Thursday 7 February 2019

On a Thousand Walls #16: Gremlins (1984)

When Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel originally reviewed Gremlins, Ebert described the film as a haunting. It haunted the portrayal of Small Town America, he said, to which Siskel replied, “It's like a Norman Rockwell painting, where there's blood on the turkey.” And that's pretty insightful because Gremlins is, for all of its eighties wackiness, a haunted film, one that engages with the history of the Cinematic American Town, and its subset, the Small Town Christmas Movie; issues of class and economic injustice are raised and not solved; post-war urban myths pepper the whole thing.

The gremlin in the microwave.
The idea of “gremlins” originated in the RAF between the first two World Wars (footnote: futureproofing there because this might be read after 2019), where it became a running joke that otherwise inexplicable mechanical and electrical failures might be down to mischievous, technically proficient goblins. In World War II, this story was apparently encouraged by RAF command – the thought was that it was good for morale, since a half-believed comedy goblin is far less conducive to paranoia than the idea that one of your mates might be an enemy saboteur. The RAF were quite good at mythmaking at the time: it was the RAF for example who propagated the idea that carrots help you see in the dark, the better to hide the existence of radar from the enemy, which sounds utterly absurd, but is a thing that actually happened.

Gremlins were the subject of former RAF pilot Roald Dahl's first children's book, and it was his dealing with Disney, and the consequent popularisation of his book in the US, even though the animated film never got made, that brought the idea to popular imagination on the other side of the Atlantic. It is fair to say that gremlins became part of pop culture consciousness in the USA to a much greater extent than in Britain. “Terror at 20,000 Feet”, a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone starring William Shatner and based on a Richard Matheson story, has probably the most famous screen gremlin before 1984 (enough that it has been parodied many times, and when The Twilight Zone was revived as an anthology film, “Terror” was one of the stories remade). Gremlins are proverbial. They're part of our cultural lexicon.

I think it's pretty interesting then to notice that in Joe Dante's Gremlins, the mythical gremlins get mentioned quite some time before the actual monsters appear. It's next door neighbour Mr Futterman (Dick Miller), an affectionate caricature of the Patriotic Veteran, who avers that foreigners brought down American planes in the "Big One" by infecting them with gremlins. Mr Futterman is afraid of gremlins, and why wouldn't he be? In the wars of previous decades – and Futterman is about the right age for having served in Korea, although he refers to WWII – mechanical failures could be fatal. Gremlins can kill you.
The Big One. W. W. I. I.
Are the creatures in Gremlins actually gremlins though? The only person who gives them a name is Mr Futterman. The only authoritative name for any creature in the film is “Mogwai”, which is what Mr Wing (Keye Luke) the owner of the antique shop calls the little creature he keeps in a box, which Rand Pelzer (Hoyt Axton) acquires almost accidentally as a Christmas gift for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). Mr Wing is of course a stereotype, the Inscrutable Sage, played by a veteran actor with a long career of having to play stereotypes - Charlie Chan (and before that Number One Son), the Master in classic cowboys-and-Shaolin-monks series Kung Fu. The Inscrutable Sage has long whiskers, and runs an antique shop, and never seems to sell anything, and utters phrases that are no less soaked in wisdom for their broken English. Leaving aside the fact that, well, it's a bit racist (even if it's thoughtless, well-meaning, patronising Democrat racism rather than full on putting-kids-in-concentration-camps Republican racism), it's still important because the Old Chinese Junk Shop is the stuff of sleepover stories, the beginning of any number of tales told under blankets, the flashlight pointed up from beneath your chin.
Mogwai brings great responsibility.
And this is the tone of Gremlins all the way through: this is not the rarefied Literary Ghost Story. These are the whispered legends of teenagers.

The film doubles down on that almost immediately. Rand tries to buy the mogwai, and Mr Wing says no, he can't handle the responsibility, but Wing's grandson follows Rand out, takes the money, and explains the three rules you have to follow to keep a mogwai. Keep him out of sunlight. Never get him wet. And never, ever feed him after midnight.

