Gremlins and the Macabre World of Fairy Tales

It’s only fitting that the Steven Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-helmed, 1984 hit Gremlins would be shown as part of the New Beverly Cinema’s Kiddee Matinees weekend programming. After all, what is Gremlins if not at its core a brilliantly told fairy tale? Originally written by screenwriter (later turned successful director and producer) Chris Columbus as a spec to showcase his writing talents, that is until Steven Spielberg read it and purchased the script, calling it “one of the most original things I’ve come across in many years” and although Columbus’ early drafts were even darker than what was eventually shown on the screen (Billy’s mother killed in her home alone struggles with the Gremlins, as well as the family dog being eaten by the green beasties) Dante deliveries a devilish combination of hilarious and then turn-on-a-dime, truly scary sequences, all of which were done without the aid of green screen or computer CGI. Imagine the different sized Gremlin/Mogwai models and puppets needed to accommodate the different lenses for the in-camera effects. Is Gremlins suitable for kids? Well, it depends on the kid, but I can tell you as a father, that with YouTube access, kids have moved the goalposts considerably in terms of what their tolerance level is to be scared. But we’ll get to that.

 

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Where the hell did Gremlins come from? The Royal Air Force (RAF) used the term “Gremlin” as far back as the 1920’s to describe aircraft engine failure, with some pilots describing having seen Gremlins sabotaging their planes in mid-flight. Noted author Roald Dahl, who served in the RAF, wrote his first children’s novel The Gremlins in 1942, which was later optioned by none other than Walt Disney with plans for a feature film that never was brought to fruition. However, Disney introduced the character Gremlin Gus in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, bringing the idea of a Gremlin to a wider audience. In the 1943 Bob Clampett-directed Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoon – Falling Hare – Bugs reads aloud from a book, “A constant menace to pilots are the Gremlins who wreck planes with diabolical sabotage.” Perhaps it was William Shatner trying to save a commercial airliner from a wing-walking-engine-wrecking Gremlin in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (directed by Richard Donner), that conjured up the idea of Gremlins as formidable onscreen antagonists.  Still, nothing could prepare movie goers, many of whom took young children to the theater, for Gremlins.

The movie going experience in 1984 when Gremlins was released was quite different than it is today (for a myriad of reasons), when a slick marketing plan and “Two Thumbs Up!” pre-dated the place of an actor with 13 million twitter followers tweeting how excited he is for everyone to see his new film. That’s 13 million potential film goers reached with the push of a button and an assist from a satellite. In today’s cinema landscape, the film spoilers come fast and furious on the internet and had that existed when the onscreen back-alley deal in Chinatown was made to purchase the mysterious Mogwai, parents wouldn’t have been taking kiddos to see a film, that for them, was Helter Skelter Muppets on acid. Spike, the leader of the Gremlins, would’ve shoved Kermit’s banjo right up his green ass and hanged Fozzy the Bear with his own tie given the opportunity. Gremlins along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are credited with the MPAA introducing the PG-13 rating (at Spielberg’s suggestion) to bridge the gap between PG and R.

Here we are almost 35 years down the road from the film’s initial release and parents who originally saw the film in theaters or on cable or DVD as a kid, now have the benefit of knowing what the film is, or more accurately, what it isn’t – Lassie Come Home. So, where does Gremlins fall in terms of what’s appropriate for kids? How far can a fairy tale be twisted and pulled before it breaks and turns into a grindhouse horror film? Well, the most unsettling scene in Gremlins for my money, might be when Billy’s teacher is looking for what he thinks is Gizmo in his classroom, which is only illuminated by the film projector. It gives Hitchcock a run for his money in suspense and Dante knocks it out of the park. We don’t see Spike, but the anticipation of what he’s capable of is far more terrifying than any visual. Something scary will make you jump or scream, but suspense makes you hold your breath. Is your seven, eight or nine-year-old ready for a tiny monster that has reptilian skin and a crocodile like underbelly, with a sinister orange sclera replacing the white outer layer of the eyes, and a grin with a wide bite radius that houses sharp pointed teeth and ears resembling the wing span of a bat? Keep in mind that Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore slept in separate beds on the Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961, and forty years later South Park’s Cartman made chili out of Scott Tenorman’s parents, then served it to him in an episode that aired on TV in 2001. Times change, and children’s sensibilities and what they know to be make believe, changes with them. But damn if that classroom scene isn’t a killer.

