You know the Gremlins rules right?
- Keep them out of bright light.
- Don’t get them wet.
- Never, ever feed them after midnight.
- Watch them every year around this time.
Well, some of us know the rules. One of us, not to name names (Megan), went through her entire adult life without experiencing this horror-comedy chestnut of ’80s cinema that made a nation of children swoon one minute over the adorable mogwai Gizmo (basically a guinea pig with ears like bat wings and the ability to stand upright) and then shit themselves the next over terrifying green monsters that will rip your face off and explode all over the interior of your microwave.
1984's Gremlins, directed by Joe Dante, written by Chris Columbus (who’d go on to make the even more iconic 1990 Christmas flick Home Alone and then its 1992 sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York), and executive produced by Steven Spielberg (who was then riding high on E.T.) is about a lot of things: unruly pets, the importance of following rules, Christmas!!!, consumerism... and racism? Maybe! Megan, who up until this week had never seen the movie, and Rich, who has watched it dozens of times, consider all the things it is to them, and at least some of the things that it could be in the discussion below. How exactly does a 34-year-old movie that’s infested with puppets hold up in a CGI world? (Spoiler alert: well, and with little green talons).
RICH: I thought about you when rewatching this movie, not just because I knew we would be discussing it. I thought about, like, your interior life. Correct my characterization if you will, but you aren’t... charmed by many animals that other people are. You don’t like capybaras, for instance. Since capys are basically giant guinea pigs, and since I got a guinea pig in second grade and named him Gizmo because it was the closest thing to a mogwai that I could find, I wonder what you thought of the furry creatures designed for this movie.
MEGAN: Well, you’re absolutely correct that the list of animals that I like and tolerate and will entertain as a concept is pretty small. Capybaras, for example, are enormous rodents with big teeth—not a fan! However, upon viewing Gremlins for the first time, I find myself not quite charmed by mogwai, but not entirely un-charmed, either?
RICH: Because I saw this movie first when I was very small, not much bigger than Gizmo himself, I was charmed then and I remain charmed. Gizmo is everything I want in a pet: sweet, big-eyed, loyal, musically inclined, learns things without being taught, doesn’t seem to ever shit, so well-behaved, especially compared to the rest of his species that he is a stand-in Christ figure. I wanted him sooooo badly and I still do. What’s your beef?
MEGAN: Perhaps had I seen this film as a small child as opposed to now, when I am a large adult, I would’ve been charmed. Gizmo reminded me mostly of a Furby—same big eyes, same preternatural intelligence in a way that I find alarming, and same body type. That’s fun, though the OG Furbys are NOT fun, and you have to put them in a paper bag to get them to shut up, which is awful; my preferred method of silencing a Furby would be by hammer. At any rate, I believe I texted you that Gizmo is a prissy little bitch diva who, frankly, is kind of irritating!!! Looks aren’t everything, but in this case, I think this bitch is riding on that horse pretty hard.
RICH: He can’t help that he’s perfect. It’s interesting, though, that he seems to be a total aberration within his species. The rest of the mogwai are really naughty. But I like that in the same way that I like bad cats. Not so bad that they spray their indelible piss all over your life and ruin it, but funny bad. Swipes at you when you walk by, will walk right up to you and calmly bite you. That’s my shit. The non-Gizmo mogwai remind me of cats that walk on two legs and spit loogies.
MEGAN: Here’s the thing with Gizmo’s arrival into the Peltzer household: The family handled it in a way that was wild to me! I know it’s a movie and blah blah fairytales are sparkly, whatever, but here comes this little kitten-adjacent monster that comes with a whole list of conditions that NO ONE FOLLOWS, and they’re not like, “WHAT AND WHY IS THIS, GET THIS OUTTA MY HOUSE.” They just go with it, in a way that I find to be worrisome! Neither here nor there, I suppose, but damn.
As for the rest of the mogwai, that’s where my true heart lies.
RICH: You could almost make a supercut of all the times characters give a disaffected “Neat” in response to being introduced to a mogwai. They really take the whole discovery of a new, hyper-intelligent species thing in stride!
MEGAN: What an admirable attitude! I really respect that the town of Kingston Falls really rolls with the punches! I could talk about their can-do New England spirit all day, but I’d rather focus on the naughty mogwai, who are an irrepressible joy to watch—strangely buff, leathery, hungry all the time, and just looking for a good time. That’s me? Or that’s the me I want to be.
