Aug 6, 2011

24FPS Top 100: No. 54

54: GREMLINS [1984]
DIR: Joe Dante
Why is it on the list?
Honestly? Why is Gremlins on my top 100 films? I think any self respecting movie fan is likely to tell you that's like asking what's so great about pizza. It's Gremlins, it's awesome.

The thing that rather stuns me about this film is how well it mixes tones; it's a sweet, genuinely christmassy, movie with endearing characters and a lot of big laughs, but it's also dark, sharp edged and satirical, and occasionally properly scary. The thing that is really shocking about that is that Chris Columbus, you know, the bean counting rentahack who brought us such vomit inducing whimsy as Bicentennial Man (oh God, even 8 years on it haunts my nightmares) wrote Gremlins.

The fact that it works so beautifully is, then, perhaps more down to director Joe Dante, and to be fair this is very identifiably a Joe Dante film; a film shot through with its director's obsessions, particularly his pet cast members and his abiding love of cinema, and especially of schlock. Tonally it's also very much Dante's film, he mixed comedy and horror in Piranha and The Howling, but Gremlins is really where he perfected the recipe, having great fun dropping his vindictive little monsters into the middle off an idyllic It's a Wonderful Life kind of town (albeit one with a similarly dark underbelly).

Before letting the monsters loose though, Columbus and Dante draw us in to the Peltzer family as mad inventor dad Rand (Hoyt Axton, for whom the word avuncular was surely coined) brings home an exotic pet for his son Billy (Zach Galligan), Gizmo the mogwai (given impossibly cute presence by Chris Walas' stunning animatronics and equally adorable voice by Howie Mandel) is a great pet, but when Billy accidentally spills water on him he multiples, and ultimately the new mogwai become monsters, multiply further and terrorise the town in a series of riotously entertaining set pieces. Yes, that old story.

Dante mounts some great horror scenes (the Gremlin attacking Billy's old High School science teacher, with the monster shown largely in shadow, is genuinely creepy), but always laces them with a rich layer of humour. A knife wielding Gremlin attacks Billy's mother from inside their Christmas tree, and it's a scary scene because it is pretty violent, but it's also absurdly funny because the overriding image is one of a woman being attacked by a Christmas tree. Other set pieces tend more towards comedy, notably a scene where the bar Phoebe Cates (as Galligan's love interest) is working at is overtaken by Gremlins, all of whom have begun to take one their own persona, allowing Dante to riff on both terrible customers and cliché movie character types in a single manic scene. The effects are outstanding, with Walas' puppets having real physical weight and presence, and an incredible level of mobility and personality, heightening both the scares and the laughs.

However, Dante also knows how to slow down and build the characters, and he's aided by strong performances from Galligan, Cates, and Judge Reinhold; slimy as Billy's immediate boss. Despite an overriding impression that guy so dorky wouldn't have a ghost of a chance with her, Galligan and Cates actually have decent chemistry and establish a sweet relationship, and it's also worth noting that Galligan works brilliantly with the Gizmo puppet, really helping bring it life and make it feel like there is a personality and a connection there.

All in all, Gremlins is just a flat out good time. It's witty, it's scary, it's sometimes even a little moving (Cates' Santa speech - admit it, you get misty there too). It's a Christmas classic shot through with quality (I didn't even get to mention Dante's mascot Dick Miller as Mr Futterman), and it's good enough that you can enjoy it all year round. If you don't love Gremlins you probably also hate Christmas, and puppies, and babies, and all the other nice things in the world.

Standout Scenes

Memorable Lines
Chinese Boy: Look Mister, there are some rules that you've got to follow.
Rand Peltzer: Yeah, what kind of rules?
Chinese Boy: First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it'll kill him. Second, don't give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.

Ruby Deagle: Mrs Harris, what are you trying to tell me?
Mrs. Joe Harris: I'm afraid none of us can pay for two weeks. Couldn't you just get Mr.Corben to just give us a little more time?
Ruby Deagle: Mrs Harris, the bank and I have the same purpose in life - to make money. Not to support a lot of... deadbeats!
Mrs. Joe Harris: Mrs Deagle! It's Christmas!
Ruby Deagle: Well, now you know what to ask Santa for, don't you?

Kate: Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.
Billy Peltzer: What are you talking about?
Kate: The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn't home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That's when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He'd been climbing down the chimney... his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.

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