Movie review: “Gremlins” (1984)

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“What are they doing in there?!”

“They’re watching Snow White…and they love it.”

Gremlins isn’t a Christmas movie per se and yet it is my favorite Christmas movie, observing all 360 degrees of the holiday season – the warmth of simple pleasures and gathered family as ward against the cold; the balm of home and hearth belying some of its tackier trappings and base consumerism – through an appealingly dark lens while, counterintuitively, still treating the festivities with more heart and care than might your average “Santa is/toys are/elves are real/magic/cute” kiddie tract or “I’ll be home for the holidays” made-for-television romantic schmaltz. Joe Dante’s 1984 hybrid Americana monster movie/comic thriller, in which the improper care of an exotic house pet unwittingly unleashes a destructive plague of mischievous beasties upon an unsuspecting small town, is a savory Christmas confection coated in arsenic and wrapped lovingly in exploding sandpaper. It is sly and satirical, irreverent and inventive, cuddly and full of claws, propulsive, and wildly entertaining, channeling the anarchic spirit of golden age Looney Tunes cartoons into the live action arena in a way that had rarely before been contemplated, let alone realized.* I have no earthly idea – no, well, some – why Gremlins has not aged into a beloved holiday favorite outside of my household. Maybe it too effectively scares little kids? Maybe bigger kids identify too much with the gremlins themselves instead of the frazzled, folksy townspeople resisting them? Maybe it’s just not traditionally cheerful, or the Hallmark Channel definition of good, wholesome, family fun? Maybe not, but it is still all kinds of good, and all kinds of fun.

*Legendary “Termite Terrace” animator and Oscar-winning director Chuck Jones blesses the proceedings with a fun cameo as a bar patron, and the very sight of him fills my heart with figurative song. If “Gremlins” is my favorite Christmas movie, then the original, animated 1966 “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – directed and, I would argue, shepherded artistically by the very same Charles M. Jones – is my favorite Christmas anything, and the only holiday special I make a point of watching each and every year.

flat,550x550,075,f_u1Norman Rockwell made his legend painting idyllic landscapes like the exceptional opening matte of wintry Kingston Falls, USA. People shovel sidewalks and warmly greet one another, while parents trudge through downtown, their kids trailing like streamers off a bicycle handlebar. Children run and play in the bustling streets, pelting one another with snowballs while the joyous strains of Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” chime like church bells over the ubiquitous radio. These street-level scenes reveal a transparent Hollywood backlot, adorned in tinsel and fake snow, yet the artificiality attracts rather than repels the viewer. No one should go to a movie called Gremlins expecting gritty realism. Instead, we get heightened nostalgia. Universally recognized holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life seems to be playing on most every functional television in town, and it doesn’t take long to understand why. Kingston Falls is timeless, just as much a mood, or maybe even a subconscious sense memory, as a place, populated by types instead of people who nevertheless transcend that label because we instinctively feel we know them. It could just as well be 1954 there as 1984. We are never told for sure, and it hardly matters. You can practically smell the gingerbread baking. Gremlins brings to mind disconnected memories of home from my own small town childhood, and of the peculiar joy I might well have taken if an army of malevolent trickster demons had demolished the place one odd corner at a time. Not many films from the fertile 1980s have aged better.  

Jovial inventor of malfunctioning comic kitchen aids Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) returns from a business trip with a very special present for his son Billy (Zack Galligan), a pet so rare and extraordinary that it will make him the instant envy of the neighborhood. The Peltzers gather around their fireplace for the unveiling, though Rand makes a point of first dimming the lights. What awaits them inside that weathered box from a Chinatown junk shop, the first and still best surprise in a film teeming with them, is not a gremlin at all but a…mogwai, a sort of tiny, furry, brown and white cross between a Rhesus monkey and teddy bear, with big eyes and even bigger ears. He’s cute, and shy, and smart. Billy predictably takes an immediate shine to the mogwai, who his father has named “Gizmo”, and the two set about getting acquainted, albeit within the purview of some oddly specific rules. Those famous rules surrounding the care and feeding of mogwai are, frankly, inane, untenable, and fall apart under the least scrutiny. Imagine if your pug or golden retriever was unable to lap up a bowl of water on a hot day, or leave the house during daylight hours. My mother has a German Shorthaired Pointer that is on high alert for the presence of people food at all hours, not just the ones “before midnight”, and attacks any quarry like a school of piranha. That’s part of the fun, a way for Dante to wink at the audience that, despite the straight horror trappings to come, he understands and embraces how absurd the whole thing is. It’s also running shorthand for the viewer, an easy way to process and remember three basic elements: 1) how gremlins are made; 2) how gremlins multiply; and 3) how to hurt them.

