Gremlins ★★★½

Part of Buddy the Elf, What's Your Favorite Color?

“I make the illogical logical.”

Never expose it to bright light, especially sunlight, which will kill it.

Christmas is nostalgia. Most everything about the season, from the movies to the carols to the decorations to the gifts, is about manufacturing memories. Some of those memories may have arisen from a crass or materialistic or cynical place, but once fogged up with the warm glow of the past, they become halcyon and sentimental. Ask what one envisions when they think of Christmas, and the answer is unlikely to be a pure, unfiltered moment from actual days past—it is probably a take informed by A Charlie Brown Christmas or Norman Rockwell or Courier & Ives or Bing Crosby (or, more likely, some combination thereof).

(Incidentally, this is why so many Christmas movies are so bland and insipid. Instead of adopting a specific point of view, they try to act as some sort of universal representation of the idea of “Christmas”—a filmed Hallmark card. As a result, they lose the melancholy of It’s a Wonderful Life, the middle-class spunk of A Christmas Story, the magical romanticism of The Bishop’s Wife. In wanting to be like everything else, they succeed all too well, becoming like nothing at all and collapsing in a heap of indistinctness.)

Shine a bright light on those warm remembrances and their cozy confines can start to look taped together and decomposed. Rather than being cozy and warm, the stench can be suffocating and nearly fatal. Sometimes, someone needs to open a window and remember when Uncle Bob got just a little too drunk and creepy or when there wasn’t enough money to fill Santa’s sleigh—when things were just a little bit off. The holiday can glow or it can burn, as in Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which treats Christmas as a playground for irreverent pranksterism. By adopting every cliché the movies have ever offered about the holiday season and small-town Americana, Dante, along with screenwriter Chris Columbus and producer Steven Spielberg, creates a darkly funny and disturbing Yuletide romp. It doesn’t always work, but its enthusiasm and knowing B-movieness (and the criminal adorability of Gizmo) paper over most of the flaws.

Never get it wet.

The delights of Gremlins are many, often resulting from a soon-to-be-bygone era of filmmaking (ironically invoking some of the nostalgia that Dante sought to trample at every turn). Matte paintings at the beginning and end of the film produce an obviously phony but carefully rendered Kingston Falls, where the Peltzer family ekes out a meager but loving existence. The town itself, when visited, is constructed on studio backlots filled with plastic snow. The effects are practical rather than computer generated, with puppets and marionettes and animatronics giving life to the title creatures. It does no good to complain that Gremlins looks fake—Dante never wants the viewer to forget that they’re watching a movie, a magical good time made all the more magical and good because of its phoniness.

Those movie references are both implicit (as in the endless recycled and skewered tropes from days of Hollywood gone by) and explicit (as in Mrs. Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) watching It’s a Wonderful Life on TV, the gremlins watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Kingston Falls movie house, and the double-bill showing at the local theater—Watch the Skies and This Boy’s Life, the working titles of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, respectively). Everywhere one turns, one is inundated with in-jokes and homages and send-ups, but Dante and Columbus mostly avoid becoming tiresome or soggy. Gremlins is drenched in much too much enthusiasm for their joke to wear entirely thin.

Most importantly, no matter how much it cries or begs, never, ever feed it after midnight.

Instead, “thinness” may be the best description of the plot and the characterization. No-talent amateur inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) tries, and mostly fails, to make a living shilling his worthless creations. Hoping to get a memorable Christmas present for his twenty-ish son, Billy (Zach Galligan), who helps support the family working as a teller at the local bank, Rand wanders over to Chinatown U.S.A., where Rand is shuttled by a young Asian boy to his grandfather’s (Keye Luke) ancient mystical shop. There, over the grandfather’s protests, the boy sells to Rand a mogwai whom he names Gizmo—an astoundingly adorable creature with the eyes of a Disney princess, the disposition of a drowsy newborn, and the cuddliness of a fresh-from-the-dryer blanket. There are only three simple instructions to follow with respect to Gizmo’s care, and wouldn’t you know it, those instructions prove especially difficult to follow—particularly the one about post-midnight feedings, a rule bound to be broken since, no matter the time of day, it is always both before and after midnight.

None of Gremlins’ characters are more than two-dimensional at best. Not Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), the town Scrooge who hates happiness and puppies and delights in evicting families so that she might have a few more coins to rub together. Not Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), the Peltzers’ neighbor, recently laid off, who mutters jingoistically about the evils of foreign-made machines. Certainly not Billy, whose naïveté borders on developmental disability, or Kate (Phoebe Cates), bank co-worker by day, barmaid by night, Christmas hater by both. Similarly, the story—mogwai-care rules are broken, gremlins overrun Kingston Falls and wreak havoc, eventually Billy, Kate, and Gizmo save the day—is slapped together from the Big Book of Hoary Chestnuts. In other hands, it would be woefully underfed and malnourished.

But Dante isn’t interested in a nuanced, believable world. Instead, everything about Gremlins is made of plastic and held together by spit and bubble gum in the best can-do American spirit of the 1950s (an era in which Kingston Falls appears perpetually stuck). The corniness is sometimes a bit too much (when Billy asks Kate if she doesn't celebrate Christmas because she's Hindu or something, what one wouldn't give for a sock filled with hot manure), but overall it has a winsome homespun charm. Into this shiny snowglobe world, Dante unleashes the vaguely reptilian, vaguely batlike gremlins, monsters that at first appear merely mischievous but quickly become vicious and homicidal. (It’s no wonder that Gremlins, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, gave rise to the PG-13 rating, as their nastiness comes without much varnish.)

As disturbing as the titular beasties are—especially Stripe, the gremlins' David Bowie-esque ringleader and a surprisingly good skateboarder—they tap into a strain of sadness and discontent underlying much of the holiday season. Foreclosures are rampant in this idyllic little town, and neither Rand nor Mr. Futterman are able to make a decent living. They try to keep a stiff upper lip and a broad smile, but those things are hard to maintain in concert and in the face of a barren holiday. Even poor Kate can’t enjoy Christmas, for reasons too comically grotesque to be revisited (though Kate will be happy to share them without any sort of natural lead-in). Their consumerist distractions—Rand seeks refuge in gadgets which he hopes will one day cross the line from “chintzy” to “affordable” and take America by storm; Futterman is obsessed with American-made equipment—cannot make the season bright. Even the miserly Mrs. Deagle is not made happy by her fortune. It seems only fitting that Gremlins’ climax should take place in a department store, the locus of both many a Christmas memory and many of its evils. As much joy and delight as the holiday can bring, there are dark forces lurking just below the surface, just waiting to be fed after midnight.

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