Here’s the thing — I love holiday-themed horror films. In fact, one of my favorite Christmas movies is the original Black Christmas (1974). You may think that makes me sick and twisted, but I’m really not; there’s just something about taking “the most wonderful time of the year” and adding blood and gore and evil that fascinates me.
I think Gremlins (1984) may have been the starting point for my love of horror-filled holiday fare. It’s the embodiment of my reasons for loving Christmas-themed horror movies: the joyous and adorable turned into the frightening and demonic.
Directed by Joe Dante, written by Chris Columbus, and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins begins with struggling inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) trying to sell his wares at a store in the Chinatown section of New York City. There he becomes enamored of a strange creature called a mogwai and decides it’ll be the perfect Christmas gift for his teenage son, Billy (Zach Galligan). He’s told at first by the store’s owner (Keye Luke) that the mogwai isn’t for sale, but the owner’s grandson takes it upon himself to sell it to Rand anyway — they need the money.
Before releasing the creature into Rand’s custody, the grandson tells him that there are three rules for owning a mogwai: 1. It hates bright lights, especially sunlight, which will kill it. 2. Never get it wet. 3. Never, ever feed it after midnight.
Rand names it Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) and takes the new pet home to his son in the fictional town of Kingston Falls. At first, things seem to be going well as Gizmo and Billy — and Billy’s dog, Barney — get to know each other. But it doesn’t take long before the three rules start being broken: Billy exposes Gizmo to bright light a couple of times, and his friend Pete (Corey Feldman) knocks over a glass of water, which gets the mogwai wet and produces more just like him.
Well, sort of like him. The new creatures are different from Gizmo — more mischievous and hyper — causing plenty of headaches. But the real trouble begins when Billy unknowingly feeds them after midnight, transforming them into small, destructive, evil monsters who wreak havoc on the town. With the help of his crush, Kate (Phoebe Cates), and Gizmo, Billy sets out to rid Kingston Falls of the “gremlins” no matter what it takes.
There are so many things I love about this movie, including the wonderful cast (Polly Holliday, who’s probably best known as Flo on the TV series Alice, gives a memorable performance as mean old Mrs. Deagle); the gremlins themselves and the inventive ways they terrorize people; and the fight scene in the kitchen between Billy’s mom (Frances Lee McCain) and the gremlins, which is probably my favorite scene in the whole movie and just might be one of my favorite horror-film death scenes of all time. I mean, how can you not love that Mrs. Peltzer kills three gremlins using nothing but kitchen appliances?
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Gremlins, which was released the same weekend as Ghostbusters in June of ’84, was a huge hit and got lots of great reviews. But some critics felt that the film’s more violent scenes made it inappropriate for younger filmgoers who would be admitted thanks to its PG rating. In response to these complaints and the ones directed at another flick from that summer, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which Spielberg directed, the Motion Picture Association of America changed its rating system and introduced the PG-13 rating on July 1, 1984.
Let’s talk about the soundtrack. The score, which won Jerry Goldsmith a Saturn Award for Best Music, is fantastic, deftly combining lighthearted and fun with dark and mischievous. The main theme for the evil gremlins, “Gremlin Rag,” is what I imagine a horror-themed circus would use as its calling card. And then there’s Gizmo’s theme, which is played by Goldsmith’s orchestra but is also sung/hummed by Gizmo himself, though it’s not Mandel’s voice you hear in that instance — a girl Goldsmith knew was hired to do the vocals.
There are a few songs with vocals in Gremlins as well, including “Out Out” by Peter Gabriel, which was produced in collaboration with Nile Rodgers; Quarterflash’s “Make It Shine”; and two Christmas songs — Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” and Johnny Mathis’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Then there’s Michael Sembello’s “Gremlins … Mega-Madness,” which is played during the scene in which the gremlins take over the tavern where Kate works; I love how the filmmakers indicate it’s a Michael Sembello song by showing one of the gremlins imitating the “Maniac” scene from Flashdance.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed the second installment of A Soundtrack Saturday Christmas. Don’t be a humbug — come back next week!
Jerry Goldsmith’s score:
Fanfare and Prologue
Late for Work
Pop Goes the Gremlin
Billy and Katey
Gremlins on the Loose
Mom Vs. the Gremlins
Stripe Blows His Nose
A Gremlin Goes Postal
The Gremlins Attack
Billy to the Rescue/A Christmas Story
Gizmo Saves the Day
The Gremlin Rag