Sunday, May 20, 2007


Gremlins: A Segregationist Nightmare

BLOGGER'S NOTE: We're coming a little late to the Misunderstood Blog-a-Thon party at Culture Snob, but better late than never.

By Odienator
Joe Dante's Gremlins has a place in history for several reasons. It helped usher in that destroyer of good adult-oriented Hollywood cinema, the PG-13 rating. It generated a near-brilliant satire on consumerism disguised as a sequel. It gave Phoebe Cates something else to be remembered for besides Judge Reinhold's self-abuse fantasy. And it remains the best thing Chris Columbus ever did, though Dante forced him to repeatedly rewrite his extremely gory first draft.

While watching Gremlins recently, I noticed that it was more than a product of its time, namely a movie with an '80s penchant for jokey treatments of violence and murder. It's something more sinister, subversive and creative. Everyone thought Gremlins was a monster movie with cute toy tie-ins and an early job for Howie "Deal or No Deal" Mandel. Which it is. But it also uses the best purpose of the science fiction genre: to illustrate things that could not so politely be uttered in public. The sci-fi genre uses otherworldly prestidigitation to distract you from its real messages. Science fiction doesn't get in trouble because, unlike satire, it doesn't have to be realistic; it tends to be allegorical.

Underneath Gremlins' monster movie surface bubbles a tale of the suburban paranoia over "the new neighbors," those folks who moved next door who don't look like the rest of town. At the time of its release, minorities were beginning a bigger migration to the suburbs, and the filmmakers use cute and malicious little creatures as stand-ins for the paranoia faced by suburbanites who were afraid their property values would go down once their neighborhood got a little colorized. Don Siegel gave McCarthyism its pod people in 1956, and in 1984, Joe Dante gave the Boondocks its Mogwai. Gremlins is really a tale of suburbanites freaking out over the integration of the 'burbs.

Gremlins' Kingston Falls spoofs It's A Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls right down to its own Mr. Potter, personified here by Polly "Kiss My Grits" Holliday's rich and angry Mrs. Deagle. But the rest of the town is populated by '50s types. Billy (Zach Galligan) is the Blob-era Steve McQueen of Our Town, the wide-eyed, clean cut kid who has to convince the town it is in grave danger. Phoebe Cates is Kate, the cute girl who assists the hero. Billy's Mom is a housewife who makes pies and dinner, and his father Rand is a quirky inventor, family man and the narrator of the film. There's also the wacky paranoid conspiracy guy, played by B-movie vet and Dante favorite Dick Miller, a meta tie to the '50s universe Gremlins seeks to create and destroy. The town is homogeneous save for the token Black guy (Glynn Turman) who serves the standard purpose in this type of picture.

Destruction is accidentally brought to Kingston Falls by Rand, who visits a mystical Chinese shop in Chinatown and convinces the proprietor to sell him a Mogwai, the latest hot toy from Asia. The mystical Chinaman is played by China-born Keye Luke, who was once No. 1 Son to Swedish-born Charlie Chan Warner Oland. Rand is played by the man who wrote the greatest opening line in pop music history, Hoyt Axton. Luke tries to dissuade Rand from buying Mogwai, but finally acquiesces. Before Rand leaves, Luke gives him those famous three rules for dealing with Mogwai: Keep them out of bright light, don't get them wet, and never ever ever feed them after midnight. Luke doesn't tell Rand why because he's too busy stewing in his own mythical otherness. He does paraphrase Spider-Man to Rand: "With Mogwai come great responsibility."

Rand brings Mogwai home, and Kingston Falls gets its first Asian. Billy names him Gizmo and thinks he's adorable and exotic. However, Rand should have heeded the lyrics of Ringo Starr's "The No No Song" (which, coincidentally, Axton also wrote) and passed on satisfying his addiction for weird inventions. Billy accidentally breaks one of the rules, wetting Gizmo and causing him to reproduce. Billy brings a Mogwai to Turman, who runs some experiments on him in an attempt to understand his strange culture.

Soon after, that "never ever ever" rule gets broken. The Mogwai kids get food after midnight. It is telling that some of the food they get into happens to be fried chicken. The cute brown and white Mogwai cocoon and transform into hideous looking dark green creatures with red eyes and teeth like the Zuni Fetish Doll from Trilogy of Terror. They also do stereotypically "urban" things, but more on that later. Turman's Mogwai gets food in his lab after midnight. Serving his purpose, Turman winds up being needled in the ass to death in an offscreen occurrence of black (Gremlin) on Black crime. He's the first person to die in the movie.