RICH: I guess they are the id. And Gizmo is the superego. And humans are the ego for being informed the rules, trying to play along, and then fucking up anyway.
MEGAN: Sure, I’ll take it!! I just loved how the bad mogwai ran rip-shod over that soundstage covered in fake snow!! Consulting my notes, it seems that when I saw the mogwai in the dive bar that was dressed in what I assume to be Mrs. Deagle drag—a fur stole, clip on earrings, smeared lipstick—I wrote, “I’m deeply saddened that the lady gremlin isn’t in this.” That feeling remains. Another feeling: “Is there a deeper message here that I’m missing?”
RICH: While I love the gremlin in drag (I guess?—the rest seem to identify as male in human terms), you’re referring to the female-presenting gremlin in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (somehow, an even better movie than its predecessor), who is wild and sexy and free and just seems to know exactly how to approach life.
RICH: And yes, there are many messages here, if you so choose to interrogate them. I mean, messages that are not related to the gremlin in drag.
MEGAN: I loved her.
RICH: Honestly, it’s crazy that they weren’t all fucking during that bar party.
MEGAN: Another stray note—they all loved to swing from a literal chandelier.
RICH: A ceiling fan, but sure. I guess they don’t do fucking—they reproduce asexually when they get wet—but surely they would learn. They’d lick each other’s smooth crotch bumps just to be disgusting.
MEGAN: Well, if they can learn to smoke cigarettes and play mah jong or whatever, then I’m pretty sure they could figure out how to make orgy.
RICH: So I think one thing this movie is about is rampant consumerism.
And it explains how unfazed people are by the mogwai. They’re used to always expecting something new! What’s the hot toy this year? The year before Gremlins, it was Cabbage Patch Kids, which are way uglier and scarier. Thank u, Cabs, next!
At one point, Billy’s inventor father discusses marketing the mogwai, which by the way, on a planet with 71 percent of its surface covered by water, would have multiplied and taken over the world before you could even set your eyes on them.
MEGAN: Billy’s father is a fucking putz. Also, I thought Billy was going to be a 9-year-old and was shocked to discover that he is a strapping and handsome adult man who romanced Phoebe Cates (she’s too good for him!).
RICH: I like the scene when Billy casually walks around with his shirt off. Always have! Gremlins made me want... a lot.
MEGAN: I digress. Yeah, the movie is definitely about rampant consumerism, but it’s also about racism? Or the American tendency to take something foreign and ruin it by dint of being a boorish, loud, and crass American. Or xenophobia. All of it?
A brief clarifying question, by the way—I was looking away from the TV when the mogwai multiplied. How, precisely, did that happen? Did Gizmo shit them out?
RICH: Corey Feldman knocked over the water that Billy had his paint brushes in at his desk and then Gizmo lay on his stomach, kicking and shrieking something awful.
And then little fur balls popped out of him.
I hate how sad he gets after he gives birth. He totally would have eaten his young if they didn’t separate them into a box on the floor.
MEGAN: I mean if I were him, I would’ve been despondent, especially if I knew that the things that I spawned were going to ruin a town, and that I would be powerless to stop it! I also think that Gizmo, that prissy little bitch, is actually just hungover. I got a very Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard vibe. “Bright lights! Bright lights!” A flair for the dramatic. That turd was one beat away from swathing himself in a silk robe and drawing the shades.
RICH: Gizmo in a turban—I would have fucking LOVED that. But yes, allegations of racism are a part of this movie’s legacy. At least, they’re mentioned on its Wikipedia page.
MEGAN: Ahh yes, let’s go there!
RICH: I don’t think they’re exactly unfounded. Firstly, the Chinese man who is essentially robbed of Gizmo is a total stereotype...
MEGAN: In my notes, I scrawled something about Orientalism, Edward Said, the exotification of the East. Yeah, Gizmo’s real dad is a bad cartoon come to life, as is his shop of ancient Asian things.
RICH: Yes, mogwai is the epitome of ancient Chinese secret, but you know, the old man is not very good at keeping said secret. Gizmo is just like, out on a shelf. With a cloth draped over his box as he sings a catchy song over and over. He was bound to be colonized.
MEGAN: “Catchy” is generous, my friend.
RICH: That song is rarely not playing in my head.
MEGAN: While we are often very similar, this is where we differ.
RICH: Give it time.
