Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 30 October 2005
Source Warner Brothers DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
In 1984, every kid had a plush Gizmo doll. The irony of Joe Dante’s Gremlins is that, in allegorizing American panic about Asian imports, it caused its own small boom in cheaply-made “foreign pieces of crap.” Dante’s film imagines the havoc that ensues once insidious Asian Gremlins invade small town America, insinuating themselves into our culture, learning our language, and eating our junk food. As a cautionary tale about global capitalism, and an exceptionally grim Christmas movie, Gremlins entreats its audience to become responsible consumers and buy American. But of course, like the nasty, little Gremlins themselves, the film is also a hell of a lot of fun. Dangerous though they may be, the Mogwai are an endearing lot, only about as greedy, willful, and malicious as the average American child. Who wouldn’t want one in their home?
Joe Dante’s Gremlins is pretty much the quintessential ‘80s movie, and that’s not just because its cast includes Judge Reinhold, Cory Feldman, and Phoebe Cates. Luckily it’s more an emblem of the ‘80s rather than an artifact, but it’s a precarious position considering the film is more famous today as tame TBS programming filler, or as an answer to a question in an e-mail forward. I have fond memories of watching the film as a child, though I probably didn’t watch it as often as other children my age. Back then the innocuous fright-fest was praised by some critics as a subversive gem, filled with wit and dark-humor. Yet watching it today, I can’t help but notice its harmless teasing of American economic gloom and its rather narrow perspective of immigrant culture.
Gremlins begins in Chinatown, that great symbol of minority migration and voluntary segregation, where a young Chinese boy is guiding a middle-aged man named Randall Peltzer to his grandfather’s store. Peltzer is a fat, Caucasian, lower middle-class man, which makes him about as American as cheddar cheese. Peltzer is also a hopeless inventor of useless crap that he attempts to sell whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. We enter the supernatural Chinatown store amidst mystical music and find it lit entirely by candlelight, as if we somehow stepped into the 18th century. The Chinese grandfather named Mr. Wing looks like a mystic, with his white beard, ancient articles of clothing, and his one blind eye. As he speaks about the furry little Mogwai our story is centered around, which Peltzer wants to purchase as a Christmas present for his son, I half expected the old man to tell the hefty American that the cute creature comes with a free frogurt… but that the frogurt is cursed.
Even though the ancient Chinese man resists selling the Mogwai to Peltzer, the grandson is willing to make a transaction. The grandson is westernized and understands the value of money. We know this because he wears a Yankees baseball cap. The boy does caution Peltzer about the creature, giving him three rules to follow: never put the creature in sunlight, never put it in water, and never feed it after midnight. It’s the first rule that benefits Dante’s film the most, since it allows the film’s creepy narrative to transpire almost entirely in darkness.
We then travel to a small town named Bedford Falls — sorry, Kingston Falls — where we meet Peltzer’s son George Bailey — I mean Billy Peltzer. Billy’s a talented comic-book artist, but appears to be stuck with a job at the bank in order to support his mother and father, since his father’s inventions appear to be household disasters. Kingston Falls is the kind of town where you can run to work through the snow if your car doesn’t start in the morning, keep your dog under your desk, and sign a petition to have a local building declared a historic landmark for the sweet girl you’re crushing on. The town even has its own greedy villain, named Mr. Potter — oops, Cruella De Vil, or is it the Wicked Witch of the West — sorry, Ms. Deagle. Alas, the rest of the town appears to be suffering through economic strife, since most of its citizens are struggling to make ends meet. We know that because children beg their mother for food. It’s a sad reality of a US economy that doesn’t require the ‘small-town any longer.
Our real story, a PG combination of It’s a Wonderful Life and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (we know that because characters watch both movies on TV), starts off when Mr. Peltzer presents the cute Mogwai to Billy, and gives him the same three instructions he received earlier. Naturally, all three rules will be broken, because that’s the point of having warnings in a movie. From here an innocent chaos develops, involving the Mogwai multiplying and terrorizing the town, with only one minor casualty—the Black science teacher.
The film’s aspirations towards innocent fun and my condescending tone aside, Gremlins does actually have some troubling tones in its subtext. First off is the concept of the Mogwai itself or the question of what the creature represents. It’s quite apparent that Peltzer views the creature as a foreign product he has imported, affectionately naming the fur-ball “Gizmo” as if it was a child’s toy. It’s probably a view supported by the filmmakers considering they give Gizmo a toy car to drive around in during the film’s finale. As well, when the creature multiplies, Peltzer views it as a business opportunity ripe for exploitation and is unconcerned about the potential danger, thinking the Mogwai could replace the dog as the family pet. However, considering their origin and facial features, there is something noticeably foreign about the Mogwai, which allows for them to represent the immigrant population. It’s not an outrageous view, considering Mr. Futterman claims gremlins are what makes foreign cars so problematic for Americans, and he later attaches the gremlin moniker to the mischievous Mogwai that attack his home. Indeed, much of the fear Gremlins inspires is from these foreign invaders who intend to take over our communities.
