Joe Dante’s monster hit Gremlins is back in theatres with a 4K restoration for its 35th anniversary. And as weird a choice it is to be watched during the mostly PG holiday season, Gremlins is so worth returning to and fits right in with other holiday movies with its exciting set pieces and lovely family values.
It’s Christmas in Kingston Falls, an idyllic-looking, snow-coated town with grumpy locals and cars that refuse to start in the frosty weather to match. Gremlins is as much about this town and its people as it is about creatures that spawn furry devils if fed after midnight. Kingston Falls is a place perfect for wreaking havoc on, and Dante does an exceptional job at setting it up to fall.
Dopey Billy (Zach Galligan) and his well-written crush Kate (Phoebe Cates Kline) have to contend with boring jobs, the egos of their older neighbors, and Mrs. Deegle: the town’s very own “and your little dog too!” agent of evil. Billy is aimless in the eyes of his peers but in the end, it’s his flexibility and ability to deal with the unknown that saves his skin. He may not be the typical hero, but he’s kind, honest, and looks at the girl he likes as if she were the best person on planet Earth.
It’s the holidays, so Billy’s inventor father Rand (Hoyt Axton) is returning from his travels with an early present bought in a mysterious Chinese gift shop: a Mogwai — a furry animal that would give baby Yoda a run for his money with his adorable physicality and cute expressions. But soon after, Billy’s mistakes in caring for Gizmo lead to chaos.
Gizmo is the puppy you never got — you need one, there’s no question; but let’s be honest, he comes with some baggage.
The fun of planting a horror-comedy about creatures that mutate if you look after them wrong alongside usual Christmas programming is how much Gremlins leans into its hilariously mean take on Christmas spirit. From caroling gremlins to the story of Kate’s father dying alone in a chimney dressed as Santa Claus, the film provides a break from sterile cheer with its wild and disastrous antics.
The comedy is gleefully immature. Scenes like the drunken gremlins letting loose in a local bar, along with them messing with the cynical townspeople are so entertaining you almost forget how horrible the little monsters are — they’re basically the worst toddlers imaginable mixed with highschool jocks that live to prank unsuspecting victims. Watching them turn the town upside down is good fun, and the practical effects are fantastic in their simplicity.
The true stars of the film are the titular creatures of course, but the idealized town the movie is set in, along with the likable and ill-equipped human characters, sell it even more. Billy is trying to get the girl, Kate is having to confront the ugliness of what the season means to her, and Rand realizes an unknown species might not have been the best Christmas present.
For all the chaos in Gremlins, there’s also unmistakable warmth: Gizmo humming little tunes, the familiar love of a messy family, and the decision to let Gizmo go at the end. There’s a sparkling sense of sentiment served with all the shenanigans — it’s easy to adore both. The filmmakers clearly took delight in causing playful trouble for their characters; there’s so much mischievous fun. It’s a magical feeling movie despite the story growing arms and legs along the way.
The lighting and sets consistently set different tones, whether it be the shadows of the school laboratory, the soft lights in the bar, or the strings of Christmas lights coloring the walls of Billy’s home, Gremlins effortlessly glides between horror, comedy, and romance.
The puppetry is so lively you believe in the creatures, the family is worth rooting for, and the romance of the film is so awkward it shouldn’t mesh with the rest of it, but it just does. There’s little chance of finding something more fun to watch over Christmas. And we must continue to share GIFS of gremlins doing ridiculous things.