The first thing boondock denizens think is that their way of life will be corrupted by neighbors with cultural differences. It's like the old Western adage "this town ain't big enough for the both of us." The newly transformed Gremlins attack Billy's Mom in a scene that symbolically plays like an assault on a way of life. Mom is attacked in her kitchen — her sanctuary — and has to fend off her attackers with the tools of her trade, nuking one in the microwave and Cuisinarting another. In the original script, Mom got decapitated by the Gremlins. In Dante's forced rewrite, she is saved and escapes the vicious assault. Paranoiac xenophobe Dick Miller isn't so lucky. "You gotta watch out for them foreigners cuz they plant gremlins in their machinery," he tells Billy early in the picture. Ironically, he gets crushed by a foreigner Gremlin driving machinery.

The second fear boondock denizens have of change is that their new neighbors will bring in more people that look like them, leading to a takeover of the neighborhood. The leader of the mean Gremlins is named Stripe and wreaks all manor of havoc. Now that he's in town, he brings in his own gang courtesy of that watery reproduction method. The town is overrun with Gremlins who do those aforementioned stereotypically "urban" things. They breakdance, mimic scenes from juke joints, shoot each other, write graffiti on the walls, commit loads of crime, have too many kids and, in a great nod to the 1958 version of The Blob, invade a theater and talk during the movie.

The third fear boondock denizens fear is the lowering of property values due to those new neighbors. Stripe's gang destroys Kingston Falls, causing traffic accidents, fires and other destructive mayhem. They destroy the bar where Kate works, leading her to the infamous speech about why she's so cynical about Christmas. It's the only time in the film where the movie hints at how fucked up a suburbanite's life could be regardless of whether the neighborhood is heterogeneous.

Billy and Kate destroy the Stripe gang with help from Gizmo, the "good" Gremlin. Gizmo serves to offset all that paranoia. He's smart, resists the temptation to eat anything after midnight, and helps save what's left of the town. After the big showdown, Keye Luke returns to retrieve his Mogwai. Suddenly, the film turns into an unconvincing environmental message. "You do with Mogwai what you do with all of nature's gifts," Luke says. "You are not ready." It's the most telling line in the film: "You are not ready." Luke tells Billy that when he understands things, that is, when he and his neighbors can accept without paranoia the differences and cultural rules of "the others," he'll reap the rewards of befriending other types of people. Mogwai will be waiting.

Twenty three years later, the 'burbs are a lot more colorful and cultural than they were when Gremlins came out. Having lived in suburban Ohio, I can attest that all that paranoia still exists, but not at the level that Gremlins brought to us. It's not as unusual to see people of all shades on the block, and at least where I was, the town managed to stay in one piece despite the presence of people who looked like me and other minorities.

Gremlins is misunderstood because everyone thinks it's a horror comedy, but it's really social commentary filtered through the sci-fi genre.

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Interesting interpretation. I always thought it was a moral tale about what happens when you break the rules.
And to think all this time the movie scared me for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for putting my head on straight, Odie!
Okay, you forced me look up the word "prestidigitation." I hope you're happy.
Carrie, your interpretation works just fine! I think the standard take on the picture has always been nature striking back (which is more 70's than 50's). But your take can be used for such delicious evil! "Kids, Gremlins is what happens when you have premarital sex!"

Wagstaff, the dictionary is your friend. As you may have noticed, I play favorites with certain words. There are words I am desperately in love with, and try to use whenever possible. Prestidigitation is one of them, but the one I always try to sneak in is incontrovertible. I remember where I learned every big word I know, and incontrovertible came from a line in the old Castro Convertibles radio jingle.

Jeffrey, I remember going to see Gremlins at the Hudson Mall Twin (which is now a crappy sevenplex!) when it came out. That was also where I saw Jaws, The Omen, and Poltergeist, all movies that scared the hell out of me. It is also where I saw that movie we're going to be blog-a-thon-ing about this weekend. The other tie all these movies have is that the music is fantastic on all of them, and it was done either by John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith's score for Gremlins is one of his best. It's menacing and cute at the same time.
Interesting take on the film, Odie. Incidentally, your observation about the stereotypically "urban" behaviors of the gremlins has not gone unnoticed by others (when the film came out, for example, it was attacked for being "racist"). I read another interesting review of it once where the writer saw the film as a comment on our culture's over-dependance upon technology (the term "gremlins" of course being classic shorthand for something going haywire), which is an equally valid "reading" I think. I That's the great thing about a good movie: it offers a variety of different, multi-layered interpretations. I certainly always took it as a satire but what exactly it was satirizing I could never quite make up my mind because, like Robocop, there are many targets that the filmmakers seemed to take aim at. What's remarkable, though, is that that in most cases they hit the bullseye (or came pretty darn close).

