Thursday, October 04, 2007

Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

This was a fun one to consider for entry into this series, mainly because it's the first horror film I saw in the theatre (I was seven). It was one of the films (along with Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) that initiated the MPAA's need for the creation of a PG-13 rating.

Originally hyped as the next E.T. but having far, far more in common with old fashioned B monster movies, Joe Dante's Gremlins ostensibly takes the world in Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life and tears it up from the inside out with nasty little critters that look like a hybrid of vampire bats, lizards, and the eponymous Alien.

It's a whole lot of delightful, mean-spirited fun.

It's also very funny. Need I remind you of the gremlins' acting like rowdy teens at a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or them acting like drunken louts at the local bar?

Here's what critic Roger Ebert originally wrote about the film:

GREMLINS is a confrontation between Norman Rockwell's vision of Christmas and Hollywood's vision of the blood-sucking monkeys of voodoo island.


Gremlins tells the story of a young man, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) who gets an early Christmas present from his inept inventor father Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton): a pet Rand found in a curiosity shop in New York's Chinatown called a mogwai, which looks like an oh-so-cute mish-mash of a teddy bear, Ewok, and kitten.

Even though the little critter, which Rand names Gizmo, is sweet and intelligent, there are very strict rules in taking care of it. The first one is that the mogwai must avoid bright light, especially sunlight, because it can kill him. The second is that it must not get wet. And the third - and most important - rule is that it must never be fed after midnight.

Obviously, these rules are methodically broken: Billy accidentally flashes Gizmo with a bright light, which hurts him. Later, Billy's friend Pete (Corey Feldman) spills water on Gizmo, which causes him to reproduce. And of course the newly spawned mogwais trick Billy into feeding them after midnight, which turns them into the nasty aforementioned gremlins.

The bulk of the film from this point on shows the gremlins wreaking havoc on the movie's Norman Rockwellesque town and Billy and his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) trying to kill the monsters and stop their ringleader, Stripe, from creating more gremlins.

The movie plays with the notion of unseen creatures mucking up our lives (screwing up our TV reception, fixing the traffic lights to cause car accidents): malevolent forces laying everything we care about (but probably shouldn't) to waste behind the scenes.

Gremlins is simultaneously a straight-up monster movie and a send-up of monster movies: it is very aware of its audience's familiarity with creature feature (and "Christmas movie") conventions. This movie doesn't so much retread movie clichés as it does present the delightful devouring of them. How can you not find it refreshing - in the same way Terry Zwigoff's 2003 film Bad Santa refreshing - to find a terrified Santa Claus being covered and mauled by those nasty little gremlins? (Okay, so maybe your sense of humor and high level of annoyance with cloying holiday movies differs from mine.)

Consider the scene where the newly hatched gremlins attack Billy's mother in the kitchen. It's a straight send-up of well-known scary movie motifs: the ominous music, the shadows of the monster in the corner of the film, the woman alone being stalked in the house, the lurking monsters that pop up out of nowhere, the mother slashing at one of the gremlins with a butcher knife in the same manner and style as in Psycho.

Despite the aforementioned mean-spirited aspects of this movie (in addition to seeing that Gremlin explode in the microwave, everyone remembers Cate's so-out-of-left-field tale of how her father dies and why she no longer believe in Santa Claus, right?), Gremlins neither goes too far (there are a handful of human deaths - I don't care what the sequel shows, there's no indication in this movie that the Futtermans survive that snowplow attack - but none of them are excessively bloody or gruesome) nor gets too silly (in the way that, alas, Gremlins 2: The New Batch does).

Ebert continues:

GREMLINS was hailed as another E.T. It's not. It's in a different tradition. At the level of Serious Film Criticism, it's a meditation on the myths in our movies: Christmas, families, monsters, retail stores, movies, boogeymen. At the level of Pop Moviegoing, it's a sophisticated, witty B movie, in which the monsters are devouring not only the defenseless town, but decades of defenseless clichés.


I really couldn't have put it better myself.

Always blaming my crashing computer on Gremlins,

James "They're Out There" Comtois

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9 Comments:

Blogger Praxis Theatre said...

Awesome. Great choice. This must have been one of the first movies I saw in the theatre (although I did see Poltergeist in the theatre two years earlier – when I was seven!).

That's true about the father dying in the chimney story . . . extremely memorable. This mix of silly, scary, Christmas, kid's movie, is less common today than it was then, perhaps?

I'm haven't thought much about Gremlins from a critical standpoint . . . very interesting that you've done it here. What about that movie Critters? Cheap spinoff, or worthly genre exercise?

Thanks,

Ian

3:37 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I was originally going to write that Critters was a knock-off of Gremlins, but read that it was actually in development long before Gremlins was released, so that wouldn't be fair.

I remember liking Critters when it came out, but having watched it again relatively recently, I don't think it ages well (at least, it didn't for me). Which isn't to say Critters sucks (in the way Critters 2: The Main Course sucks), but I personally think the blend of comedy-horror works much better in Gremlins (and ages better).

And I remember very little from the Ghoulies and Munchies movies (which also came out afterwards).

This style of movie (good, funny scary movie that could be appropriate for kids as long as parents and kids know what they're getting into) seems to have gone away, unless you count the recent spate of Japanese remake PG-13 horror films that are out now (The Ring, The Grudge, et. al.).

But for me, Gremlins was a reminder that monster movies were originally designed for kids (I mean, adults weren't the target audience for The Deadly Mantis or The Creature From the Black Lagoon, right?) and a good example of doing that right. (Even though I know it may be too scary for some little kids...I had a fine time watching it when I was seven. Then again, I am a bit...odd.)

3:45 PM  
Blogger Praxis Theatre said...

Oh Ghoulies! I had forgotten about that film. I remember renting it one night for a sleepover party at our house – but we rented it because we thought it was the video release of The Goonies! (Both of which came out in 1985.) Or was it the other way around?

Anyway.

Munchies . . . never heard of it. But the poster makes it look like a flat-out Gremlins ripoff (or is that "parody"?). And wait a sec . . . isn't that Stripe on the cover?

http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/I/51G1K1BX29L._AA240_.jpg

Ian

4:00 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, Munchies is straight-up knockoff (solely made to cash in on the success of Gremlins).

And...bah, crap. I can't remember which movie came out first, Goonies or Ghoulies (they both came out the same year).

4:16 PM  
Blogger The Management said...

And yet you overlook the classic "Hobgoblins?

9:47 AM  
Blogger Paul Rekk said...

Looks like it's time for me to revisit; I haven't seen this since I was a wee lad.

It's funny, I get very nostalgic when I think of Critters or Ghoulies, but I don't think I've actually seen either one all the way through. I have the same reaction to the Puppetmaster series, too. A product of my dad occasionally letting sneak in snippets of USA Up All Night in the ol' early adolescence, I suppose.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

And I overlook the classic Hobgoblins? Very, very willfully. I'm also willfully overlooking Troll and Leprechaun (and its sequels).

That's just how I roll.

Paul, I actually revisited Gremlins for the first time in a long, long while very recently, and was pleased to see how well it aged. And oh, yes, I remember "USA Up All Night" very, very fondly.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Sister Mary Manhattan said...

Ah, yes. This movie scared the holy crap out of me when I was a nun-lette.

10:47 AM  
Blogger The Management said...

Don't pretend to be a master of taste. You thoroughly enjoyed Road House. (Does that count as a horror film?)

5:35 PM  

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