I ended up with the wrong Gremlins poster on a trip to Spencer Gifts one Saturday in the mid-1980s, when I was eight or nine years old. It may have been mislabeled; I may have misread the label. I had wanted a reproduction of the film’s meta promotional poster, where the film’s lead villain, Stripe, tears through an original poster image of warm hands holding a box from which cute, cuddly Gizmo’s paws emerge. In this poster, Stripe emerges through the center of what would be Gizmo’s head (and, Alien-style, Zach Galligan’s stomach), crossing out the original tagline (“Cute. Cuddly. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous.”) and scrawling “WE’RE BACK!” over the top of the image with a big red crayon.
What I got instead was a blowup of a still from the film’s bar scene, where Stripe sits hunched in darkness at a poker table with two other Gremlins. One is done up with lipstick and a hat full of flowers; the other is a default, male-gendered Gremlin, who will be shot at that same poker table by Stripe at the urging of his female-presenting companion. (This is the only time, as far as I can tell, that Stripe does anything at someone else’s urging. She must have been a special lady.) The image presents Stripe in a rather unflattering light, his scowling head draped in shadow as if he were totally wasted in these decadent surroundings. It’s not that Stripe would be, you know, a hunk like Robert Picardo in Gremlins 2 or the cheery, unwrinklable curly-haired grown-up boy Zach Galligan in both films. Rather, it’s that Stripe is usually full of life, dark and light: vicious and malicious with guns and chainsaws, chasing what’s delightful and delicious, watching Snow White or filling his arms full of concession stand candy bars. His mohawk brings the urban threat of unhinged ‘80s youth to the midcentury studio-lot trappings of Kingston Falls, the shock of white electric hair ageless atop his reptilian green visage. Neither of these features is particularly shown off by the poker-playing poster, which, to my prepubescent mind, seemed a peculiar way to sell Gremlins, or at least Stripe.
I had taken the poster back to the store and exchanged it, but when I slid the replacement from its plastic tube it bore the barroom image. It seemed I was stuck with it, like poor Sigmund Freud in “The Uncanny,” who somehow ends up wandering repeatedly into the red-light district. So I put the poker-playing Gremlins on my bedroom wall, and they remained there for several years, getting increasingly tattered as I crushed many a buzzing fly stuck behind them, my fingers besmirched by Cheeto dust. (I like to think those depicted would have approved of this usage, though they might also have just shot me in the face.)
I remained somewhat stuck in the ‘80s as adolescence befell me in the early ‘90s. An early cassette purchase was the “specially-priced 7-cut mini-album” soundtrack to Gremlins, which contained the revelation that my favorite singer, Peter Gabriel, had contributed a song to this favorite childhood film. Gabriel being part of Gremlins was almost as astonishing a discovery as his having been part of Genesis, whose (way post-Gabriel) Invisible Touch was my favorite of my mother’s exercise albums. What was more, his Gremlins song accompanied the scene that had been on my wall years before I even knew who Gabriel was. Such constellations feel like fate to an eleven-year-old brain.
Gabriel’s Gremlins song, “Out Out,” introduces the sequence of carnage in Dorrie’s Tavern, where an elf-hatted Gremlin spins from the ceiling fan as pounding drums accompany Gabriel’s declaration, I’ve had enough of this! Before one of the creatures switches the boombox to some bluesy jazz that will accompany an impromptu puppet show, we get two minutes of “Out Out.” During this time, we witness Gremlins with mouths full of cigs, pounding beer glasses at the bar, chortling for no reason at bowls full of popcorn, trenchcoat flashing, and executing the aforementioned poker-game in an all out Gremlinslaughter. All the while, Kate (Phoebe Cates) does her best to serve/hold her own against the horde.
“Out Out” was Gabriel’s first composition for a motion picture, and its pulsing rhythms, echoing saxophone, and monstrous guitar sounds seem right for Gremlins. But what of the lyrics? If they reflect the point of view of anyone here, it would seem to be lovely Kate, the volunteer bartender, who wants out, away from these people who don’t know me at all, who wants, presumably, to hoooold you (cheery, unwrinklable curly-haired grown-up-boy Zach Galligan) in my arms. But Gabriel’s imagery seems brought in from other worlds, from tall, dark trees to subways. Beyond this, the music’s Afrobeat elements and funk-jazz rhythm guitar point toward a desire to reach horizons way beyond Kingston Falls, or even the Manhattan of Clamp Tower in Gremlins 2. An epic whose journey is only sketched out impressionistically, the song’s full seven minutes would be too much for this film. By the time Gabriel has started growling OUT… OUT… OUT… OUT… from the back of his throat, he might as well have become Gremlin-as-lycanthrope, pronouncing human words as sheer aggressive sound. The song longs for concupiscent union while undergoing its own effects-laden metamorphosis; it wants girl and Gremlin.
Gabriel has said that when writing the anti-apartheid anthem “Biko,” he was concerned that he might be doing it for the wrong reason—that is, it might be a self-aggrandizing gesture. He expressed these doubts to Tom Robinson, who had had success with his own political anthem, “Glad to Be Gay.” Robinson told Gabriel not to worry about his motivations, that raising awareness about the murdered South African poet was worthwhile in itself. “Biko” appeared as the final track on Gabriel’s self-titled 1980 album, whose songs depict psychopathy, urban alienation, and geopolitical horrors (“Intruder,” “No Self Control,” “Games without Frontiers”); much of the album, with its iconic Hipgnosis-designed melting face cover, projects self-disgust. After the claustrophobic gated drums and Fairlight synthesizer sounds that populate most of these songs, the elegy of “Biko” offers catharsis, in many ways setting the course for Gabriel’s subsequent music and globalist activism.
“Out Out” seems to be a kind of detour on that course, crossing paths with another, queerer road. In this respect, it’s inviting to draw a parallel between Gabriel’s melting face—the product of a Polaroid manipulation—with Kate’s tactic to disperse the Gremlins at the bar, using a Polaroid flash bar. We know from the climax of the film that bright light and water will “melt” Gremlins. Their perverse polymorphisms—they reproduce asexually, wear clothes only for fun, and are all out—are finally rendered in rotting goo; grim, comic ejaculations. Gabriel’s narrators, who don’t remember, have no self control, and slip into women’s homes to wear their clothes in the dark, appear more self-aware but similarly dangerous and unpredictable. (Gizmo, for his part, dreams in his Barbie car that “that guy needs a certain kind of dame,” recalling a Clark Gable film he’d been watching, but, expressing no interest in eating after midnight, remains unchanged and innocent—and, as is the American way, suitably vengeful to his tormenters, especially in the sequel.)
“Out Out” was co-produced by Nile Rodgers, who earlier had cowritten Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” another LGBTQ anthem. His collaboration with Gabriel seems to have been something of a one-off, apart from their shared work on Laurie Anderson’s “Excellent Birds” at the same time. Meanwhile, it’s a peculiarity of Gabriel’s discography that it does not reproduce “Out Out”: a recent compilation of songs for films, Rated PG, overlooks it (as does the six-hour B-sides-and-ephemera dump Flotsam and Jetsam). Gremlins was, of course, one of the films whose violence helped usher in the PG-13 rating, partly at producer Stephen Spielberg’s suggestion. Why, now, is “Out Out” locked away? Perhaps there are rights issues. Perhaps it does not wish to leave the Gremlins franchise closet, fearing the light. But perhaps, one day, it will be ready.
Gremlins screens at the Trylon from Friday, December 27 to Sunday, December 29.
Edited by Michelle Baroody