 

 

When Gremlins was released, several of the trailers featured a cute, furry, big eyed, pointy eared Gizmo that would’ve made Benji say, “Damn! That thing’s cuddly!” and had the movie been a traditional kind of “boy and his dog” story about Billy Peltzer (played by an endearing Zach Galligan) and his pet Mogwai (voiced by Howie Mandell) getting into shenanigans, then we would’ve lost the high concept originality (although several films are payed homage) and genuine surprise at what the transmogrification from Mogwai to Gremlin was in store for us when the rules to care for Gizmo (you know the rules) were broken.

Director Joe Dante warns us from the outset with the red neon reflected off the wet street in Chinatown that things might get bumpy, as he deftly but quickly eases us into the story, with a perfectly cast Hoyt Axton as the folksy Rand Peltzer, a sort of Willy Loman-esque inventor without the suicidal tendencies, looking to get some orders placed for his “Bathroom Buddy” and “maybe find a present for my kid,” ignoring his instincts for self-preservation – “Hey, wait a minute. What’s down here?” before following the baseball hat wearing, street smart kid down the stairwell to a candle lit shop of oddities and the set-up for our fairy tale is sublimely executed.

Though Spielberg is on record saying that Gremlins “is certainly not a horror film, or a spoof on a genre,” Dante’s punk rock puppets spreading panic and havoc in the town square (that also serves as Hill Valley in 1985’s Back to the Future) makes it hard not to feel like the film has aged – though unintentionally – in such a way that it thumbs its nose at so many things about 1980’s movies we loved. Here are five I can’t seem to get away from:

  • The likability of the Muppets hitting the road in The Muppet Movie. I can almost hear Spike say, “Nice Studebaker. Have you seen my snowplow?” before he runs the singing Hollywood hopefuls into a ditch. “Moving right along…” Never Mind the Muppets, Here’s the Gremlins.
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s earwig inducing score that conjures up images of a vaudevillian carnival of anarchy, ready to take on John Williams’ Imperial March theme. You want the Death Star disabled? Let some Gremlins go to work on the wiring.
  • E.T. the Extra Terrestrial saying “Elliot” with such wonder seems almost mocked when Spike’s raspy, guttural voice forces out “Giiiizzzzmooo”. Let’s see the government tent off the Peltzer’s house.
  • The cocoon like pods the Gremlins are hatched out of once they’ve been fed after midnight, make it hard not to chuckle at the Aliens sequel if you view the films too close together. “What do you mean. ‘They cut the power’?”
  • Judge Reinhold, starting with Stripes in 1981, was as recognizable as any actor in that decade, with several iconic films on his resume, and his story line just… vanishes. “You worked at All American Burger!”

Looking back on our childhood, did any of us realize how dark some of the undertones in fairy tales could get, with even Walt Disney films asking a kid to accept a horrific reality before the happy ending rescued our impressionable minds? In Bambi for instance, Bambi’s mother gets shot graveyard dead by a hunter at the film’s outset, thus showing children what it would be like to be an orphan. The Brothers Grimm told the family friendly kidnapping story of a witch trying to fatten up Hansel and Gretel, with plans to go full Hannibal Lecter and eat them. Come again? Driven by her relentless vanity, the wicked queen has machinations to poison Snow White with an apple, like she’s some sort of Russian journalist. “Kids, this is called a murder plot.” In Finding Nemo, the first thing we find, is that Nemo’s mom is killed by a ferocious barracuda before Nemo is even hatched, which is why most parents start the Blu-ray at chapter two. Hans Christian Anderson was a master at putting salt and sugar in the oatmeal as it were, weaving beauty, pain and loss, with imagery that a child’s mind could embrace – knowing that a child will follow the narrative of a story into the darker places in order to earn the story’s conclusion. Fairy tales are fraught with macabre plot lines and Gremlins is no different. Phoebe Cates as the sweet but tough bartender Kate Beringer gives one of the most famous monologues of the 1980’s, when she explains why she hates Christmas (spoiler if your kid isn’t hip to Santa’s real identity), a scene that Dante fought to keep in the film despite concerns from the studio and Spielberg himself.

I’m constantly questioning (or more accurately, justifying) which films are appropriate to show my son as he grows up: “Well, I saw JAWS when I was his age,” “I saw Bonnie and Clyde when I was that young,” “There’s really not that much blood in…,” “The violence is almost cartoonish,” etc. and I have conversations with him on the regular, that none of what we are watching is real. “It’s all a highly choreographed magic trick” I’ll tell him, then I kind of watch him watching the movie, which is to say that I’m too biased towards the magic of cinema to be the arbiter of what’s suitable for children’s viewing. But it stands to reason that if your children have been read or seen fairy tales with the likes of giants, wicked witches or a crazed woman trying to make a coat out of Dalmatian puppies, how bad can drinking-smoking-flashing Gremlins be?

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