Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Gremlins (1984) (Movie Review)


     It’s the holiday season, no other time of year is more joyful or magical then this. So, what better way to close out Christmas then with a classic Horror movie from the 1980’s. Now the notion of a horror themed Christmas film has been done sense the early 1970’s, but the 1984 movie “Gremlins” is a special case in which it’s actually regarded as a Yuletide classic that’s celebrated year after year. Heck, putting aside Christmas, there are some who would still make the argument that “Gremlins” as a classic movie in general. While I personally can’t call this one of my favorite movies the same way many others easily could, I do still have a lot of fondness reserved for this film, and there is something special about it that’s tricky to describe. It’s such a unique film that’s very adult with most of its context, but it’s aimed toward kids. It’s branded as a horror film, but it’s watched around the Christmas season. It’s a crazy, harper-active, monster run-amuck movie, but celebrated like any Hollywood masterpiece. Even when I was a little kid, I had no idea how to feel while watching this film, it terrified me just as much as it made me laugh, and it was consistently entertaining to watch. There’s simply no other film like it, so it’s time to dust it off my movie shelf, give it another watch and see what makes it so special after all these years.

      Our story begins with an inventor who’s looking for a special Christmas gift for his son Billy. He stumbles upon a beaten up old antic shop where he discovers a most unusual yet unavoidably lovable little furry creature named Gizmo, who’s instantly picked to be the special gift. Billy takes an immediate liking to his new pet, and a close friendship ensues between them. However, they’re three particular rules Billy needs to adhere to, and naturally he blunders every single one of them. Rule #1 … bright lights will hurt it, and the sun light is lethal. Rule #2 … don’t let him get wet or he’ll multiply into a bunch of nasty critters. Rule #3 … never feed them after midnight or those furry little critters will transform into savage monsters called Gremlins. After failing to follow three simple guide lines, Billy along with his little friend Gizmo do all in their power to stop the Gremlins from terrorizing their small town, and hopefully in the process … save Christmas from going to the monsters.

      It’s a very standard monster movie plot, but it’s lased with so many cornels of originality that it stands apart from other typical B horror movies. Most of this film’s success comes from all the right talents coming together to work on this project. Steven Spielberg at the height of his carrier produced this film, and while he didn’t direct, his finger prints are all over the film. There’s countless references to his movies ranging from “Indiana Jones” to “E.T.”, and he even has a walk by cameo. The screenplay was written by then new-comer Chris Columbus who would later bring to life another Christmas classic “Home Alone”, and most famously direct the first two “Harry Potter” movies.
The director of the movie is Joe Dante, who was heavily influenced by “the loony toons” to give this movie the feel and tone of a live action cartoon, and it really helps give the film its own distinct identity. Other films in his carrier include “The ‘burbs” and “Innerspace”, yet “Gremlins” remains his magnum opus. Of course, Joe Dante would also direct other crazy kid films in the same vein as “Gremlins” like “Small Soldiers”, and he even got his own shot at the loony toons with the 2004 movie “Loony Toons: Back in Action”. There’s even a scene in “Gremlins” where famous Loony Toon animator Chuk Jones makes an appearance commenting Billy on his sketch drawing, and all while a Loony Toon short plays on a TV in the background. Another very important talent to address is my personal favorite movie music composer … the late Jerry Goldsmith, who supplied the music in “Gremlins”. His score for “Gremlins” is spot on, gives the film a lot of energy and again helps give the movie an identity. It’s such a bouncy and catchy score that you’ll be humming it to yourself for days after watching this.    

      Of course, the best thing about this movie by far are the Gremlins themselves, who are easily some of my all time favorite movie monsters. Unlike other films that involve creatures attacking people, the Gremlins have no clear evil motives, nor do they eat anyone, these guys just want to have a party and let loose while all at the cost of the humans who all get trampled under their amusement. You could say the Gremlins represent an immoral side of ourselves that just wants to bust loose and have fun, regardless of how dangerous the fun might be to others. They almost behave like adolescent children, because at one moment they could be doing something terrible but then they also watch “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and they sing along with the songs and just enjoy themselves to the fullest. It doesn’t excuse their actions, but we still like them on some level, and it’s such a treat to see monsters convey so much personality. I also like how there’s that one Gremlin with a furry Mohawk that can be singled out as the leader, and lovingly nicknamed Stripe. He is the wickedest of the Gremlins and blessed with the vocal talents of the great Frank Welker, who’s one of the best animal/creature voice actors to ever live. He’s also famous for voicing various cartoon bad guys from shows like “Inspector Gadget” and “Transformers”.       

