While the typical Christmas movie classics remain ever-popular, there is a growing recognition of festive films with a little edge on offer alongside the merriment. Some of the most popular alternative Christmas films often include the set-during-the-holidays action films Lethal Weapon (1987) and, most obviously, Die Hard (1988). For a slightly more Gothic holiday film most people turn to Tim Burton’s dark-fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) (what’s more festive than a musical?). Before them all, though, there was Gremlins (1984). By no means is Gremlins an obscure or even cult film, but it does not seem to make it to most people’s list of repeated holiday viewing.
Gremlins is a black-comedy that does not disappoint in either department. Its immensely fun, a little silly, but has some pretty uncomfortable, even scary, scenes. The film was originally released as a PG, but it was received so many complaints from concerned parents about its violence that it prompted the Motion Picture Association of America to rethink its ratings system.
Gremlins hits at right at some of the themes of modern Christmas: commercialisation. The premise is something approaching genius. A trinket salesman is looking for the perfect gift for his late teenage son – and where else would you look besides China town. Soon he discovers a Gremlin and decides his son would love him – and who can blame him, Gizmo is adorable: just look at that face.
There are three rules for looking after a Gremlin, however: 1. Do not expose them to bright light, 2. Don’t get them wet and 3. Never feed them after midnight. You don’t need to have seen the film to know how many of these rules are going to get broken – its actually what you’d expect. Mayhem ensues. Christmas is jeopardised. The real thing that makes Gremlins stand-out here is its sombre ending – Gizmo is confiscated by the China town shopkeeper. Billy is not responsible enough to look after him. But maybe one day? It really pulls focus back to some of the film’s deeper lessons: putting a little responsibility ahead of capitalism.
It wouldn’t be possible to discuss Gremlins and Christmas without discussing that scene. “The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas” speech is the height of black-comedy – horrifyingly tragic but so absurd as to be almost funny. It’s a detailed account of how when one character was a girl her father disappeared just before Christmas. “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.” Eventually, they light a fire to try and stay warm and discover something stuck down the chimney…her father in a Santa Claus costume. This harrowing account is buttoned with the memorable line “And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”
The other thing that makes it a perfect Christmas film is that they merchandised the hell out of it and its sequel. You’ll see Gizmo crop up on merchandise and toys to this day. that’s what lovable mascots are for, after all – just ask an Ewok or BB8. Not that merchandising is inherently a bad thing, though, sometimes producing something great. With that in mind, here’s a link to the soundtrack of Gremlins 2 on the NES.