Collins’ Crypt: GREMLINS’ Attitude Toward Christmas Mirrors My Own

Joe Dante's film seems to love and hate Christmas in equal measures - just like BC!

While I've repeatedly mentioned the fact that I got to see the likes of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and key Friday the 13th sequels at a very young age, I'm not sure how often I've made it clear that they weren't the FIRST horror movies I ever saw. No, my mom made sure to start me out with PG entries before the R stuff, and that's why it's very possible that Gremlins was the first scary movie my young eyes ever witnessed (it might be second to Poltergeist - at least I know for sure Steven Spielberg was involved). Since I was probably only five or six, Joe Dante's classic could be more prone to nostalgia blinders than any other film I've ever seen, given my current connection to the genre and how I can still hear clips from the film's "Read-Along Adventure" in my head. But watching it again today, for the first time in several years, I was reminded that despite my longtime relationship to the film, there's no way in hell nostalgia is clouding my judgment - it's simply a great goddamn movie, and to argue otherwise just makes you a bad person*. 

Everything about it just works great. The town of Kingston Falls is established clearly and quickly, by the end of the first reel we have seen pretty much all of the locales that will be ravaged later, and most of the characters too. The humor, comprised of both traditional character-driven stuff and Joe Dante's trademark movie nerd sight gags (the marquee of "A Boy's Life" and "Watch The Skies" might be the best in-joke gag of all time), still works like gangbusters, with nothing really dating it beyond the fact that many of Rand Peltzer's wacky inventions have been done for real since (what is a Keurig if not a fancy Peltzer Brew Buddy?). Billy and Kate make for believable heroes, and most of the FX still hold up - it's only our over exposure to behind the scenes videos of it and other puppet-driven films that we can see how certain shots were pulled off, not visible seams in the film itself. This week the New Beverly is showing the sequel, and I'm not sure if I've ever watched them both so close together - I've forever wrestled with which one I like more, and I'm hoping this week I can finally come down hard on one. And let's just say, The New Batch has an uphill battle this time, as I've rarely enjoyed watching the movie as much as I did today. I even figured I could background it for a while as I did some paperwork, but found it impossible to do that - the paperwork eventually got tossed aside so I could give Gizmo and co. 100% of my attention.

But while I wasn't made privy to any new revelations about the film itself (though it was this time that I finally actually heard the news report of the Futtermans' survival at the very end) and my opinion didn't change at all, I did realize something that never really occurred to me before - of all the Christmas horror films, this is the one that comes closest to matching my own feelings about the holiday. And by that I mean Dante and co. clearly love December 25th and its iconography and traditions, but also take a lot of glee at mocking them to their very core, almost to the point of being a dick about it. The most obvious and infamous example would be the notorious "That's how I found out there was no Santa Claus" speech that Kate (Phoebe Cates) delivers just before the film's final reel, where she recounts the tragedy that keeps her from celebrating Christmas like everyone else. Seems when she was a little girl, her father wanted to surprise her while dressed as Santa, but took the gig a bit too seriously. While trying to actually climb down into the house through the chimney, he slipped and broke his neck, dying instantly and being found a few days later when they noticed the smell.

Some people genuinely hate this scene, and the studio demanded it be cut, but since Spielberg had final say he left it up to Dante (which is incredibly awesome of Spielberg, I must say) and thus it stayed in - much to my continued joy. As a kid I thought it was kind of sad, but as I grew older (and more familiar with its director's sense of humor) I realized how damn funny it was, and when I laugh at it I never doubt for a second that I'm having the intended reaction. It's the movie's entire tone distilled into one speech - a love/hate relationship with the holiday that I'm sure is shared by several viewers - especially me. Just last week I went back East for a week to visit family and friends for the holiday (it's too expensive to fly there on the actual holiday week - plus it's too fun to be in LA when the entire town has shut down**), and while it's technically a vacation, it's mostly a hellish experience for me. Leaving the cats and all that entails is obnoxious enough, but now I have to factor in a toddler who can't exactly carry his suitcase (or car seat) at an airport that won't let you park anywhere near the place where those things need to be dropped off/picked up. Add the bonus of snow (my hatred of which is part of what made me move away in the first place) and subsequent car rental paranoia and I am left with precious little time for relaxation or enjoyment; in fact I've actually gotten violently ill the last two years, presumably from stress. It gets to the point where I can't wait to go back to work so I can at least sit down for more than five minutes... and yet the trip is something I look forward to for a good chunk of the year.

