Is there a monster who is both as goofy and as effective as the Gremlin from the original Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet? It seems unlikely, and even the movie version of The Twilight Zone wasn’t able to capture that middle ground – their design seems to be a precursor to both The Ghoulies and Critters, and while Gremlins (released a year after Twilight Zone) comes close, the creatures are just never as goofy as that big dude in padded pajamas.
As a kid the Gremlin occupied a special place in my mind, partially because he seems so childlike. Part of that surely is the aformentioned PJs, but episode writer Richard Matheson and director Richard Donner (man! Donner, Matheson and Shatner working together. TV used to be incredible) wisely keep their Gremlin from being malevolent; he has a childlike fascination with the parts of the airplane – he’s not looking to crash it, he’s just poking around to see what’s inside of it. Also, he’s got a weird face that’s odd but not inherently scary, as well as a wacky afro. When I was young I thought he was made of boogers – it’s just a textural thing – and for years afterwards I thought whenever someone said The Boogey Man they were saying The Booger Man.
As a grown up who hates flying, what’s great about the original Gremlin – as opposed to the movie version, who is totally looking to freak out John Lithgow and crash the plane – is that it reflects what I’m afraid of about air travel. I’m not particularly frightened by terrorists or someone trying to crash my plane, but I am frightened by weird sounds coming from the engines or by strange jolts in otherwise clear skies. It’s just Shatner’s shitty luck that he ended up on a plane that has attracted the attention of a Gremlin. Just like it would be your shitty luck to have ended up on a plane where the maintenance crew forgot to put a bolt on the right way, or where a wire wasn’t properly insulated.
Shatner’s great in the episode, by the way, all sweaty madness, looking like he’s been living only on amphetamine-based diet pills. Nick Cravat is in that wacky pajama ape suit, playing the Gremlin; Cravat grew up with Burt Lancaster and the two were once in an acrobatic group together. Where Lancaster’s career took off, Cravat’s stalled, held back by a thick Brooklyn accent he couldn’t drop. Still, the two friends worked on eight movies together – and even died in the same year.
The episode is very dated – every aspect of air travel seems to have changed since then, starting with the curtains on the windows and the fact that the seats actually have room for humans to sit – but it still works magnificently. If you’ve ever been afraid on an airplane you understand Shatner’s terror, and the episode pulls it out a little at a time, escalating to a point where the only reason why you think he shouldn’t shoot the Gremlin through the window is because you understand the concept of pressurization. It’s almost cathartic in its own way; I’ve been on many a flight where the turbulence was really horrifying and if taking a shot at a monster on the wing would have cleared things up – well I would have been taking aim within seconds.
So let’s hear for the Gremlin. A big guy in a puffy suit (with jammy feets!), a fright wig and some modest facial appliances can be much more memorable and work much better than the most realistic CGI or the most expensive animatronic beast. Sometimes simplicity – and not being afraid of a touch of silliness – is all you need.