Millennial Movie Review: Watching the Cult Classic ‘Gremlins’ For The First Time
For most of my childhood, all I ever watched was a cartoon about a chain-smoking wolf chasing a bunny around Soviet Russia. Therefore, I probably have an unusually uninformed knowledge base of iconic Hollywood films compared to most people my age and older.
Now that the strikes have delayed new TV and film production for months, we here at ReMind thought it might be fun to use my ignorance as a challenge! How do iconic films hold up in the new century, when watched by a millennial who only moved to the US in the 1990s and has no foregone conclusions made, no nostalgia clouding her judgment? I.e.: how does a film come across to viewers when watched completely out of context?
For the first movie, I decided to go with Gremlins. This is because the first American movie I recall seeing after moving here from Ukraine was Gremlins 2, which, for whatever reason, was on every Friday night in Milwaukee for much of 1994. I became obsessed with this odd horror comedy featuring a cast of destructive super-smart green creatures—which, in retrospect, is maybe a bit odd for a young immigrant child?—and I watched it every time I would sleep over at my best friend’s house. (We did not have a TV for a while.)
But somehow, I never watched the original Gremlins. Until yesterday!
Nearly 40 years ago, in 1984, this campy horror flick about tiny gremlins who spawn out of an adorable furry pet found in Chinatown was released in theatres to mixed reviews. If you like your horror doused with comedy, which is probably the only way I personally can make it through any horror films at all, then Gremlins is a good choice, because it is hard to take seriously. Then again, I am watching a 1984 movie in 2023.
Maybe it’s the fake snow that looks like it was made by someone who has never seen a real winter, or maybe it’s the idea of these gremlins spawning from a tiny furry “Mogwai” fully formed and with enough brainpower to use chainsaws and unplug clocks, but Gremlins is so ridiculous that it doesn’t scare you at all. I found myself laughing a lot, and only then did I realize it was actually meant to be funny; prior to watching, I had assumed it was a horror movie.
Pros: I love the 1980s vibe. Wallpaper, pastels, bulky sweaters, stores with boomboxes for sale. Even the idea of a traveling salesman, Billy’s dad, who originally brings home Gizmo from Chinatown, is very retro. His “inventions” are also hilarious from the modern perspective, especially the egg-cracking device.
Cons: the fake snow. It’s just so bad. The actors look hot in their winter clothes, and they didn’t add clouds of smoke around their mouths when they talked into the cold; as a Wisconsonite, these are things you notice!
Questions: How do these mischievous gremlins grow to full size so quickly and also immediately have an understanding of the English language as well as how to use human tools? How and why are they able to smoke cigarettes? And these rules for Mogwai: “Keep them out of sunlight,” “Don’t get them wet,” and “Don’t feed them after midnight.” The first two, okay, those are manageable (although I am not sure I would want a furry creature that is incapable of taking a bath its entire life, because that would get quite stinky), but which midnight does he mean? Since they never explain which Chinatown Gizmo is located in, it could be the one in San Francisco or Chicago, which have different time zones.
At the end, before Billy and Kate bomb the movie theater with all but one of the gremlins inside, why are they watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, of all movies?
Finally, why is Billy friends with some kid half his age? The entire reason Billy’s family couldn’t last even one day keeping Gizmo safe was because Corey Feldman came over and spilled water from a jar on Gizmo within a few hours of Billy getting it as a pet. He must have been somewhere around 12 years old, and Billy was in his early twenties.
Final thoughts: It’s a little slow-moving for modern life, but overall, I think this movie does what it sets out to do: lighthearted entertainment. There is the overarching metaphor of consumerism run amuck—as showcased by the entire final showdown with the mohawked gremlin leader in the mall, and the fact that it’s Christmas—that comes across successfully. The shopkeeper’s speech at the end about silly Americans who can’t be trusted is also a pretty clear metaphor. (“You do with Mogwai what your society has done with all of nature’s gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready.”) Additionally, it can be seen as a sort of bizarre romcom, since Kate and Billy start coworkers and end up a couple by the end.
Gizmo is still really cute, and I still want him as a pet all these years later. I was surprised to learn that he is voiced by Howie Mandel. I was even more surprised to learn that Deputy Brent was played by Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul‘s Jonathan Banks. I did not recognize him at all.