Similarly, I embrace many holiday traditions (even more than I do for Halloween-time), but there's always a sense of sarcasm to them. I go out on Black Friday hoping to see people fight over a toaster or something, having no need to actually visit the stores since I already bought everything online. I listen to the station that only plays holiday music but change all of the words to be horrifying tales of debauchery (my version of "I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" involves more than just kissing, and then the dad coming home and catching them, with violent results). I'd rather watched Scrooged over any traditional Christmas Carol telling, because that's the only one written by the god amongst acerbic assholes, Michael O'Donoghue. And while I sing my praises of Black Christmas and the like, I suspect my real favorite R rated Christmas horror film is the (admittedly wretched) Silent Night Deadly Night, as I cackle with glee about how it leaves no stone unturned in its attempt to ruin everything about the holiday (visiting grandparents, dressing up as Santa, even the songs - "Santa's Watching" is terrifying!). Yet I get all sad when December 26th comes around; I spend the month annoyed and laughing at everything that tears it down a peg, but miss it so much when it's over, just as much now at 36 as I did as a kid who would go to bed all bummed out when I realized that all that buildup was for a day that was over in a flash. And on occasion I even wonder if I should stop being a dick about some of this stuff and just sing the right words or put the likes of Scrooged into storage.

But Gremlins proves that my love/hate approach is perfectly acceptable. Even for the things that aren't necessarily Christmas-driven, there's that same sort of "this sucks but we love it" attitude running through it. Rand Peltzer has seemingly never managed to make one invention that actually works, but the family cheerfully (albeit tentatively) supports his devices, opting to use his ridiculous egg breaking machine instead of just cracking them over a bowl like a normal person. The crossed swords by the door fall down every time the door is shut again, but no one thinks to just let them stay on the floor - Rand even continues to cheerfully whistle as he puts them back in place for what is probably the hundredth time, an annoyance that's just part of life for reasons no one can quite convey. Kate even sticks around at work when all of her customers are Gremlins! With the exception of Mrs. Deagle and Judge Reinhold's asshole banker character, everyone in the movie seems like a genuinely decent person who has been dealt a pretty shitty hand in life, but no one seems particularly miserable about it, either. It helps make the movie that much more endearing, while getting a boost from the Christmas decor that can make anything that much more enjoyable.

Even the Gremlins themselves share the same attitude. On one hand, they're the film's villains and gleefully destroy things, but they're not as murderous as they appear, as they really only directly kill one person in the movie (the science teacher, or two if they actually kill that Santa) and let malfunctioning electric devices handle the others. They let the Futtermans live, as well as the radio DJ who was seemingly done for, and even Stripe barely bothers to attack Billy when he had the chance to kill him. No, instead they'd rather just have fun, partying it up at Dorry's Tavern, going caroling, watching Snow White... mischief is the order of the day, and if some people are hurt/killed as a result, so be it. The original script was much darker (they even beheaded Billy's mother!), and the decision to tone it down was a wise one - it allows the movie to be the rare family-friendly horror film that is legitimately scary as well. Again, I saw it as a kid, but I can't recall it giving me nightmares the way some of my other early horror experiences did - but even today I recognize some setpieces (the kitchen, the department store) as proper terror sequences, with the humor kept to a minimum. It's the same thing that made Krampus work so well - like Joe Dante here, Mike Dougherty knew when to go for the laughs and when to background them, offering the best of both worlds.

And that's really what it's all about - the movie has its cake and eats it too. You can look at things like the dead Santa story or poor Barney being strung up in Christmas lights and think that the movie is horribly mean-spirited, or you can look at the good nature of its characters and heroics of a cutesy animal and think it's a genuinely sweet and charming affair, and you're right either way. The key is that Dante manages to find the perfect balance between the two, sometimes even offering both in a single scene (gotta love Billy walking down his quaint, small-town Main Street with all its mom and pop stores - and a Burger King smack in the middle of them), and does so with an an energy and creative spark that never falters. There isn't a single boring or wasted moment in the film, and the sarcasm never becomes full blown cynicism, which is what you get in the likes of Bad Santa and the woeful Surviving Christmas. And if that's an OK attitude for a PG Christmas movie produced by Steven Spielberg, then I sure as hell won't ever feel bad for sharing it. 

* I too like to wonder about the various issues surrounding the film's rules, like why snow doesn't make them multiply like water does, but some people genuinely criticize the movie on these points. These people are monsters.

** I also don't like to miss Black Christmas at the New Beverly, and since I have to book the trip before they announce the date, I take the trip as early as possible to ensure I'm back here in time for it. And it's actually tonight!

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