      Let’s talk about the effects, because these are easily some of the greatest monster effects and a true testament to the art of practical animatronics. There’s no CGI at all, everything is puppets and robotics performing in front of the camera, and even though I’m aware of that, they always felt real to me. The expressions and mannerism from both the Gremlins and Gizmo are so genuine that I never even think about that figurative “man behind the curtain”, or in this case men behind the puppets. Now I’ve talked a lot about the Gremlins, but our hero creature Gizmo shouldn’t be ignored as he’s at the heart of the film. As a kid I always wanted to reach into the TV screen and take him for a pet myself. Actually, now that I think about it … I still want Gizmo as a pet. His relationship with the hero boy Billy also works well because they keep it subtle. It’s an admittedly cliched “boy and his pet scenario”, but the movie lets the relation play out in a humble way without forcing any overly toughing scenes on the audience. Zach Galligan is also very committed to the role, and kudos to him for keeping a straight face while talking all cutesy to a puppet like Gizmo.         

   Aside from all the memorable creatures that steal the show, this movie actually has a strong ensemble of human characters. There’s a goofy neighbor played by Dick Miller and he’s always a welcome presence. Actually, he’s a regular actor in many of Joe Dante’s films including “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” and “Small Soldiers”. 

My favorite of the human characters is actually Billie’s father, an inspired inventor whose machines always go wrong. His contraptions bring a lot of comedy to the film, but the character himself is actually very charming and an all-around lovable father. It could have been so easy to make him a one-note joke with failing inventions, but he really adds a warm presence to the film. Another memorable human character is this wicked old crone named Mrs. Deagle, who has a grudge against Billy and his little dog too. She makes for a terrific villain character who’s just there to get a satisfying payoff when she encounters the monsters … and boy howdy is it satisfying. It’s one of the most brutal yet hilarious payoffs a villain of this sort could possibly receive, and it’s a rare case in which we really cheer for the monsters. The only human character I never liked and felt could have been removed completely from the film was the girl friend played by Phoebe Cates, who could give Charlie Brown a run for his money about feel depressed around the holiday season. Of course, she has a very dark back story that explains everything, including why she “doesn’t believe in Santa”, but it never added anything to the film for me, nor did it get me invested in her character. Her back story by the way is so offbeat that it actually bothered me more than anything the creepy monsters did in the film.

    This brings me to my next subject of the film, which is its horror movie elements. While “Gremlins” is mostly a family comedy, it’s equally a horror film and has some stand out creepy highlights that shocked my senses when I was a little kid. The best scene of all is the buildup to when the Gremlins take their new monster forms. There kept off screen for several minutes, yet there’s an eerie atmosphere, and sustained tension just building to when we finally see them. I love the details like the shadows casted on the walls and the jump scares involving things popping out from either the foreground or the background. 
Each jump scare slowly reveals more of what the monsters look like, which in of itself is terrific filmmaking, and a great way of taking an old horror cliché and making it work. The scene in which the high-school doctor looks around his classroom for an escaped Germline is honestly more subtle and disturbing then most slasher movies, and the payoff is very effective. When Billy enters the classroom, he finds the doctors dead body on the floor with a lethal injection pumped into him, which is disturbing enough, but it also raises another alarming question … “just what the heck was this high school doctor doing with a lethal injection is his classroom?” Another scary highlight is the kitchen attack, in which Billy’s mother has to fight off multiple Gremlins at once, and it’s every bit as disturbing as it is awesome. She chops one up in a blender, stabs one with a kitchen knife and blows up another in a microwave ... in short, it’s the greatest horror movie moment in which a generic mother can fight off her attackers. It should be noted that this film along with “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” are what lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating system. 

