When Can I Watch 'Gremlins' with My Kids?
Our horror conversation continues in the Family Room as parents get closer to Halloween and probably want to start sharing scary movies with their kids. After tackling The Monster Squad and horror movies in general, I wanted to bring up a childhood classic -- at least, a “classic” for children of the ‘80s -- that transcends the horror and comedy genres while also managing to be a Christmas and Halloween movie rolled into one.
I’m talking, of course, about Joe Dante’s 1984 chiller Gremlins.
Dante's flick is an excellent entranceway into creature features, yet still scary enough that parents need to be mildly protective. So, let’s shine some sunlight on our Mogwai, bathe them in water, feed them after midnight, and figure out when you can watch Gremlins with your kids.
Red Flags: “How come a cute guy like this can turn into a thousand ugly monsters?”
What kind of parent buys their kid’s Christmas present in a back alley in Chinatown? Failed inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) had to know he was setting his son, Billy (Zach Galligan), up for a world of trouble when he slipped a young Asian boy $200 and walked away with Gizmo, the adorable Mogwai who comes with a short but extremely important user’s manual.
Gremlins falls into that unique category of films I loved as a kid, though I’m now hesitant to show to my own children. Why? Have I become that conservative? After writing a recent column on The Nightmare Before Christmas -- where I recommended waiting until your children are 10 or older -- I watched Henry Selick’s masterpiece with my boys, ages seven and three. They loved it. We talked about the questionably scary elements all the way through. Once they understood the concept of Jack Skellington’s Halloween Town, they rolled right along with the movie’s gothic sense of humor. Except for Mr. Oogie Boogie. The fact that he’s made out of creepy, crawly bugs truly unnerved them.
But for the most part, they could handle it. Probably because it’s animated. Does this mean they’re ready for Stripe and the wicked, green, scaly creatures that wreak havoc on Billy’s small town as he gradually breaks each of Gizmo’s rules? I’m going to guess not.
Back in ’84, Steven Spielberg’s name above the title (he produced) probably convinced E.T.-loving parents that this would be safe for kids. And Dante, to his credit, does keep Gremlins relatively safe for the film’s first half. Billy’s chief adversary, Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holiday), is about as intimidating as the Wicked Witch of the West, the character from which she’s derived. Murray Futterman (Dick Miller) is a surly drunk who hates “God damn foreign cars.” Judge Reinhold’s an arrogant ass who hits on pretty Phoebe Cates. And Billy’s family seems to be wrestling with financial problems (though most of this is subtly hinted at in the material).
Then stupid Corey Feldman goes and spills water on poor Giz, and Dante’s free to unleash the same nightmarish imagination that fuelled Piranha, The Howling and his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Gremlins are blended, burned, stabbed and cooked in microwaves. A science teacher loses his hand… then his life. Neighbors are pancaked by American-made snowplows. Mrs. Deagle, perched in her motorized chair, is launched through a second-story window.
A lot of this takes place offscreen, as Dante relies on a things-that-go-bump-in-the-night approach to his horror. And Gremlins tries to counter the worst of its gooey carnage with reaction shots from the adorable Gizmo. (Bonus points to Howie Mandel for coming up with Gizmo’s cute kid voice, as well.) But unless your kids are relatively horror savvy, the second half of Gremlins is a red flag that needs to be flown.
Green Lights: “… And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”
Green lights were a little hard to come by this week. Dante’s Gremlins is great fun, a tremendous technical accomplishment that still scares the Santa hat off me. And huge chunks of it are played for laughs. For instance, why would Phoebe Cates bother serving drinks to a bar full of gremlins?
But beyond its surface chills, there aren’t more than a few topics worth dissecting. Just as I mentioned explaining stop-motion animation to your kids during Nightmare, Gremlins gives parents a good excuse to explore puppet and model work in the movie business. Chris Walas’s Gremlins creations are marvelous, the kind of expressive, imaginative figures that make you curse CGI trickery that’s the bane of modern horror.
If you’re going to screen Gremlins with your kids, it’s worth pointing out that Galligan’s Billy is an all-around good guy -- a great son, a loyal friend to Gizmo, and a brave suburban hero willing to step up and burn down the town movie theater when no one else has the stones.
Is your child pestering you for a dog or similar family pet? I know I was one of those obnoxious, nagging pests who routinely pestered my poor parents for a puppy. Maybe my mom and dad should have shown me Gremlins earlier, as it actually can teach valuable lessons about the responsibilities that come with pet ownership.
But I’m reaching. In general, Gremlins lacks teachable moments. Instead, you’ll find a handful of well-earned scares in a goofily competent genre exercise that still holds up nearly 30 years later.
At least 10. The kitchen scene alone, where Billy’s fearless mom slaughters a stream of evil gremlins, makes me think parents should wait until their kids are older and able to handle the scares that come with a well-made creature story.
Gremlins isn’t Jaws. But Dante and his crew deftly balance cute and heroic with creepy and demonic, which is why Gremlins absolutely needs to be shared with your kids… once they’re ready.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Spy Kids, to name just a few.
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Sean O'ConnellFandango Bloggers
Sean is a film reviewer for The Washington Post and daily contributor to Fandango.