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Cinema: Creature Comforts and Discomforts

13 minute read
Richard Corliss

Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante make Gremlins a scary summer hit

The parade of celluloid soldiers begins marshaling just before Memorial Day and swells to battalion proportions by the Fourth of July. Their mission: to storm the U.S. box office. Leading this year’s assault is that renowned soldier of fortune Indiana Jones; he and his hyperthyroid sequel, Temple of Doom, mounted an early attack on 1,685 movie theaters last week, and in the first two days managed to push up the beach and top the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is followed by the crew of the starship Enterprise (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) and by a hardy, ragtag company of mercenaries: punk rockers (Streets of Fire), Jewish gangsters (Once Upon a Time in America), breakdancing dervishes (Beat Street), comic exorcists (Ghostbusters), bumbling spies (Top Secret!) and sci-fi sorcerers (The Last Star fighter). The down-home marching band is led by Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone (Rhinestone), and at the rear of the pack, Burt Reynolds guns his battered Trans Am tank (Cannonball II). By Independence Day, if past form holds, half of these troops will have seized the imagination and the discretionary income of every American below draft age. The other half will have shot themselves in the foot.

What’s that rustling in the bushes? Who are those tiny green figures scurrying through the twilight? Why did they bite that nice old lady in the kneecap? When did they start multiplying like rabid rabbits? Where will it all end? In movie theaters throughout North America, where these monster-pranksters have every intention of overrunning the opposition and leaving the Hollywood army of would-be summer smashes dazed in their wake. Ugh! Good Lord! Eek! Gasp! Aaarrrgh!. Gremlins is coming!

And on June 8, Gremlins will arrive, looking to scare you silly. This is no idle threat. Spooky as a slumber party in a graveyard, the picture is buoyed by a hip, good-timey sense of humor and buttressed by a marketing campaign that means to get a furry doll into every child’s birthday bundle. But Gremlins has enough style and savvy to stand on its own as the summer’s most original Hollywood picture. Like so many other recent works produced by the film-school generation, this is at heart a movie about movies, and about the innocent thrills a sophisticated team of craftsmen can elicit; it should give pleasure to stouthearted children, as well as to Ph.D.s in cinema studies, and in the bargain share the laurels of summer box-office smash with the inevitable Indiana Jones. This is what superior popular moviemaking is all about: using high technology and a cheerfully bonkers creativity to reach, and elevate, the lowest common denominator. A one-film movie festival that is blessedly its own unique self, Gremlins is perhaps best characterized by Co-Star Hoyt Axton’s suggestive phrase: “E. T. with teeth.”

You might get an argument on that description from Steven Spielberg, the fabulator of that alltime blockbuster and—surprise!—an executive producer of Gremlins. “If I thought this movie was close to E. T.,” he claims, “I probably wouldn’t have become associated with it.” As it happens, there are plenty of similarities in plot and tone between E.T. and Gremlins: a sweet, lonely boy in a matriarchal family in a near idyllic small town meets a gentle, otherworldly creature who becomes his charge and his protector. But these comparisons are mainly for exegetes and archaeologists, for by mid-film Author Chris Columbus and Director Joe Dante have spun Gremlins off its smooth E. T. rails and launched it into the fetid backwaters of fantasyland.

Kingston Falls, U.S.A., the setting for Gremlins, is itself a dreamscape confected from congenial old slices of apple-pie Americana. Norman Rockwell might have painted the town’s Main Street and the faces of the folks who stroll down it on this peaceful Christmas Eve. Frank Capra, Hollywood’s master of sweet-and-sour sentimentality, could smile at the plight of Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), the all-American boy who supports his family with a job at the Kingston Falls Bank and wins respect by standing up to the filthy-rich Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday). Preston Sturges, the movies’ screw-bailer supreme, would have appreciated Billy’s dad Rand (Hoyt Axton), an absent-minded inventor whose contraptions range from the Bathroom Buddy Shaving Kit to the Peltzer Peeler Juicer, which ingests oranges and splatters their pulp against the kitchen wall in Gremlins’ first glint of far-out domestic violence.

