Misunderstood Monsters | Rebel ‘Gremlins’ in the Machine
By Matt Konopka
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Welcome fellow monster kids to Misunderstood Monsters. This is where I, Matt Konopka, sink my fangs into all sorts of beasts, ghouls, and creatures from above while I search for the humanity behind their frightening exteriors. From monster favorites such as The Wolf Man to obscure monsters like the whistling Shadmock, there is more to these fiends than bad hair days and gooey tentacles. Within them all is a piece of ourselves.
Friends, let me introduce myself.
I’m just your average monster movie-loving maniac trying to make the illogical logical with this column. Right now, I’m feeling as rebellious as horror’s own rebel band of creatures from Joe Dante’s Gremlins. The world is burning all around us while wealthy, wannabe overlords like the film’s Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) pour on the gasoline. The thing they never learn though is that the majority of people don’t tend to cower under the covers when the heat of the flames hit. We come together. We bite back. We unleash our inner Gremlin.
Allow me just a moment of your time to demonstrate.
The term “gremlin” first spat into our vocabulary around the 1920s. That’s what British pilots named the tiny things they believed were sabotaging aircraft. Gremlins’ own town drunk, Mr. Futterman, played by the legendary Dick Miller, blames these chaotic creatures for just about anything that goes wrong in life (racist white people have a habit of blaming anyone but themselves). But how you see chaos depends on what lens you’re viewing it through. It could be a mad inferno blazing through the streets, or it could be a group of people rebelling against the system. Gremlins aren’t so different. On one hand, they’re monsters. On another, they’re rebels tearing down the corrupt capitalism machine in the small town where the film takes place.
No one has a story like Gremlins, but it wouldn’t be the first time outsiders such as these were portrayed as destructive devils.
Dante’s film arrived under the holiday tree right around a time when there was a snarling sense of rebellion sweeping the youth of America. That meant a whole lot of rule-breaking, which terrified authority. A theme of following rules scampers all throughout Chris Columbus’s script like a gaggle of incessant carolers. This is most evident with Billy (Zach Galligan). Keep your dog off my lawn, Billy. Don’t bring your dog to work, Billy. With Mogwai comes much responsibility, Billy. Growing up, an early lesson with rules is taught with pets. Like any other, Gizmo comes with his own set of instructions: keep him out of sunlight, don’t get him wet, and never, ever feed him after midnight. Break the rules and bad things happen.
Pooey on that. Rules are made to be broken.
That’s not a slight against Gizmo. Furbies ripped his face off and slapped it on creepy animatronic toys for a reason. He’s adorable. We love him. But he’s also the bright light of what others want us to be. He doesn’t get into trouble or sneak midnight snacks. He even waves an American flag around like a proper patriot.
I always felt sorry for Gizmo. He’s stolen from the old shopkeeper (Keye Luke), only to be taken from his new best friend Billy at the end. Gizmo has no agency despite obvious intelligence. He does as he’s told. This begs the question, what if the reason Gizmo differs from his creature counterparts is that he’s been tamed over time? What if the fiery spirit inherent in his brethren has been wrung out of him and refilled with obedient domestication? That’s the ultimate goal of those in charge, after all: to rid us of that fire.
The powerful are like ornaments bedazzling the top of a Christmas tree. The thing that most worries them is a spark at the base, setting the whole thing ablaze, fears of disruptive influences like those bubbles all over Gizmo’s back in Dante’s film. For comparison, look no further than Mr. Futterman’s racist rants about foreigners, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) playing in Billy’s room with Kevin McCarthy shouting “they’re here!”
With his killer mohawk, the Gremlin leader Stripe and his creature crew are mean, green reflections of the punk outcasts that threaten authority, then and now. Like them, we all start off cute until puberty cocoons us in a slimy sack of questions that we demand answers for. The kooky monsters with a serious case of the munchies that roam free in Gremlins are exactly how the media and right-wing conservatives have portrayed rebellious youths for decades. They drink. They smoke. They crash snowplows through buildings…without a license! They’re a scaly middle finger to order and America’s “good Christian values.”
That’s why the Gremlins are more my bunch. They’re the anarchist antithesis of what Billy and the Gizmo society want them to be. You won’t find me approving of Billy’s poor dog getting strung up by Christmas lights, but the act is a symbol of their refusal to be tamed like the family mutt. They’ll be damned if they’re going to be anyone’s “Peltzer Pets.”
Gremlins hunger for the same thing we do: the yum-yum taste of freedom to do what they want. Hell, you can’t even say you hate Christmas, the holiday that killed Kate’s (Phoebe Cates) dad, without everybody making you feel like a leper! So, what better setting for their revolt than on the eve of a cherished holiday from the most oppressive of religions? The complete and utter anarchy which flips this wintery small town upside down most directly crashes into the lives of those representing controlling institutions. Mr. Hanson (Glynn Turman)? The abusive nature of the healthcare system. Mr. Futterman? The racist subsect of America that denies others their rights. Mrs. Deagle? Scrooge-y capitalism maintaining the wealth of the 1% while throwing the rest of us out in the cold. We cheer when the Gremlins send the old bat soaring out of her second-floor window into an icy snowbank the same way civilizations cheer the fall of dictators. She even screams “they’ve come for me” like any oppressor would knowing their reign was over.
Crazed eyes. Toothed mouths. Gleeful cackling. It’s easy to see the Gremlins as the villains if you’re on the other side. But if I were in their shoes, I’d also bite, claw and go Texas Chain Saw on Billy’s butt to keep from being put in a cage or, you know, melted into soupy goop. The film wants us to see these creatures as evil for breaking down society. Others would say that sometimes society needs to be broken so we can build it back better.
Authority will always feed us whatever’s needed to keep us in check. Be good, they’ll say. Be like Gizmo. I say be like the Gremlins. Splash in the pool. Eat as many drumsticks after midnight as you want. Cause a little chaos. That’s how we’ve always created change. We vote. We protest. We light that match under the tree.
We’re goddamn Gremlins. 🩸
Matt is a writer and wannabe werewolf who began his love of horror at the ripe old age of 3 with Carpenter’s Christine. He has a horror podcast called Killer Horror Critic which he does with his wonderful wife and has previously been published on Bloody Disgusting, Shudder’s The Bite, and Daily Grindhouse. You can also find more of his reviews and ramblings at his blog, KillerHorrorCritic.com.
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