Synopsis: Gremlins is a wildly original roller coaster ride of hilarious mischief. One minute your hair will stand on end, the next you’ll hold your sides with laughter at the havoc these supposedly gentle furballs create when the rules are broken. One of the most fondly remembered box office hits of recent times, with sly special effects that dazzle and enchant, Gremlins is “what superior popular movie making is all about.”
eyelights: the deliciously twisted humour. the delightful cast.
eyesores: the dated animatronics work.
1. Keep them out of the light; they hate bright lights. Especially sunlight, it’ll kill them.
2. Don’t give them any water, not even to drink.
3. No matter how much they cry, no matter how much they beg, never feed them after midnight.
The more I watch Gremlins, the more it cements its place in the pantheon of my favourite movies of all time. Little did I know, when I first saw the film at the cinema way back in 1984, that it would have such enduring, long-lasting enjoyment.
There are greater films, I’ll grant anyone that. ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, and ‘The Wizard of OZ’ are probably all pictures that merit more attention and acclaim that ‘Gremlins’ ever will.
But they’re not nearly a deliciously mischievous, are they? You could hardly call any of them “fun”, could you?
And sometimes that’s what makes people so fond of a movie, well beyond any others: it’s that sense of having had a good time. This explains why particularly imperfect films such as ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Labyrinth‘, and other such films have such strong fanbases.
Of course, there are tons of “fun” films that also have very little other value, that offer nothing but sensory overload. What I like about ‘Gremlins’ is that it finds a way to merge as many elements as possible to give it a richer flavour:
-on the one hand, it’s a comedy, on the other it’s also a horror piece – but it also throws in drama, fantasy, mystery, suspense and action.
-‘Gremlins’ offers seemingly realistic (if somewhat generic or clichéd) portrayals of everyday people, but it also serves up otherworldly elements unseen elsewhere (whether it be the Mogwais/Gremlins or even the dad’s inventions).
-it focuses on excitement of all kinds, but it doesn’t just trade in exuberance – it also takes the time to set up all its pieces and give audiences a look into its quiet, small-town environment.
-it is pop culture-savvy (see all the references to other films, such ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘, ‘Forbidden Planet‘, …etc.), and yet it takes place in an isolated atmosphere inspired by ’50s golden years.
But what truly makes it work are the colourful characters and the convincing performances that the cast delivered:
-Hoyt Axton plays the endearing father, a hapless but happy-go-lucky inventor with his heart in the right place. Hoyt is perfect for the part: he plays Rand straight-faced, letting the humour come through in the character’s desperate attempts to earn credibility and respect. This is a man with large dreams, and more conviction than skill.
-Frances Lee McCain plays the doting mother. What I like about the ways she plays the character is the patience and resilience that comes through. Dee Wallace could have done an equally credible job of a woman who is hard enough to roll with the punches but soft enough to warm the heart. McCain doesn’t have the same sex appeal, but this is appropriate given the marital situation.
-Zach Galligan may be one of the weakest actors of the lot, but he pulls through. He incarnates the “every teenager” quite well, daydreaming of being a comic book artist, but working at the local bank as a clerk instead, trying to find his way through the world. He’s a bit nerdy, slightly timid, and still awed by the world.
-Phoebe Cates doesn’t get a lot of excellent material to work with (she is a secondary character, after all), but she does a credible job of delivering sober passages like the story of her father’s death. Cates plays Kate delicate and resilient at once. Above all else, though, she is the breathtakingly beautiful girl that most teenaged boys would dream of and that most girls would dream to be.
-one of the surprisingly excellent performances of ‘Gremlins comes from Corey Feldman. At this point in his career, he was still able to play sensitive and natural – as opposed to later on, when his ego got in the way and he started to play annoying little !@#$ who think they’re cool. That moment when he is first introduced to Gizmo is so effortlessly naturalistic. It’s a shame that his career had to tank a few years later. A real shame.
Even the secondary cast, such as Judge Reinhold (who plays Zach’s egotistical immediate supervisor), Polly Holiday (who plays mean Mrs. Deagle, a widowed cat-lady with influence), and Dick Miller (who plays a drunk American patriot whose values never evolved from the post-war era), are all awesome fun.
If anything, beyond all the chills and thrills, ‘Gremlins’ pokes fun at stereotypes. What was its singular purpose in doing so? I don’t know. In some ways it felt like an homage to days gone by and in other ways it poked fun at them. Similarly, it also makes fun of caricatures from many eras, including modern ones – as evidenced by the bar room scene with all the Gremlins, each one spoofing a character type.
There have been allegations that this sequence is racist because it pokes fun of African-Americans by making some of these Gremlins sports the fashions of young black males of the era. In my mind, this is baseless. One could easily note that white males are also spoofed – every type was a target in this film. Furthermore, one of the key secondary characters, a school science teacher (not a gym teacher or janitor), is played by an African-American.
If anything, ‘Gremlins’ shows more acceptance and integration than prejudice and segregation.
Personally, I go gaga for the variety of gremlins that we see in that sequence and in the following one, in the cinema. Granted, much of that time is spent looking at sight gags and being treated to short spoofs instead of moving the story along or developing characters, but it’s a keg full o’ tongue-in-cheek fun. Even though I’ve seen this film a gajillion times, I still love picking out all the iterations of gremlins that the filmmakers came up with.
Again, to me, ‘Gremlins’ is about fun. And there are tons of hilarious moments throughout, at first courtesy of the father’s inventions and later on in the interactions between the Gremlins and the humans. It’s fantastic that they managed to transition us from light family fare to gritty horror seamlessly all the while keeping the level of humour dialled up throughout – until the end, when suspense was then key to the proceedings. This is a masterstroke that few films ever manage.
‘Gremlins is one of those childhood films that has really stuck with me over the years, and I can’t imagine that it will ever fade. Granted, the way that I appreciate it has morphed slightly since I was a kid (for one, I never watched it as a Christmas film until about ten years ago!), but it nonetheless has longevity. It’s a brilliantly constructed piece, and it mixes all the flavours together just right. For an original blend of chills and chuckles, one could do far worse than to have ‘Gremlins’ at home.
Date of viewing: December 9, 2012