This essay dedicated to my fiance, Kevin, with whom I have this argument every damn year.
Every year, celebrators of the “Yes, we put trees in the house, and yes, that is perfectly normal” holiday gather around their television sets to watch their favorite films to get in the Christmas Spirit™. For some, this film is It’s a Wonderful Life or A Muppet’s Christmas Carol or Phineas & Ferb: Christmas Vacation. Christmas films/episodes are often defined by stubborn fiances as “Films that embody the true meaning of Christmas” (Vang, Kevin). Gremlins (1984) is a commonly contested title in the Christmas cannon, the argument against it commonly being the fact that it would be the same movie without the Christmas elements, and that it does not contain the True Meaning of Christmas™. However, Gremlins does both of these things and more, relying on images of Christmas for some of its most iconic scenes, and decrying the current commercialism of Christmas.
Without it’s Christmas backdrop, Gremlins would be just a monster comedy that is pretending to be a horror flick. The scene that makes this movie is without a doubt the scene where we are introduced to the Gremlins for the first time. Lynn Peltzer creeping up the stairs to investigate why “Do You Hear What I Hear” suddenly started playing on the record player needs this specific Christmas carol to be effective. Any other song would not have given the scene the same tension as “Do You Hear What I Hear.” The Christmas backdrop paints a stark juxtaposition of joy and horror as Lynn shoves Gremlins into blenders and microwaves, and as she fights with her Christmas tree. Take the Christmas out of this scene and it loses at least half of its tension. It is this juxtaposition between the implied happiness of Christmas and the horrible mischief of the Gremlins that keeps us watching this movie decades later.
Gremlins finds it’s attack on Christmas Cheer™ not in the titular monsters, as one might expect, but in the common horror trope of “Dope Who Makes a Stupid Choice,” AKA Randal Peltzer. Gremlins opens on Peltzer delivering voice-over and attempting to sell some of his sad inventions to an offensive caricature of a Chinese man, who is deeply unimpressed by Randal’s shenanigans. Eventually, Peltzer notices an adorable little Mogwai singing in its cage, and decides his son has to have it for Christmas. Despite the shop’s owner saying no repeatedly, no matter the price, Peltzer insists, eventually buying the Mogwai off of the owner’s grandson, who sells Peltzer the Mogwai behind his grandfather’s back and gives Peltzer some vague rules. Peltzer’s insistence on buying the Mogwai here is reminiscent of the mom who decks another mom in the face for the last Tickle Me Elmo on Black Friday. For the viewer, this is clearly supposed to be a terrible choice. The movie is, after all, called Gremlins, not Cute Furby that Sings. We know that Mogwai is somehow linked to the monsters. We know that Peltzer has made a misguided choice in the name of bringing Christmas Cheer to his family. After giving the Mogwai to his son, Billy, as an early Christmas gift, Peltzer is in a couple scenes before he leaves for a Christmas Eve inventor fair, in effect using the Mogwai as a surrogate for actually spending time with his family during the Christmas season. Peltzer is, in fact, an idiot, as the film implies by showing us a parade of his awful inventions, but a good-hearted idiot who genuinely believes his consumerist Christmas choices are what is best for his family.
The second time we see a critique of the consumerist insanity that Christmas has become is the final showdown between Billy and Stripe, the last Gremlin. It is no accident that Stripe, the ultimate mutation of Peltzer’s consumerism, runs into a department store for this final fight. Looking at this final scene, you see Stripe using the items of the store as a weapon, while Billy blazes a trail of broken televisions and sporting goods. Stripe then goes to an elaborate, decadent fountain in an attempt to replicate and takeover the town again. But Stripe is too late, and it is the power of Christmas morning’s sunlight that is eventually his undoing.
Gremlins is not just a horror comedy with some goofy bits. Through the power of Christmas we see a family brought together by crisis, and the day is saved not by Santa Clause, or the exchange of gifts, but the simple, clear light of Christmas morning. Between the aesthetic of Gremlins to its anti-consumerist themes, Gremlins is, definitively a Christmas movie, fit to join any cannon of traditional Christmas classics.