Joe Dante’s visual masterpiece Gremlins took the summer of 1984 by storm, becoming one of the highest-grossing pictures not only of the blockbuster season, but of the entire year. The film is about a teenager named Billy who is given a furry creature called a Mogwai for Christmas by his father. The Mogwai is purchased in Chinatown by his father; though this cuddly creature from the Orient could melt hearts with its big eyes and huggable furriness, the father receives strict cautionary instructions for how to care for the Mogwai, with three rules in particular that must be followed lest there be serious consequences: keep him out of direct or bright light, don’t get him wet, and never feed him after midnight. The creature is named Gizmo, and he and Billy enjoy some fun times together, until Gizmo gets wet. He multiplies, spawning a few more Mogwai, all more mischievous than Gizmo. The real terror begins when these Mogwai are fed after midnight. Led by Stripe, the Mogwai transform into Gremlins; after Stripe immerses himself in a YMCA pool in order to multiply, thousands of Gremlins overrun the town, committing vandalism and murder. It’s up to Billy, Gizmo, and his lady friend Kate to save the formerly peaceful suburban town.
One scene later in the film (running from one hour and nineteen minutes into the film to one hour, twenty-three minutes, and fifty seconds) finds the Gremlins in a movie theater watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Billy, Gizmo, and Kate have snuck into the theater to turn on the gas in the basement, effectively turning the building into a massive Molotov cocktail to incinerate the Gremlins. The scene begins with Billy opening the door to the cinema with Gizmo on his back. They see one solitary Gremlin scavenging for popcorn, and the camera cuts between this Gremlin—the picture of excess—and Gizmo and Billy, the personification of innocence and morality. Dante juxtaposes the Gremlin, a mutation, with Gizmo, the original Mogwai, whose disapproving and horrified face is framed in the window of the door looking into the cinema.
The Gremlin is in darkness and Kate, Billy, and Gizmo are shown illuminated by the light on the street. This Gremlin is at the front of the theater, and it is implied that behind him, unseen, are the hordes of Gremlins who have been terrorizing the town. When Dante cuts to the shot of the Gremlins seated in the theater proper, it is the exact opposite of the behavior people are supposed to display in the cinema. It is a scene of chaos. The rows of Gremlins occupy the entire frame, with no one Gremlin given singular importance. They are wearing human clothes, yelling, moving around, and hurling popcorn. The faceless mass is given an impersonal, imposing quality as the seats are filled and ascend all the way from the foreground to the background of the shot. As the viewer, we are left looking up into the horror before us.
Directly after this shot of mass chaos, the scene cuts to a close-up of Stripe, the leader of the Gremlins. This is signified not only by his particularly vicious demeanor and appearance with the distinctive Mohawk he sports, but by Dante’s use of the close-up, framing him as large and solitary, thereby in charge. All of the other Gremlins are devoid of hair. In the context of social criticism, singling out Stripe as the leader is important because Dante is making a statement on human nature, implying that most people are not individuals (the mass of Gremlins in the first shot), but are content to follow the trends and dictations of the few (Stripe, in the second shot). Stripe can also be viewed as the dis-affected and mis-guided leader necessary to galvanize the Under-Man that Lothrop Stoddard wrote on in The Revolt Against Civilization.
In the following three shots, chaos continues to reign as a few Gremlins attempt to get the projector to work. They are generally be-fuddled by this technology; they want the benefit of entertainment but they have not the expertise to “run” the technology necessary for a functional movie theater, which has become a ubiquitous fixture in particularly suburban American life.
