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.

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