Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gremlins (1984)

It’s easy to dismiss Gremlins as a kid’s movie, given the film’s adorable main creature and it’s marketing potential.  But the film has a much darker subtext, delivering a sharp jab at standard holiday fare, and the puppet work is still amazing, even in the age of CGI effects.  When this film is rebooted (and we all know it will happen), I suspect it will lack the dark humor and believable monsters of the original.  In fact, the only good point to a reboot is the possibility of a better Special Edition of the original, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. 

But, that’s enough speculation.  Let’s get to the movie, which opens with down on his luck (and rather inept) inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) visiting a Chinatown shop to find a gift for his son.  Unable to resist a sales pitch for his latest invention, Peltzer is interrupted by the song of a Mogwai.  Fascinated by the creature (wisely kept in shadows at this point, he tries to buy it, but the shop owner (Keye Luke) insists that the creature is not for sale.  His Grandson (John Louie), however, is interested in the monetary gain and gets Peltzer the Mogwai in a back alley.

But he's SO CUTE!  How can this end badly?

At least the kid tells Peltzer the three rules for owning a Mogwai.  It must be kept away from any bright light and sunlight (which can kill it), it can’t be exposed to water and it must never fed after midnight, no matter how much it begs. 
Sounds pretty simple, but once Peltzer gives the critter to his son, Billy (Zach Gilligan), things start to go south.  Billy’s friend Pete (Corey Feldman) manages to spill water on the Mogwai, now called Gizmo, and generates five more evil-tempered Mogwai lead by Stripe.  And, no surprise, Billy is tricked into feeding the new gremlins after midnight (no spoiler alert needed, as you should have seen that one coming).

Soon, the five Mogwai are in a pupal stage, emerging from their rather Giger-styled cocoons, more reptilian and intent on destroying everything in sight.  Soon Billy. Gizmo and Billy’s girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) are the only ones standing against an invasion of gremlins spreading across the country.

Here we come, a caroling....

The story is pretty solid, as Billy and his family find that cute packages often come with a heavy price tag, a lesson most Black Friday shoppers have yet to learn.  Still the script stumbles with the sequences bookending the movie, involving the Chinatown shopkeeper.  The scenes do play off the oft-used stereotype of an ancient civilization being wiser than a modern society, but that’s not the problem.  Gremlins emerged into pop-culture as creatures creating mechanical issues for RAF crews during World War One and Two, with author Roald Dahl credited for bringing the creature to American culture with his picture book, The Gremlins.  Walt Disney even considered making a live action/animation movie based on Dahl’s tale.

Billy’s neighbor, Mr. Futterman (the always great Dick Miller), even brings the WWII connection up during one of his rants against foreign imports.  So the idea of a Chinese shop owner having a Mogwai seems a bit off, considering the (Americanized) version came into pop culture during World War Two, and the RAF legend was never connected with the Chinese.  It's as if scriptwriter Christopher Columbus changed the history of the gremlin, without giving any context, at least for those with a history even as limited as the Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Ah, what's up, Doc?

Another problem during the opening scene is how easy it is for Peltzer to find Gizmo.  The basket acting as Gizmo’s prison is in the main aisle of the Chinatown shop, not hidden away from prying eyes.  Never mind wondering why Gizmo is content to spend its life in a basket, one has to wonder why keeping the creature in plain view of the public.  Or alive at all, as the shopkeeper and his son imply that gremlins will do anything to turn from their cute, furry state to mischievous monsters.  Gizmo might be the exception, as he refuses to eat after midnight, One has to question the idea behind keeping such a potentially dangerous creature alive, as it seems to serve no other purpose than to be cute and generate nastier versions of itself.

But that wouldn’t make for a good movie, so one can let that little script problem pass.  However, as the film enters its third act, the script includes a scene that needed to be placed on the cutting room floor.  As Billy rescues Kate from a bar-full of gremlins, the film takes a break in the action as Kate explains why she hates Christmas time.  It’s intended to be emotionally wrenching, and Cates delivers the moment quite well.  Still, it felt too humorous when I first saw the film in the theaters back in the 80s and, thanks to The Darwin Awards, it’s even funnier now.  It’s not the fault of the writing, or the actors.  But as Kate describes her horrible Christmas experience, one has to wonder how her father never heard of a chimney flue.

I can't believe how many photos from Fast Times at Ridgemont High you'll find Goggling
Phoebe Cates Gremlins Movie

It might be easy to forgive these missteps were this little more than a movie aimed at children, a piece of promotion more interested in moving toys that telling a story.  But director Joe Dante and screenwriter Chris Columbus have something more subversive in mind, as the film works as an adult satire on holiday films.
This is obvious early in the film, as Billy runs down the main street of Kingston Falls on his way to work.  The scene is lifted from Jimmy Stewart’s run down Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.  And, like George Bailey, Billy works at a financial institute.  But he’s a clerk at a bank, at odds with a Potter-like character, Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday).

