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'Gremlins'? Hell Yeah!

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‘Hell Yeah!’ is an ongoing series in which horror filmmakers, critics and fans share their take on movies they love. This month: holiday horror flicks!

When FEARnet tasked me with writing about a Holiday-themed horror film, I first imagined that I'd have a huge selection of xmas scare flix to choose from.  But after thinking about it for a few minutes, my choices for holiday horrors - if I included only movies that I really liked - proved to be rather slim.  Only four or five films became options, including Silent Night Deadly Night and the original Black Christmas.  But then another film popped into my head, one that is more for the kiddies than the hardcore slasher fans, but is a great movie nonetheless: Joe Dante's Gremlins.

Gremlins, the nasty little critters that gave Phoebe Cates "another reason to hate Christmas" burst onto the screen in 1984.  The film was director Joe Dante's breakout hit.  It followed three projects that had already built for him a solid fan base of horror aficionados: Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) for which he directed one segment.  

Gremlins writer Chris Columbus originally penned the Gremlins screenplay as a writing sample while still in school at NYU.  After graduating, his Gremlins script was optioned by producer Steven Spielberg.  This early version of the screenplay was much more violent and horrific than what the final film became.  Rumor has it that Columbus wrote Gremlins as a ferocious, macabre satire of the holiday hit, It's a Wonderful Life (1946).  Supporting this rumor, a brief clip of It's a Wonderful Life is glimpsed on a television screen in Gremlins, and Dante's film successfully maintains the skewed-reality Hollywood backlot look that It's a Wonderful Life and other films of that era possessed.  Also a director and producer, Chris Columbus went on to achieve tremendous success that included mega-hits Home Alone and the Harry Potter films.

For a movie centered around rubber puppets, the Gremlins cast is rather impressive.  For me, the highlight of this troupe is the legendary Dick Miller (A Bucket Of Blood, The Terminator), but the whole cast is to be applauded for miraculously engaging the audience in the film's less-than-plausible bedlam.

The most celebrated Gremlins actors, however, required no trailers, no points on the back end, or even meals during lunch breaks on the set.  These were the Mogwai and Gremlins puppets, masterfully created by Chris Walas.  His "actors" performed brilliantly in this pre-CGI film.  Had Walas's creations been sub-par, the film would have tanked, we would not still be talking about it today, and we would have missed out on all the merchandising which has provided the world with Gremlins bed sheets, toys, t-shirts, pajamas, games, books, lunch boxes, etc.

Last but not least of the Gremlins cast is a thespian who is neither human nor puppet.  "Mushroom" plays Barney the family dog, and he delivers one of my favorite dog performances in the history of cinema.

Originally conceived by Columbus, Spielberg, and Dante as a small, low budget shocker, the Gremlins project evolved to require a bigger budget (to facilitate the actions and quantity of the creatures in the film).  Therefore, major studio support became a necessity.  Reportedly, Warner Brothers, though not terribly enthusiastic about the film at first, was eventually happy with the product created by Spielberg, Dante, and team - with a couple of exceptions.  

The studio wanted to cut the scene in which Phoebe Cates tells the unsettling tale of her father's demise.  Warner Brothers found this one minute monologue too dark, too awkward, and too slow.  Dante, recognizing that this one monologue provided almost all of the character's texture and emotional depth, knew that removing it would leave the character underdeveloped.  Right up until the film's release, the director had to fight with the studio to keep this scene in the movie.  (Referencing this studio interference, Dante spoofs this scene - again with Phoebe Cates - in Gremlins 2.)

Oddly, the other complaint that Warner Brothers voiced was that Dante's movie had too many gremlins in it!  Producer Spielberg squashed this debate by asking the studio executives: "Should we edit them all out and call the movie People?"
    
As the Gremlins project developed through early pre-production, the Warner Brothers influence, along with Spielberg and Dante's artistic desires, transformed Chris Columbus's dark, gory, and vicious screenplay into a fun, family-friendly, PG-rated romp.  However, when the movie was released, some parents were definitely not having any fun.  Gremlins being stabbed, decapitated, and blown up in a microwave evidently shocked many over-protective parents in the audience.  The outcry over the Gremlins gruesomeness (combined with the same complaints some parents had about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) spawned the creation of the PG-13 rating.  

The film's goopy green violence makes Gremlins fit right in with other great kids' movies of the 1980's.  The Monster Squad, The Gate, Legend, The Neverending Story, Beetlejuice, The Dark Crystal, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of the Jedi did not suffer artistic corrosion at the meddling hands of political correctness or insecure parents.  

In the 1980's, cartoonish violence and even genuinely scary imagery were common in kids' films (as was the occasional cuss word).  I love those kid's flicks from that long gone era - a time when most adults gave kids a lot more credit than adults do today.  

Two of the prominent actors voicing the Mogwai and Gremlins were comedian Howie Mandel, who voiced the lovable Gizmo, and Mark Dodson, who voiced much of the evil Gremlins.  Dodson's voice is also in various Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons, and he voiced the character of Salacious Crumb in Return Of The Jedi.  I directed a feature called Deadwood Park, and Mark Dodson contributed a voice performance to that movie as well.  Working with Mark was a joy. Though he's been in the industry for years and has worked for the biggest names in the business, he was respectful, polite, and enthusiastic about Deadwood Park when he worked for me.  Mark Dodson ended up being an incredibly nice guy, and I can't wait to work with him again in the future.  Gremlins has my fondness because it is a good movie, but also because working with Mark Dodson was such a positive experience.

So this holiday season, after hanging those stocking and decorating that tree, relax and enjoy a screening of Gremlins.  The film is a remarkable artistic achievement, it was made in a time before kids' films were watered down and uninspired, and furthermore, those little guys looked so cool on a lunchbox.
    
- Eric Stanze
(Director, Scrapbook, Deadwood Park, Ratline)   

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