MEGAN: The whole ancient Chinese mystic bullshit is definitely racist, but I feel like a bad (half-) Asian person for being only mildly upset about it. It was racist to the point of being laughable? Also, in the end, Americans were the stupid ones, and Mr. Gizmo shuffled off back to his opium den with the quiet knowledge that he was right and everyone else was wrong.
RICH: Well, it does bear reminding that people thought absolutely nothing of being racist to Asians in movies in the ’80s. It was, per Hollywood, so socially acceptable it was practically a given.
MEGAN: Right, I think of Long Duck Dong. And many other caricatures of Asian identity that were so over the top that it is, again, laughable, but then also bad. Or maybe I’ve just eaten so many years of casual Asian stereotypes that I am now immune and I lack the energy and the wherewithal to be salty about it!!!!!
RICH: He’s at least on the right side of how to care for mogwai, which makes him smarter than everyone else in this movie. But then there’s the notion that the unruly gremlins are a way for this movie’s white creators to (however unconsciously) explore their fears of black people.
MEGAN: Ahhhh yes, that’s fun! Say more.
RICH: Patricia Turner famously makes this argument in Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies. It seems very flattened and absurd when you read the blurb on Wikipedia, but her writing is reasonable (and plainspoken—for an academic, there’s a breezy quality to her work and the Gremlins chapter, which also includes a look at Little Shop of Horrors, is like seven pages long).
MEGAN: As you’re aware, I underprepared for this whilst you... did not. So the argument here is that the gremlins are the black people? Help.
RICH: Let me give you the quote:
These malevolent miniature Mogwai are the most destructive and reflect negative African-American stereotypes. Soon after their unexpected birth, the pesky gremlins are devouring fried chicken with their hands. Their first target is Billy’s kind, overburdened mother, and they are soon pursuing the hero’s girlfriend at Dorry’s Tavern. In some unexplained way, several of them have managed to acquire shades and caps that cover their eyes. Cigarettes droop from the corners of their mouths. They make haste to a tavern where they cannot get enough to drink. Here we see their love of music and their ability to break-dance.
Take that in, give me your thoughts; I have a few. In the meantime, it only recently struck me that the gremlin cocoons must have been ripped off from Louise Bourgeois.
MEGAN: Wow, yes, I certainly didn’t think about this when watching the movie, but now that I revisit the extended Gremlins loot and riot the town sequence in the middle of the movie, every single point here makes absolute sense to me. I had been wondering where they got those outfits in the movie theatre, and was also wondering how and why they were playing dominoes? The stereotypes, which by now are so obvious that I am embarrassed to say that I missed them, are not even subtle. This is Song of the South, but with animatronic, bipedal hairless cats. Not great.
RICH: I think of this more as an interesting interpretation, a way of looking at it, rather than a definitive dismissal. Dismissing it, in fact, isn’t the point here at all—Turner acknowledges that the movie is enjoyable.
And, just being persnickety here, I don’t believe that the chicken the mogwai eat is fried (it’s shiny, so it may have been baked or boiled). In any case, Billy’s mother, who always reminded me of Judy Blume, presumably prepared it as it was in her refrigerator and she’s always cooking something. She is white, so it probably wasn’t seasoned. Also, breakdancing by ’84 was so mainstream that Mel and Alice did it, and so did little Joey Lawrence on Gimme a Break! It was part of Lionel Richie’s act for the Olympics closing ceremony that year. By ’84, it had been thoroughly coopted and wasn’t necessarily a way of signaling blackness (slash Latin culture), especially when invoked by potentially ignorant white people.
MEGAN: There’s a lot of stuff that is racist-adjacent that is also enjoyable, but this is an interpretation that is worth considering.
RICH: I mean, gremlins do a lot of shit. They sing Christmas carols, they sing “Heigh Ho,” they play poker, they drink like Irishmen. It’s a lot of general mirth that sometimes seems racially coded and sometimes is not. It’s a little broad to say that they only embody black stereotypes.
MEGAN: Billy’s Judy Blume-ass mom probably poached the chicken, if I’m being honest. All your points about breakdancing are valid.
Back to the gremlins, who do, indeed, do a lot of shit!! I think the more generous interpretation of who they’re supposed to represent is that they are just like, “foreign.” A malevolent force from outside that tiny town. Didn’t that drunk guy say something about how gremlins are the reason we lost the Great War? Then, didn’t Stripe—my icon—run his ass over with a front-end loader? I’d love to look at Gremlins as a revenge fantasy on behalf of all oppressed and marginalized communities in America, but the unfortunate thing is that at the end, they’re annihilated and the only “good” one that remains is spirited back from whence he came.