At the end of the fourth shot following Stripe’s close-up, the camera zooms in on the reel of film beginning to work. There is a harsh cut to the movie screen as the film begins to work and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs begins to play. The Gremlins instantly love it; Dante uses several close-ups to show the pleasure on the creatures’ faces. At 1:21:11 we’re again given a shot from the floor of the theater looking up into the rows of Gremlins. This scene shows rows of Gremlins moving in time to the music, much of it appearing coordinated. This is a direct contrast to the earlier scene of chaos, shot from the same spot. It contains a criticism of the power of mass media and how it affects people (ironically—more on this later). Additionally, the use of this angle forces the viewer to pay special attention to the Gremlins seated in the front row, and in particular the one wearing the most obvious costume. This would be the Gremlin wearing a state trooper’s hat. Dante uses costumes like this on the Gremlins ironically. This particular Gremlin is obviously not a figure of law, order, and authority; he is the opposite of each.
Through the use of space Dante returns to the theme of the herd versus the individual. Gizmo is strapped to Billy’s back, showing their tight bond together. They were involved in the action since the beginning. Billy and Kate are shown with ample space because they are individuals, and thus make their own choices. Stripe’s decision to get up and leave the crowded theater to move to space shows his individuality. This decision proves to be a good one, as he is the only Gremlin to survive the explosion that claims the rest of the Gremlins’ lives. Dante also cuts between the group of Billy, Gizmo, and Kate and the Gremlins in the theater to show the hedonism of that group compared to the distress of the righteous. The only time Billy, Gizmo, and Kate show relief or pleasure in the scene is when they believe they’ve torched all of the Gremlins; the rest of the time the acting of the threesome serve as cues for how we as the audience should feel about the spectacle before us.
The second element to consider when analyzing the scene is the use of sound and music. Dante plays with the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound during this scene (and in fact throughout the rest of the film). The Gremlins will break into song (as they do as carolers in an earlier scene, for example, displaying a grotesque perversion of a central Western holiday), often joining the score of the picture, uniting the diegetic with the non-diegetic. This happens several times, and shows that Dante is playing with the notions of the mise en scene through sound and soundtrack. His is a sly existential musing on the nature of film and the purpose of cinema in the culture. If this film is a gut-shot to the belly of the monstrosity that is the nation-destroying drive to have cheap consumer goods and strawberries in December, the doubly-damning, middle class-obliterating importation of cheap alien labor and the active out-sourcing of jobs, then where does Gremlins fit into the picture?
Obviously the “migrant crisis” was decades in the future when this film was made, but I am reminded of the “migrants” of Europe clamoring for WiFi and a cleaner for their free villa, texting their relatives back home on smartphones while pretending to be embattled warzone refugees. Like the Gremlins, they are virile, able-bodied, and capable of wreaking havoc on an environment they do not understand and are alienated from. Also like the Gremlins, they want the benefits of entertainment, material goods, and material comfort without the necessary effort historically required to obtain them. In the strangely distorted modern world, Westerners are keen to pay into a “welfare” system that benefits alien individuals who are only takers. The irony is that the takers seek to destroy one of the few civilizations that can create these conditions of relative luxury and surplus for the average citizen. They are killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs, and the goose is letting them do it.
Another way Dante uses sound and soundtrack is in this scene when the Gremlins are instantly enraptured by Snow White; not only do they sing along with the dwarfs, but it’s interesting to note that they already know the song. This is a statement on shared cultural norms. Though they may access and to an extent participate in culture, they are nevertheless play-acting. There will always be a divide or a distance between “them” and “us.” Tellingly, the Gremlins are hideous creatures which contrasts sharply with the beauty of Snow White herself. Something else to note is that the only Gremlin not shown singing is Stripe. The reason for this is clear—the use of Snow White is to show the viewer in their cultural context another version of what is happening on-screen within the Gremlins picture. This forms the tie between the subservient dwarfs and subservient Gremlins through song. It juxtaposes Stripe with Snow White through the absence of song. This furthers the narrative through the use of sound, as well extends the metaphor of Western civilization and its beauty versus the barbarian Other.
