Twelve Days of Axe-mas: Gremlins (1984)

I am taking part in The Chicago Creepout’s Twelve Days of Axe-mas holiday viewing event. This is my day three.

Rather than write up a review of Gremlins (What would be the point?) or mock it in fiction (which it most definitely does not deserve), I just want to take a few paragraphs to talk about my favorite moment in one of my favorite movies.

In the third act, immediately after the boiler room explosion in the movie theater, there is a shot of the chaos in the theater. The shot pans past some flames and gremlins panicking, before stopping on a gremlin wearing a surgical mask, holding a knife, and cackling maniacally. This gremlin is only screen for maybe a second, but it is always the moment I most anticipate every time I watch the film because I know I will be reduced to tears as I laugh at this one sight gag. The moment occurs 4:27 into this clip:

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this reaction when this shot rolls around. I probably should not try to understand what makes it so funny to me, for fear of ruining the moment through over-examination. But here goes.

While the entire film reflects aspects of Joe Dante’s anarchic sense of humor (although, when it comes to anarchy, it doesn’t hold a candle to the much funnier and crazier sequel), this feels like the exact moment when Dante pushed past any needs of the narrative or interest in grounding the film in reality.

By the time we get this shot, the film had already become a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Nearly everything that happens from the time the gremlins take shelter in the movie theater through the explosion is nothing more than an excuse for Dante to indulge in a series of sight gags inspired by past films, cartoons, and comic books. The gremlin I find so endlessly funny is the climactic moment—the complete package of insanity and referential humor that Dante builds in the sequence–before the plot kicks back in.

The gremlin’s behavior in the face of certain death is not of an animal sensing its own demise. It’s a creature that is wired to cause chaos so it simply revels in the mass death and destruction of the theater explosion. The gremlins are practically a first cousin to the Tasmanian Devil from the Looney Tunes universe, making them nothing more than live-action (if a little rubbery) cartoons.

But the gremlin is also playing a role present in countless films, TV shows, comic books, and novels: the mad scientist. While Dante would scratch the mad scientist itch in the sequel via Christopher Lee’s hilarious geneticist, Doctor Catheter, the first film lacked such a character. This is especially odd considering the monster movie elements of the film. With one simple shot in a mass of confusion, Dante reaches back across decades of genre media to acknowledge an essential archetype and put his own mad spin on it. It’s an embrace of the past while reveling in state of the art effects and chaos in the present, giving a throwaway gag in the midst of mass hysteria the most staying power and drawing one of the biggest laughs in a film that is full of them.

Or maybe it’s just really damn funny and I should stop writing and start laughing.

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