RICH: Yes, Mr. Futterman is constantly going on about the fear of foreigners and their gremlins, and then his fears turn out to be totally justified. And you can look at this as a parable for what happens when you let foreign people in: they tear everything up. That’s the most persuasive interpretation to me.
But also: It’s all the white people’s fault. For not following the rules.
This is, above everything, A MOVIE ABOUT FOLLOWING RULES.
RICH: I think this movie gave me OCD. I follow rules with the fervor of a fourth-grade hall monitor.
MEGAN: Rules are made for a reason, Rich—TO BE FUCKING FOLLOWED, not cast aside like suggestions!! What continues to get my goat is that Billy’s dumb dad brought Gizmo into their home and explicitly explained the conditions by which this diva bitch must live.
And what happened? Billy didn’t look at the clock when he gave the little ones the chicken.
OF COURSE IT WAS BROKEN. THE CLOCK WAS BROKEN BECAUSE THIS IS HOW MOVIES WORK!!!
Props to Billy’s mom for microwaving the gremlin, though.
RICH: Yeah, a good rule to follow is don’t let your naughty aliens around your wires and cords because they will surely chew through them.
Did you love the kitchen scene?
MEGAN: I LOVED the kitchen scene.
RICH: It’s a classic—it helped foster the creation of the MPAA’s PG-13 classification because it was so over the top for a movie rated PG.
Gremlins is operatic at times—everyone is constantly talking about Christmas and what it means and what one does on and around it. There’s the Cates monologue that taught me there was no Santa (which was something I tried to unlearn for years, just did not want to face it until the world forced me to). There’s the swooning cuteness of Gizmo, the unending capacity for mischief of the gremlins (they make dying fun!).
MEGAN: Oh my god, Phoebe Cates’s entire Christmas ’tude is my eternal holiday mood, though my father did not perish in a chimney trying to be Santa, because as children, we were taught that Santa was bullshit.
RICH: When I was little, I thought it was DEVASTATING. I had never heard anything so sad before in my life. And then I realized when I got older... this is kind of a joke.
MEGAN: Although when I was young and refused to eat my vegetables, my dad would “call the North Pole” and tell whatever was on the other line that we didn’t deserve shit for Christmas.
RICH: Did it work?
MEGAN: I think we played along, but I’m sorry, we cottoned on to the fact that Santa was my dad, very tired, and staying up past his bedtime wrapping presents, like WAY early on. Try to pull the wool over these eyes, bitch!! It won’t work!!
MEGAN: Love you, Pops!! I think all I want to say about Gremlins is that this holiday season, I’ll pour a little out for Stripe, who persevered in the face of extreme adversity. He threw his body into a swimming pool, turned it into a Jacuzzi, and resisted all attempts at capture, only to go out the way that I wish to go out when I die: melting into a puddle of viscera and liquefied bone in the greenhouse of a department store.
RICH: Stripe is great. I mean, he makes me mad! But I appreciate his hustle.
MEGAN: His hustle is what makes him the most admirable!!! Stripe had one goal: to fuck shit up heavy, and to also not die. He almost succeeded, but he went out a champ.
RICH: This movie is way too wrapped up in nostalgia for me, so it’s really hard for me to objectively say that it’s good. But I think it’s really good? The creatures are just so amazing—they seem like they could exist (maybe they’re hiding under the hood of your car!). There are a lot of brilliant set pieces (since seeing this movie, when I hear Johnny Mathis’s “Do You Hear What I Hear,” what I hear is the sound of a little alien monster in a blender), it flings a lot of sensibilities at you at once, and also: Phoebe Cates!!!!
Did you like it? I feel like it holds up, but I’m curious what it’s like to see it through virgin 2018 eyes.
MEGAN: As you may have surmised, I am a Christmas curmudgeon, but Gremlins has changed me a little bit, because you know, I did enjoy it!! I had no idea that I would identify so closely with a gross hairless cat thing named Stripe, but here we are, in 2018. Also, Phoebe Cates!!! Loved her in Drop Dead Fred! Appreciate her now in Gremlins. The creatures ARE amazing, and if they DO exist, I’m sending them to your freakin’ house, because I don’t want that life!