        Now for all the monster violence and scary scenes, the film consistently maintains the look and feel of a Christmas movie. It’s such a unique contrast, but the film really is shot and colored like any classic holiday film, and it just adds a different flavor to the experience. The opening title sequence alone captures the magic of any Christmas film and boasts a catchy theme song that sounds just like something you’d hear on the radio this time of year. Gizmo is literally introduced to us as a Christmas gift that gets unwrapped. There’s moments with people just walking down the side walk while Christmas carolers are singing in front of homes, and there’s countless other little details and even memorable Christmas visuals. 
There’s the moment with Gizmo wearing a Santa hat, we have the Gremlins dressed like Christmas carolers, also the dog wrapped in colorful Christmas lights, there’s the one evil Gremlin popping out of the Christmas tree and there’s even an effectively creepy usage of classic holiday tunes. My sister for example was never able to listing to the song “Do you Hear What I Hear” after watching this film. One of my favorite moments takes place after the Gremlins attacked the town, and features our surviving hero’s walking around the destruction while an eerie instrumental rendition of “Silent Night” plays in the background, and it really adds to the atmosphere. Perhaps the most shocking holiday image of all is seeing Santa Clause himself attacked by the Gremlins, while the cops are too dumbfounded to help. I really can’t think of any other horror movie that sparkles in that warm Christmas glow, while still being a creepy and violent monster flick.  

    Another charm this movie has going for it are all the movie references, trivia and homages on display. Seriously, if you’re a movie buff of any kind, you’ll love all the gags and details referencing other works. For example, the birth of the evil Gremlins is intercut with the characters watching “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, in which the film’s most famous line “There here already, your next!” reflects what’s about to transpire in the film. There’s a scene with the father at a Sci-Fi convention and we can see the vehicle from “The Time Machine” in the background, which hilariously disappears between shots … as if it actually went to the future. Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet” also makes a cameo, which is great, I love it when that robot makes appearances in other works. There’s a theater that’s apparently playing two movies titled “A Boys Life” and “Watch the Skies” which were actually the working titles for Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. We even have the towns radio DJ marketing himself like “Indiana Jones”. Of course it wouldn't be complete without references to other Christmas movies like "It's a Wonderful Life". Aside from the movie references, there’s other little jokes cleverly weaved throughout the film, including an “AMC Gremlin” that’s parked outside a gas station.

    The movie builds to an exciting finally in which all the monsters are blown up in a theater, and Billy is lured into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the lead Gremlin Stripe in a shopping mall. This is where the film gets scary again as the action gets really intense, and Stripes death is downright horrific as it features his body melting away into a nasty corps … its great stuff. One thing that always annoyed me is that after all Billy experienced, he still has to give Gizmo back to its original owner, ending the film on a bitter sweet note. One little detail that always stood out to me is that the music heard during this good-bye scene sounds just like the theme music from “Free Willy”. Now obviously “Free Willy” wouldn’t come out until years after “Gremlins”, but seriously, listen to the music in this scene again and tell me it’s doesn’t sound like that same “Free Willy” theme music.

     Before I wrap things post up with my final verdict of the film, lets quickly look at the one and only sequel in 1990 titled “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”. This is one of those cases in which I can’t make any persuasive argument that this sequel is better than the first, but I certainly enjoy it more. I actually find this to be a very underappreciated sequel that might just be better than audiences give it credit for. You’d think that after the large fan base of the first “Gremlins”, the sequel would at least get some recognition. Well, then again, it’s not as subtle as the original and is extremely over the top. It might just be the wildest sequel I’ve ever seen, full of forth wall jokes, movie references and self-paradise ... kind of like the first, but on steroids. Personally, that’s what I like about this film, it’s just non-stop entertainment and even builds on the original. Instead of watching Gremlins invade a city, this sequel confines them in a giant corporate building of sorts, which is a great way to change things up. We also get a variety of different Gremlins and designs on display which again keeps things feeling fresh and new. If you can get passed its mind-numbing overtones, you might just be able to have a really fun time with this film.  

    In the end, both “Gremlins” and its sequel were two of my favorite movies as a kid, and while they haven’t aged with me very well, they are still a tone of fun to watch and still very unique. I’ll say this, if you’re in the mood for an offbeat horror movie to watch for Christmas, things don’t get any better than “Gremlins”. It’s still the definitive scary holiday film for kids and families to watch around the holiday season. I can’t make a persuasive argument that everyone will get into the films over the top behavior and strange tone, but it is still a small classic. I loved it as a kid, and it’s an important reminder of how to take a clichéd concept like monsters invading a small town, then given new life through a smart screen play and it feels wildly original.

I give “Gremlins” 3 ½ stars out of 5.  


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