“Do not expose them to light. Do not get them wet. Above all, no matter how much they cry, no matter how much they beg, never, never feed them after midnight.” These were the three dire warnings that captured the imagination of the world when Gremlins was released in June, 1984.
Inspired by mice scurrying around at night in his New York apartment, Chris Columbus set out to capture that unsettling experience in his screenplay. Originally intended as more of a monster movie with savage violence and bloody kills, it was toned down once Steven Spielberg’s company, Amblin, decided to produce it as a more family-friendly film.
The film garnered a PG rating, as did another Amblin production, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but they both drew fire from parents who were upset about the dark images from otherwise “kid movies.” It was no coincidence that the Motion Picture Association of America created the PG-13 rating two months after Gremlins’ release. The lesson: you can defang gremlins, but they can still bite.
Directed by Joe Dante (Piranha, The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie), Gremlins went on to become one of the Top Five grossing North American films of 1984, as well as influencing a number of “homage” films like the Critters and Ghoulies series, as well as Troll, Munchies, and Hobgoblins. In 1990, the green-skinned troublemakers returned to the screen with Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
The creature feature Gremlins falls squarely into the Save the Cat! Monster in the House genre (with its three standard elements: Monster, House, and Sin), as Billy Peltzer unintentionally breaks three consequential rules (Sin) regarding his new pet and unleashes a mob of mischievous monsters (Monster) on a small town (House).
Written by: Chris Columbus
Directed by: Joe Dante
MITH Type: Pure Monster
MITH Cousins: Night of the Living Dead, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Predator, The Descent, Jaws, Alien, Tremors, Jurassic Park, Critters, The Mist, Ghoulies, The Blob, The Meg, The Host, Godzilla, Slither, The Fly, Feast, Deep Rising, Frankenstein, Tarantula, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, King Kong, Snakes on the Plane, Piranha, Cujo, Mimic, Arachnophobia, Trollhunter, Humanoids from the Deep, The Birds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!
How does Gremlins hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the film:
Opening Image: We open on an undisclosed Chinatown location where Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is Christmas shopping for his son. A Chinese boy (John Louie) leads him to his grandfather’s shadowy cellar curio shop that features all kinds of exotic goods. Peltzer doesn’t find anything that’s “unusual” until he meets a small creature living inside a box that murmurs and sings in a pleasant way. Peltzer offers $200 for the strange creature.
Theme Stated: Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), the shop’s proprietor, says that the “Mogwai” (which means “devil” in Cantonese) comes with too much responsibility and cannot be sold for any price. That’s what this film is about—the consequences of irresponsibility.
However, the boy does sell the Mogwai when his grandfather’s away. And he tells Peltzer the three vital rules for the care of the little monster. (1) Keep him out of the light: he hates bright light, and sunlight will kill him. (2) Keep him away from water: don’t get him wet. (3) The most important rule is never, ever feed him after midnight. Of course, each and every one of these rules will be broken, which results in chaos and death.
Set-Up: In the snowy, bucolic burg of Kingston Falls, Pennsylvania, we meet Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) in his Opening Image. He’s trying to start his VW bug and he’s late for work; he’s having a bad, bad day. He barely makes it to his job at a bank, with his dog Barney. However, he’s immediately assaulted by Mrs. Ruby Deagle (Polly Holliday), the town villain who’s the love child of The Wizard of Oz’s Miss Gulch and A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge. She wants to kill Barney for allegedly destroying her Bavarian snowman.
Billy is nearly fired. He later drowns his sorrows at the local dive pub, Dorry’s, where he can be close to his girl-next-door interest, Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates), who moonlights there after she leaves the bank (she works with Billy). In what mirrors the theme, Billy draws a dragon with Mrs. Deagle’s head on it. He draws himself as a sword-wielding knight fighting to slay the beast and save a princess who looks unmistakably like Kate.
Gerald Hopkins (Judge Reinhold), the assistant bank manager, tells Billy that he was almost fired today and that he needs to grow up and face responsibility. Throughout the course of the story, Billy will become the swordsman of his fantasy picture to battle the monsters that will ravage his town.
Catalyst: Not long after Billy arrives home, his father returns from his business trip. He gives the Mogwai, who he calls Gizmo, to Billy.
Debate: When Billy’s mom, Lynn Peltzer (Francis Lee McCain), tries to take a family snapshot of Billy and his strange new pet, Gizmo freaks because of the camera flash. It’s here as in many monster movies where the rules are set up (in this case reinstated). No bright light, especially sunlight. No water. No after-midnight feedings.
