Once upon a time an overenthusiastic dad away from his small-town home met a cute and lovable little furball, and snuck it back to his family as a gift to his son. But the dad hadn't paid enough attention to the odd, seemingly arbitrary rules he'd learned for how to care for it, and his son learned that they'd bitten off more than they could chew...while the creatures spawned from the original furball had no problem chewing.
Last night at Cort and Fatboy's monthly Midnight Movie screening (presented by KUFO, McMenamin's and Dark Horse Comics, and that should take care of the pimping), I watched Gremlins for the first time since the early Nineties, very much remembering the uproar the film caused in 1984. Harlan Ellison, a fan of the concept of gremlins as made famous in World War II, hated the film and felt its advertising greatly misrepresented it as a scary, but not too scary, creature feature (rated PG, which had become the default G in many people's minds):
Don't equate the frights it can cause youthful, plastic minds with the tolerable terror you cherish from your first viewing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when you were an impressionable tot. This ain't the same frisson... I heard children scream and cry in Gremlins. I spoke to the manager of a theater in Columbus, Ohio who told me he has never before had so many instances of people demanding their money back.1That wasn't the problem at this 21-and-over screening -- and I know that at age 10 I was able to handle the film in 1984 -- but I tried to be more aware of the issue. And yes, sometimes Gremlins is so truly nasty that I had trouble enjoying parts of it. (Though I'm perverse enough to wish Joe Dante had filmed the infamous scene where the gremlins, having killed and eaten everyone in a fast food restaurant, left the burgers untouched; that would've been in an R-rated version, definitely, the rating which the film may have come close to getting anyway.)
There's a kind of dream logic to how gremlins, and the rules of gremlin care, are presented (dream logic happens in plenty of fairy tales: in one version of Cinderella the birds helping the heroine somehow start speaking English so they can whisper ideas into the Prince's ear). The old man's grandson tells the inventor father what not to do, but never tells him why, and other characters either sort of accept the rules without really thinking about them or just ignore them until the camera flash goes off, or the water gets spilled, or the food gets eaten, and they learn firsthand what occurs. With bites and scratches and chaos and gremlin frappe following. (We cheered Lynn Peltzer's gremlin-killing.)
The creatures, obviously intelligent, pick up on things quickly, plot and scheme cacklingly, and get on our heroes' heels like nightmare monsters. The evil Stripe even figures out power tools. In the pretty good novelization by George Gipe, the gremlins communicate with each other in whatever their native language is, and they turn out to be even nastier customers than we know. (By the way, the Gipe book has possibly the shortest chapter in publishing history: "Pete forgot.") The thing is, I now want to see the gremlins be more obviously intelligent and Trickster-ish; one of the reasons the sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch works so well is that the creatures use their intelligence to pull some mind-bending pranks, on top of trying to kill people.)
Gremlins could have had a stronger script that made this fairy-tale-from-Hell quality clearer; it was from early in Chris Columbus's writing career, when he was learning on the job and had lucked into the high-profile position of being trusted by Steven Spielberg (which led to The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, and his rejected draft of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Supposedly Columbus first meant Gremlins as a very dark satire of It's A Wonderful Life: you think Wonderful Life's alternate reality showed people at their worst? See what our gremlins do! This evolved with Spielberg's and Dante's input so that the Wonderful Life aspects are less obvious, beyond the film airing on TV and the small town (Kingston Falls) having a name similar to Bedford Falls. And that may not have been the filmmakers' intentions at all, and I may be reading too much into it. (I'm an English major. It's one of my skills.)
I still prefer The New Batch (given a shout-out by Mike Russell on Cort and Fatboy's radio show beforehand): it goes in a far more Looney Tunes direction, it has a great cast of actors taking the ridiculousness seriously enough to make it all even funnier ("Ah," says Christopher Lee, "my malaria!"), it pokes fun at the arbitrariness of the rules, it has better gags (yay for the Rhapsody in Blue bit!), it manages to be far less focused on nastiness and meanness while still having scares (like the flying gremlin), and composer Jerry Goldsmith improves on the first film's really good score (and has a better cameo to boot). But my evil chuckle got released safely last night, and I still want to hold and cuddle Gizmo.
More miscellaneous thoughts:
* Gremlins is less dated than I figured it would be; it's not as obviously "Eighties" as many films were (counter-example? White Nights must be very Eighties). In fact, take out the scene with the breakdancing and the song "Gremlins...Mega Madness" and you excise the most Eighties part.
* Before The New Batch was made, Monty Python's Terry Jones wrote a script for what would've been called Gremlins 2: The Forgotten Rule. The climax of that version was (I heard) a King Kong homage with a giant Gizmo and a giant Evil Gremlin fighting atop the Empire State Building. Anyone know anything else about it? Now I want to know what Jones thought the forgotten rule was!
* Being the sort of film geek who pays attention to the end credits, I was rewarded with knowledge I hadn't known yet: I knew Howie Mandel voiced Gizmo, but some of the other voice artists were Michael Winslow of Police Academy and Spaceballs, voice actor veteran Frank Welker, and Peter Cullen, Optimus Prime himself.
* Finally: I watched the famously cute Phoebe Cates in this and was reminded of Summer Glau. And I like being reminded of Summer Glau.
1 from Harlan Ellison's Watching No. 6: In Which We Learn What Is Worse Than Finding A Worm Of Evil In The Apple (in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Feb. 1985 issue)