Whichever classification we choose for the Mogwai/Gremlins, it’s fairly obvious they represent something foreign and that Western society, or at least small-town USA, cannot seem to understand or deal with them. Quite quickly, the Mogwai multiply until the town is infested in a population boom that it isn’t prepared for, paralleling the events occurring in US urban centers at the time. The creatures begin to indulge in the new found freedom of American life, by engorging themselves with food, drinking themselves into a stupor, amusing themselves with Disney movies, and playing with guns and ammo. Obviously the foreigners have successfully integrated an American appetite into their lifestyle. It’s not only Stripe and his crew either, but Gizmo as well, considering he begins to enjoy television and fantasizes about living out scenes in classic Hollywood movies. The gremlins, including the obedient Gizmo, readily embrace US consumer culture as well, outfitting themselves in American clothing and accessories, and going berserk inside a department store in the film’s climax. While it’s humorous to see these demonic little creatures take on human personalities and America traits, it’s only amusing in the same manner as watching foreigners unsuccessfully attempt to imitate American culture and laughing at the futile results.
The xenophobic tinge in the narrative of Gremlins becomes visible at other points along the way. The demoralized Mr. Futterman, who is unemployed, is constantly complaining about the inadequacy of foreign craftsmanship in the machinery we import. As well, when attractive Kate Beringer tells Billy she doesn’t celebrate Christmas, his immediate response is to crudely ask, “What are you, Hindu or something?” Lastly, when Gizmo is finally presented to the local police he endears himself to them by waving the American flag to display his patriotism, in what seems to be a clear exhibition of melting-pot mentality.
There is a visible divergence in how the two generations treat the Mogwai. The younger generation, represented by Billy, is somewhat more accepting of the Mogwai, and tries to treat them humanely as long as they remain friendly. At the same time, Billy is a bit misguided in his perception of adequate accommodations, considering he gives Gizmo the royal treatment and relegates the other Mogwai to an inequitable position. It’s not entirely unexpected that the new gremlins revolt against Billy and his family considering they sleep in a crowded cardboard box. Still, Billy does at least form an emotional bond to Gizmo and views the Mogwai as a companion, which is more than can be said for his elders, who seem to view the Mogwai as creatures worthy of experiments and ridicule.
Dante isn’t totally oblivious to potential American inadequacy, and he does scatter a few elements within his film that hint at anxiety over US failures to compete in an increasingly global marketplace. Dante’s most notable example of Western ineptitude is likely Peltzer, the failed inventor. Not only is he a slightly absentee father, who seemingly leaves town to attend a convention at the most inopportune time, but most of his efforts at creations are fairly ineffective. His inventions thus become a depiction of the futility of American innovation during the era, compared to the success of foreign brands such as Sony, Panasonic, Toyota, and Honda. Of course, other than Randall’s inventions, the rest of the Peltzers’ household appliances seem to work quite well when needed most, including a blender and microwave that dispatch the aggressive gremlins.
Meanwhile Mr. Futterman seems to have lost his job during the economic downturn and considering the foreign products he constantly gripes about, it’s not a huge leap to assume he lost his job as a result of some foreign competitive advantages. Futterman is rather obsolete and he appears to be living in the past, considering he hasn’t realized the comics page has changed considerably in the last 50 years. For all the complaining Futterman does concerning foreign products, it seems fitting that he loses his home when the gremlins hijack his machinery. Unfortunately for Futterman, it appears as though the foreigners that have invaded Kingston Falls are intelligent enough to have easily adapted to US craftsmanship.
In the end, Billy, Kate, and Gizmo are able to prevent any further spread of gremlin immigrants, making certain they will not be able to reproduce. Regrettably, it’s obvious that Kingston Falls and the Peltzers are not responsible enough to harbor foreign settlers and Mr. Wing travels to the town to retrieve Gizmo. Of course, before he leaves, the old Chinese man scolds American society for wasting nature’s gifts, in what amounts to a strange combination of environmental warning and economic advice. Thus, the Mogwai is sent back to its native land, or at least returned to its native culture, where apparently Dante and company believe all outsiders belong until American society learns to incorporate them completely. It’s an ending that feels tacked on in order to cover all bases and thus remains unsatisfying to me.
Admittedly, the xenophobic paranoia within Gremlins’ narrative isn’t entirely overt, so I’m not so certain the film deserves to be universally condemned. Still, however effective the method might be in creating anxiety in audiences during the ‘80s, it is concerning that such an undertone was targeted towards a youthful audience. Of course, it isn’t an accusation that is easily thrown at such a trivial movie, and it’s difficult to determine whether Dante was aware of the subtext and being critical of the culture that allows such anxiety to permeate through its members, or if the film is merely another illustration of that fear. Personally, it’s difficult to shake the idea that Dante is exploiting a fear of immigration. Then again is there any better illustration of American ignorance than Cory Feldman?