Call me a professional naysayer, but I just reflexively perk up at any mention of “practical effects”. We’ve all kinda been CGI-ed to death by this point, no? Gremlins, alongside the concurrent non-Muppet work of Jim Henson Studios, represents some of the most extensive and expressive puppetry ever put to film, contributing mightily to a moment when the artform was at its apex. Whether watching Gizmo roll his eyes knowingly in mock conversation or imitate new hero Clark Gable racing cars in To Please a Lady, or watching the newly hatched gremlins explore the nooks, crannies, and goodies of the invention-laden, surprisingly lethal Peltzer kitchen, or emerge en masse to march on the town in earnest, this is meticulous and impressive work. Gizmo is a wonder throughout, a fully realized character unlike so many central gimmicks routinely thrown at us by children’s or family fare, and the single biggest reason Gremlins works no matter who gets top billing. Everything about the little showstealer is perfectly calibrated to communicate maximum cuteness and personality, right down to his goofy, chirpy voice, which, provided by then-obscure standup and inveterate ham Howie Mandel, sounds like a purring kitten swinging around a squeak toy by the throat. At times the mogwai is an unalloyed vessel for childhood wonder, while at others he seems wise beyond his years. It’s almost a shame when young Billy breaks one of the rules and winds up with a banker’s box full of rowdy instant mogwai, then fatefully breaks a second one and wakes up to ghoulish cocoons gestating in place of Gizmo’s antisocial brethren.

When those eggs hatch, of course, all hell’s gonna break loose. That’s what we came for, but Dante and writer Chris Columbus also deserve major kudos for the way they set an evocative scene in the interim while effectively building anticipation for the big reveal. Gremlins’ mix of sentimentality, mirth, and mayhem is an incredibly tricky tone to properly balance and maintain, one that’s buoyed and informed by Dante’s evident love of not only classic cartoons but classic movies. The TV matinee ubiquity of It’s a Wonderful Life gives way to the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a portent of the nastiness brewing inside those cocoons. The little buggers seem to have an advanced knowledge of applied film psychology from the second they first set claw to floor, and offer up some sophisticated introductory scares followed by a full-on test of the then besieged PG-13 rating, as the Peltzer family kitchen is transformed into a gallery of creative culinary horrors. Billy and his girlfriend Kate (the ever-luminous Phoebe Cates) set off in pursuit of the cackling, advancing horde, always a step behind as the gremlins’ cheerfully terrorize locals in their homes, destroy an Irish pub in a happy hour gone haywire, and eventually congregate where Dante would – in a vintage cinema screening Snow White – to wait out the dawn. Veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith’s far-ranging score expertly provides whatever backdrop and/or emotional support the scene requires throughout, whether jaunty small town background music, sweeping romantic queues, or the truly maniacal, keyboard-driven “rampage theme”.

I miss Steven Spielberg the high profile producer. Still a force to this day, Spielberg spent the 1980s wielding an outsized influence over Hollywood that split the difference between cottage industry and cartel boss. His name above any title carried with it an implicit guarantee of quality (Back to the Future, Goonies, Poltergeist, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), and Gremlins was among the first, and still the very best, of his marquee standard-bearers. Dante, who had a grand old time piloting the 1990 sequel quickly and completely off the rails, never lets the film’s action or ambition get above his head or beyond his grasp. He was wise to pitch the middle third of Gremlins as clever, increasingly tense mass infestation horror, cut with a healthy infusion of black comedy. That sequel, subtitled The New Batch would be even more anarchic than its predecessor but also colder, undeniably more manic but not nearly as fluid. Even in its most giddily chaotic moments, Gremlins radiates a underlying warmth suitable to roast chestnuts over. They may just take extra time to be edible. Unlike some perennials plucked from my childhood, I was delighted to find Dante’s inferno has barely aged in any but cosmetic ways (the cars, the technology). This is key, because so much of the film’s power lies in its ability to tap into an obscure but incredibly potent sense of place and mood that exists, latent, in our minds, and then thoroughly, delightfully upend it. The results make for surprising, thrilling, and dependably jolly – dare I suggest festive? – holiday fun.

“Gremlins” (1984) 4/4 stars                                                                                                        dae4.0

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