Friday, December 23, 2016

The Instructions Were Quite Specific, or Thoughts on Gremlins

Written by Chris Columbus, who would go on to direct Home Alone (1990), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and a couple movies about that boy wizard with the glasses, Gremlins (1984) is perfectly balanced; light hearted but threatening, with just enough darkness to satisfy a Christmas Grinch while still keeping the attention of the larger holiday loving public.  From director Joe Dante of The Howling (1981) and produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins dovetails nicely into that sentimental and affectionate 80’s world of E.T.(1982), Back to The Future (1985), The Goonies (1985), Indiana Jones (1984), and Poltergeist (1982).
Keye Luke, Master Po from Kung Fu, the original Kato in the 1940 Green Hornet and Donald Corey in Star Trek’s Whom Gods Destroy (1969) is the mysterious (and perhaps a tad stereotypically racist from a contemporary viewing) ancient Chinese shopkeeper who inadvertently sells the cute Mogwai creature to wacky inventor Rand Peltzer, as portrayed by Hoyt Axton.  Even if you’ve never seen the movie you know the rules: keep them out of sunlight, don't expose them to water, and never, ever feed them after midnight.  Before the movie’s over, all three of those rules will be broken.
Gremlins is set in Kingston Falls, the same set that would become Marty McFly’s hometown Hill Valley, but it could easily be Bedford Falls, a nostalgic small town full of wacky characters like the legendary character actor Dick Miller as Murray Fetterman and Polly Holliday, doing her best Margaret Hamilton impression as Mrs. Deagle, the richest and meanest lady in town.  Zach Galligan is Billy Peltzer, Rand’s son who adopts the Mogwai and names him Gizmo and Phoebe Cates is his love interest and co-worker, Kate, who has a legitimate and very dark reason to hate Christmas, and remind the viewer that this is technically a horror movie.
The Mogwai are very furry and non-threatening, like an updated 80’s Tribble, or a tiny Ewok, or a really cute and friendly rare Sumatran rat monkey.    I am always amused at how the easily they are accepted by the characters in this movie;  no one's ever heard of this animal, they are a completely new species and they sort of speak English and everyone’s just on board.  The Gremlins of course are the stars of the movie, all teeth, reptilian skin and bad attitudes.  And even though their threat is real and they kill people, the Gremlins offer a comic lunacy that somehow let’s the audience be OK with that.
The special effects are gloriously analog; puppets, animatronics and stop motion.  The Gremlins run across Main Street like the Ray Harryhausen skeletons, and movie is full of affectionate references including a cameo by Robby the Robot from Lost in Space and Forbidden Planet (1956).  The effects contribute to the amorphous, sentimental holiday time frame; this movie could easily be set in the 50s or 60s, and that’s part of its considerable charm.
No one took the violence seriously except for the MPAA and a few concerned parents, and this movie, along with Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984) are largely responsible for creating the PG-13 rating.  But they literally don’t make movies like this anymore, Gremlins was a perfect storm of talent; writing direction, performance, music, and special effects were all balanced to create an instant holiday classic.  Even the teen romance worked organically, it was not forced and was with people you actually care about. 
With Howie Mandel as the voice of Gizmo and a cameo by Chuck Jones as Billy’s art teacher.  Watch out for Judge Reinholdt, in a small role that came out the same year as Beverly Hills Cop, and Francis Lee McCain as Lynn Peltzer, Billy’s mom and the real bad ass of the movie.  She isn’t afraid of the gremlins and kills them with a blender, microwave and the slasher movie weapon of choice, the kitchen knife. 

And pay very special attention to a young Jonathan Banks with hair as a drunk, frightened deputy.  




my first novel?  thanks for asking:)  it’s a the first book in a 4-volume supernatural martial arts series chock full of killer kung-fu witches, haunted carnivals, punk rock assassins, and a 24-hour diner with the best pie in town…
read for free on kindle unlimited or buy the paperback, available at fine bookstores everywhere (amazon).