Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Quickie Retrospective: Gremlins (1984)

Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Chris Columbus
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain, Judge Reinhold, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller
Rated: PG

They're watching Snow White. And they love it.
      ~Billy Peltzer

Merry Christmas or Happy Day Off Work for those who don't partake.  And for those of you not qualifying for either working, thank you for putting the hours today to help those who are in need of you or your company's services.  Happy Friggin' Holidays I guess could cover it, but being as its December 25th I think its a bit obvious what day I'm commemorating this piece with.  I'm covering one of my all-time favorite movies and its a Christmas movie at that!  GREMLINS, baby! Ho ho freakin' ho!

This might wander into the more "personal history" over film analysis reflectives as you see me do from time to time.  Gremlins is a film that's been with me since I can remember.  I was born in '82 and it came out in '84.  Obviously I was too young to partake in seeing it in the theater, but in the advent of VHS back then, I devoured it.  This movie may have been the seed that was planted for my horror-loving self later on.  Kids tend to drive their parents nuts watching movies over and over and over again when they are little (I've seen Thomas & Friends: Blue Mountain Mystery more than any other film this calendar year).  Oddly, Gremlins was one of those for me.  I constantly had my mom and dad rent this movie for me.  Funny enough, they never thought to actually just buy the damn thing.  But, VHS's were astronomically priced for purchase back int the day if they were for sell-through and you had to order through a rental store. And just because it was on VHS back then, didn't mean it was available at a department or electronics store either.  And the reason why I included 2 posters up top? I associate the first one more with the movie than the other, because as a video store rat growing up that's the image I most saw for the film.
I had my own little Gizmo toy back in the day.  The weird thing about my love for this movie?  It scared me.  I kept watching it over and over again and I was frightened of Stripe and his gang.  Apparently, I loved the rush, the feeling and couldn't stop torturing myself.  "Do You Hear What I Hear" was forever a haunting song for me every Christmas as it reminded me of the nail biting suspense of Billy's mom wandering the house of in search of the unknown terror that awaited.  I'd even catch this movie on TV whenever it aired.  The toy store chase at the end, the teacher with the candy bar, the pool scene, it all gave me chills.  Another thing that creeped me out and disturbed?  Don't laugh...but I found Kate's story about her father, you know the one every mocks and laughs at this movie for, I found it pretty terrifying as a young lad.  Now, older, I must admit I still don't see why its considered so insane and ridiculous.  I find the parody of it in the next film quite humorous, but I still don't see absolutely insanity of the original's story.  And no, I did not lose a relative or something in a similar fashion.
And the funny thing is, as an adult, this film works as almost an entirely different movie.  Its actually a fun little comedy.  I find myself seeing the intended humor and jokes that I wasn't picking up on as a kid.  I think its to the craftiness of Joe Dante that it works on both levels.  While on the surface this looks like another Steven Spielberg as a producer movies but the movie looks like he could have directed it (aka Poltergeist...which, shit, he MIGHT have really directed that one), a closer looks sees that Dante is indeed the genius behind this one.  He has a commitment to the horror and suspense aspects of the film that actually make it work on a grander level.  For example, they don't hold back on the look of the creatures.  They are actually scary and terrifying looking.  This works for the horror, but then in the pub scene when the gremlins are dressed funny and drinking, smoking and singing it does even better gang busters comedically.  Also, lets mention here, Stripe melting at the end.  Good lord, still terrifying and grotesque (and another example of why practical is so much better than digital).  Dante also has some framing, lighting and camera movements that are akin to his own craft and not Spielberg.
Jerry Goldsmith produces an incredibly fun and memorable score.  I love how it all builds an builds until the scene where the gremlins attack Dick Miller's house with a tractor.  While watching this, I had a realization. Scores back in the day seemed to be so much more memorable and "hummable" with more frequency.  Back in the 80s a score that would be ingrained in your head seemed like a dime a dozen.  I'm not saying "movie scores are dead" or anything like that, I just feel that the frequency at which the great and memorable ones happen quite less than they used to.  Maybe everything's been done and its much harder or that great scores are more atmospheric nowadays than having a "poppy" hook.
Most guys started their Phoebe Cates crush with her coming out of the pool in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.  For me, it was her warmly dressed, cuddly looking, kind hearted Kate from Gremlins.  Apparently there was controversy behind the scenes with her casting as they wanted a homely girl and she had been known for more risque parts.  And by "risque" in 1984, I think they meant that she showed her boobs in a movie.  Its funny how times have changed and this probably wouldn't have even been an after thought now.  Its kinda sad that she really has been out of acting for so long as I was kind of a fan of hers.  In retrospect she was kind of the female equivalent of Steve Guttenberg.  Huge in the 80s, but once the clock struck 12 on New Years' 1990, she pretty much disappeared.  Aside from an acclaimed indie film in 2001, Cates hasn't been in a movie or television show since 1994.
Gremlins has a last legacy for something aside from the films' quality.  This, along with 1984's Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, changed the face of our current ratings system.  Both films were nowhere near violent or disturbing enough to warrant an R rating.  They were both slapped with a PG, but both proving too much for that.  So the wonderful rating of PG-13 was crafted here with these two films being cited as the two examples.  And yeah, for the age I was when I was first devouring Gremlins, I was probably too young to be seeing some of the stuff, comedic or supernatural or whatever.  I find it funny another PG film from 1984, Top Secret!, doesn't get strewn in with the "reasons for PG-13" as well as that film features nudity and a device called the "anal intruder" as well as bits of sexual humor in it.  I find it also funny what the PG-13 genre has become since.  We're in an age where people are getting away with R-rated movies that pass as PG-13 while stuff that is highly offensive back in the day like a older Friday the 13th movies were considered vile and hacked to shit and would actually probably (boobs aside) qualify as a PG-13 by today's standards while stuff that would have been considered "X" back in the 80s and stuff considered R are now our PG-13 and R rated movies.  There's been many articles on this topic, but we are in a time in desperate need of revising the ratings system.
Should this film be remade or rebooted?  Is it flawless and perfect?  To me its perfect, but I have a nostalgia for the times, my history with it, and I like the filmmaking of this era.  I think a Gremlins remake sure could be done.  I think its a film that there's room for it if someone has a vision for it and its not just a brand name recognition cash grab.  Yeah, funny that I'm saying this about one of my favorite films, but I've always thought there was areas to be explored with a remake of Gremlins.  For one, I think it'd be really cool to go back to Columbus' original script and try to make the film's original concept.  When Spielberg bought the rights, he made Chris Columbus go back and make it more friendly.  I'd be all down for the R-rated take on the film.  In his original script, there was no Stripe.  Gizmo was the leader of the Gremlins.  Yes the cute, cuddly fuzzy little Mogwai became the film's ultimate villain.  Its kind of heartbreaking and stuff, but that was the point.  Also, the film was more gutwrenching.  Billy's mother was killed in it, and the scene where he returns home her head rolls down the stairs at him.  It'd be an interesting experiment and its kind of dark, but I'd really like to see it done.
So, I hope you all have a wonderful December 25th!  I watch this movie annually.  I love it.  Its truly is a Christmas movie through and through.  Not just one that "happens to take place around Christmas".  The film is essentially about a Christmas gift.  It has Christmas music in it, it celebrates the traditions like trees, putting up lights, gift giving, generosity and family.  It just takes a horror and creature feature spin on the whole holiday.

NEXT TIME: We'll have fun, but in no sense will it be civilized.

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