I’ve recently been reacquainted with one of the biggest pieces of iconography from my childhood. The gremlin. First made famous in Joe Dante’s 1984 Amblin classic Gremlins, and then pushed into the American lexicon with the kid-friendly(ish), maddeningly bonkers sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Despite being a box office failure, Gremlins 2 was a mainstay in my childhood, and I suspect the same goes for a lot of folks my age. It was on TV constantly, and its grand mixture of puppetry, slime, and broadly referential comedy made it the type of adventure that a burgeoning weirdo would eat right up.
The craziest thing is how well Gremlins 2 holds up (no love lost for the original film, but the sequel is a a prime example of filmmaker firing on all cylinders). Yes, it’s chock full of ridiculous gags, but there is so much more going on. When Joe Dante was given triple the budget of the first film, as well as full creative control, he ran with it. Gremlins 2 is a circus performance from a filmmaker who knows the basics of cinematic language, and has worked for long enough within the studio system to effectively satirize the business elements which so often stifle creative license.
Moreover, we have Christopher Lee interacting with Rick Baker animatronics. That alone is the only thing really needed to make a masterpiece.
But as much as I love just about every aspect of the Gremlins series, the one thing that truly cements them into my heart is the gremlins themselves. Just what is a gremlin? Basically, a gremlin is chaos incarnate, albeit with vast knowledge of pop-culture.
The gremlin as we understand it first found life during World War II. Whenever a mechanical failure occurred, it was jokingly suggested that it was a result of gremlins in the machines. The term gained more traction after Roald Dahl expanded upon the lore in his novel, fittingly titled The Gremlins. Bugs Bunny even came at odds with a gremlin in an early cartoon. In all of these forms, the gremlin was an agent of chaos, existing only to be a nuisance. An obstacle in the way of order. The gremlin didn’t have an established look outside of being a thing, and it wasn’t until Dante’s films that gremlins were assigned any concrete traits. It’s these traits that have made the gremlins so enduring (and so resistant to reboot).
What do we know about gremlins? Well they are the secondary form of the Mogwai, a sort of monkeycatpokemon that is governed by three simple rules:
1. Keep it out of bright light
2. Don’t feed it after midnight
3. Don’t let it get wet.
A breach of the first rule can kill the Mogwai, but a breach of rules 2 and 3 result in the Mogwai’s reproduction process. It’s asexual, consisting of Tribble-like pods erupting gruesomely from the creature’s flesh, which subsequently hatch into individual Mogwai, and then morph into the slimy lizard-monkeys that we call gremlins.
This all serves to make these complex puppets seem real. Mogwai are like a domesticated pet in that they are cute and lovable but can become dangerous when not given proper respect. When placed aside many cinematic creatures, the Mogwai is comparatively complex in both concept and design. Even though it is rather cartoonish, it feels like a real animal. Find me a person that doesn’t let out a concerned “aww” whenever Gizmo is in peril and I’ll find you a soulless robot.
Converse to the cuteness of the Mogwai is the gruesomeness of the gremlin. When they emerge in their secondary form, they’ve maintained their giant ears, but their fur is replaced by slime, their human-like hands are now monstrous claws. They’re a bit bigger, and a lot stronger, and they really are just a bunch of little jerks. Little green bullies.
And they are perfect.
They don’t have any notion of self-preservation, nor do they regard anyone or anything else with any esteem. Their sole function is to be rambunctious and destructive, and that’s precisely what they do. They break things, they laugh, they mock their victims, and they live entirely in the moment. They’re basically a less well-read version of a later Warner Brothers creation, the Animaniacs.
In capturing this chaos the gremlins have become the best kind of antagonist – the kind you root for. As much as we don’t want these creatures to succeed in their mission of madness, we don’t want their tirade to end. It’s just too much fun to watch.
My favorite aspect of the gremlins is the fact that they are born with an immediate awareness of all of pop-culture, including that of the Gremlins films. In Gremlins, they knowingly re-enact moments from Maverick and Flashdance. In Gremlins 2, they kill Leonard Maltin after he gives a negative review of the previous film. When one of the creatures is burned with acid, he immediately covers his face with a Phantom of the Opera-style mask and laughs maniacally. When one is melting, he uses his dying moments to don a witch hat and quote The Wizard of Oz. Cultural awareness is a strange trait, but it defines the gremlins. They get the joke. Heck, there are moments in both films where the gremlins sing along with the movies’ score, and it always works. I’d bet that just my mentioning of it has put the tune into your head.
Gremlins are a bunch of rambunctious, horny, destructive, pop-culture savvy bullies. I regard them with the same fear with which I’ve grown to regard teenagers. I fear them, but I’ll totally watch them break things and tussle with the authorities all day. In a strange way, I want to be a gremlin, even though I don’t. Reckless abandon is freedom, but true freedom is chaos.
Here I am waxing philosophical on Gremlins.
In summation, I submit that it’s time to pay the Gremlins films another visit. They both hold up remarkably well, and are much smarter, denser, and more aware than you remember. And Hulk Hogan shows up.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.