But, as if tweaking the rose-colored glasses view of America in Capra’s film, Billy is powerless against Deagle, who also lets loose a bit of The Wicked Witch of the West as she wants to kill Billy’s dog.  And Gremlins doesn’t shy away from Deagle’s callousness towards the suffering of others, as she confronts one of her renters (played by Belinda Balaski), making her attitude more horrendous than the villainy of the (metaphorically) mustache twirling Potter.

Even Batman might revoke his stance on not killing villains for this person.

Yet the script gives Deagle a moment of humanity before her come-uppance, further subverting the audience’s expectations.  Sure, she’s a crazy catlady, but this moment of softness is unexpected from most movie villains, another sly dig by Dante and Columbus.  While not explaining her villainy, they at least show that, in one aspect of her life, the Wicked Witch has a soft spot.  It’s a nice, very adult touch that echoes the approach of the 40s Warner Bros. cartoons, delivering humor that will make both parents and children laugh, though for different reasons.

The script does gloss over the deaths of many of Kingston Falls, through careful editing.  But adults will realize the mayhem has been sanitized, when it comes to the human toll.  Still, it’s hard to accept that the film shies away from such moments, giving the mayhem inflicted on three of the changed gremlins by Billy’s mother (Frances Lee McCain).  We get a graphic gremlin death by blender and microwave, and she does stab one repeatedly with a butcher knife, making her the most badass mom ever shown on the screen. 

Mrs. Peltzer, kitchen ninja

Sure, the latter death isn’t shown on screen, but it’s still quite intense, thanks to McCain’s acting.  And the other deaths cover the kitchen with copious amounts of green gremlin guts.  So, the lack of human blood might seem a bit odd, but one has to remember that Gremlins had only two rating choices, PG or R.  By minimizing the human violence, the filmmakers were able to get the gremlin gore past the MPAA.  But, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins prompted the MPAA to instigate the now infamous (to horror fans) PG-13 rating.  

While one can view the rating as a way for the studio to diminish the gore and market to the widest audience now, the reason for the rating is obvious to elder horror fans.  The violence and gore in Gremlins, Temple of Doom and Jaws was more extreme than the PG rated films before them, yet the violence wasn’t graphic enough to warrant an R rating in the MPAA’s view.  Regardless of the outcome, it was a wise move by the MPAA (and I can’t believe I wrote that) after Spielberg introduced family friendly gore to the nation. 

Just your typical holiday fare.
With a chainsaw attack....

Speaking of Spielberg (credited as executive producer on Gremlins), one could dismiss this as a Spielberg directed film, as many suspect of Poltergeist.  Both films contain his normal themes concerning middle class American families.  Yet, by the film’s midpoint, Gremlins rips the lid off such fantasies and lies bare the basic facts of the American Dream.  Only Dante would imply that good guys will finish last, striving to be successful, rather than just exist, could result in your child supporting you, and that evil hides in the most pleasant packages.  As with Dante’s earlier works, the nastier and more subversive moments of Gremlins shows he’s in total control of the project.

While Spielberg has yet to explore such elements and, given his track record, never will, as a producer, he allows other directors to expose the dark underbelly of his treasured Americana memories.  One could see this as a criticism of Spielberg, but I prefer to see such comments as commending his understanding of his strengths, and weaknesses, as a filmmaker, and allowing others to explore themes he's unwilling to explore.

Least I be considered negligent, one can't forget the efforts of Chris Walas and his effects crew cannot be understated.  Their work is miraculous, infusing Gizmo and his fellow gremlins with such life that one could believe the puppet performances are trained animals.  The effects crew’s work is reminiscent of a Harryhausen movie, as unbelievable characters become flesh and blood on the screen.  Yes, the effects are that good and hold up that well.

Wow, that's a lot of puppets.  And they look so much better than the upcoming
CGI version of this scene.

The combination of a kid friendly creature, a dark bit at Christmas movies and some rather gruesome elements provides a perfect holiday cocktails mixed by Joe Dante in Gremlins.  Such a balanced concoction is rare in modern cinema, as risk is weighted against the odds of getting the characters on a 7-11 Big Gulp cup.  But, for a brief time, filmmakers and studios were willing to take the risk of alienating some audience members in an attempt to make a film worth a yearly viewing.  Almost 30 years later, Gremlins holds up to seasonal view.  So if you’re sick of the standard eggnog served up every December, dip into this spiked treat.

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