2020/11/12

Gremlins

Gremlins

A common malady among aspiring artists is to get hung up on an established set of rules. That's not to deny that any rules exist. Art is a work performed to a standard. Where artists run into trouble is when a type of creative myopia sets in that sees only one narrow path to achieving that standard.

Hollywood is notoriously enamored of paint-by-numbers formulas. It's easy to see why. If you could figure out the magic recipe for making every movie a blockbuster, you'd be set for life. Again, the problem isn't that hit movies are random events. It's that the conditions necessary for them to happen are so complex as to be non-reproducible. The cinema graveyards are full of  "surefire hits" that misfired.

On the flip side, sometimes flicks that shouldn't work by any accepted metric defy the conventional wisdom and strike a chord with people. I recently re-watched Gremlins, and it struck me as a perfect example of David Stewart's IP explosion phase. Shot on a shoestring budget from B movie material not even the director believed in, it became the fourth biggest film of 1984.

What's even more amazing is that according to the rules, there's no way Gremlins should have been a hit. The film makers somehow managed to cram nearly every screenwriting mistake in the book into the first act. The magic system is infamously illogical and arbitrary. It takes forever for the first gremlin in a movie called Gremlins to show up. Entire subplots and characters are introduced, only to be forgotten by act two. It takes until act three for a clear protagonist with a concrete goal to emerge. Same goes for the main antagonist. The horror often clashes; not just with the comedy, but with other kinds of horror.

And despite all those demerits that would have turned a lesser movie into cringeworthy schlock fest, Gremlins quickly achieves an intoxicating level of fun that it maintains all the way to the end.

Loyal readers will be reminded of another 80s gem that mixed genres, lacked a clear antagonist, and had nonsensical rules yet became a surprise hit. Also like Bill & Ted, Gremlins pulled off the rare trick of spawning a superior sequel. But that's another story.

Why did Gremlins catch on despite its warts? A music analogy might be helpful. I've compared other aspects of storytelling to a mixing board before. Picture the elements of a script as slides on a mixer. If, say, character or plot are at low levels, sometimes you can compensate by cranking something else up.

That's what Gremlins did. Specifically, that's what executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Joe Dante did. The former snapped off the cuteness dial to get the audience invested. The latter pushed the more dissonant horror elements until they broke through and went from jarring record scratches that distracted from the scares to disturbing points of contrast that enhanced them through added context.

Kate's notorious story about her father dying on Christmas perfectly illustrates this effect. One of Joe Dante's oft-overlooked director trademarks is the inclusion of a story-within-a-story that encapsulates the movie in miniature. Like the coroner's tale from The Howling or the legend of Skip the soda jerk from The 'Burbs, Kate's personal mundane horror helps to ground her movie's citywide paranormal horror.

There are other elements that I only noticed on my most recent viewing. As a kid, it flew over my head, but the conspiratorial whispering of the five evil Mogwai when Billy goes to feed them; unwittingly, after midnight, could have come out of Lovecraft.

Gremlins has a surprising amount going on under the surface. The most trenchant realization I had this time was how Joe Dante sets up a solid and consistent sense of place. He masterfully shows you where key things and characters are in relation to each other and uses that sense to amplify the horror.

A great example happens when Billy rushes to the school after the Gremlins first hatch. He has a fleeting brush with one of the as-yet unseen creatures in a darkened classroom which ends with Dante showing us a torn up wall vent. It's clear that Billy's attacker fled through the ducts. The camera follows Billy as he exits the room, turns in the direction opposite the way the Gremlin went, and enters the nurse's office to bandage his wounds.

Dante subtly instills feelings of safety here. The nurse's station is a place everyone is conditioned to think of as safe, and we retain the image of Billy fleeing in the exact opposite direction of danger. That's why it's more than a cheap jump scare when the Gremlin pops out of the cupboard right next to Billy and attacks him again. That deceptively complex scene conveys the knowledge that these creatures could be anywhere, and no one is safe.

It definitely helps that Gremlins has one of those iconic 80s soundtracks that masterfully sets the mood and tone. The score is right up there with fellow 1984 sensation Ghostbusters for quirkiness and originality.

Rather unremarkable at the time, parts of Gremlins seem downright red-pilled in hindsight. After all, the main threat is a horde of invaders from China that decimate a sleepy American town. A major subplot that's still hinted at involves the town's main industry falling prey to vulture capitalists who hold their blue collar neighbors in contempt. The character of Mr. Futterman even makes the first verbal mention of the titular creatures while ranting against foreign encroachment. Hollywood types still feigning solidarity with the working class is how you know this movie came from the 80s.

Gremlins is a fun example of a genre expert using his expertise to defy expectations in ways that are more fun that playing it straight. I took a similar approach to livening up the rather stale mech genre in my new martial thriller Combat Frame XSeed: S. Check it out!

Combat Frame XSeed: S - Brian Niemeier

14 comments:

  1. From what I know of the film, it's a bit surprising it was marketed to kids as much as it was, with a pretty straight adaptation to book-and-record format being promoted in Hardee's.

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    1. I had those books and records. They were what first got me hooked on Gremlins since I was too young to see the movie in theaters. My friends and I became totally obsessed with it when it came to home video and HBO.

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  2. Joe Dante had a trend of "kooks" ranting that turned out to be right. That's essentially The 'Burbs.

