Monday, December 24, 2012

Gremlins (1984)

The Movie: It’s almost Christmas, and amateur inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is in Chinatown looking for something special to give his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). In a small, out of the way shop filled with exotic and mysterious items, Randall finds an adorable, furry, little creature the shop’s ancient owner (Keye Luke) calls a “mogwai.” The old man refuses to sell the mogwai, saying that it takes a lot of responsibility and that he doesn’t feel Randall is up to it. However, the shop owner’s grandson (John Louie) is determined to make the sale and sells Randall the creature “under the counter.” He also tells him that there are three rules for the mogwai that it’s utterly imperative that he follow.

It’s very immediately apparent what the reason for the first rule, keep the creature away from all light, is; bright light is extremely painful, even deadly, for the mogwai. The second rule, don’t let him anywhere near water, is broken by accident not long after; and once again the reason is immediately apparent. Water causes the mogwai to reproduce parthenogenecally; the smallest bit of moisture and they’re worse than rabbits on fertility drugs.

However, it is the breaking of the third rule; don’t feed the creatures after midnight, which produces the most serious repercussions. If a mogwai is fed after midnight, it undergoes a transformation into a vicious, scaly, demonic and mean-spirited little monster. After a few accidents, Billy inadvertently overruns his hometown with the things. Now it’s up to him to put an end to them before they destroy the town entirely.

The Review: Io Saturnalia! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Or whatever Solstice holiday you, my readers, happen to be celebrating right now, I sincerely hope it’s a good one. Admittedly, I really don’t like the holiday season, due to all the hype and clamor for it that starts months before hand. However, I do enjoy and celebrate the holiday itself in my own fashion; and part of that involves putting my own form of recognition for it on this blog.

Gremlins is a movie that doesn’t fit comfortably into any single popularly recognized genre. First of all, as Roger Ebert so succinctly pointed out in his review of the film, Gremlins has a very fairy tale core to its central plot. If you read classic fairy and folktales (and I mean in their original form, long before the Victorians and Walt Disney got their sticky paws on them), one of the core plots of so many of these stories is that the hero is given rules for some kind of magic that he must follow; and then we are show exactly what happens when those rules get broken.

Secondly, and flowing organically from the fairy tale premise, Gremlins has many elements from the horror genre. I know it might seem a bit tame to regular fans of horror movies; but for the very young and/or those individuals who don’t consume a steady diet of them, there is plenty to this movie that can come across as scary, and possibly even traumatizing. In fact, Gremlins is one of the specific movies that inspired the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating; as it’s deemed not quite bad enough for an R rating, but too disturbing for younger viewers who might watch a PG rated movie. I cannot help but notice that despite its role in that decision, Gremlins kept its original PG rating. However, I’m sure that this decision was made with the best of judgment; and that to even hint that it might be due to the fact that Gremlins was a big-budget movie from one of the major studios would just be petty and mean-spirited.

Thirdly, the plot and setting for Gremlins borrow much of their composition from the countless Norman Rockwell-esqe Christmas specials that breed like flies at this time of year. Nearly the entire movie takes place in archetypal small-town America. This is the type of town where everyone knows everyone else, and you even call the sheriff by his first name. There’s Dorie’s Tavern where, as Kate (Phoebe Cates of Paradise and Fast Times at Ridgemont High), the movie’s love interest, points out; “that’s where everyone’s dad proposed to their mom.” Pete (prolific ‘80s child star Corey Feldman, of the Lost Boys and a few Friday the 13th entries), the kid who works at the local Christmas tree lot, can come over to Billy’s house and read his comic books, even though Billy is in his 20s, without anyone thinking anything of it. Billy’s father perfectly fits the archetype of the absent-minded inventor, with his various dysfunctional inventions scattered all over the house. There’s even an Ebenezer Scrooge/Mr. Potter character in the form of Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), who threatens to spoil everyone’s Christmas.

Finally, there are the comedic elements. Gremlins is, among a great many other things, an extremely funny movie. A good deal of the humor is absurdist and referential. For example, one of my favorite scenes has Mr. Peltzer calling his wife from the inventers’ convention he’s attending and telling her that it turns out the other inventers are “a bit more advanced than [he] expected.” In the background we can see the time machine from the movie of the same name, as well as Robby the Robot from the Forbidden Planet. However, quite a bit of it is rather dark, and even mean spirited; such as when grinchy Mrs. Deagle storms out with a pitcher of water to soak the carolers she hears in her yard, and is shocked to discover that said carolers are a pack of gremlins, all dressed up and singing.

The thing is, you would think that all these disparate genre elements would not fit easily together; and they don’t. However, that’s really what makes the movie work. Gremlins is an extremely impressive and complex juggling act, one that gets all of its considerable energy from the friction and frission that result from the interactions of the various ill-fitting genre conventions. If you think about it, there is very little difference between humor and horror; it’s possible for the same situation to inspire both. The script and direction are constantly juggling these two things masterfully, switching constantly between making us laugh, making us scream, and occasionally making us want to do both. It is an extremely tough stunt to pull off, and even the sequel doesn’t come anywhere close to managing it.

