Some films are obviously Christmas movies, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Santa Clause, but for others it’s not so clear cut. They may be set during the holiday season. They may even touch upon Christmas themes. But does that mean they truly qualify in the traditional sense? To find out, we’re putting these movies on trial and laying out all the evidence for and against them by asking a series of related questions, like we did with Die Hard. And there’s no better movie to put to the Christmas movie test than the cult classic Gremlins.
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, ask yourself…
How much of Gremlins takes place at Christmastime?
All of it. From the get-go, the whole town is dons clothes up for the holiday, It’s A Wonderful Life is on TV, and people are singing and listening to Christmas songs. There are even actual door-to-door carolers (which I’m pretty sure don’t actually exist). The audience is well-aware at all times the holiday is close at hand.
Would Gremlins be fundamentally different if it were set at any other time of the year?
Not much, if at all. The plot doesn’t connect to setting of the season in any direct way, and not even in many indirect ways. Billy’s dad Randall could have bought him Gizmo for his birthday, or even just because he thought his son would love him. However, the dark, snowy aesthetic does lend a good deal to the film. But if you did away with all of the Christmas decorations and music, and instead set this in the snowy cold of February, for example, you’d have the exact same story. Sure, you would lose some funny visuals of the gremlins, but as Gremlins 2 proved, you can literally do anything with them and it’s amazing.
Do any of the film’s major themes apply to Christmas?
The only major theme that applies here is “family.” Greed and compassion are minor ones but the film quickly abandons them. In fact, they could cut both out of the movie entirely. (Sorry, but Judge Reinhold’s character has zero purpose in this movie.) The other major themes of responsibility, bravery, and fearing others aren’t your typical classic Christmas messages.
Does watching Gremlins at Christmas time enhance the experience?
It makes it less weird to hear Christmas songs, but overall not all that much. It’s better to watch it around Halloween actually, because it has more to do with literal monsters than it does Christmas.
That said, while many people call this movie a horror comedy, it’s not that scary. The gremlins are hysterical; they do ridiculous things, die hilarious deaths, and kill in absurd ways. This is really a dark comedy, as evidenced by Kate’s all-time story about when she was a kid and her dad died on Christmas after he broke his neck in the chimney dressed like Santa. That’s one of the funniest yet bleakest stories ever.
In fairness, that’s a great argument for why it’s much better at Christmas than any other time of the year. The juxtaposition of the season versus the darkness of the humor definitely makes it funnier.
Has this film been accepted as a Christmas movie tradition?
No, and just because some people have made Gremlins a part of their Christmas lineup doesn’t change that. The movie has not earned its place in the holiday movie rotation. It definitely has a cult-following, and rightfully so. But it isn’t a permanent and prominent part of the season on a macro scale.
THE FINAL VERDICT
The last hour of Gremlins is laugh-out-loud perfection. It also still looks great decades later, thanks to some of the best practical effects ever. But its plot is not intrinsic to its setting and the movie’s major themes aren’t particularly Christmas-relevant ones. You’ll always be able to find some theater showing it in December; however, it somehow has never crossed over into being a definitive part of the holiday season the way a movie like Die Hard has. As such, Gremlins does not officially qualify as a Christmas movie.
The good news is that means you shouldn’t wait another 12 months to watch it again. (But all math aside, I’m still going to watch this one every year at Christmastime.)
Originally published on December 20, 2017.