D: Joe Dante / 106m
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday, Frances Lee McCain, Scott Brady, Jonathan Banks, Dick Miller, Judge Reinhold, Glynn Turman, Corey Feldman, Keye Luke, Edward Andrews, Harry Carey Jr
In amidst all the destruction and mayhem caused by the Gremlins of the title, Phoebe Cates’s bank teller (and barmaid) Kate Beringer takes time out to tell fellow bank teller Billy Peltzer (Galligan) the reason why she hates Xmas. It’s an awful tale, simply but effectively told by Cates, and at the end of it, you can understand exactly what she means. And in a movie that thrives on being as subversive as possible, it’s the most subversive moment in the entire movie. Forget about the Gremlins singing along to “Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It’s off to work we go” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – “They’re watching Snow White. And they love it.” – or having one of them “expose” himself to Kate, her monologue sums up everything that the movie wants to say about the festive season: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
And yet, despite this, Gremlins occupies a warm place in the hearts and minds of pretty much everyone who’s ever seen it. Despite the way in which it trashes several Xmas conventions – peace and goodwill to all men? Yeah, right – Gremlins is a movie that always satisfies, no matter how often you watch it. Right from the start, when Hoyt Axton’s terrible inventor, Randall Peltzer, tries to impress upon kindly Chinese store owner Mr Wing (Luke) the virtues of the Bathroom Buddy, it’s clear that nothing’s going to go right for him, or for anyone else in the movie. And that’s part of the movie’s charm: waiting to see just how bad it gets.
And so, we settle in to wait, to see just how bad it will get. Along the way we see some other examples of Randall’s knack for building inventions that don’t work, such as the clockwork egg slicer, and we meet the horrible Mrs Deagle (Holliday), a character so odious that she regales Billy with thinly veiled threats about what she would do to his dog, Barney, if she had her way. And then there’s Judge Reinhold’s preening, acid-tongued assistant bank manager, Gerald, a nasty piece of work who wouldn’t hesitate to fire Billy if he had the chance. And lastly, dear old Murray Futterman (Miller), an ex-GI with a racist streak that’s wider than the Grand Canyon. It seems the town of Kingston Falls isn’t quite the nice little town it appears to be.
Inevitably, little Gizmo begets a quintet of other furry Mogwai, led by the very anti-social Stripe. The story then introduces us to Mr Hanson (Turman), the local science teacher. Billy gives him one of the Mogwai, and though Mr Hanson’s intentions aren’t as cruel or nefarious as some of the other characters we’ve met, it’s when he starts performing multiple blood tests on the creature that we know he’s got to go on the Naughty List with Mrs Deagle et al. And then, the creature gets to eat after midnight…
While this particular Gremlin is claiming his revenge, Stripe and his scaly cohorts are wreaking havoc in the Peltzer kitchen. At this point, the movie does something unexpected. With all the horrible people living in Kingston Falls for the Gremlins to exact “justice” on, it’s the quiet, unassuming (and nice) Lynn Peltzer (McCain) that is one of the first targets (after the unfortunate Barney of course). What follows is one of the movie’s best sequences, as Lynn takes the fight to the Gremlins after the initial shock of finding them in her kitchen has worn off. Watch McCain closely as she goes from frightened housewife to tough-as-nails Gremlin-killer; it’s a standout moment for the actress, a once-in-a-career opportunity that she grabs with both hands and, in today’s modern parlance, “smashes”.
And just as inevitably as Gizmo begat Stripe and friends, so Stripe begats hundreds more of the little blighters, and they proceed to go on a rampage through the town. The movie transforms itself from a charming, slightly innocuous looking family feature into a full-on riotous comedy horror, and for the next forty-five minutes there’s more mayhem and anti-social behaviour on display than in a raft of Seth Rogen movies. And Mr Hanson’s death isn’t the only one. What is happening? How can a movie that’s introduced us to such a cute and cuddly little creature suddenly go all psycho on us?
Of course, the movie is called Gremlins, and not Mogwai. But the best thing about Joe Dante’s inspired direction (working from an equally inspired script by Chris Columbus) is that he embraces the carnage. He’s keen to show off all the terrible things that the Gremlins are capable of, and he’s just as keen to revel in it all. He encourages the viewer to do the same, to enjoy the town’s destruction, to cheer it on even though the “good” townsfolk of Kingston Falls need to be saved from this unexpected retribution. It’s yet another example of how subversive Gremlins is: you can’t help but cheer them on.
With that in mind, it also explains why Billy and Kate are so dull. As central characters you should want to like them, but Dante isn’t interested in having us root for them. Sure, they have to win out in the end – in 1984, even the most subversive of mainstream movies couldn’t let evil triumph over good – but they’re just so uninspiring, and so bland. You get the feeling that if they were to have children their offspring would be the most boring kids alive. But against Stripe and his tribe of over-achieving disaster-mongers, Billy and Kate can’t help but look and feel tedious and simple-minded. It’s a contrast the movie has to stick with, but certainly, there are times when you wish they weren’t.
In the end, good does triumph over evil, and the Gremlins are vanquished. But just as the viewer prepares to endure the feelgood homilies that are part and parcel of ordinary US home life at Xmas (especially in the movies), the script has one last trick to play on the viewer, one last subversive moment to round things off with. Mr Wing shows up to collect Gizmo, and in the process, makes it clear that the Peltzer’s are entirely irresponsible, and don’t deserve to keep the furry little creature. Just as they’re congratulating themselves on saving the town (what’s left of it), the movie reins them in and reminds them (and us) that if it wasn’t for them, then none of it would have happened in the first place. It’s a great way to end a movie (even if they had to go and spoil it by hinting that Billy might have a shot at being responsible in the future), and leaves only one question unanswered: if all the Gremlins bar Stripe were blown up in the movie theatre, does that include the ones that were busy disrupting Rockin’ Ricky Rialto’s radio show?
Rating: 9/10 – an Eighties movie that – surprisingly – hasn’t dated, Gremlins is a classic of narrative misdirection and sly, devilish humour; watch it with a jaundiced eye and you’ll get much more out of it than if you were to take it at face value, and be prepared to be entertained on such a darkly comic level that you’ll be wondering for a long time to come, if Gremlins is really the family movie it appears to be.
NOTE: This is the first of four Xmas Classics to be featured on thedullwoodexperiment. The other three will appear between now and Xmas Day.