Rand’s Christmas present to his son is stranger and more wondrous than any of his own inventions: a little animal called a Mogwai, with a kitten’s purr and the forlorn eyes of an orphan puppy. The creature, whom Billy’s dad dubs Gizmo, arrives with enough warnings to fill a Tylenol label three times over: Keep him away from water; keep him out of the light; and never never feed him after midnight. A few drops of water inadvertently fall on Gizmo, and pop! pop! pop! pop! pop!, five living fur balls fly from his body: Mogwai in fetal form. Gizmo’s mutant offspring look and act like Munchkins reborn as Hell’s Angels. They have disgraceful eating habits; they turn the greeting-card village into a South Bronx shambles, then send old Mrs. Deagle into fatal orbit.

“Gremlins are not good,” says Joe Dante. “You can’t trust them. You don’t want one for a pet. You don’t want your daughter to marry one.” And yet they are, undeniably, cute. Four of them stand outside a home wearing earmuffs and ski caps, caroling. Though their goals are to multiply and maraud, the gremlins are distracted by the slightest opportunity to forget it all and have fun, whether that means ransacking a department store or catching a midnight matinee of Snow White and singing “Heigh-ho” along with the Seven Dwarfs. “If they could speak English,” notes Spielberg, “they’d probably say, ‘Let’s party!’ It’s how they party that can be hazardous to your health.”

In the movie’s wildest, wittiest sequence, the gremlins invade a neighborhood bar and turn it into Porky’s Goes to the Star Wars Cantina. As Leading Man Galligan describes the scene, “They pick their noses, they snap their fingers, they drink lots of beer. One gremlin in a raincoat is a flasher. There’s a Jennifer Beals gremlin who breakdances. Five gremlins play poker; one of them accuses another of cheating and another shoots him dead with a gun. They are little satirists, walking parodies of humanity.” The sequence suggests ingenuity rampant on a field of lunacy. There has been nothing quite like it since they shut down Termite Terrace, the Warner Bros, cartoon shop.

The brain that hatched Gremlins was 21 years old at the time and productively disturbed. In the summer of 1981, Chris Columbus, a former student at the New York University Film School, was living in a loft in the garment district of Manhattan. “When I went to sleep at night,” he recalls, “I could hear mice scurrying along the floor. I slept with my arm draped over the side of the bed, hanging just above floor level, and I kept having this nightmare of waking up with a mouse nibbling on my fingers. That’s how I got the idea for Gremlins. “His imagination stoked by a young lifetime of reading Marvel Comic books, watching old Universal horror movies and collecting clay models of monsters, Columbus set to exorcising his tiny demons in a screenplay. By the end of that year, his script had found its way to the desk of Steven Spielberg.

Hollywood discovered future shock in its infancy; new “generations” of talent can arrive every few years, encouraged by the new Old Guard. With Gremlins Spielberg, 36, has played godfather to two successive waves of moviemakers: Dante, 36, and Columbus, now all of 25, who is at work writing another script for his mentor. Says Spielberg: “You can drop a stone into the black hole of Chris’ imagination and never hear it hit bottom. I’d never thought about directing Gremlins myself—I wanted to take a long vacation from anything with a wire trailing from its rear end that makes a creature smile when you pull it—but Joe seemed perfect for the job.”

Like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles and Paul Bartel, Dante is an honors graduate of the Roger Corman night school of no-budget film making. Working for slave wages at Gorman’s New World Pictures in the mid-’70s, Dante learned how to finesse movies on a frayed shoestring. He and Co-Director Allan Arkush shot their first film, Hollywood Boulevard, for a niggardly $60,000 in 1976. Dante’s solo directorial debut, the 1978 Piranha, was made for slightly in excess of $1 million. In this fleet-wilted Jaws parody one could see early signs of the Dante style, which keeps tickling the spectator to remember that, in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous phrase, “Ingrid, it’s only a movie.” At the film’s ostensibly terrifying climax, when a school of nasty little razor-toothed fish has launched an attack on a lake full of summer campers, one of the piranha leaps out of the water and bites the camp’s pompous counselor on the snout.

