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Blogvent Day 2 – Gremlins (1984,USA)


Director: Joe Dante    Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Corey Feldman, Frances Lee McCain

The thing that astounds me most about Gremlins, apart from the fact I haven’t seen it in many, many years, is how old it is. Twenty seven years have passed since Joe Dante put together his demented Christmas monster movie mash up, a film I first saw on rental VHS from long defunct chain Azad Video probably around 1986. Along with Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters and The Goonies it’s a film that became a staple of my childhood, taped off the telly at the first opportunity and rewatched into snowy oblivion. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. All that said, it has been easily five years since I last watched it, maybe even more and so I thought it would be a perfect choice to revisit for Blogvent.

Randall Peltzer (Axton) has gone to some length to get his son Billy (Gallighan) a unique birthday present procuring, from a basement Chinese antiquity dealer, a strange but extremely cute creature called a Mogwai. The thing is though, there’s rules with Mogwai. You have to keep them out of the light, strong light hurts them, sunlight will kill them. You need to keep them away from water. Most importantly of all, no matter how much they cry, no matter how much they beg, NEVER feed them after midnight. Of course, the arrival of said creature into an all-American family results in the almost immediate flouting of the rules which in turn results in rather sever consequences for the small town of Kingston Falls which finds itself overrun by the voracious and savage Gremlins of the title. It’s up to Billy and love interest Kate (Cates), with a little help from the original Mogwai Gizmo to stop the spread of the nasty little critters.

So has it stood the test of time? Hell yes. It’s still just as much fun as ever, even if it is cut with a sinister streak. Chris Columbus’ script balances light and dark perfectly. On the one hand you have Peltzer Senior’s madcap, never quite working as intended inventions. On the other you have Kate’s grim reason for not celebrating Christmas (itself a lot funnier than it should be, in an over the top, extremely dark kind of way). The cuteness of Gizmo is balanced out by the pointy viciousness of the Gremlins. The cold, loveless existence of local property magnate Mrs Deagle (a startlingly evil performance from Polly Holliday) is contrasted with the warmth of the Peltzer family.

Inspiration has been drawn from Capra’s legendary Christmas masterpiece It’s A Wonderful Life, Deagle clearly being an homage to that film’s vile, Srooge-esque Mr. Potter, the Peltzers standing in (loosely) for the Baileys, the inspiration acknowledged later in the film when it can be seen playing on a TV in the background. In fact, the theme of the pursuit of money versus the pursuit of genuine happiness is a big part of the film, as relevant now given the global financial climate as it would have been in the materialistic eighties. Mrs. Deagle is a withered, mirthless old maid, kept company by her horde of cats (all named after different currencies), the only love in her life being the pursuit of money and by extension power over other people, people of whom she is jealous because of their happiness. The Peltzers on the other hand seem comfortable but happy, Daddy Peltzer choosing to pursue a less than spectacular career as an inventor, Billy working in the local bank during the day (and hating it) but when he’s not there chasing his dream of drawing comics. Needless to say, Deagle despises the Peltzers.

It’s not just the story and themes in Gremlins that are timeless. The creature effects are still extraordinary, a complex mixture of puppetry, animatronics and stop motion animation (there’s even a spot of hand drawn animation in there, appropriately during a scene where the Disney classic Snow White is being shown) and look astounding even now almost three decades later. The Mogwai are unbelievably cute and any doubts that they are one of the iconic cinema creatures can be laid to rest by the popularity of the related merchandise, Mogwai toys still selling in spades even today. The Gremlins themselves are, in my opinion, an even greater creation and the sheer variety of the creature designs on show is staggering, especially given that each one had to be designed and built by the effects team. There is one scene in particular where a Gremlin is in the Peltzers kitchen, that seems to combine a mechanical/puppet Gremlin with matted in stop-motion effects and the result is seamless and far less obtrusive than anything I’ve ever seen done with computers. The film is a masterclass in the execution of special effects. Hollywood please take note and ensure you watch this film before reaching for your mouse next time you’re making a film.

Special mention has to be made of the film’s attitude to the female characters in the film. They are all capable, fiery, independent women. At one end of the scale is Mrs. Deagle who rules the town through her wealth and lack of compassion, at the other is Billy’s mum Lynne (McCain) who a lesser writer might have dismissed as a token “housewife” but who, when faced with the Gremlin invasion, doesn’t panic and scream and look to a man for help but instead gets a kitchen knife, a blender and a microwave and deals with the problem. McCain is excellent in the role and the sequence where she is forced to defend her home is one of the highlights of the film.

Packed with nods towards classic sci-fi B-movies (including a fabulous blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Time Machine gag), tons of background detail and even a couple of high ranking cameos including the late Jerry Goldsmith (who composed the fantastic score for the film) and producer Steven Spielberg the film was clearly a lot of fun to make. It’s certainly a lot of fun to watch and is one of the those films that just keeps on giving, revealing more and more of itself with every viewing.

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