Gremlins ★★★★

Earlier today, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't watched any Christmas movies yet this month. What better way to rectify that than with Gremlins, the ultimate punk Christmas movie? Granted, it may not use any actual punk rock or be visually influenced by punk sensibilities, but even so it's still firmly a product of Rock 'n' Roll High School co-creator Joe Dante, a director whose ability to combine high-energy pastiches of retro pop art with genuinely biting mockery of American politics and culture makes him in my mind the foremost punk director of the 1980s.

While Gremlins may not be quite as good as its now fondly-remembered sequel, Dante's signature wit and style still shine through in this installment. This is not a film that looks or feels like the other blockbusters of its time - its wickedly merry score seems to suggest a cheap children's movie torn straight from the bowels of hell, while its dark, skewed cinematography call to mind Cat People, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and other classics of B-movie horror. The phenomenal casting, which blends up-and-coming stars like Corey Feldman and an all-time best Phoebe Cates with the likes of Dick Miller, Hoyt Axton, and other eclectic character actors, doesn't hurt either.

Even Dante's satirical edge is present, this time taking on America's tendency towards cultural appropriation... and this is where things get complicated. On the one hand, Dante's subtext is clear and valid, eloquently and entertainingly presenting the idea of how American culture so often steals concepts from other cultures and makes them part of itself without really understanding the context surrounding said concepts - hence how one man's Mogwai can easily become another man's "Peltzer Pet". On the other hand, Gremlins makes a serious error of judgement by indulging in the same sort of cultural appropriation that it condemns, applying a level of stereotypical Eastern imagery that quickly turns its argument from valid into hypocritical. It's hard to deny that this film's portrayal of Asian culture makes me cringe every time I see it, and the uncomfortable nature of it keeps me from being able to call this a great movie.

Even despite these unnecessary undertones and some pacing problems, Gremlins is still an enjoyable Christmas watch, a joyfully anarchic takedown of Americana that manages to hold its own as a good movie. Not a great movie, though. That's the sequel. Always remember that.

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