beneath the soothing exterior. Billy and his friends end up breaking all three rules in quick succession. Water initiates a painful asexual reproduction process that produces several more mogwai. The newcomers then trick Billy into feeding them after midnight by changing all the clocks. They were the critters of legend who sabotaged aircraft in World War II, after all. Digital clocks pose no obstacle for such mechanically inclined prodigies. Their transformation into diminutive green skinned terrors threatens the town and Billy’s loved ones.
Like A Christmas Carol before it, Gremlins uses dark comedy and human tragedy to shine a light on our most destructive tendencies. Dickens tackled greed and inhumanity to other humans set against the historical and social context of the industrial revolution. Gremlins tackles our collective irresponsibility and the devastating consequences we can reap. No one human character in the film is a true villain with the possible exception of Ruby Deagle (Polly Holliday, Alice’s Flo in anti-dog mode). Armageddon ensues because a collection of hapless screwups make short-sighted irresponsible decisions. Billy and his friend Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) find themselves fighting for survival as they try to contain the mess before it destroys them all. Along the way, we discover how much Billy’s dad brought hardship to his family through his irresponsibility. We learn that Kate became the girl who hates Christmas because her dad broke his neck climbing down the chimney in a Santa suit when she was nine. Facing the monsters around them forces Billy and Kate to also face the monsters within them, monsters cultivated over a short lifetime and nourished by their parents’ dysfunctions. How do you fix the world when the people who are supposed to teach you how are the ones who broke it? Comparisons to Trumpism and the bi-polar legacy of the baby boomers are anachronistic for a film produced in 1984, but tempting all the same. If nothing else, Gremlins does critique the selfish unreflective capitalistic materialism of the early eighties and the unintended social as well as spiritual consequences of it. To the degree that those characteristics gave birth to our own troubled age, Gremlins speaks to our times as well.
Part of the fun lies in our voyeuristic pleasure in watching the Gremlins defy every convention of polite society as they devastate the town. Chaos provides good comfort food when it’s happening somewhere else. The Gremlins send Mrs. Deagle on an unscheduled flight, demolish World War II Vet Futterman’s home, and turn the local tavern into their personal disco. Stripe’s crew of Gremlins both repel and attract the audience like all the best classic villains. Their violence and inhumanity repel us while their uninhibited freedom to act as their impulses dictate appeals to our darker natures. Billy and Kate exterminate all the Gremlins but Stripe by blowing up the town theater where the Gremlins have paused to enjoy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The ridiculous and the dangerous mingle in the scene, creating a perfect snapshot of the film itself and of the larger realities it portrays. Our struggles in the real world unfold more often as a curious mixture of the silly and serious, resembling ironic tragi-comedy more than epic quest.
In the end, the mogwai is restored to Mr. Wing, who scolds them all for their irresponsibility. He insists that they are not ready to shoulder the responsibility of caring for a creature like the mogwai. When Gizmo insists on saying goodbye to Billy, Mr. Wing softens and says that maybe someday Billy will be ready.
The Christmas stories themselves carry the same mixture of the sublime and silly, the horrible and the holy, that we experience in dark comedies like Gremlins. Angels announce the birth of a peasant child, a virgin comes down with a case of pregnancy, a couple is moved across the map by the most implausibly chaotic census setup ever, and a king slaughters children to protect his throne. The Christmas stories rest on the premise that humans so mishandled the good gifts of God that personal incarnate divine intervention is required to save us from our own folly, all so that the proclamation of that divine intervention can once again be placed in the imperfect unready hands of human beings. We celebrate knowing we are not ready and resting in the hope that one day we will be ready.