Sunday, January 10, 2016

Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins: written by Chris Columbus; directed by Joe Dante; starring Zach Galligan (Billy), Phoebe Cates (Kate), Hoyt Axton (Randall Peltzer), Keye Luke (Mr. Wing), and Polly Holliday (Mrs. Deagle) (1984): Gremlins is a blissfully nasty critique of capitalism, the commercialization of the American Christmas, 'small-town values,' and the American family in general. That it was a huge box-office success in 1984 seem remarkable, though having Steven Spielberg's name attached to it didn't hurt. He did produce it, after all, through his newly formed Amblin Entertainment.

But boy, does the small town of Kingston Falls ever get dismantled literally and figuratively! When Zach Galligan's Billy gets the mysterious creature known as a Mogwai from his generally absent, incompetent inventor of a father (Hoyt Axton), he names it Gizmo and then pretty much ignores the three warnings about what one must never do with a Mogwai. 

His casual attitude leads to a small-town apocalypse that is, admittedly, really his father's fault more than his: the Mogwai wasn't actually for sale from Keye Luke's mysterious shop owner. The shop owner's grandson's need to make some money off a Hoyt Axton desperate for a unique gift for his son to compensate for his lengthy absences from home -- whew! -- sets the whole disaster in motion.

And so it goes as all Hell breaks loose after an initially idyllic beginning with the lovable Gizmo, voiced by a cooing Howie Mandel. Once the army of Gremlins is unleashed, Christmas is ruined. Really, really ruined. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates make for an appealing pair of leads, but it's the real-world special effects of the Gremlins and the Mogwai that dominate the movie. They're marvels from creature creator Chris Walas and his studio. 

The script from a young Chris Columbus is sharp and nasty (indeed, it was rewritten by Spielberg and company to tone it down). Joe Dante's direction has a real sense of anarchic menace throughout, though he's also very good at the quiet, slightly askew Norman Rockwell world of the movie's first act, a 'happy' small-town mask that's already slipping off as the movie begins to reveal the shiny happy skull beneath the skin. The mohawk on the chief evil Gremlin is one of a long string of signalling evil through a haircut generally favoured by harmless punk rockers and their fans at the time the film came out. Oh, culture! Recommended.

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