Through trial and error Billy learns that water, which Pete Fountaine (Corey Feldman) accidentally spills on Gizmo, will cause more Mogwai to spawn. (Much like the cute and cuddly Tribbles in the original Star Trek series, these creatures breed easily and abundantly.)
Five new Mogwai are born, apparently led by Stripe, a nasty customer who seems to hate Gizmo and everyone else around him, causing household mischief in true gremlins fashion, like stringing up Barney in Christmas lights.
Break into Two: Billy takes one of the creatures to his old science teacher, Roy Hanson (Glynn Turmann), at the middle school. He gives the demonstration of creating another Mogwai using a single drop of water this time. Mystified, Hanson agrees to run some tests. This is Billy’s first attempt to do the right thing: understand what these mythical creatures are, using science.
B Story: Billy meets Kate at Dorry’s, where she’s trying to shoo out drunk Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), the town grouch and xenophobe. Futterman hates anything foreign and regales the duo with rants about gremlins being put into machines in foreign countries and shipped to the U.S. Though it seems like the ramblings of a drunk at the time, this intoxicated fable will reveal a kind of fatal truth to Futterman.
Billy walks Kate home. Kate is not only the romantic interest, she’s also the helper who will assist Billy in facing up to his responsibility for the calamity and cleanup of the gremlins. Kate also has a secret—she hates Christmas (for a chilling, childhood reason).
Fun and Games: Back at Billy’s, the Mogwai are restless (except Gizmo). Billy, checking to make sure it’s not midnight, decides to feed them to shut them up. However, the next morning, he finds that the Mogwai that had the snacks have transformed into cocoon pods. Billy discovers his clock radio was tampered with—the Mogwai wanted to be fed after midnight.
Back at the school, Mr. Hanson, who also had his Mogwai turn into a pod after he left a sandwich behind, says that the creatures are in the pupal stage and will metamorphose into a different state of being, similar to how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.
Soon, the once-Mogwai hatch into Gremlins, scaly green beasts bent on eating everything in sight and on chaos and destruction. Mr. Hanson is the first casualty when his specimen studies him.
Back at Billy’s house, the Gremlins hatch and terrorize Billy’s mom. She becomes a Gremlins buster, dispatching several of them in her kitchen and living room.
However, one nearly kills Billy’s mom. Billy returns home, taking a coat of arms sword of the wall (becoming the swordsman of his earlier art), and decapitates the beast. Stripe, the most cunning Gremlin of the group, escapes. These are the promise of the premise moments—seeing the Gremlins wreak havoc that was suggested on the movie’s poster and in the trailer. Monsters run amok!
Midpoint: Carrying a sword and Gizmo in a backpack, Billy follows Stripe’s footprints to the local YMCA. Inside, Stripe and Billy tussle, then the head Gremlin cannonballs into the swimming pool, causing the waters to boil and turn green, creating a veritable horde of the beasts. This raises the stakes and starts the ticking clock. It’s only a matter of time before these monsters, on Christmas Eve, take over the town. This is a false defeat for Billy.
Bad Guys Close In: In a going public moment, Billy goes to the local police station, but he’s not believed by the whiskey-sipping sheriff and deputy (Scott Brady and Jonathan Banks). The Gremlins, led by Stripe, scurry down Main Street. Their first stop is the Futterman house. After futzing with his TV antenna, the monsters hijack Mr. Futterman’s beloved Kentucky Harvester, and run down the owner and his wife. The rest of the town soon starts being menaced by the monsters, including Mrs. Deagle, who also meets her (welcomed) end.
The local police finally go on patrol after receiving a call about the Futtermans. Their actions are short-lived after a Gremlin severs the brake line to the patrol car and causes them to crash.
At Dorry’s, Kate has her own problems, as a horde of Gremlins have taken over the place. They emulate humans, dressing up and acting like them in an insane pantomime. Kate soon learns that they don’t like light, and repels several with the flash of a Polaroid camera before Billy bursts in and saves her from the monsters, tying A and B stories together.
All Is Lost: The entire town of Kingston Falls is under siege from little green monsters because of irresponsibility, mirroring the Catalyst when Billy was first given Gizmo. What was a cute little creature that was a well-intentioned Christmas present now has deadly consequences. This is the whiff of death. Things, it seems, cannot get any worse during this apocalyptic moment.
