Shocktoberfest #21: Gremlins


Welcome back everyone, and today we find ourselves in the home stretch of Shocktoberfest.  We’ve got ten more to go, and at #21 we’ll be looking at a superstitious rumor dating back to the second World War that spread around until it became an urban legend: gremlins.

If all you know about gremlins is what you’ve seen in Joe Dante’s films, then a brief history lesson on their origin may be needed.  While some claim that the superstition of gremlins amongst pilots in the Royal Air Force during World War I, there isn’t any documented evidence for it.  During World War II, stories were spread through print and word of mouth about tiny impish people living inside aircraft with the intention of sabotaging them while on missions.  These little creatures were called gremlins, taken from the Old English word gremian which means “to vex.”  The gremlins never seemed to have any strong motive for their behavior.  They weren’t planted there by the Nazis to turn the tide of the war.  They simply did what they did for the sake of mischief.  When flight crews experienced accidents that they couldn’t explain, many concluded that gremlins must have caused the problems rather than examine possible mechanical malfunctions or accepting blame for their own mistakes.

In 1943, Welsh author and former RAF pilot Roald Dahl had his first children’s book published entitled The Gremlins (published by the Walt Disney Company).  His story involved little imps that dismantled airplanes as well, but the main character (a pilot named Gus) convinces the gremlins to join forces with him to fight a greater enemy.

This man
This man

The RAF trains the gremlins to fix the aircraft instead of breaking them, and Gus and company take on the Nazis with a renewed sense of hope and determination.

First edition's cover
First edition’s cover

Dahl’s book was an instant success, and while Walt Disney’s attempt to create a short film based on the gremlins never came to fruition, rival Warner Bros. created an eight-minute short the same year called Falling Hare starring Bugs Bunny meeting an unnamed gremlin.  Unlike most Merrie Melodies cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Bugs is the one who’s the butt of most of the jokes and nearly lets the gremlin get the best of him.

If you haven't already, set aside eight minutes to go watch it.  It's really funny.
If you haven’t already, set aside eight minutes to go watch it. It’s really funny.

Twenty years after the release of The Gremlins and Falling Hare, gremlins returned to their more sinister roots in the Richard Donner-directed episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring William Shatner.  In this episode, Shatner plays a man who has a fear of flying and is just now recovering from a mental breakdown, and he notices a strange humanoid creature on the plane’s wing attempting to damage it.  He tries to warn everyone around him of the danger they’re in since he knows that if the wing or engine becomes damaged, the plane will crash.  The twist of irony is that no one believes him, and whenever anyone tries to see what he sees, the gremlin is nowhere to be found.  Fearing for the lives of everyone on board, Shatner steals a revolver from a sleeping police officer and causes a breach in the auxiliary vent to try to shoot the gremlin.  After the plane lands, Shatner is taken away on a stretcher in  a straitjacket assumed to be insane, but as he is taken away, evidence of the gremlin’s sabotage is found all over the wing.

An instant classic that has been re-created and parodied countless times
An instant classic that has been re-created and parodied countless times

In 1983, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was included as a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie with a newly designed gremlin, and although Joe Dante and  Steven Spielberg didn’t direct that segment in spite of being involved with the rest of the film, one year later they would get to collaborate on their own horror-comedy film that would redefine the public’s image of the gremlin.

Three simple rules, and they break them all
Three simple rules, and they break them all

This is one of the first times, if not the first time, the gremlins had been given an origin story.  They don’t disassemble airplanes, and rather than being tiny people, they’re designed more like a combination of bat and lizard.  But they don’t start out that way.  Before they become gremlins, they’re born as cute little furry scamps called mogwai.  We learn very early in the film the rules for caring for a mogwai. They’re nocturnal creatures and don’t like bright light–sunlight is lethal for them–they must be kept dry and avoid any contact with water, and most importantly, they must never feed after midnight.  Needless to say, each rule is broken at least once in the movie, and when it happens, we learn that bright light causes them pain and fear, water allows them to multiply, and feeding after midnight causes them to enter a pupal stage in which they enter cocoons and hatch as gremlins.

For some reason though, Gizmo is the only nice one who doesn't want to become a gremlin.  I can't say that I blame him.  He wouldn't be nearly as cute.
For some reason though, Gizmo is the only nice one who doesn’t want to become a gremlin. I can’t say that I blame him. He wouldn’t be nearly as cute.

While they aren’t always exactly well-mannered as mogwai, they become psychotically mischievous and violent as gremlins.  They don’t even seem to have any real motive for causing such mayhem other than for their own entertainment, and man, do they love being bad!  That’s probably why Spielberg and Dante made their story a black comedy.  As creepy as they can be, they’re having so much fun wrecking havoc on this small American town trying to appreciate the Christmas season that you almost can’t help but enjoy it right along with them.  Of course, when Gizmo and company give them their comeuppance, it’s still very satisfying.

Gremlins was such a success that a sequel was released in 1990 called Gremlins 2: The New Batch.  This one is not nearly as scary as the first one, but it wasn’t meant to be–much how Army of Darkness gave up on trying to be horrifying and just had fun being a satire of itself.  And Joe Dante is a satire master.  I’ve watched both films over and over, and I still enjoy them both every time.  Maybe it’s the scamp-like personalities of the gremlins that we love.  They’re sort of like some strange hybrid of fairies and vampires by their nature: cocky little bastards who are looking to have a good time by causing mischief and also vicious devils who’ll attack you in the dark.

They’re legacy has lead to many followers [Critters, Ghoulies, Troll, etc.], but so far, all have failed to live up to the bar the gremlins set.  There was talk of making a third Gremlins movie with Joe Dante back at the helm, but when the studio wanted to have the gremlins rendered in CGI format, Dante declined.  (Good move, in my opinion.)  However, according to reports, Warner Bros. Pictures is negotiating with Amblin Entertainment for the rights to reboot the franchise.  As of now, the two people who’ve been assigned to produce it are Seth Grahame-Smith and David Katzenberg, son of Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Both of these guys are also rumored to be trying to reboot Stephen King’s It and also make Beetlejuice 2.  How good will they be…?  Only time will tell.

Regardless of where the franchise goes, the gremlins have certainly left their mark on the popular consciousness, and if they come back to raise a little more mayhem, I can’t complain too much.  Just don’t let them decide what the movie should be; they’ll just make us watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with them.


“Sabotage” – Beastie Boys

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