a Primal Root review
“It is truly, The Muppet Chain Saw Massacre.” – Harlan Ellison, Harlan Ellison’s Watching, Underwood-Miller, 1989 Page 198
It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, the list of classic, heart warming family friendly Christmas movies is an extensive one. Growing up as a child of the 80’s we were shown such images of Christmas miracles, happy families, the gigantic honey glazed ham dinner served to a smiling family sitting warm around the dinner table. Everyone within the film and the audiences watching safe in the knowledge that no matter how bad things get it will turn out all right in the end. But eventually the movie stops and we have to face the grim reality of the holiday season.
Only one film in my childhood recollection completely broke the image I had ingrained into my head of the perfect family Christmas. What happened to this image? Where did the American Dream go so completely awry? This is the question at the core of Joe Dante’s subversive, goopy, violent, nasty little horror film entitled Gremlins.
The film itself is a satire of mid-80’s consumer America. A time when the yuppies reigned supreme, those of us in the dwindling middle class were screwed as work became harder to find and a dark form of mischief finds its way into the homes of both the wealthy and underprivileged alike in the form of the scaly, razor fanged, red eyed Gremlins. A dark reminder of that our actions and carelessness can have the most dire of consequences.
Gremlins looks to almost take place in an updated version of a picturesque, old fashioned, Norman Rockwell town. An American town where values such as self reliance, independence, and personal responsibility have been completely twisted in our pursuit of easy money. It’s a world where the junior vice-president of the town bank dreams of becoming a millionaire by the time he’s 35 and only finds value in his new apartment (it even has Cable TV!). It’s a place where the nasty, self indulgent rich, preach responsibility but cannot be asked to help save a family about to be evicted on Christmas.
Here, everything is a commodity to be bought or sold. Every resource can be tapped for possible exploitation. Even the Mogwai of which Mr. Peltzer makes the observation, “I bet every kid in America would want to have one of these. This could really be the big one!” looks at little Gizmo in terms of economic value rather than a living being.
Obviously this is the era of the “Get Rich Quick” scheme. Mr. Peltzer has given up gainful employment to be a full time inventor trying to dream up the next “big thing” that will provide for he and his family the rest of their days. It’s Western civilizations dream of making money without ever truly having to work for it. Only the wise Asian Grandfather, representing non-American values, seems to sadly understand the monetary obsessed culture he is living in.
“Sold?” he asks, after Mr. Peltzer makes an inquiry into how he originally obtained Gizmo. “That’s an interesting choice of words.” His meaning is apparent. That life is not something you can buy or sell and Gizmo, of course, is a living creature.
Gremlins is an incredibly thoughtful horror film in the guise of family entertainment. It even manages to poke fun and ridicule everything we hold dear in Western Civilization. Gizmo is forced to wave an American flag, and the Grandfather is horrified to learn Gizmo has been taught to watch television. After all, isn’t that what passes for culture these days?
Possibly my favorite moment in the movie, the one that altered my take on Christmas forever, is the scene in which there’s a lull in the action and Pheobe Cates character recalls the disturbing and tragic story of her father’s disappearance and demise many Christmas ago. He was found several days after Christmas lodged in the chimney, dead, having broken his neck. Dressed as Santa. In a deeply dark and satirical film this scene alone is hands down the darkest. No Gremlins, no mauling, no chain saw attacks…more to the point, I believe this scene mocks sentimentality itself. A trait Steven Spielberg is all too familiar with. However, to Spielberg’s credit, despite everyone else demanding this scene be excised from the film, he allowed Joe Dante to make the final decision. Thankfully, Joe Dante was able to keep this remarkably powerful and disturbing sequence.
Gremlins also works on the level of a message movie about the use of our natural resources. The Mogwai, Gizmo, is friendly, cute and unspoiled, but when we don’t follow the rules (getting them wet, exposing them to bright lights and most especially feeding them after midnight) you are left with something far more perverted, sinister and harmful. Grandfather tells Billy and the viewing audience that American people would do with Mogwai what “Society has done with all natural gifts.” What he’s talking about is an American ideal. We’d sell them, buy them and make a killing.
But above all this Gremlins is a hellishly good time! It’s dangerous, gruesome and overt he top. Another favorite scene is when Billy’s Mother must do battle with the recently hatched batch of Gremlins run amuck in her house using all the tools she has around the house including blenders, knives and microwave ovens spewing Gremlin guts all over the good china. This stuff is sick. I remember watching the film as a child and my mind simply reeling at this. People were being ripped, beaten, strangled, bitten and even killed by these malicious little Gremlins. But slowly a smile came across my face as I realized what a joke it all was. These idealized American Christmas traditions. The fact that the final battle between Stripe, Billy and Gizmo takes place inside a shopping center filled to the brim with hollow consumer goodies can’t be a coincidence.
Joe Dante’s Gremlins proudly takes those Christmas traditions so many hold dear and shove them right where the sun don’t shine. Gremlins, you ruined Christmas for a generation of 80’s kids. And I cannot thank you enough.
-The Primal Root