When it’s on: Tuesday, 1 May (10.00 pm)
True story. Gremlins was the first film that I went to the cinema to see whilst underage. I was 12 when it was released in the UK, three years too young to stomach its scenes of horror, according to the censors. Around school, the film’s reputation gained something of an ‘urban myth’ status, spread by those old enough to have seen it or others my own age – grrrr! – with parents who’d turned a blind eye. The 15 certificate issued to it (at the time, Britain had no comparison for the bridging PG-13 certificate in America) seemed at odds with its marketing. Gremlins was hyped as a family film, with accompanying toys, sticker albums and so on, which meant I knew almost everything that happened before I broke the law, took on a life of crime, wore the most mature clothes I could find and caught it for myself.
Years later and with Gremlins firmly rooted in its 1980s setting, it’s possible to come across afternoon screenings on the television. These are heavily cut, of course, but not so much that the entire story remains intact. Also in place is the daftness of the ‘three rules’ mythology underpinning the film’s narrative. Even back in my pre-teen guise, I found this hard to stomach. So you can’t feed them after midnight? And when does that particular rule lapse? Never get them wet? Does snow count? Who makes these things up?
Naturally, these rules were established precisely so they could be broken, and they are, to gloriously disastrous effect. Gizmo, the cute, animatronic puppet Mogwai, is taken to the sort of identikit American suburb that appears in any film Steven Spielberg has a hand in and, before too long, has a glass of water spilled upon him. This results in the almost instant spawning of several more creatures. Because Gizmo’s a good guy, he realises the dire consequences of this and, sure enough, none of the new Mogwai are as well-intentioned. Eventually they get their post-midnight snacks, transforming them into mischievous, reptilian gremlins. Mayhem ensues.
The film’s origins lie in the invention of ‘gremlins’ as a jokey explanation for mechanical failures, a ‘gremlin in the works.’ By chance, the year before Gremlins was released, a segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie rehashed 1963’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet story, with its yarn about a plane passenger who spots a gremlin dicking about with the wing. Joe Dante, who directed another segment of the film, was hired by Spielberg (who stayed on as Executive Producer) to helm Gremlins. With his own background in horror films, Dante was a fine choice, especially as he’d previously been responsible for the blackly comic Piranha. It’s this sensibility he brought to the material here. Also hired was Jerry Goldsmith, who’d composed the score for Twilight Zone: the Movie, and whose violin-heavy refrains perfectly captured the madness.
Gremlins is scheduled a little clumsily, considering it is, at heart, a Christmas movie. Gizmo is purchased as a Christmas present, and in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, a character explains her hate for the season. Its appearance during the perpetual joke that is British Summertime doesn’t really matter, of course, though given the saccharine nature of most Christmas flicks it is at least one with considerable bite.