“Christmas carolers…I hate Christmas carolers.” Mrs. Deagle, myself, and everyone else.
We are near concluding End of Days month here at Nightmare on Film Street and, much more mercifully, 2020 as a whole. Instead of wallowing in the crap fest that was this year, I chose instead to gleefully cover the mischief and misery the citizens of Kingston Falls faced when Randall Peltzer brought his son a new pet home for Christmas. For this edition of Making a Monster, we will be covering every horror fan’s favorite Christmas movie, Gremlins! Much of today’s information comes from the film’s Blu Ray featurettes Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous: Making Gremlins and From Gizmo to Gremlins: Creating the Creatures. Now turn off all the lights, pin your bag of potato chips closed, and learn!
Not Lovin’ It
The idea for Gremlins started in writer Chris Columbus’s shady Manhattan loft. “It was not a pretty place to live,” Said Columbus. “I would sleep at night with my arm draped over the bed, and there were mice. Every now and then, I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a mouse brushing up by my hand, and I had this fear of them starting to nibble on my fingers. I thought, ‘there’s nothing really more frightening than these tiny little creatures’.” Columbus recalled his dad would spend Saturday afternoons working underneath the family car, and would talk about “gremlins” wreaking havoc on the vehicle, forcing it to break down. The writer combined these prompts into a spec script, trying to prove to the industry that he was a capable writer. As most horror fans know, this script was not the exact one that went on to be filmed. Instead, it originated as a very dark horror film, featuring scenes such as Billy‘s mother’s decapitated head falling down stairs and Gremlins invading a McDonalds to eat the customers while leaving the actual food untouched.
After facing numerous rejections, the script was picked up by none other than Steven Spielberg, revealing, “it’s one of the most original things I’ve come across in many years[…]“. Known as a master of films the whole family can see, Spielberg shaved off some of the horror elements and added more emotion to the story. For instance, Gizmo, the unbearably adorable Mogwai was originally written to turn into the evil Stripe, and instead was included throughout the entire film as the Billy’s sidekick and eventual hero of the story. The final script made for a wonderfully odd combination of black comedy, horror, and holiday madness.
The Putrid Stage
Director Joe Dante approached special effects artist Chris Walas, who was working on another project with Dante at the time, to do a feasibility test on Gremlins. The artist explained the design process in depth during an interview with Daily Dead. “I was given a lot of freedom to come up with the designs for Gremlins… The Mogwai wound up being very similar to Chris’ original description – roughly ten inches tall, furry with pointed ears. I did a couple of versions for Joe to give me feedback and we arrived at the design fairly quickly.” Walas modified the design after several rejections by Spielberg. eventually showing him a concept that featured fur the same color as his dog, which was accepted. To give Gizmo a defining feature distinguishable from the other Mogwai, Walas gave him a white ring around his eye, borrowing the trait from Petey, the dog from The Little Rascals.
A great creative challenge arose from the Mogwai’s metamorphosis. “They had to in many ways be opposites, from cute & cuddly to scaly and nasty, but still had to be two sides of the same character. I couldn’t take a Mogwai and turn him into a crocodile, it doesn’t look like there’s a biological advancement there.” Walas crafted shared characteristics between the two forms, most notably the large ears, which he referred to as “mood indicators” due to their ability to convey happenings within a scene. “To me, the Gremlins and Mogwai are just different moods of the same creature, so it was fun designing both of them together.” The actual Gremlins went through a longer creative process. Columbus’ original concept in the script, for which he drew ten or so concept drawings, had them as armored beings, with long tails and horns where their ears once were. The creatures were given sharp teeth, claws, and sinister grins to match their behavior.
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Walas and his crew constructed over 100 Gremlins puppets, including a mix of rubber hand-controlled designs and cable controlled animatronics. With a relatively low budget for such an ambitious movie, money was not available to build sets on raised platforms, which would typically be used in puppet movies. Instead, the film’s production designer Jim Spencer chose a Warner Bros set that featured an empty pool, and sets were built on top of it. Walas would take direction from Dante above ground, and the puppeteers would perform the actions in the concrete pool using small television monitors. “I would give each operator exact instructions on how far to tilt the head, how much to close the eyes, etc., as well as giving the operators general ‘acting’ directions. As the production progressed and we all got a sense of what Joe was looking for and what the puppets were capable of, it all got much easier.”
The two most intricate, puppet-heavy scenes in the film, the movie theatre and the bar scene, each presented different obstacles, though one was much easier to puppeteer than the other. The scene at Dorry’s Tavern was a massive feat, filmed after the film had basically wrapped production with it’s human cast sans Phoebe Cates. To put it bluntly, there were very little spaces for the effects artists to hide, as many of the Gremlins were filmed performing their shenanigans out in the open. A favorite of director Joe Dante’s, the scene was originally scripted to last 20 minutes(!) later being cut down to 10. The director even placed a list on the set where crewmembers could add anything they thought would be funny to see the Gremlins do. The theatre scene, even though it featured a vastly larger amount of puppets, proved much easier to control. “We had the seat backs to hide behind and that was simply wonderful. It was a little bit of a challenge twisting into operating position sometimes, but we weren’t drilling holes in walls and floors for that scene,” said Walas.
