Director Joe Dante’s 1984 film Gremlins tells the story of a young man, Billy (Zach Galligan), who is gifted a strange creature known as a mogwai for Christmas. Initially pleased with his new pet who they name Gizmo, things soon take a dark turn when Billy fails to follow the strict care instructions: never get him wet, and never feed him after midnight.
Gremlins is a quirky, unique mixture of family-friendly adventure and at time surprisingly hard-edged horror. It’s one of those movies that puts you through the full gamut emotionally: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll scream – and yet, you’ll also be left with that warm, festive feeling, as on top of everything else Gremlins is a great Christmas movie. In fact, we’d say the Christmas-set comedy-horror is actually the most heartwarming festive movie of them all – and here’s why.
10. Gizmo is the cutest creature in film history
Can it be possible to watch Gremlins without falling head over heels in love with Gizmo? As terrifying as his eventual offspring might be, the original Mogwai himself is one of the most adorable creations of the 80s, which is saying something given this is the decade that gave us ET. Gremlin risk be damned, we all wanted Gizmo for Christmas.
Mogwai is actually a Cantonese word, meaning ‘devil’ or ‘gremlin’, hence the film’s title. Happily, Gizmo himself does not have any demonic tendencies; he merely spawns demonic incarnations of himself, that’s all. Things could have been different, however, as in the original draft of the script Gizmo did indeed turn Gremlin, and it was him rather than Stripe who became the film’s central antagonist.
9. Gizmo’s noises only make him cuter
There were no lines in the script for either the gremlins or Gizmo, but this didn’t stop the creatures from making their voices heard. Gizmo’s innate adorability is increased tenfold by the almost unbearably cute little noises he makes, utterly such simple phrases as ‘uh oh’, ‘woof woof’ and ‘bright light’ in a squeaky, childlike tone. Then, of course, there’s that incredibly sweet little melody he sings.
Gizmo’s voice was added in post-production by comedian Howie Mandel, better known today as one of the judges on American Idol. Although the relationship between Gizmo and Zach Galligan’s Billy is what gives Gremlins its heart, Galligan surprisingly admitted in 2022 that he and Mandel have actually never met.
8. It’s about a father’s dedication to his son
Today, we all understand that a pet is for life, not just for Christmas. Back in the 80s, though, nothing could compare to the sheer disappointment of going downstairs on Christmas morning only to find your parents didn’t buy you the puppy/pony/kitten [insert sought-after animal here] you oh-so-politely asked for. In Gremlins, however, Randall Peltzer (played by Hoyt Axton) is determined to not let his son down.
As a struggling inventor, Mr Peltzer doesn’t make a lot of money, and as such he can’t afford to splash out as much as he’d like on his family. However, he’s not about to let financial concerns keep him from treating his son to the most unique Christmas gift of all: the cutest, most unusual house pet he’s ever seen.
7. It’s a story about how money isn’t everything
The Peltzers are a family of four (including Barney the dog) surviving almost entirely on Billy’s wages as a bank teller. Clearly they’re not the only family in the town of Kingston Falls to have money issues either, as early in the movie we see a desperate mother begging the incorrigible Mrs. Deagle (Polly Hollida) for mercy over paying rent, a request which Deagle promptly refuses.
There’s also Dick Miller’s Mr. Futterman, who has become a maudlin drunk since losing his job; and we can hardly forget Kate (Phoebe Cates) telling the disturbing story about why she stopped celebrating Christmas. Yet despite all the hardship and loss, Kingston Falls is alive with festive cheer, and the Peltzers in particular are determined to have a happy family Christmas.
6. Billy’s childlike nature is heartwarming
Billy may be singlehandedly supporting his family, but he clearly hasn’t managed to get the hang of adulthood quite yet. Although Billy is in his late teens/early 20s (his exact age is never disclosed), he clearly lacks emotional maturity. Take for example the fact that apparently his best friend is his 13-year-old neighbour Pete Fountaine.
He may work in a bank, but Billy is clearly still an innocent boy at heart. We see this not only by the fact that he still lives at home with his parents, but also by how much time he spends sitting in his room drawing, watching old science fiction movies on TV, and reading comic books and magazines. Still, he doesn’t come off as nerdy or awkward; Billy’s just a genuinely sweet-natured young man.
5. Mrs. Peltzer is fiercely loyal to her husband
Sure, Mr. Peltzer may be somewhat bumbling, but his wife’s dedication to him is undying. Despite his clear lack of talent, Mrs Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) encourages her husband’s every endeavour, from the seemingly pointless egg rotation unit to a his orange juice maker to his wireless telephone. (It was the 80s, technology still had a way to go there.)
The fact that Mrs. Peltzer starts so open-heartedly by her husband through every hardship demonstrates the depth of her love – and that’s a big part of what Christmas is all about. Then, of course, we can only stand back in awe when we see how fiercely Mrs. Peltzer defends her home when the Gremlins start causing havoc.
4. It features a baby-faced Corey Feldman
He may be best remembered for his roles in The Goonies, Stand by Me and The Lost Boys, but before all that 80s child superstar Corey Feldman made an appearance in Gremlins as Pete Fountaine, Billy’s young friend and neighbour. It is of course Pete who is indirectly responsible for the Gremlins outbreak when he inadvertently spills water on Gizmo.
Just 13 at the time of filming, Gremlins was only the third live-action film Feldman had ever made (he appeared in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter earlier that same year). His appearance as Pete may be fairly brief, but Feldman was almost certainly at his cutest here.
3. Zach Galligan was crushing hard on Phoebe Cates for real
Zach Galligan, who played Billy, was relatively unknown before he got his big break starring in Gremlins. Producer Steven Spielberg was adamant that Galligan was perfect for the role, claiming that he saw Galligan’s chemistry with co-star Phoebe Cates, reportedly declaring, “Look at that! He’s already in love with her!” at their joint audition.
As embarrassing as that must have been for Galligan, he was hardly alone, as Cates was the crush of millions of young men in the 80s. Romance did not ensue between the two (Cates later settled down with fellow actor Kevin Kline, and retired from acting), but during their time together Galligan found Cates “utterly gorgeous and dreamy.” We’ve no doubt he was on the lookout for mistletoe in all their scenes together.
2. Kingston Falls is a bona fide winter wonderland
Gremlins is set in the fictitious town of Kingston Falls, Pennsylvania. Although the movie shows us how a lot of the people in town are struggling to get by, the small town nonetheless looks like the most idyllic place to spend the Christmas holidays, presenting us with picture-perfect Americana immaculately framed in flawless white snow.
If you’ve ever had the feeling you’ve seen Kingston Falls somewhere else, you’re probably not mistaken. Filmed on the Universal Studios set known as Courthouse Square, this same mock town has appeared in such classic films as To Kill a Mockingbird, Jingle All the Way and (perhaps most famously) the Back to the Future series.
1. There are references to E.T. through the film
Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg was the undisputed king of the 80s blockbuster, and his biggest hit of them all at the time was 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, then the biggest box office hit in history. Gremlins director Joe Dante playfully underlines the connection between the two films with a number of fan-pleasing nods to ET.
Early on, a cinema marquee reads A Boy’s Life (the fake name under which E.T. was delivered to theatres) and Watch the Skies (an early working title for Spielberg’s film). Furthermore, one of the Gremlins actually says the line ‘phone home’, and eagle-eyed viewers might just have spotted a stuffed E.T. toy. None of this necessarily makes Gremlins any more Christmassy, but it’s pleasing nonetheless.