Friday, October 9, 2015

Gremlins

I know, I know, it's the Halloween season, and here I am reviewing a Christmas movie. Gremlins (1984) might be part of my Holy Trinity of Christmas movies (in case you're wondering, the other two are Die Hard and A Christmas Story), but come on, it's about a horde of mean, ugly, nasty little monsters that create havoc and mischief through small-town America, and that warms my heart in October just as much as it does in December.

Gremlins has quite the pedigree. It's written by Chris Columbus, produced by Steven Spielberg, and directed by Joe Dante with music by Jerry Goldsmith, and it in part led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. It sets up the expected Spielberg whimsy and cuteness in its first half, and then Dante tears it all down with his trademark cynicism, dark humor and gleeful anarchy.

The first half of Gremlins is in E.T. territory as a cute little creature called a Mogwai is given as a Christmas gift by a traveling inventor to his son, and oh my God! Gizmo is the most adorable thing ever! Those wide eyes, his fluffy ears, his little feet kicking in the air when he falls in the garbage, and that cooing little singing voice (provided by Howie Mandel), how can anyone not love him? And when he's driving that little car at the end, it's awesome. I don't care what anyone says.

There are rules for keeping Mogwai. Keep them out of bright light, don't get them wet, and never feed them after midnight. Of course, any time a movie sets up rules like this you just know they're going to be broken, and once the latter two rules are violated, Gizmo spawns hundreds of green, vile, cackling, goblin-like monsters whose sole joy is complete destruction and murder, and they cut through the town of Kingston Falls like a hot knife through butter. When the gremlins are let loose, it's up to Billy (Zach Galligan), his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates), and Gizmo to save the day.

Gremlins works so well because of the gremlins. Achieved through a combination of puppetry, animatronics, and some stop-motion animation, they are a memorable bunch, well designed and articulate enough to really showcase personality. Early on, Dante restricts views of them, suggesting them more than showing them, and that's good for building up some initial menace and mystery, but by the end, he has them out in the open, running through streets, attacking a department store Santa,  causing car crashes, playing poker at a bar, and watching Snow White in a movie theatre. It's all very silly, but it's hard to resist the movie's sly charm and humor.

It also helps that for the most part, the gremlins go after people who kind of had it coming. The scariest parts of the movie are when Stripe, their leader, goes after Billy at the end and when the first batch goes after Billy's mother in the kitchen, but those two are fairly likable. It's hard not to appreciate it when they threaten the evil Mrs. Deagle, the town miser, first by dressing up as Christmas carolers and then by tinkering with her stair lift to send her flying out a second-story window.  The effect is practically a live-action cartoon.

That said, the gremlins do have some genuine menace, particularly their leader Stripe. They have a habit of jumping out from hiding places and attacking the poor humans, and when they attack, they injure and kill people (Billy gets cut up a few times). The kitchen scene is harrowing scene as Billy's mother fights desperately against a group of them, having to resort to shredding one in a blender, stabbing another repeatedly, and stuffing another in a microwave and causing him to explode in a gooey mess. The tensest scene in the climax in the darkened department store as Billy looks for Stripe, who gets a great, creepy appearance on a couple of TV screens, literally popping out of the darkness and later attacking Billy with a chainsaw.

I'm blinded by nostalgia, and I admit it. I've seen Gremlins too many times to not love it (though I do wonder, when is it ever not after midnight?). You might find Gizmo and the family scenes early on to be too schmaltzy, and you might find the gremlins gross and obnoxious. Me? I grew up on this, and I love it.

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