You would think that the sheer number of puppets and the complexity featured in some of them would bestow them with the “most difficult” title, but that was not the case. Because the Gizmo puppet was so small, it was extremely prone to breakdowns. It didn’t help that Spielberg’s script changes meant it would be featured many times throughout the film. Too tiny and the technology not there, the puppet could not walk on it’s own, so the crew decided to place Gizmo in Billy’s backpack for most of the film.
The animatronic Mogwai featured a detachable face, allowing for multiple expressions without changing the mechanics of the puppet. Actor Zach Galligan was required to have wires strung through his pantleg and into the backpack in order to control the puppet and simultaneously hide the method of doing so. Basically co-starring with Gizmo for the entirety of the film, Galligan had a front-row seat to it’s malfunctions. “When Gizmo broke, you could hear it. He would turn and you would hear a ‘buh-PING’ and a spring would pop in his ear, and everyone would eventually learn what the sound was.” To vent their frustrations, Dante added the scene where the newly-hatched Gremlins threw darts at a trembling Gizmo placed on a dartboard.
Despite the challenges faced, filmmakers knew the gold mine Walas and his crew had created, and went to great strengths to protect their secrets. Cast and crew members’ car trunks were checked after every shoot to make sure nothing left the set.
“Why Would a Gremlin be in a microwave?”
Immersed within the groundbreaking puppetry, it’s easy to forget to appreciate a vital finishing touch on the Gremlins we know and love – their voice, equal parts sinister and hilarious. Whether it be the Gremlin sliding off a roof screaming Cliffhanger-style after being hit by Corey Feldman’s slingshot, the uncontrollable laughter as they bulldoze through Mr. Futterman‘s front door, or the memorable “hi ho” as they enjoy a private screening of Snow White, the voiceover work provides just the right amount of comic relief, no matter how evil of deed is being done. It wasn’t always this way, however, as the first results left Chris Walas dismayed.
The artist told Sequel Quest in a 2017 interview, “We had a screening of Joe’s first cut at the Academy theater. The sounds for the Mogwai and Gremlins were simply animal sounds. I was heartbroken and devastated. Honestly. After all we had done, I was crushed. So much so that I could not even stay after the film and ran out of the theater, literally almost in tears.” Thankfully for Walas and viewers as a whole, this would not be the finished product. “To his great credit, Mark (Mangini) chased me down on the street to confront me on the sound. He said If I wasn’t happy with the sound he would do it as many times as it would take to make it right. I have forever been in his gratitude since.“
“Can you make the sound of a Gremlin on a ceiling fan that starts to twirl out of control and goes flying into a juke box?”
In the behind-the-scenes featurette of the film, director Joe Dante theorized that Steven Spielberg often cast relatively unfamiliar actors in fantasy films in order for audiences to lose themselves in the characters instead of the persons portraying them. While that is debatably true for the human actors of Gremlins, the voice actor lineup must have come directly from the voiceover hall of fame. Howie Mandel was chosen for the voice of Gizmo the Mogwai, while prolific voiceover/effects artists Frank Welker, Michael Winslow, Peter Cullen, Bob Bergen, and Fred Newman rounded out the majority of the Gremlin voices.
In yet another testament to the secrecy surrounding the film, Bergen recalled his audition for the role in an interview with the Fueled by Death Podcast. Bergen went to the aforementioned sound supervisor Mark Mangini’s office with no information and a nearly complete lack of understanding of the characters. No pictures, no descriptions, no story details. Instead, Mangini described a few select scenes and asked Bergen how he would perform them. ” ‘Can you do the sound of a Gremlin exploding in a microwave?‘ And I said ‘Why would a Gremlin be in a microwave?’ “ Mangini refused to answer, moving on to the next scene instead. ” ‘Can you make the sound of a Gremlin on a ceiling fan that starts to twirl out of control and goes flying into a juke box?’ Ok, again, why is this happening?”
There Just Might Be a Gremlin in Your House
“The Gremlins are kind of like our impulses, our ‘id’,” actor Zach Galligan chided in the movie featurette. “It’s like what we want to do, it’s the bad side of us. And it’s fun to be bad, the Gremlins were having so much fun being bad. Deep down, I think a lot of people kind of related to it.” And a lot of people did. Aside from going toe to toe with the release of Ghostbusters on the same weekend, Gremlins raked in nearly $213 million dollars worldwide and has become a horror staple.
If you read my column often, you understand my undying preference for practical effects, and the puppetry masterpiece Chris Walas and his crew created for the film owns a uniqueness no other film can really come close to. From the effects, to the black comedy script, to the voiceover legends behind the scenes, everything came together smoothly to not only create one of the most beloved horror/comedy films of all time, but also some of our genre’s most memorable, hilariously sinister villains. And probably Furby’s too.
Where do you rank Gremlins on your list of favorite Christmas horror flicks, or favorite movies altogether? Did you, like me, as a child (and even now as I write this) desperately want Gizmo as a pet? Are you as thankful as I am that Spielberg removed a scene of the Gremlins eating Billy‘s dog? Finish your snacks before midnight and let us know how you feel over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.