Saturday, December 14, 2019

Christmas Watch: Gremlins (1984)

Watched:  12/11/2019
Format:  Alamo Mueller Movie Party
Viewing:  Unknown
Decade:  1980's

I saw Gremlins (1984) during its original theatrical run back when I was a kid.  I wasn't someone who watched any horror yet, so I do recall the movie scaring the crap out of me in one or two scenes, but as the same kid who thought Ewoks were *great*, I also loved me some Gizmo.

In fact, I started 4th grade with an official Gremlins backpack that had Gizmo screenprinted on the outside like I was Billy Peltzer chasing me down some Stripe with my little buddy.

I also had a Gizmo doll that, when you shook it, made squeaking sounds.

But, I really remember being terrified for the mom alone in the house and her murdering her way through a horde of malicious little freakazoids.  Ie:  I did not get how hilarious that scene is and took it at face value in the summer of 1984 when I was about 9.

When I was 14, Gremlins 2 came out and hit me in my sweet spot (it may be one of my favorite movies), and it's been my preferred Gremlins movie ever since.  While I'm aware Gremlins is both a cult-favorite and a Christmas movie, it's not what I watch for Yuletide cheer.  I'm more of a "let's watch White Christmas and see what we think about Rosemary Clooney this year" kind of guy, when it comes to movie-watching traditions.

And, I kinda think it's sorta wild that those older movies are falling away and the movies made in response to the sentimental films are now the staple Christmas movies.  It's one thing to lampoon and satirize the cultural juggernauts, but in a vacuum, if every Christmas movie is one that's fighting a missing strawman, I'm not entirely certain what we're watching or why - and, frankly, most modern Christmas movies kind of have become about what a drag Christmas is, which...  we have some issues, people.

But Gremlins was pretty early in on this, arriving 10 years after Black Christmas.   And, of course, released in the summer.  It beats out Christmas Vacation and that which would follow.  It's also kind of a horror movie of sorts - there's murderous little beasts, after all - and it would launch a thousand imitators, from Critters to Ghoulies to most VHS renting options at gas stations in the late 1980's that featured puppets wreaking mayhem upon suburbs and small towns.

Gremlins does a lot to get a world set up before tearing that world apart, and if people largely remember it for being better than subsequent puppet-monster films, it's because Christopher Columbus, who wrote the movie, provided investment in the characters and situations we'd see upended.  I'm not suggesting deep drama - but Joe Dante (who directed the picture) had a lot of characters with distinct issues and viewpoints, and a good everyman, George Bailey-esque POV character to tie it all together in Zach Galligan's Billy Peltzer.

Billy wants to know the cute girl working alongside him at the bank (Phoebe Cates), who has baggage and one of the most thankless monologues in cinema history.  His mom seems to be at home, baking to push away the fear of failure that his father - a hapless entrepreneur and inventor - has bestowed upon his family as he self-markets cleverly terrible products (which he can't seem to sell).  He's a friend to his kinda nutty neighbor, Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller in prime Dick Miller mode), and is just trying to stay afloat at the bank as a teller - with dreams of being some sort of commercial artist.

He's got antagonists in Mrs. Deagle, a real-estate maven - played on point by Polly Holiday (she was on Alice as Flo, originating the "kiss my grits" catch-phrase), channeling here the Wicked Witch of the West with lots of threats about killing the guileless hero's scrappy dog.  And, Judge Rheinhold.

I do love that this is a movie that knows you're not watching it on VHS - so they repeat the three rules over and over so everyone's clear on what's up as the movie gets going (I think they were on some movie posters as well).  And it's a nod that the audience will certainly include kids, who need repetition of any ideas.  Of course in 2019 the exotic Chinese shop and store-owner would draw the boos of twitter, and it is a bit of kinda unnecessary mystery poured over the top of Gizmo's existence (also, why you keeping him in a box, dude?).  But I do love the very Hoyt Axtony Hoyt Axton trying to navigate the scene.

Frankly, there's a looooot of set-up.  The chaos of the actual Gremlins seems like it's only really the last 1/3rd of the film.  The first 1/3rd is "who is who" and Billy's state.  Then we get Gizmo and the birth of additional Magwai, and then, finally, Gremlins.  It's probably not that clean-cut, but it sure feels like it.

The comedy of the Gremlins, which was lightened to Looney Tune levels in the sequel, is very present for adults, but very, very dark.  And that gallows humor with a bunch of cackling little miscreants delivers on a certain promise the Muppets could never quite fulfill.  Especially - and I know this contradicts my opening statements - but because the mayhem explodes on Christmas Eve.  It really does work as a great counterpoint to see the still and hope of the season shattered by agents of chaos running amuck.  I will never not find a place in my heart for a theater full of Gremlins singing "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho" along with Snow White.

What I'd maybe not picked up on is how *funny* the scene is when the Gremlins go after Billy's seeming push-over a mom.  I mean, the lady grabs a pair of carving knives and is ready to dance, just tearing her way through the things.  I may have been traumatized by a Gremlin in a blender at age 9, but at 44... that's just good stuff.

But, lord help me, to this day, I don't get why they didn't cut the thing about Phoebe Cates hating Christmas and why.  It's so weird and out of place - enough so that they spoof it in their own sequel.

Cates quit acting years ago, so she probably looks old and weird now, right?

I mean, wtf, Pheobe Cates...  just age like the rest of us

I still think Gremlins 2 is the superior Gremlins film, but re-watching the original in a theater full of people there for a movie party as we wore Gremlins ear hats and had a grand old time has certainly raised the movie a few notches higher.  I always liked it, but not as much as others.  Now... I'm coming along.  It's a lot of fun.

And I still think the visual gags in the movie, like Mrs. Deagle flying out her window, are really a tiny bit of brilliance.

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