Gremlins subverts the rampant consumerism of Christmas

The holiday season means a lot of different things to different people. We explore the Christmas season from a pop culture point of view.

Released in the summer of 1984, Gremlins ended up the fourth highest grossing film in America, raking a total of $148,168,459 by the end of its cinematic run in November, a mighty feat considering the somewhat modest budget of $11 million.

The kind of profit that Gremlins took in, for anyone who has seen the film (which might well be everyone according to those figures), is absolutely bonkers. For a film that’s so heavily rooted in classic horror and science-fiction, that is ostensibly about a group of disgusting, unruly creatures terrorising a small, peaceful suburban town on Christmas Eve, the amount of money and exposure that Gremlins received is somewhat unbelievable. Sure, it was produced and released in the epicentre of 1980s cinematic nostalgic revisionism – the films that pipped Gremlins at the box office include Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – but that doesn’t solely justify its success, particularly when the film’s tone jars so solidly with the accepted idea of box office gold.

Not only is such an outcome impressive in an economic sense, but (and I would say more importantly), Gremlins succeeds greatest due to its maker, one Joe Dante, whose subversive qualities shine brighter in such a financial context, effectively making Gremlins one of the greatest Hollywood sabotage projects in recent history. Dante would continue his subversive streak throughout his entire career (one only needs to look at Gremlins 2 (a possibly superior film)), but none of his films are as powerful and oddly timeless as Gremlins was and still is, which is why further investigation is more than warranted.

The fact that Gremlins is considered a family classic and a staple of Christmas DVD rituals only further solidifies its success as a sly piece of social criticism. It has all the hallmarks of a 1980s Spielberg production, the gloss, shimmer and shine of an America trying to find its footing, and yes it has the cutest puppet in cinema history (I’m sorry Robin the Frog), but if we step back from its obvious superficial appeal, Gremlins is a nasty piece of work; a cunning condemnation of American consumerist worship. It’s an attack that might even be more potent today than it was in 1984 as the Black Friday death count rises and our cinema becomes a parody of its own regressive addiction to nostalgia.

By now, most of us should be aware of what Gremlins is about, even if the finer points are pushed to the background in place of enjoyment (lets face it, Gremlins is highly enjoyable). The actual gremlins themselves, born of their owner’s inability to fully comprehend and consider the responsibility of ownership, are a rambunctious, gluttonous group of horrific creatures hell-bent on making as much of a hedonistic mess as possible in the small town of Kingston Falls. Oddly reminiscent of David Lynch’s fictional town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet, Kingston Falls seems the kind of place you might want to raise a family: it’s quiet, peaceful and grassroots. Joe Dante paints the town as such initially, and despite the presence of a few unsavoury characters (including the ruthless landlord Mrs. Deagle and the nervous patriot Mr. Futterman (whose vitriol of all things foreign speaks to the xenophobia of Reagan’s America)) Kingston Falls seems as good a place as any to grow up.

What’s so brilliant about Dante’s depiction of Kingston Falls though is the way in which he uses it to undercut the myth of the American Dream, a tool that in this instance is used to cover up a rampant obsession with ownership and wealth, ultimately manifesting in the seasonal Christmas shopping spree. Within this construct, the actual gremlins stand in for the true underbelly of such blind patriotism and consumerism: an egotistical, hedonistic pursuit that ends in chaos and destruction. Without sounding like a late night stoner revelation, the gremlins are us, sans the blinkers we voluntarily don to sublimate and/or accept our gluttonous behaviour.

Dante knows this, and plays it up to its full potential. Gremlins is packaged as an acceptable, broad family film (hence having the most exposure to those the film intends to target), an experience of heightened mall fare that aims to catch its audience off guard. Yet beneath the surface Dante takes his cues from classic science-fiction and horror, a subculture that is one of the most self-reflexive and subversive that pop culture has ever seen, a group of films, books and art that actively take in the socio-political situation around it and filters it through wild and imaginative scenarios.

Gremlins is exactly this, a film that seeks to condemn a society out of control by assuming the form of its art and criticising through metaphor and symbolism. One only has to look at the scenario where the gremlins have all congregated in the local cinema to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, totally distracted and immersed in the screen, a sequence that holds a mirror up to its audience’s absolute complacency in this arena. Or, more to the point, the final showdown with the gremlin ringleader Stripe in the local shopping mall, a consumerist haven that transforms into an arena of death. There are many other instances of condemnation that Dante twists out of Chris Columbus’ screenplay, and each are simultaneously as funny as they are provocative, a potent combination if there ever was one.

If anything, Gremlins is mostly pointing its scaly, green finger at the self-destructive, blind arrogance of the West. It starts with the kitschy display of orientalism of the store in which Billy’s dad buys Mogwai, the cute monster which will soon spawn countless gremlins. Not only does it reflexively and crassly remind us of Big Trouble in Little China (yet another slyly subversive piece of cinema), but it also begins the rift that exists between Eastern and Western sensibilities that ripple outward in the film and ends in the rubble of small town America and its dreams. The storeowner does not want to sell Mogwai to Billy’s father, and by the end of the film we’ve surely figured out why. When the storekeeper comes to Kingston Falls to take back Mogwai, he is disappointed in the calamity and calmly states, “you do with Mogwai that which your society has done with all of nature’s gifts”. In this case, ownership dictates power, which inevitably leads to destruction due to the hedonism and blind confidence it also births.

Through Gremlins, Joe Dante exposes himself as a premier agent of subversion in cinema. On some level it’s purely an entertaining family film that gets dusted off every Christmas for an annual viewing (at least in my house), but look beneath the surface, even ever so slightly, and you’ll see the makings of what is undoubtedly the best Hollywood had to offer in the 1980s. Not only for its entertainment value, which is unquestionably high, but its sly, underhanded condemnation of the very system in which it exists and the people that blindly affirm it.

The fact that it and its criticisms still hold up today is simultaneously as exciting as it is depressing. Perhaps the rumoured Gremlins 3 might be a good idea then, a refresher course in subversion for an audience that might actually be ready this time. But, if all goes according to plan, with Dante not assuming a directorial role, it will probably just be the very exercise in nostalgia that the original Gremlins sought to deny its audience. Time to dust off that DVD again.

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