Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1984)

5. Gremlins

“Gremlins” was far from Joe Dante’s first film. He had a lengthy resume of editing other people’s films. He had direct a minor classic with “Piranha” and a genuinely great horror movie with “The Howling.” “Gremlins,” however, brought the director to previously unseen commercial success. It was a massive hit in its day, spawning a crap load of merchandise, numerous rip-offs, and has gone on to become one of the defining hits of the eighties. When reviewing films for a director’s report card, I try to separate my current opinion from nostalgia. I can’t do this with “Gremlins.” It’s a movie I’ve loved since childhood and one of the earliest horror movies I can remember embracing. Every year on December 1st, I greet the Christmas season by watching “Gremlins.”

Inventor Randall Peltzer is out of town and the holidays are coming up. While stopping into a strange shop in Chinatown, he decides to buy his son, Billy, a Christmas present. He returns home to Kingston Falls with a Mogwai, a furry and adorable creature from Chinese mythology. Yet the Mogwai, quickly named Gizmo, comes with a set of rules. Never get him wet, never expose him to sunlight, and never feed him after midnight. Naturally, two of these rules are soon broken, the wet Gizmo giving birth to a second generation of evil Mogwais. After these creatures trick Billy into feeding them after midnight, they grow into demonic, violent, and deeply mischievous gremlins. Led by the mohawked Stripe, the gremlins soon go about taking over Kingston Falls. Billy, teaming up with Kate, his crush, tries to save the town, protect Gizmo, and survive the night.

Films before “Gremlins” had explored the idea of what I call “little monsters.” (Or “lil’ monsters,” if I’m feeling especially rakish.) However, “Gremlins’ crystallized in the popular culture what a movie about diminutive critters wrecking chaos was like. That the movie’s titular antagonist recall nasty fairies and goblins of ancient lore is appropriate. “Gremlins” is something like a twisted fairy tale or fable. Its story of a father bringing home a strange pet for his son, not fully aware of the consequences, is almost iconic in its simplicity. The rules regarding the gremlins recall numerous ancient legends, of particular creatures with very specific laws governing them. The movie, naturally, acknowledges WWII folktales of gremlins damaging mechanics. “Gremlins” has a simplistic moral too, of not exploiting nature and taking responsibilities for your own actions. Maybe these archetypal elements is part of the reason why “Gremlins” resonated so deeply with the public.

“Gremlins” is also an oddball take on another story type: That of the magical pet. Randall Peltzer wanders into a stereotypical Asian parlor. The old man, not dissimilar to multiple Mr. Miyagi types that have appeared throughout pop culture, is wise but mysterious. His grandson, arrogant in his youth, sells the man the strange pet. The set-up recalls urban legends about Mexican pets. Instead, “Gremlins” goes in a different direction. Gizmo is the ideal pet. He’s adorable, cuddly, fun, and immediately personable. He coos in Howie Mandel’s high-pitched voice, singing an unforgettable little melody. He quips cute little phrases, slowly picking up on more as he goes along. “Gremlins” was widely sold on Gizmo’s adorableness. Pretty much no kid left the theater without wanting their own Mogwai. Of course, a movie about Gizmo being cute, fuzzy, and awesome would have been very different than the “Gremlins” we got.

“Gremlins” is also noted for bringing together the very different styles of three different directors. Chris Columbus’ screenplay, with the way the family bonds over crazy circumstances during the holidays, recalls his later nostalgic hit, “Home Alone.” However, the film mostly owes its success to the blending of Joe Dante’s anarchic style with Steven Spielberg’s sentimental touches. The two compliment each other nicely. “Gremlins” is set in an idyllic small town. Kingston Falls is obviously patterned after Bedford Falls from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a connection the movie acknowledges. Despite being set in the modern day, Kingston Falls feels like a throwback. Mom stays at home, Dad works, everyone in town knows each other. The streets are not only clean but impeccably nice. The film is undeniably nostalgic for the simpler times of 1950s America. However, Spielberg and Dante’s approaches to baby boomer nostalgia are very different. Spielberg loves the idea of the nice, simple small town. Dante delights in tearing down the small town. “Gremlins’ is much more about the joy of destroying the small town than celebrating what’s nice about it.

“Gremlins” is also an awesome monster movie. Latex, rubber, mechanics, and robotics combined to make monsters with slimy textures and lots of personality. Chris Walas’ creature designs are intuitive and immediately iconic. Both the Mogwai and the gremlins have big ears and spindly limbs, connecting the two designs. Gizmo combines the cutest features of a teddy bear, a panda, and a rabbit while being completely distinct. The gremlins’ designs, meanwhile, loom large in my mind. They're scaly but expressive. They're fearsome but silly. They are intimidating while also having a lot of personality. The special effects create fully formed characters that the human cast can interact with. That there are no visible seams in “Gremlins,” save one moment of obvious stop-motion animation, is even more impressive, considering the scope of the project. There are a lot of monsters in “Gremlins.” And they look and act awesome.

How does “Gremlins” fare as a horror movie? At times, surprisingly well. The film is slow to reveal the monsters. We don’t even see Gizmo until the seventeen minute mark. We immediately like Gizmo. When stupid Corey Feldman spills some water on Gizmo, you feel bad for the little guy as he writhes in pain, giving birth. The new Mogwais are different, as Billy points out. After they have a snack after midnight, they are covered in slimy, greasy cocoons. There’s more blatant horror as the eggs hatch. The film treats these events very ominously. The Gremlins kill people, stabbing the high school bio teacher to death with a syringe. The first good look we get at the gremlins come when a door explodes open, the creature snarling at Billy suddenly. That’s a decent jump scare. Billy’s mom alone in the house with the gremlins is probably the scariest sequence in the movie. The violence here is outrageous. Gremlins are stabbed to death, exploded in a microwave, and spun around in a food processor. It’s awesome and grisly. When a gremlin leaps from a tree, trying to garrote her with a line of tinsel, you wonder if she’ll make it alive. That's right before the beast gets his head cut off with a fucking sword.