    We covered a strong of Dante films on Cannon Cruisers, and it left me with a certain impression. He is one of the best directors of the 1980s, even falling into traps that killed movies due to studio interference and wrenching out hits where there shouldn't be one. Every one of his movies begins with some footage of vintage cartoons to help set the mood, too.

    From my experience, his best movie is Innerspace, a film I am surprised is not better known. Bad title aside, it encapsulates the best of movie-making in the 1980s and hits every mark it needs to.

    Gremlins isn't a movie that should work, but that is one of the things that allowed 1980s film-making to stand out. Starting with Raiders in 1980 it was a decade full of movies that "shouldn't have been" hits. Creators were trying new things, ending up forging fresh paths in traditional genres. You can break the rules if you know how they work, and Dante knew them like the back of his hand.

    The sequel is definitely the superior film, however.

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    1. You said it. The best 80s movies were the cinematic equivalent of good jazz. The screenwriters and directors had mastered the rules enough to break them in interesting ways.

      Joe Dante was definitely the Maestro. He had a way of setting up narrative safety nets to correct for screenwriter missteps and studio interference that nobody since can match.

      That's not to say 80s movies were perfect. As I revisit my childhood favorites, it's shocking to see how many of them are needlessly crammed with casual blasphemy and profanity. Sadly, Joe Dante and John Hughes are two of the worst offenders.

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    2. Yes, the worst part of '80s cinema is the language and, unfortunately, I think it's the only real part of it to continue on into future generations of films.

      It's gotten to the point where you will never see a R-Rated movie again that doesn't have at least 12 needless f-bombs. In the first ten minutes.

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  3. I tend to think of Gremlins as being a part of a trilogy, with Small Soldiers and Matinee being the other two sections. The three of them, taken together, invoke a particularly American Weird Tales feeling. As you pointed out, he has a gift for introducing the Unnatural in our own home towns, as it were.

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  4. "Hollywood types still feigning solidarity with the working class is how you know this movie came from the 80s."

    On that, your next assignment is to review Gung Ho with Micheal Keaton.

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  5. As a Catholic, I found the part in the second film with the Yuppies asking questions about the Midnight Rule, down to the specifics, to be hillarious, especially when they didn't believe it, and the protagonist who did just wanted to get them informed of the dangers they were facing.

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    1. Those questions came from actual letters sent to the makers of the first movie by fans.

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    2. Writing the answers to fan questions into the sequel is a perfect example of the writers valuing the fans.

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  6. Hey Brian, have you written anything on the Simpson? It is interesting how the show changes. The 1st four seasons there is a lot of moral lessons. All the main characters are different. Homer was always a bit dumb but he try’s to be a good father who had some morality in the earlier seasons. Bart was a trouble maker but well meaning kid even in season 5. By season 5 things changes. Show focus more on comedy and reaches the height of comedy until about season 10 to 11. Anyway it would be great to catch your take

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    1. Yes, I have
      https://www.brianniemeier.com/2017/08/fall-of-simpsons.html

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    2. The Simpsons was run by showrunners that each influenced different eras of the series. Emphasized by Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein, classic years writers, who said that the showrunner works in twos. One season is used to follow their template and execution, and the second is meant to expand their ideas and finish off what little they had left. The Simpsons was at it best when it worked this way.

      Season 1 & 2: Ran by Sam Simeon. James Brooks just put his name on to attach clout. Matt Groening was more of a member of the writer's room. The original formula of family dealing with cartoonishly exaggerated situations.

      Season 3 & 4: Ran by Al Jean and Mike Reiss. Their task was to widen the universe and deepen the family dynamic.

      Season 5 & 6: Ran by David Mirkin. His goal was to lean harder on the comedy due to his past as comedy writer for old sitcoms. He even wrote the episode where Homer went to space.

      Season 7 & 8: Ran by Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein. Their task was to roll back the zaniness and bring it back to being mainly about the family. Most people consider season 7 the peak of the show, and I don't disagree.

      Season 9, 10, 11, and 12: Ran by Mike Scully. This is where the pattern was broken. Season 9 is especially funny, but not much on emotion. Most of the classic writers finished writing for the show here. Most of them, as well as some of the best directors, went on to work on series like Futurama and King of the Hill through 1998 and 1999. Groening left the writing room behind and had no more input. Season 10 was the first season of all new writers, but they did a decent enough job. Season 11 and 12, however, are still two of the worst seasons in the show's history. Cliques were forming that still exist to this day.

      Season 13-modern day: Ran by Al Jean. The same writers are still there, hiring their friends and college buddies. It's a blur of bland subversive comedy, warmed over college stoner liberalism, and hollow characters. There's nothing really worth salvaging here.

      The show should have ended with season 10, sending the series off at a decent point. Everything since then has been pointless.

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    3. Something very telling about The Simpsons is that it is prime fodder for memetic material, but practically all the memes are based on the first 10 seasons. Steamed Hams? Season 7. Do it for her? Season 6. The goggles do nothing? Season 7. I have to go now, my planet needs me? Season 8. And so on.

      What's notable about this is that most of the people spreading these memes are too young to have any nostalgia for the early seasons of the Simpsons. In fact, since the "classic" seasons were over 20 years ago at this point, most of them probably weren't even alive then. So if it was just nostalgia or people getting burned out by so many seasons, things should be more evenly spread out. But no, the references are almost always to the first ten seasons.

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