Any Joe Dante movie is a lot like the now vicious, now mischievous gremlins. He adroitly makes his characters seem to aim straight for the jugular, then along the way, find something more diverting to do with all that energy. Whenever the occasion permits, Dante loves to undercut the visceral impact of the horror genre with a clip from an old movie or a spitballing, pratfalling sight gag. His loopy werewolf melodrama, The Howling (1981), and his profligately imaginative episode of last year’s Twilight Zone: The Movie are both energized by this sly schizophrenia. In Twilight Zone, the smile becomes a rictus as a child forces adults to live inside a cartoon world of jack-in-the-box monsters and junk food. In a sense, then, Gremlins is Dante’s breakthrough film. It delivers both gore and guffaws, and, more impressively, blends the two moods to create this season’s funkiest fable. Originally, Dante’s gremlins were neither intelligent nor impishly charming. “They liked to eat,” he says. “That’s all they did. They would eat people’s legs off, chew people’s fingers. They ate Billy’s dog. They killed Billy’s mom, and her head flew down the Starrs. It was kind of grim.” In its final form Gremlins is “soft” enough to have won a PG rating. Says Spielberg, who has managed to make three horror or science-fiction movies (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, E. T.) in which not a single person dies: “I’m not sure if anybody really dies in this one either. I never saw the gremlins as homicidal, psychotic, maniacal killers. Perhaps they are the dark side of the founding father of creatures great and small: they’re Walt Disney’s id.”

Well, no. The gremlins really are an army of latex-skinned puppets devised by Special Effects Maven Chris Walas (Piranha, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and assembled for a bargain-basement $1.3 million. (By contrast, Carlo Rambaldi’s E.T. creature alone cost $1.5 million.) The greenish-brown monsters, standing 23 in. tall with their 10-in. bat ears, were controlled by hands, cables, rods, radio signals and a simple but effective method that Walas describes as “throw-’em-across-the-room puppetry.” The most complicated gremlin had 60 cables operated by a dozen technicians standing 8 ft. to 10 ft. away; “super-faces” were designed for Gizmo and his gremlin archrival Stripe, with some 36 cables that controlled character movement of eyes, brow, mouth and nostrils.

“Every shot required different gremlins,” Walas says. “We created twelve versions of Gizmo, and 14 Stripes, each used in a different closeup or for a specific movement or to express a new emotion. One gremlin had to be able to inhale and exhale cigarette smoke. Another had to throw dishes at Billy’s mother, and another had to ride its skateboard through the department store. With all the rewriting of the script during production, we were making puppets until the last days of shooting.”

Through sweat and ingenuity, Walas and Dante and Producer Michael Finnell finished Gremlins in about 23 weeks at an inexpensive $11 million. Spielberg, occupied at the time with Indiana Jones in London, spent little time on the set. Recalls Dante: “Steven said to me, ‘It’s your movie, go make it,’ and we went ahead and made it. We got it down to about a two-hour cut and showed it to him. He said, ‘It’s your greatest work.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but is it any good?’ ”

It is good. It is funny. And it is, visually, the densest movie in a decade. Every frame is packed with enough information, bits of business, incidental eccentricities to fill a Bruegel painting or the panel of an old Mad magazine. And throughout are references to or quotations from Dante’s favorite movies: The Searchers, Close Encounters, The Wizard of Oz, To Please a Lady, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Orpheus, The Road Warrior, It’s a Wonderful Life, animated cartoons by Warners Old Masters Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, the complete works of Roger Corman. You have to be sharp to catch some of the references. At a meeting of gadgeteers, Billy’s dad chats with Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet as Spielberg tools about in wheelchair and leg cast; in the background is H.G. Wells’ time machine (from the 1960 movie), which, two shots later, has disappeared in a puff of smoke. “This movie is its own triple bill,” says Dante. “It’s a remake of my other movies and a remake of every movie alluded to in it. I like movies. And I like to make movies for people who like movies.” Says Spielberg of Dante: “He’s a filmophile. If Joe weren’t a moviemaker, right now he’d be at a science-fiction convention.”

Gremlins is more than a concordance of metaschlock; it never sacrifices the narrative payoff for an in joke. It is as weird as your Uncle Floyd and as embraceable as little Gizmo. It will lure lots of people into the moviehouses and send them out with shivers and smiles. One word of caution though. As you settle into your seat, whatever you do, don’t let your arm drape down so it’s just above floor level. Because The Gremle-uns’ll git you Ef you Don’t Watch Out!

—By Richard CorlissReported by Denise Worrell/Los Angeles

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