The film mines the titular monsters for scares at first but soon “Gremlins” evolves in other directions. The gremlins are, in an odd way, the satirical anti-heroes of the film. For example! Early on, we meet mean old Mrs. Deagle. Stingy and greedy, she seems to be evicting most of the people in town. She bitches about her crappy snowman lawn ornament and threatens to kill Billy’s dog. Her greed is best shown when we meet her cats, all which are named after forms of currency. So we hate Mrs. Deagle. When the gremlins kill her, the audience cheers. Mostly because her death scene is hilarious, with her body flying off the electric lift chair and out the window. However, this also aligns the audience with the chaotic gremlins. They’re monsters that kill people but we sort of like ‘em anyway.

In the latter half of “Gremlins,” the creatures graduate from threatening monsters to full-blown, comedic goofballs. This is most obvious during the bar scene. Despite the town being overwhelmed with monsters, Kate continues to man the bar. She lights cigarettes and pour drinks for the monsters. Meanwhile, they riotously goof off. One break dances, in a random ass reference to “Flashdance.” One twirls from a ceiling fan. One throws open his trench coat at Kate, flashing genitals he does not have. My favorite touch is the one gremlin brooding off in a corner by himself, drinking, smoking, his hat pulled down low. From the left side of a screen, a gremlin with a hand puppet pokes his head in, attempting to cheer the poor guy up. The comedic silliness peaks when the gremlins gather in a movie theater, entranced by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The little monsters are so overwhelmed with joy that they sing along, dancing and cheering. One of them has popcorn bags on his ears. I love that guy. Joe Dante’s love of Loony Tunes shine through the most here. (Bugs Bunny even has a few cameos, in the form of stuffed toys.) The horror elements come back strong during Billy and Stripe’s terse stand-off in the shopping mall. Even then, there’s humor, as Stripe comically rides around on a scooter. The gremlins are meant to be scary but they’re also hilarious.

I referenced earlier that “Gremlins” is a Christmas tradition for me . The film packs in the Christmas atmosphere early, with a fine coating of white snow covering Kingston Falls. Evergreens are sold in the town square while holiday songs blare out of the car radios. Dante’s desire to skewer the traditional values of the American small town extends to his harsh treatment of Christmas. The Gremlins mock the holiday by yelling Christmas carols in their shrill shrieks. They leap from Christmas trees, pull down the lights, and, most brutally, maul a Santa Claus to death. The film’s attack on Christmas is strictly secular. You don’t see any gremlins wrecking a Nativity scene, though that would have been awesome. Instead, the film is all too willing to desecrate the American symbols of Christmas. That theme climaxes during maybe the most infamous scene in the film. I’m talking about, of course, Phoebe Cates’ monologue about what happened to her father. It’s heart-breaking, as Cates’ delivery is one-hundred percent sincere. It’s shocking, considering what she’s describing. It’s also darkly hilarious, as the story is delivered like a cruel joke.

The cast of “Gremlins” is mostly filled out with newcomers and character actors. It’s hard to believe that the biggest star in the film is Hoyt Axton, folk singer and occasional actor. Axton’s strong voice opens and closes the film. He has fun playing an atypical patriarch. This is the film that has defined Zach Galligan’s career. Billy is meant to be the iconic boy next door. Galligan certainly fills the role. He plays Billy as a pure innocent. His feelings for Kate appear completely non-sexual. Phoebe Cates had already taken off her top in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” yet her Kate is an equally ideal small town girl. She’s sweet, funny, and shows a secret strength.

This is a Joe Dante movie so Dick Miller is in it, of course. Miller has a juicy role as the hard-drinking, unemployed Mr. Futterman. Mr. Futterman's drunken ramblings is what introduces the legend of the Gremlins and his reaction when the creatures appear is priceless. Cates’ “Fast Times” co-star Judge Reinhold plays a similar character, as an ass-kissing, obnoxious co-worker. Dante’s tendency to reference past films is most obvious in (the Real) Don Steele’s voice-only cameo as the town’s DJ, who somehow survives the night. Sharp-eyed viewers should watch for another Dante regular, Belinda Balaski, in a brief part as an unemployed mother.

Also contributing to “Gremlins’” success is Jerry Goldsmith’s score. This came during Goldsmith’s eighties flirtation with electronic music. So, at times, the music is overly tinny and obvious. However, the main melody is a classic piece of film music. The high-pitch, chirping music does two things. At first, in the opening scene, it implies the film’s Chinese setting. As the film goes on, the shrieking music recalls the gremlins’ laughter and slurred speech. The score even confirms this connection, since the end credits mix of the song ends with the gremlins’ manic laughter.

I can’t be truly objective about “Gremlins.” Is it a flawed movie? Of course. The script construction is not without problems. Billy trying to convince the local cops that the monsters are real is a disposable scene. Corey Feldman’s characters never contributes much. The pacing drags a bit in the middle. The schizophrenic shift in tone can be off-putting for a new viewer. I accept all of these problems. I still love “Gremlins.” The film is a blast and endlessly rewatchable. [Grade: A-]

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