Say It Ain’t So, Joe!

Julia Marchese on how Joe Dante's Gremlins changed her life forever, when she saw it at age five.

I like my Christmas movies to be on the dark, twisted side, and one holiday film changed my life forever – Joe Dante’s incredible 1984 film Gremlins.

[Film and Christmas Spoilers Below!]

I was five in 1984, but I very clearly remember seeing the film in the theater on opening day in the cinema with my family, and for very good reason – that was the day I found out there was no Santa Claus.

I grew up in Las Vegas, and my family loved to go to the movies (and still does!), often spending Friday night at the theater watching the new releases. I was a bit of a scaredy-cat kid and I remember often being frightened by films. But my parents were always there to comfort and explain the artistry of cinema to me, although separating fact from fiction when you are a small child is tough. I remember being very excited to at the prospect of Gremlins, and couldn’t wait to go see it.

Gremlins was marketed to children, with Gizmo toys, lunchboxes and merchandise aplenty. Families were clearly expecting an ET-type experience, and instead got a film with terrifying monsters, lots of folks getting killed and a monologue unlike any other.

Julia Marchese at age five, wearing her Care Bears sweater.

Don’t get me wrong, Phoebe Cates’ monologue about finding her dead fathers’ corpse stuck in the chimney dressed as Santa is one of my absolute favorite things about the film. For all intents and purposes, that monologue should 100 percent not be in Gremlins, and I know that both Dante and Steven Spielberg fought to keep it in, while knowing that it would dispel the Santa myth, and reveal their parents’ lies, to millions of children. I love them so much for that. (Chris Columbus wrote the script, which was even darker in its original draft – so hats off to him!) It’s a level of darkness rarely brought about in any Christmas film, let alone a “kids” movie. And maybe some kids didn’t fully grasp what Kate’s story was about, but my tricksy little brain got it immediately and I saw St. Nick in a whole new light.

I remember being so incredibly horrified by the monstrous gremlins, their nastiness and their gruesome deaths. That night, after the movie, we came home to find out that we had been locked out of our house by accident. There was one window slightly open in the back of the house, and since I was the smallest in the family, they asked me to slip in, walk through the darkened house and unlock the front door from the inside. I put my five-year-old foot down and told them absolutely not. I knew for certain there were gremlins lurking in the dark. I wouldn’t budge. My older brother eventually had to squeeze in; I was grappling with too much terror, and would have nightmares from the film.

Gizmo wearing a Santa hat in Gremlins.

You would think I would be angry at a film that left me traumatized twofold. But honestly, I’m not mad that Gremlins simultaneously ruined Santa Claus and also scared the ever-living fluff out of me. Then and now, I applaud the film’s anarchy, and its fuck-you attitude. “Listen kids, Santa doesn’t exist, but we got a cute fuzzball to distract you! Look how adorable he is!” Truthfully, I prefer Gremlins’ chaos to the overly saccharine “We only need to believe in Christmas Magic” movies that are the usual holiday fare.

Rarely does a film completely change the path of belief in a viewer in the space of two minutes, but this movie did just that, altering my view on both my parents and the holiday entirely. And to that I say – thank you, Joe Dante, for complete Christmas anarchy.

Julia Marchese is a filmmaker, actor, podcaster, cinephile and film programmer living in Hollywood, California. Her first film was the award-winning documentary Out of Print, about the importance of revival cinema and 35 mm exhibition to culture, and she is currently the co-host of the popular horror podcast Horror Movie Survival Guide. She recently crowdfunded on IndieGoGo for her forthcoming Dollar Baby short film I Know What You Need, based on Stephen King’s story of the same name from Night Shift. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @juliacmarchese.