That Time GREMLINS Got Really Dark

“That’s when I noticed the smell.”

 

The 1980’s horror gem Gremlins (directed by Joe Dante) gets a lot of attention this year as genre enthusiasts revisit scary movies with a Christmas theme.  While there are plenty of jumps and chills in this madcap misadventure, one scene stands out as particularly disturbing. Ironically, this scene went completely over my head when I first saw Gremlins as an 11-year-old in 1984, only impressing me with its brutal bleakness when I reexamined the movie as an adult.

As Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his crush Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) take a moment’s refuge from the marauding reptilian fiends, Kate makes a shocking revelation that explains her aversion to the holiday season:

phoebe-cates“The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney… his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.”

WTF, am I right?

Aficionados of Gremlins are aware that the original screenplay was considerably more violent than the version that eventually hit theaters, including much more murder and dismemberment.  Still, Kate’s monolog seems out of place, an example of extreme gallows humor in an otherwise lighthearted and mischievous romp.

Kate’s monolog is, of course, a variation of an infamous urban legend, one that has more basis in reality than most of them.  While there has never been a confirmed case of a father dressed as Santa dying in a chimney, there are cases of would-be-Cringles getting stuck (and rescued), as well as documented cases of bodies being found in chimneys (usually suspected burglars who went missing).   Even so, Kate’s story (written by Chris Columbus) takes a grisly turn all its own.

In the urban legend, the family of the missing father learns the sad truth after lighting a fire and finding the chimney clogged.  While this is nearly identical to Kate’s discovery, a particularly macabre detail takes the story to new levels of grotesquery: “That’s when I noticed the smell… Me and mom were expecting [the firemen] to pull out a dead cat or a bird…”

gerlg

Kate’s detection of decomposing flesh adds a disgusting undertone to the legend, conjuring images of decay (peeling skin, dripping bodily fluids—even insect infestation).  It’s an exceptionally unnerving mental image that burrows deep under your skin—and festers!

This particular urban legend endures for the one-two punch it delivers.  First, a death at Christmas destroys the inherent joy of the holiday.  Second, the discovery that Santa isn’t real represents the demise of childhood.  It’s a story sure to last for many generations to come, and Kate’s monolog in Gremlins may go down in history as the most graphically disturbing iteration.

Did Kate’s monolog in Gremlins strike you as out of place?  Did the scene make an impact on you when you first saw the movie?  Sound off in the Comments section!

Follow me on Twitter @josh_millican for quality horror articles worthy of your attention.

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4 Comments on this post.

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  • Matthew Myers
    10 December 2015 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    Seeing Gremlins as a kid, I didn’t find this scene out of place. The violence in the kitchen, and when Stripe fell into the pool really made me feel uneasy though. Recently seeing the film again with adult eyes, it’s definitely a dark piece of dialog that went over my head as a child. The scene isn’t very long, but it was long enough with the creatures to compromise my attention span as a 10 year old boy.

    It may depend on the person and how they find out Santa Claus wasn’t real when they were a kid. For some it’s devastating, for others it wasn’t a big deal at all. Great article, very interesting stuff as alway Josh!

    • Josh Millican
      10 December 2015 at 9:59 pm - Reply

      Thank you Sir!

  • Martha Linn
    10 December 2015 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Actually, I laughed out loud at that part. Hilarious movie.

  • Felix
    11 December 2015 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    how about in part 2 they cut her off the second it seemed she was gonna go into that story again lol

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