In this scene, sound is used primarily to underscore the visual themes that have been established. When Dante cuts between the threesome and the mass of Gremlins, the auditory contrast is as harsh as the visual one; the Gremlins cause a racket, and when he cuts to the threesome they are silent but there is still a din—in the background, bleeding into the new shot. Even something as simple as characters’ voices helps to underline the impressions of the characters. Gizmo has an innocent, almost child-like voice, while the mutated Gremlins have sinister, troll-like voices. Billy and Kate have high-pitched, innocent-sounding voices; coupled with their youthful appearance, this underscores the message that these are innocent, uncorrupted youths that have yet to be deformed by the monstrosity of excess and exposure to the alien. The constant din of the Gremlins represents the ever-present specter of the barbarian Other, the undifferentiated horde howling at the gates contrasted with the individuality so cherished by Western civilization. To quote Hilaire Belloc:
The Barbarian hopes — and that is the mark of him— that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilization has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort, but he will not be at pains to replace such goods, nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is ever marvelling that civilization, should have offended him with priests and soldiers.... In a word, the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this, that he cannot make: that he can befog and destroy but that he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilization exactly that has been true.
The Gremlins seem to never speak unless they are vocalizing their desire to acquire something. Stripe merely says, “Milk Duds,” when he stands up to get some candy. He sees the sign for the candy store across the street and says, “Yum yum.” Their limited vocabulary suggests not that they are incapable of true speech, but that they are focused on one thing—acquisition of material gain and seeking their own self-gratification, though to be fair, outside of Stripe who, again referring to Lothrop Stoddard, is not necessarily “of” the mass of the Gremlins but more an estranged mutation of Western society—or at least a projection of it as the barbarian pantomiming civilization—they are not very bright. The Gremlins represent people that have given in to their greed and act upon their impulses of self-gratification with no thought for other people or consequences. Dante paints a harrowing picture of greed through the clever disguise of these mischievous creatures. Joe Dante employed the Gremlins as an assault on all of our pre-conceived notions as a culture. Roger Ebert said:
GREMLINS was hailed as another E.T. It’s not. It’s in a different tradition. At the level of Serious Film Criticism, it’s a meditation on the myths in our movies: Christmas, families, monsters, retail stores, movies, boogeymen. At the level of Pop Moviegoing, it’s a sophisticated, witty B movie, in which the monsters are devouring not only the defenseless town, but decades of defenseless clichés.
When Dante shows the Gremlins facing the movie screen, they are looking at us. He uses the movie screen as a mirror, so we can see ourselves. We’re looking at a vision of ourselves, reflected through one of our most beloved past-times—the movies. The whole use of the theater in this scene is a vital critique on popular culture. Dante is considering film’s role in modern society and its implications for society as a whole. There is a very interesting part of the scene where Billy is watching the Gremlins watch Snow White. He says, “They’re watching Snow White—and they’re loving it!” This is an interesting criticism on film from the view of one of the moral characters. It seems as if Dante is almost subversively mocking his own blockbuster film. The Gremlins are looking into the movie screen at us, but they are separated by that fourth wall. When the Gremlins tear through the screen toward the end of the scene to pursue Billy, Gizmo, and Kate, it seems that they are shredding through that fourth wall and into our reality. This underscores the interpretation that the Gremlins are, in fact, all too real, and no amount of ironic detachment or even physical distance can protect us.
The incineration of the theater by the righteous threesome symbolizes the use of fire as a cleansing tool. It is the divine retribution—note the number three. It is the moral characters triumphing over the darker side of human nature. The Gremlins are so consumed with self-gratification, so enraptured by the film that they fail to see the threesome enter the theater and go to the boiler room until the film fails and the silhouettes of Billy, Gizmo, and Kate are reflected on the screen. There are two key points here. One is that recalling Belloc’s quote, the barbarian may enjoy the largess of civilization momentarily, but he cannot maintain it. The projector inevitably stops working. The other point is that this moment in the film seems to be a commentary on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The movie screen is an important signifier for many things, not least of which is popular culture. Its use in this scene is critical to the understanding of this film in the context of social criticism. If the Gremlins are the immoral “us,” then only through turning off the mass culture that is bombarding us can we even see the silhouettes of who we are capable of becoming. The destruction of the screen is a potential break-through to reality, but the Gremlins, however, are metaphysically shackled as the dwarfs of Snow White. When the film stops playing, they are quickly incinerated by the cleansing flame and they never catch the threesome. Only the individualist Stripe escapes the explosion.
