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What 'Gremlins' gets right about 1980s horror

Tortured by Stripe (and the saddest Santa story ever), Gizmo & the gang always remembered to stay positive.

By Benjamin Bullard
Gremlins 2 The New Batch

Midway through 1984's Gremlins, Kate (Phoebe Cates) brings all the action to a record-scratching halt. Invoking a whopper of a tragic urban legend, she tells Gizmo and her boyfriend Billy (Zach Galligan) the horrifying story of how her Santa-costumed dad ended up dead in a chimney at Christmastime.

It's a jarring tale; one that leaves it to viewers to decide whether flinching at the tragedy or laughing at its absurdity is the more instinctive reaction. In a nutshell, though, Kate’s infamously gnarly anecdote tells you everything you need to know about the sci-fi horror-comedy classic.

On the surface, Kate's yuletide trauma is a hopeless story for sure. But it comes along at a point in Gremlins when we’ve already gotten to know these kids and their quirks. They’re already in over their heads as the keyholders to a replicating terror nightmare straight from the pages of classic science fiction. With the adorable Gizmo at their side, they’re also super-easy to root for. And underneath all the urgent, chaotic action, they’re clearly excited to be caught up in something extraordinary: a scary adventure, for a pair of teenage co-conspirators, that’s actually downright fun.

When you think of Gremlins, it’s easy to think of other coming-of-age 1980s screen gems like The Goonies, Big, and Back to the Future. Unlike those films, though, Gremlins is ostensibly a horror movie; a big furry ball of popcorn-munching excitement that wrings every last drop of possibility from its knockout central premise: How do teenagers respond when the fantastical frights they think only exist in dark fairy tales turn out to actually be true?

As the recent success of Stranger Things shows, it’s a question that still compels some of today’s most popular sci-fi entertainment. Directed by Joe Dante with the same magic blend of terror, comedy, and heart that 1980s film titans Steven Spielberg (who executive produced the movie) and Robert Zemeckis pretty much defined for the decade, Gremlins got away with Mogwai murder by giving viewers a reason to care about its characters, testing Kate and Billy with a gauntlet of scares while making their entire ordeal feel like fun. Like The Goonies (directed by Richard Donner), Big (Penny Marshall), and Zemeckis’ own Back to the Future, Gremlins served up a mass-appeal movie that remembered to include what may be the 1980s’ most important pop culture ingredient: a healthy helping of baked-in optimism.

Tons of more-recent horror movies have taken a far more dour turn, striking a one-note tone of pessimism and pathos that never really give their key characters — even if they win in the end — an emotional fighting chance. It can have a withering effect: Caring too much can feel like a ruined character investment in later horror films like The Descent (2005) or Hereditary (2018), critically-favored movies that put their protagonists through the emotional wringer while failing to effectively connect the sadness with the scary stuff.

Sure, those movies are playing a different, more genre-focused game than a dark horror-comedy like Gremlins, but they’re missing the core of optimism that buoys similarly straight-laced horror films (think The Sixth Sense, The Others, or The Babadook) that do manage to blend pathos and terror to tremendous effect.

No one, of course, will confuse Gremlins with the R-rated 1980s horror films that took blood and gore to a whole different level. And no one's holding the whole horror genre to a standard that demands a strain of positivity from every movie, and there are tons of totally killer films — from Psycho to The Shining to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — that don’t really do optimism to begin with. But Gremlins aspired to rule the box office in 1984, right as the MPAA was straddling the fine line between conventional family-friendly PG ratings and the slightly edgier PG-13, a ratings development that enmeshed the mainstream movie in a bigger conversation about where to draw the line on violence and gore in a film that’s squarely aimed at the kid in everyone.

Just about everyone who saw it in theaters at the time would instinctively place Gremlins in the same mainstream camp as The Goonies and its swashbuckling 1980s sci-fi movie siblings, and the key reason — just as true today as it was then — is that Gremlins knew how to thrill viewers without dragging their hearts and minds down darker, gloomier corridors. Even at its wettest and wickedest (remember Stripe and the swimming pool scene?), the audience always knew that a stress-relieving laugh, along with another impossibly adventurous set piece, was likely only moments away.

As of this month, Gremlins is streaming on Peacock, bridging the gap between Halloween and Christmas with a classic sci-fi story that takes an eternally refreshing alternate approach to the typical festive holiday movie setting. Catch the 1984 original, as well as its 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch, while both films stream ‘round the clock on Peacock.