Personally speaking, I love the film. Not only is it one of my favorites but, perversely, I have to watch it every year around Christmas time. I also think the finished product is far superior to the film that the original (and quite nasty) Chris Columbus screenplay projected it to be. Gremlins could have been just another forgettable 80's horror movie, but with the involvement of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante (I think it's Dante's best work in fact) and a team of talented artists (including Jerry Goldsmith as you point out), Gremlins has become a wonderfully unique and memorable sci-fi/horror/comedy classic.
Goldsmith's score for Gremlins is one of his best. It's menacing and cute at the same time.

That’s a good way of putting it. Odie, your inspired interpretation of Gremlins goes down a lot smoother for me than your alternative take on Sunset Blvd. I’ll never watch Gremlins the same way again. If all of what you say holds true, does that make Gizmo some kind of whitey wish fulfillment for a House Gremlin? I can almost hear it now – “but he’s so well spoken.” Does the militant Stripe reflect the fear of, oh, I don’t know, say a Huey Newton type? It’s so true that the sci-fi and horror genres can go places and touch upon themes that otherwise wouldn’t be touched with a 10 foot pole. My former read of Gremlins was much the same as a lot of people – a Pandora’s Box lesson. Just follow the simple rules or else all hell is gonna break loose. Thanks for a great article.

BTW, I’m sorta fond of it now, but when Gremlins first came out I didn’t like it. It was at the height of my Spielberg mania. I went to the theater the first day with my mom. The evening before, I had bought the paperback novelization and stayed up all night to finish it. It was more violent than the movie if I recall.
I can't remember who said it but one thing I always remember about the "rules" for the Mogwai: Isn't it always after midnight to some extent? They never give a time when it's OK to feed them again. Great take on the film though Odie.
Damian, I didn't remember the movie being labelled as racist when it came out. I probably wasn't paying attention. But it does support my theory on the film.

I like the movie quite a bit, and I love the sequel a little more. John Glover is incredibly inspired in it as a Trump clone. Dante's best works are these two, Matinee (which may be his best work for me) and The Howling.
Rand is played by the man who wrote the greatest opening line in pop music history, Hoyt Axton.

Nobody asked what that line was. I guess everybody knows it!

EC, good point! I guess you can feed them again after the sun comes up...
Odie, I would splice my cable cord back together if they ever gave you a pop-cult commentary show. Nice mix tape analysis there. The use of "urban" had me rollin!

A few things:

-Gremlins was the first time in Spielbergland that I, as an 80's black kid, felt like an outsider. With ET and Poltergeist, I had fully identified with Elliot and Carol Anne's scaredycat brother. I think a lot of black folks enjoyed the hell out of Gremlins but could detect some of the Reagan era codes. '84 was some year.

-Chris Columbus is the guy who made even black jazz musicians menacing to white suburban teens in Adventures in Babysitting (though he was directing somebody else's script). "Nobody leaves here without playin da blues."

-Gizmo always reminded me of Emanuel Lewis, Stripe of Miles Davis.

-More tri-state trivia: Remember DJ Red Alert's radio mix shows on 98.7 Kiss? He used to freestyle as an evil Gremlin over a beat, each show. I think he got the message.

-Dante's The Burbs plays with suburban paranoia/xenophobia in a similar way, except it evoked Nazi war criminals or Reds or some vague Eastern European menace. Brother Theodore was hilarious.

-I think Dante was in on your reading of the movie but Chris Columbus wasn't. CC could decapitate all the soccer moms he wants to, Mr. Home Alone Alone is still about as subversive as an Ovaltine commercial. Dante, on the other hand, recently had a zombie Iraq War vet snuff a TV-effigy of Cheney. He's down.
Given his post-Gremlins work, I have to agree with the assumptions that Dante or someone else improved Columbus' script since pretty much everything he has produced as a writer or director since has been at best bland and at worst awful. Thank God he handed the directing reins on the Harry Potter films over to other people. That's why that series seemed to get better once he was gone. I'm still too afraid to even look and see what he did to the movie version of Rent.
EC, if you liked Rent then by all means avoid the movie. Columbus does a hack job on it and you'll be very upset. Personally, I hated Rent. I saw it on Broadway and thought, behind Cats, that it was the worst thing I'd ever seen on Broadway (and I saw Starlight Express). So the movie version was no better nor worse for me. I think Team America nails Rent brilliantly in 2 minutes.

Boone: Remember DJ Red Alert's radio mix shows on 98.7 Kiss? He used to freestyle as an evil Gremlin over a beat, each show.

I remember this quite well. You are making me feel very old.
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