Let’s Talk About: Gremlins

This last week I’ve consistently found myself attracted to media which has what I perceive to be chaotic energy. I define this as media where there’s clearly been a plan, and everyone involves sets out to execute something slick. But somehow the result is far off the intention. Off, but off in a enthusiastic and genuine way. Chaotic energy cannot be manufactured, only unintentionally brought into being.

Two Gremlins (small scaly monsters with sharp teeth, red eyes and pointy ears) wearing hats and earmuffs carol singing in the snow

We watched Gremlins on Wednesday. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a nostalgia post. In fact I barely remember watching the film as a kid, though I know I did see it at some point… Anyway coming into it pretty fresh an adult, Gremlins was a perfect example of what I mean by chaotic energy. It’s a film made with bizarre happenings in mind, but everything around the central plot is off-kilter too. It kind of hangs together in ways in which is shouldn’t. I finished Gremlins with a lot of questions and a general feeling – though I knew what was coming – of “WTF??”.

I’m not going to use up time & words describing the plot of the film: there barely is one. Boy gets Mogwai, rules gets broken; Gremlins result and chaos ensues. There’s an abundance of other stories it could follow littered through its 106 minutes, which it loves setting up & never using. Do any of Mr Peltzer’s inventions work, and could any of them be useful in the crisis? What happens to the young family we meet on multiple occasions who are getting evicted for Christmas? Where do the Gremlins learn to read? How does Mr Wing know where the Peltzer’s live?? I actually admire how Gremlins‘ has a complete disregard for following up any of these stories. It knows that the flash-bang mayhem of the middle-to-final acts is going to drag your attention away and just – lets it. Not finishing your own plot is definitely chaotic energy.

A young man with brown hair in a red jacket; a young woman with thick brown hair in a light jacket, the boy is holding a fluffy creature with white and brown fur

And it’s worth saying here that, though they’re planned, I do consider the Gremlins antics to also have this chaotic energy. They’re properly bizarre and, mostly, genuinely funny. It makes sense that the origins of Gremlins lie in a Roald Dahl story and the script is written by Chris Columbus. They’re two writers who have a history of letting their imaginations go and happily running with what comes – however dark. And the film’s willingness to push the Gremlins into some dark places is key. This energy would just fall flat if they were simply mischievous, rather than dangerously anarchic.

But it’s the fact that they seem to exist just as one chaotic element in an already chaotic universe which defines this it for me. Even without all the unresolved plot points, this isn’t a straightforward tale of trouble-in-paradise. Even at its winter-idyllic prettiest, Kingston Falls is a town full of oddities. It’s apparently under the control of a somewhat psychopathic arch-capitalist who has disconcerting aspirations for dog-murdering. Billy’s next-door neighbour is a paranoid xenophobe. The local bar is roping in family to avoid having to pay wages it can’t afford. And nobody in this town is a good carer: Mr Peltzer abandons his family at Christmas to chase his delusions, while Billy can’t even keep his pet safe for one day. The Gremlins aren’t ruining a small-town utopia. They’re bringing to the fore a living-on-the-edge, potentially chaotic energy already under the surface.

A furry creature, half white and half brown, with very large eyes and a smiling face, with two hands.

And in the midst of all this there’s a moment which is both particularly morbid and entirely pointless. I’m talking about the scene where Kate tells the story of her father’s quite traumatising death. In a film packed with grisly moments (Gremlin in a blender anyone?), the way this story blindsides your expectations makes it one of the film’s biggest moment of WTF. It’s an ultimate moment of chaotic energy. Kate disliking Christmas is one of the few teased threads which actually leads somewhere – yet has no bearing on anything in the story whatsoever. The scene is a moment of calm between the cinema explosion and the grand finale. We might expect a brief respite from action. Instead we get the most horrific story of all. And on top of that there’s a spoiler about the magic of Christmas which is definitely a choice

Gremlins also has an extremely irritating undercurrent of having merch sales in mind. Gizmo is cute in a deliberately we’ll-sell-fuckloads way. Heck, Gizmo is the annoying undercurrent. The angelic progenitor of the chaos, upon whom nothing can exactly be blamed, but who loves being the centre of everyone’s sympathies. On the other hand, he’s kind of reacting rationally. And if we take him at this figure, then wanting him to just shut up moaning is just another factor which hones in on the pandemonium as the dominating factor of the movie. You’re deliberately choosing to ignore the reasonable response to revel in the chaos.

Which is the point of Gremlins, right? You don’t enjoy it because it’s a perfect movie: you enjoy it because it’s not, because of the feeling that chaos was a choice. You see all the places where there should be convention, but – whether by design or negligence – it falls off-kilter. The result is embedded chaos which isn’t always flashy, but is always present. And it’s this general aura that gives Gremlins its charm.

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