For me, one of the absolute best aspects of movie is the whole situation of Norman Rockwell Christmas meets Hollywood horror. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I find that I tire of the holiday kitsch and schmaltz very quickly; so I actually find it quite relieving and therapeutic to see it all dragged down under a tide of green, scaly catastrophe. It’s just so much fun, in a warped, schadenfreuden way, to see this stereotypically wholesome all-American town get ripped to shreds. And there are even a few extremely dark elements that go far beyond being fun; top of the list for most people who’ve seen this movie probably being the part where Kate explains to Billy why she hates Christmas so much. I don't know about you, but I find that a little bile is just the thing for washing down all that over-saturated sweetness.

The one final element that I feel I should comment on is Gizmo, the original mogwai Mr. Peltzer brings home. For the most part he, personally, isn’t a very big part of Gremlins. Even though he does strike the final victory blow at the end, up until that point he doesn’t really do anything of significance; and more than anything else just serves as the movie’s McGuffin. I also find that while he’s extremely sweet and cuddly, he’s the only mogwai that is. Even before their post-midnight feeding, all of Gizmo’s spawn are, without exception, mean-spirited little brats. This might come from one of the darker, earlier drafts of Gremlins. Apparently in the earlier drafts of the movie there was no Stripe (the main villain and leader of the other gremlins); but Gizmo, himself, was supposed to transform and fill that role. However, Steven Spielberg (who executive-produced Gremlins), no doubt seeing cute, cuddly, toy cash-ins, insisted that Gizmo be kept cute and cuddly all throughout the movie.

One final thing I noticed about Gizmo, he seems to be the most abused character in the whole movie. He’s constantly thrown, knocked around and exposed to bright light; and that’s just by accident by the ignorant humans who’ve taken possession of him. Of course, once his spawn change it gets much worse. There’s even a scene where they tie him to a dart board and throw darts at him; which apparently was put together for the film crew, who found the Gizmo puppets extremely difficult and frustrating to work with.

Overall, though, I really like this movie. It’s dark, twisted, and a lot of fun in a sick sort of way. Particularly with how I’ve come to feel about the Christmas season, this is a movie that can appeal to the Grinch in all of us. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life, as far as I’m concerned Gremlins is the ultimate feel-good holiday movie.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Stuff (1985)

The Movie: A new dessert called “the Stuff” has hit the markets and become extremely popular. It’s a white, creamy substance served in pint containers like ice cream. The Stuff is delicious, and is very low in fat or calories. As the ad campaign says, after the first bite you literally can’t get enough.

The Stuff is so popular that the industries that make other desserts are worried. The heads of the ice cream industry gather together to take matters into their own hands. Their plan is to hire the notorious industrial spy and saboteur, David “Mo” Rutherford (the extremely prolific Michael Moriarty), to discover the secret behind the Stuff for them.

And boy does good old Mo have his work cut out for him. The corporation behind the Stuff is notoriously secretive about their product, much like Coca Cola. Attempts at lab analysis fail utterly to reveal the ingredients. But the worst part is probably when Mo gradually starts to discover what the Stuff really is.

You see, the Stuff isn’t so much a food product as it is a parasitic organism, possibly with some sentience. It’s not just great tasting, it’s addictive; and if you eat it for a certain period of time it will start controlling your brain. Finally, those pounds you’ve been losing since you started eating the Stuff aren’t due to it being low in calories; it’s due to the fact that it’s eating you from the inside, gradually hollowing your body out into a shell that can be controlled like a puppet.

Mo has exactly three allies in his fight to put an end to the Stuff: Chocolate Chip Charlie (the equally prolific Garrett Morris), another dessert mogul who’s been put out of business by the popularity of the Stuff; Nicole (singer-actress Andrea Marcovicci), the woman behind the ad campaign for the Stuff; and Jason (Scott Bloom), a young boy who stumbled onto the Stuff’s true nature when he was witness to what it did to his family. Unfortunately, Mo’s rather checkered past has ensured that it’s near impossible for him to bring in any outside help. How to four people put an end to an extremely popular product, and one that has the backing of a major corporation at that?

The Review:

I kinda like the sight of blood, but this is disgusting!"
-Col Malcolm Grommett Spears

Tis the season yet again; and while the Stuff is definitely not a Christmas movie, it sure does tap into the spirit of the holiday. The Stuff is technically labeled a horror movie, but it is also a satire; and like all good satires the truly horrifying parts of it are where it’s hard to tell the difference between movie plot and real life. It is scary how little corporation driven consumerism has changed in the past three decades.

