Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Movie #220: Gremlins

Gremlins is a 1984 horror/comedy film directed by Joe Dante, written by Chris Columbus and produced by Steven Spielberg. I list them first because the cast hasn't exactly gone on to amazing heights of stardom; Gremlins starred Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Terry Carmichael and Polly Holliday. So some long and storied careers, but no one that casual moviegoers today immediately recognize.

Gremlins, though, is one of those "you had to be there" 80s moments. Quite apart from the content of the movie itself, like Ghostbusters, which opened the same year, Gremlins merchandise was freakin' everywhere during the mid-80s. Toys, books, comics, cereal, toys, etc. Everything had a freakin' mogwai. Let me back up.

Rand Peltzer (Axton) is in Chinatown (we're never told what city, though the sequel is set in New York) searching for a gift for his 20something son. He finds an old curio shoppe run by an even older Chinese fellow (Keye Luke), and, doing a deal with the old man's grandson, buys a small furry creature called a mogwai, which he names "Gizmo."

He gives Gizmo to his son, and relays the rules: Keep him out of bright light, never get him wet, and never feed him after midnight.

Now, I saw this movie when I was 10, and the fact that "midnight" is an artificial construct never occurred to me. But in the context of the movie, if you feed a mogwai after midnight, it enters a cocoon, and then emerges several hours later as a horrible, slimy, reptilian monster. Billy (Galligan) finds this out after he accidentally gets Gizmo wet, resulting in him budding and producing five more mogwai. Those mogwai are nasty little things, and they trick Billy into feeding them after midnight - and now we've got gremlins.

And at that point, the heretofore cute and mostly funny movie takes a sharp left into horror-movie territory. Billy and his bad-ass mom kill several of them, but the last one takes a dunk in a swimming pool, which results in a thousand more, and that's when the shit really hits the fan. The gremlins cheerfully kill the old lady who runs the town's finances with an iron fist (Holliday; she actually manages to get somewhat sympathetic in her final moments as she wails, "They've come for me"), Billy's science teacher (Glynn Turman), and attempt to kill the kindly old plow driver, Mr. Futterman (veteran horror movie dying guy Dick Miller). Billy and his girlfriend, Kate (Cates) blow them up in a movie theater, and then track Stripe (who escapes again) to a nearby department store, where Gizmo exposes him to sunlight and melts his sorry ass.

It's not high art, but it's a formative movie - most people credit this and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with leading to the creation of the PG-13 rating. The puppetry is pretty impressive, and the gremlins manage to look pretty creepy. The scene in the bar is really out of place, though - like I said, the movie changes to a horror movie once the gremlins appear. Why, then, the flashdancing gremlin? Why the film noir gremlin who then shoots the gremlin doing the puppet show? What, as they say, the fuck?

I can only assume that, as with some of Columbus' other projects, he's not really sure what movie he's making, and the bar scene was an attempt to continue making a comedy even after it had clearly become a horror movie with comic overtones. I think that, but for that scene, which is just kind of weird, the movie holds up pretty well. I do not think, however, that my daughter is ready to see it.

My grade: B
Rewatch value: Medium

Next up: Gremlins 2: The New Batch