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Gremlins (1984)

by on 2011/12/03

“Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.”

* *

To this day, I enjoy doing Gremlins’ Gizmo voice, perhaps because I grew up enjoying cartoons featuring the similar-sounding Shmoo.

To this day, I also love-love-love Jerry Goldsmith’s Gremlins theme. I taught myself to play it on the piano long before discovering the similar dark circuses of Danny Elfman or Angelo Badalamenti.

Unfortunately, I did not rediscover much more in this wretched, mashed-up mess. If you remember dearly loving it, you may want to see it again (or maybe not). I began with the intention to watch, not take notes, until I gradually came to the realization: taking notes would reap greater rewards than giving Gremlins my full attention.

Here’s as much a summary as I care to impart: a father gives his son an exotic pet at Christmastime but — through ignorance, negligence and, to be frank, abuse — the pet unleashes a plague of terror upon their time capsule town.

Gizmo’s voice and Goldsmith’s theme aside, this flick’s marginal value lies in its cameos and references. In addition to the major players — singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton, Zach Galligan, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Phoebe Cates — we see (briefly) Corey Feldman (The Lost Boys), Chuck Jones, and Judge Reinhold, and hear Howie Mandel and Frank Welker.

The allusions are as numerous. A bitter old woman simultaneously recalls old man Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life and Miss Gulch (the Wicked Witch of the West) from The Wizard of Oz. In fact, the town itself resembles the former’s setting of Bedford Falls and — as if to drive the point home for certain — we see clips of Wonderful Life on TV.

Repeated references are made to a Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, To Please a Lady, as well as Forbidden Planet, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, George Pal’s Time Machine, and Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. “Newer” jokes skewer E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Flashdance, Indiana Jones, James Bond, The Road Warrior, and Star Wars.

Do you know what? The whole is far more boring than the sum of those parts should be. To see this approach realized successfully, look no further than Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

From the very beginning, I was feeling happy and hopeful. As time wore on, however, the experience became wearing as well. Innumerable little things add up to a “death by inches”. The problems fell into two general categories: offensiveness and identity.

The offensiveness I won’t delve into deeply. It’s been dealt with in more detail elsewhere, but the occasional hints at an outdated sense of “humour” have long since fallen from grace . . . and already had back in the Eighties. The Chinese “gong” sound effect, the Afro-American caricatures, and the dismissive Hinduism comment — all presumably in reaction to what one character calls “goddamn foreigners” — all ring embarrassingly false in this day and age.

As for the tone of the tale, I can’t fathom its cuteness and horror. It does neither well, together or apart. On one hand, being a Christmas picture, it isn’t too provocative, opening with a homespun storytelling frame, so we know everything will turn out fine. But the cute mugging of cross-marketable dolls leads to goofiness rearing its hindquarters until, ultimately, the violence and gore kicks in.

Perhaps a certain demographic enjoys such juxtaposed extremes, as seen in misfires like Army of Darkness and Heathers. There’s no counterpoint here, only confusion and inconsistency. It’s not as if we don’t appreciate satire or gallows humour. We’ve favourably responded to several works featuring both, including Django, Dr. Strangelove, Election, Last Night, and Swimming with Sharks.

The many issues which lay it low are themselves overshadowed by this flaw: an identity crisis, an uncertainty about itself and its audience. This uneven clutter doesn’t know what it wants to be, or for whom.

And so I’m still waiting for a funny, horrific, holiday hybrid that succeeds, because Gremlins just ain’t it.

* *

Rated 14A (Canada)

106 minutes

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