This is especially so in how many truly dangerous products are legally sold to us every day. You can probably think of the obvious ones, such as tobacco and alcohol. However, if you look closer you’ll notice that it also applies to things we take for granted as being safe, such as our food. I know a lot of people who regularly consume sugary snack foods like soda; or fattening items such as potato chips. Worse, corporations like Monsanto have so defanged any food regulation that they’re able to load down supposedly healthy foods like bread with more sugar and calories than any of us need; all just to shove more money into the already bulging pockets of a small handful of individuals.

I’m not being self-righteous here; I will freely admit that I love to eat, have a major sweet tooth, and am a caffeine addict. It’s just so scary that these days few of us know or care where our food really comes from, and unscrupulous individuals are able to take advantage of that to make money. There are always people who will do anything they think they can get away with for money. I honestly don’t find the idea of a parasitic organism being mass marketed as a dessert to be far beyond the realm of possibility at all.

Note how the villains of the movie work. They don’t eat the Stuff themselves, being well aware of what it is. However, they are more than willing to sell it to the public anyway. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just business, so it’s perfectly legit. And even in the end, when the true nature of their product becomes publicly known; they plan a way that they can continue to sell it.

One of the elements I find fascinating about the Stuff is the nature of its protagonists; they’re not only a major part of this corrupt system, they’re examples of the people who arguably make it so screwed up. Nicole is behind the ad campaign and corporate branding for the Stuff; she even gave it its name. ‘Mo’ Rutherford can be seen as even worse; his entire living is made off the infighting, sleazy tricks and dirty deals that the corporate world runs on.

I find Mo to be a particularly intriguing character, both due to the script and to Moriarty’s playing of the role. He can probably be summed up best in a line that he delivers at the very beginning of the movie. When one of his new employers makes the observation that he doesn’t think Mo is as dumb as he appears to be, Mo just smiles sweetly and answers “no one is as dumb as I appear to be.” Nearly the entire movie, with only a rare few moments when he lets the mask slip, Mo acts like an amiable dufus. He’s the kind of guy who is constantly making stupid mistakes and majorly insulting social faux pas. However, it’s impossible to be offended because he’s obviously too stupid to know any better; in fact it’s kind of charming much of the time. Yet, even while his words and physical cues mark him as a charming idiot, all of his actions and decisions show the truly competent and ruthless individual he really is.

These two are obviously nobody’s idea of heroes. And yet, when the time comes where they realize just what is at stake, when they need to do the right thing; both of them rise to the occasion. And it’s not just putting an end to the Stuff either. Mo picks up Jason for purely mercenary reasons; he read a newspaper article about the boy’s rampage at a grocery store, puts two and two together, and figures that he’ll be useful to his task. However, it’s notable that throughout the movie, even when Jason is no longer of any practical use to Mo, Mo still goes out of his way to take care of the kid. The amazing thing is, this seeming contradiction is played out smoothly and convincingly. There’s no Hallmark moment marking a change of heart, Mo and Natalie just show that despite all the warts on their character, they are still capable of doing the right thing. For a rather cynical satire on corporate consumerism (try saying that five times fast), the Stuff displays a surprisingly positive view of human nature through its heroes.

There is a third character who plays to the movie’s recurring theme of unlikely individuals thrust into heroic roles; except that this one is more an antihero. Once Mo and Nicole have seen the facility where the Stuff is produced, their only option for outside help is one Col Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino of Repo! The Genetic Opera), a former military man and Right-wing militia leader. Now, Spears fits pretty much all of the stereotypes for the extreme Right; he’s a bigot, a racist, a Commie baiter, paradoxically uber-patriotic yet rabidly anti-government (I never got that), and he displays that remarkable mixture of extreme arrogance and paranoid insecurity we see so often with the Right. It just occurred to me, this character type is something else that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the past three decades.

The Stuff is obviously not sympathetic to Spears or his views; the character is played for a combination of laughs and derision. Still, Spears is almost entirely responsible for the heroes prevailing in the end. Also, it should be noted that he goes out of his way to help Nicole and Jason when they are in trouble.

In all, for a fun little movie with a premise that could be seen as ridiculous; the Stuff, like any good satire, gets so much that’s right on the nose, even decades after it was made. The commercials for the Stuff that we see throughout the movie, while obviously very 1980s, are not at all different from the commercials we are shown today. The basic message is the same: ‘be one of the crowd by buying this product.’ The villains are not at all dissimilar from the corporate heads you can hear about in the news. Even the inevitable kicker ending is something I find all too convincing, based on what I know about human nature. Think Prohibition, or the War on Drugs; which is essentially Prohibition mk2.

Finally, the element I probably love the most about the Stuff is its characters. The heroes are very flawed individuals, and the movie makes no bones about that fact. However, they come through in the end, and in a very believable way. I find believably complex, flawed and quirky characters to be remarkable in any more or less mainstream movie, never mind a low-budget horror flick.