Gremlins is a Nasty and Subversive Holiday Classic

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With Marvel now a Disney-owned self-sustaining studio, The Hobbit turning into a trilogy, and Batman movies involved in Oscar rumours, it’s safe to say that the geeks have taken over Hollywood. However, the population hasn’t been completely converted over to our corner of the sandbox just yet, so sadly, there are some weeks when genre movies aren’t lined up to separate us from our money. So, rather than providing an obligatory negative review on the latest Jennifer Aniston romp on off weeks, we’ve decided to offer up a nerd-friendly alternative for you fine readers. We’re calling it The Geek Canon, a look back at classics that you either love and need to revisit or possibly never heard of. We’ll try to make the choices timely, but we guarantee that they’ll all be awesome.

This week we’re kicking off the column with a holiday-themed movie. I know that muzak Christmas carols have only started to rape your eardrums in public, and you probably aren’t ready to start diving into watching Christmas classics just yet. However, the next few weeks are filled with the release of some geeky cinematic delights at the multiplex, so now is our only opportunity to suggest a nerd-friendly alternative to the usual holiday fare. With that in mind, we’d like to offer up a genuine genre classic that isn’t necessarily considered a Christmas movie but should be. I’m talking about Gremlins, possibly the nastiest and most subversive movie to come out of Steven Spielberg’s 80s fantasy factory Amblin Entertainment (which also delivered the likes of The Goonies and Back To The Future).If the Gremlins movies are about anything, it’s about the movies themselves.

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American actor Zach Galligan on the set of Gremlins, directed by Joe Dante. (Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Amblin E/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The great bearded one hired cult favourite Joe Dante (The Howling, The ‘burbs) to direct the movie, and the cinematic prankster used the opportunity to toy with a mass audience. With Spielberg’s name above the title and a small-town Christmas setting, Dante gleefully led the audience down a faux comfort path as they watched a young man (Zach Galligan) receive a cute pet mogwai named Gizmo for Christmas and fall for the girl next door (Phoebe Cates). It only happened so that the director could suddenly turn the film into a monster movie on a dime and when the scares became predictable, he turned those Gremlins into Looney Tunes cartoons. Gremlins might ultimately be blockbuster fluff, but the film continues to impress all these years later because of the subversive wit Dante squeezed in amongst the crowd-pleasing. If you want to celebrate Christmas by watching a mother blow up a monster in a microwave while making Christmas cookies, there’s really only one choice.

It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to see Gremlins back in 1984. Obviously, the title suggested that ankle-biting monsters would make an appearance, but the marketing and setup all flaunted Spielberg’s name and the wholesome setting. As soon as the film sets into motion, it’s clear that this ain’t the usual small-town fantasy. The Capraesque (or Spielbergesque) sleepy town setting instantly seems off. The wholesomeness is hilariously exaggerated and twisted with mean old ladies screaming at dogs and scoffing at poor people, while the All-American boy lead takes illustration lessons from none other than Warner Bros. animated genius Chuck Jones. Those film references come fast and thick. Just before the evil mogwai go into slimy cocoons, a clip of pods cracking from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers plays on TV. Spielberg, Lucas, and robots from 50s sci-fi classics pop up in cameos, and the only thing that can calm the monsters is a screening of Snow White.

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If you want to celebrate Christmas by watching a mother blow up a monster microwave while making Christmas cookies, there’s really only one choice.If the Gremlins movies are about anything, it’s movies themselves. Dante is a filmmaker who likes to fill his frames with in-jokes and references and Gremlins is packed with them. His other films like Piranha, Matinee or The ‘burbs are just as cineliterate, but they played to cult audiences at best. What made Gremlins his lone blockbuster is that the movie has a perfectly pleasing monster movie structure that will play for audiences even if you aren’t picking up on the references. Dante’s genre games only serve to make the plot unpredictable (just when you think the movie is a cute fantasy tale it becomes a monster movie and when you get comfortable with that, things get very silly very quickly. Ie: breakdancing gremlins).

It’s a movie that holds up to multiple viewings because once you get older, they layers of satire are only more apparent. Perhaps the perfect scene to sums this up is when Phoebe Cates reveals that she hates Christmas thanks to a morbid childhood memory about her father dying while trying to deliver presents down the chimney to her as a child. When you’re young, it’s an oddly tragic. Wait a few years and it’s a hilarious parody of Christmas movie sentimentality that milks holiday iconography and childhood tragedy for subversive laughs. Dante simply can’t take B-movies seriously and even rips apart the emotional beats of his own blockbuster. The deadpan comedy he employed was subtle enough to only appeal to equally movie drunk sickos and you need only look at the full on cartoon parody madness of Gremlins 2: The New Batch to see how hard it is to get that tone right. That sequel is funnier and more subversive, but also far less broadly successful because it won’t work unless you’re in on the joke.

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Very few films open as blockbusters and then go on to become cult hits. In the case of Gremlins, the concept delivered the perfect combination of 80s movie entertainment to hit big at the time. It mixed the Spielberg fantasy and horror movie nasty that dominated the multiplexes and while those elements obviously still work, it’s Dante’s wit that has kept the flick a cult favorite decades later. Throw in some mind-boggling animatronic puppet effects that are still more tactile and believable than CGI despite the jerkiness and you’ve got a film made in geek heaven.

As the syrupy emotional excess of the Christmas season starts to make you dry heave this year, throw on Gremlins and watch it disappear. You’ll get to see all that forced cheer ripped apart by some iconic monster anarchists and then enjoy a chainsaw puppet fight for good measure. Gremlins and its sequel somehow still feel underrated despite being considered classics. Blockbuster entertainment isn’t supposed to be this subversive (the film was responsible for creating the PG-13 rating after all) and there’s no better time to enjoy what Dante and co. accomplished than the holiday season when family sentimentality really needs to be torn apart by an army of monsters.

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