Dark Night of the Soul: Billy and Kate hide inside the ravished bank. Often, the Dark Night of the Soul beat is a return to the familiar, and that’s what the couple do. Though the bank is destroyed and it’s the upside-down world now. All hope seems lost. Jerry Goldsmith’s score plays a melancholy version of “Silent Night” as Kate relates the reason she hates Christmas. Her father, trying to climb down the chimney dressed as Santa Claus with armloads of presents, slipped, broke his neck, and was lodged in there, missing, for several days. The horrific memory (which is in actuality a 1950s urban legend) has scarred Kate for life.
This is an eye of the storm moment where the story is a motif of the film: an innocuous Christmas gesture that turns into something horrific, which mirrors Rand Pelzer’s intentions for his son in the Debate. Soon, Billy and Kate leave the bank. The town of Kingston Falls is dark and deathly quiet. Fires burn. Vacant cars are strewn all over Main Street. The results of terrible violence.
Kate wonders where everyone is. Billy says that it will be morning soon, so the Gremlins, like vampires, will have to find someplace dark to hide. Where is the darkest place in town during the day?
Break into Three: Billy realizes that all the Gremlins are hiding in the local movie theater. In some kind of perverted human pantomime, they’re watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While the little monsters are distracted, Billy thinks of a way to wipe all them off the Kingston Falls map and end this trouble forever. He and Kate sneak inside, with Gizmo in tow. He rigs the boiler in the basement to explode, cutting the gas line and lighting a fire. They’re discovered by the movie-watching monsters. But not before the entire theater goes up in flames, destroying the monsters.
1. Gathering of the Team: It seems like Billy has ended his Gremlins problem until he spots Stripe, the lone survivor, munching candy inside the Montgomery Ward department store. Billy, Gizmo, and Kate aren’t done. When Stripe dashes off into the store, they must re-gather their Gremlin-killing team and Storm the Castle before the little green demon finds water and the whole hell begins again.
2. Executing the Plan: Deep inside the department store, Billy has Katie take Gizmo to go find the control panel to turn on the lights. He grabs a baseball bat off the rack (a metaphorical sword) and is going to hunt down Stripe with plans to slay him like a dragon. Billy and Kate share a kiss, tying A and B stories together. Stripe baits Billy deeper into the store using a video camera in the electronics department and winding up robots in the toy section. Up inside the booth, Kate fiddles with switches, trying to turn on lights.
3. High Tower Surprise: Stripe goes on the offensive, tossing saw blades at Billy, firing baseballs at him, and then using a crossbow. The monster is using sports equipment like medieval weapons. Billy is on the floor, wounded, when Stripe comes at him with an electric chainsaw. Billy holds up his baseball bat, but it’s no match for the chainsaw.
4. Dig Deep Down: Kate succeeds in turning on the lights, which causes Stripe to retreat into the darkness. However, Stripe discovers a fountain in the garden department—and heads toward it to regenerate a new army of sinister Gremlins for him to lord over and do his insidious bidding. Gizmo steals a Barbie Corvette Stingray, and, inspired by a Clark Gable racing movie that he saw on television, goes after Stripe. Stripe, with a pistol, fires at Billy, holding him off.
5. Execution of the New Plan: Gizmo crashes the toy Stingray, but not before opening some skylight panels that allow the morning sunlight to blast in—which causes Stripe to melt under the burning rays. Returning home from a sales convention, Rand Peltzer and Barney join Billy, Kate, and Gizmo as Stripe melts into a puddle of green, vile ooze. The perfect gift for Christmas morning.
Final Image: Back at the Peltzer house, Billy with his family, Gizmo, and Kate, watch the news reports of Kingston Falls. The trouble is not directly attributed to the Peltzers (that’s a break) and the “little green men” that were reported are deemed a hoax. Mr. Wing shows up, returning the money and wanting to take the Mogwai back home. The curio shop owner and Gizmo understand each other.
Crating Gizmo back up, Mr. Wing tells the family that they’re not ready and refers to the blabbing television news reports of the consequences of their irresponsibility. After a tearful goodbye between Billy and Gizmo, Mr. Wing says his goodbyes and takes back the Mogwai.
Billy, transformed from this adventure, holds Kate and watches the old man leave with Gizmo, stealing away into the night. In a final voice over, Rand Pelzer warns those watching that if things go on the fritz, beware, as there may be Gremlins lurking in your home.
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