At 1:21:22 we see Billy, Gizmo, and Kate on the other side of the movie screen, symbolizing their estrangement from the Gremlins. The movie screen, popular culture, separates the greedy, hedonistic Gremlins from the moral group. The movie screen is a synecdoche for popular culture (which had become synonymous with consumer culture). Charles Sanders Peirce had three sign-types (icon, index, and symbol) which can be applied to this scene. These are the myriad ways of which a sign can relate or refer back to the object; let us use the movie screen here. The icon (which is a likeness of sorts) for the movie screen would be something like a mirror or a billboard. The index, a solid link to the object, would be the way in which cinema impacts the masses. The symbol, the way it should be interpreted, brings the sign of the movie screen into the context of consumer culture and demands that it be interpreted through a lens of social criticism as a symbol of mass media and culture, and of course for our purposes here of mass immigration. In many ways these cannot be separated as they are presently constructed.
If the sign or symbol is the movie screen, then it must have subject matter to which it relates (popular culture). The interpretant is what it all means. For example, we have light, the symbol. It relates to a certain ideal or morality which Dante has been alluding to throughout the scene. Here is one example of an interpretation of the use of light in the film: Gremlins don’t like light—they are both literally and symbolically always in darkness. This darkness reflects the darkness of their souls and a lack of enlightenment. Light has traditionally symbolized enlightenment; regarding the righteous threesome, other than Gizmo, who is an interesting exception, Kate and Billy can easily tread in light where the Gremlins need to take shelter in a place like the theater to protect them from the impending dawn. They are almost vampiric in this sense. Thus the synecdoche for popular culture, the theater, becomes what shields the Gremlins from knowledge and enlightenment. The Gremlins can only be stopped through the purifying fire.
As the opposite of fire, water also serves a central symbolic role in the film. The use of the YMCA pool is crucial; this shared space, an avatar of community, trust, and safety, becomes perverted for the use of the Gremlins to multiply and fan out, accosting the community, destroying social capital, and killing people in the largely defenseless town caught wholly unaware. Though not anywhere near the epidemic quality of the Moslems’ public bath assaults, rapes, and defecations afflicting Europe today, Jean Raspail did acknowledge this potentially explosive mix of cultures in such a space in 1973’s The Camp of the Saints. Stripe is ultimately killed by Gizmo, his doppelganger, by both light and water.
The kind and loyal Gizmo, who transforms from Other into a member of the righteous trinity of he, Billy, and Kate, is situated in a very tenuous place as both the harbinger of “mass immigration” via the corrupted Mogwai that shoot out of his side with first contact with water who then morph into the vicious Gremlins, and as the embodiment of the values of the local community he strives to save. Gizmo is really a tragic figure as the spearhead of the horrors that he spawns through no fault of his own, simply his biological construction, and yet he represents the immigrant ideal, the Monsieur Hamadura from The Camp of the Saints—the Westerner of soul and spirit if not skin.
There is another way to view Gizmo as well. His owner, Billy, comes from a nuclear, traditional family; Kate and Billy are an innocent pair moved to defend their home. Gizmo can be seen as their child and the Gremlins as foreign interlopers—the “children Westerners won’t have.” The Gremlins reproduce at a shocking, nearly-exponential rate as opposed to the one Gizmo “had” by Billy and Kate. The town is quickly over-run by the murderous, destructive Gremlins concerned only with momentary pleasure—an analogue of the high time preference immigrants and asylum seekers the West is determined to replace its own people with.
Finally, it is worth considering what not just the town but the entire planet would look like had Billy, Kate, and Gizmo not emerged victorious.