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'Gremlins' is still the perfect Christmas horror gateway film

All these years later, Gremlins is one of the best horror entry points of them all.

By Matthew Jackson
Gizmo from Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins remains a constantly rewatchable genre classic for a number of reasons. There's its presence as a cultural staple across the VHS and cable era, its nostalgic factor for '80s and '90s who grew up with its delightfully brutal dark comedy, and its festive seasonal setting that makes it a must-watch in many households around Christmas time. There are many angles from which to view the film's appeal, but for my money, Gremlins' greatest strength is its ability to serve as a gateway movie for budding horror fans lured in by the creature feature vibes and the holiday setting. 

Yes, there are many films you can use as gateway movies to horror, whether you're searching for yourself or for a young person in your life who's just beginning to delve into scary stories. You could go all the way back to the Universal Monsters era, you could focus on more overt horror-comedy like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and you could even pick something animated like Hotel Transylvania to start with spooky characters rather than generally spooky stories. But even bearing all of that in mind, there's something about Gremlins that makes it especially perfect for someone's first horror movie.

Eagle-eyed movie fans will no doubt recoognize the sets of Kingston Falls, the idyllic little town where most of Gremlins takes place, as the same piece of the Universal backlot where Back to the Future's Hill Valley was born. That set has a lineage stretching back all the way to the 1940s, but the recognition of Kingston Falls as Hill Valley adds an immediate dreaminess to the story, and director Joe Dante and writer Chris Columbus don't stop there. 

If you're a student of Christmas films, the name Kingston Falls might remind you of Bedford Falls, bank clerk Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) might remind you of a young George Bailey, and the snooty adult residents of the town might remind your of Mr. Potter and his band of Yes Men. Throw in the Christmas decorations and you've got an update of It's a Wonderful Life just waiting for Dante and Columbus to drop some madness on it. That doesn't feel like an accident, and it's all part of crafting a wonderfully warm, pleasant, and even safe vibe that the filmmakers can then start to rip to shreds when the Mogwai show up. 

When the Mogwai do start to show up, and begin reproducing despite Billy's best efforts to obey the rules, Gremlins cranks up the horror factor with plenty of creature effects, a few elaborate death scenes, and all manner of other assorted mayhem. Watching the Peltzer family try to pulverize the Gremlins in their own kitchen is still a fantastic horror setpiece, and the movie theater finale remains monster-laden fun, but the film also never tips over into pure terror because of the way Dante approaches the whole story. Yes, there are moments of darkness — the story of what happened to Kate's father is one of the most oddly bleak things you'll ever hear — and outright horror, but in classic Warner Bros. fashion, much of the action plays out like a demented Road Runner cartoon, tempering the horror with a sense of exuberance and fun. 

It all amounts to a film that, even today, remains deeply accessible to younger newcomers looking for a horror fix without any of the outright slaughter that so many other genre movies of the 1980s delivered. Countless films since have tried to replicate its tone and its success, but there's only one Gremlins, a wild journey to a manic, monster-filled version of Bedford Falls that's as full of Christmas Spirit as it is horror bite.

Gremlins is now streaming on HBO Max.

Stream lots of great horror movies on Peacock.

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