These are the rules of kids’ folk stories, the sort of rules that, by the simple fact of being stated, ensure with no hope of escape that they will be broken before the story is done.

Invariably, some idiot who thinks they're being clever will quibble about what “after midnight” means, since it's always after midnight somewhere, and in fact in the funny, strange, intertextual sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, some idiot in fact does, and not to his credit. This is the stupidity of adults. Kids know full well that “after midnight” means “between midnight and dawn, wherever you happen to be”. It means the Witching Hour, and as a slave to insomnia since childhood, I can confirm it's the most frightening time of the diurnal cycle.

The rules are going to be broken, as soon as they are explained. And the time of their final breaking is the time when supernatural rules – the darkest, direst ones, the ones that children observe – has to be after midnight.

Gizmo (as the Pelzers dub the little chap) is not, however, a gremlin. Now apparently “mogwai” is a name for a sort of spirit in Chinese mythology, but since my knowledge of Chinese mythology is woeful, I'll have to admit I got that from Wikipedia. Still, I have a hunch that the filmmakers just looked up an appropriate name for a creature from Chinese myth and left it there. The point though is that I can't help feeling that what you get when you break the three rules depends less on the creature than who and where you are. Because when, after a series of accidents – Gizmo is hurt by light, Gizmo asexually reproduces when struck by water, creating a litter of malicious, self-motivated mogwai, and the new mogwai transform into another sort of creature when fed in the Witching Hour – the creatures appear and the mayhem begins, what mainly happens is mythology. They become gremlins because gremlins are what you expect in a world like this.

They become gremlins because people like Mr Futterman are afraid of gremlins.
The thing in the kitchen.
They become gremlins because they exist in a place where people tell stories about gremlins and they become, as a result, malevolent conscious devices for the high-speed production of urban myth. And there are cartoon, madcap things that happen, too, as the scaly little goblins that emerge from their chrysalises ape and mock the people they become set on tormenting, and in places this becomes farcical and daft, as in the scene where the gremlins take over the bar.

So of course Mr Futterman's snowplough gets gremlins. And situations occur where mythic events happen. Billy's mother (Frances McCain), heroically fighting off the creatures with a variety of kitchen implements, makes the classic poodle in the microwave story happen, except it's a gremlin. The urban myth of the squirrel or raccoon in the Christmas Tree happens in the same sequence, except it's a gremlin.
The stairlift.
One of the gremlins’ more prominent victims is the mean-spirited landlady, Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday), who lives alone in a Big Old House, just as the creepy landowners do in the somewhat similar Big Old House in Wes Craven's underrated The People Under the Stairs, which I'm probably doing next, I guess. And she's a Crazy Cat Lady, because of course she is, because lonely misers in campfire stories are always eccentric. In tampering with Mrs Deagle's stair lift so she shoots up the winding stair, out the window and across the street into a fatal crash, the gremlins serve the purpose of economic justice, which is of course another aspect of the urban legend, the way that terrible fates are always a consequence. Not that urban legends are moral as such; the punishments they mete out aren't always for things that are even wrong. Curiosity and unwarranted bravery are as often grounds for punishment as miserliness.
Why Kate hates Christmas.
In this way though the gremlins serve the same skewed morality as the urban myth itself. The biggest pointer to Gremlins being a movie that signifies urban myth though isn't in fact the gremlins themselves. It's the justly notorious “Why I hate Christmas” scene, where for little apparent plot reason, Kate (Phoebe Cates) tells at length a grotesque tale about how her dad died at Christmas, which is straight out of urban myth in how convoluted it is, except an urban myth always happens to a friend of a friend, and this is first person, but then Kate isn't someone we're talking to, she's a character in a film.

Because Gremlins isn't an urban myth, it's a film with the affect of an urban myth. Or rather, all the urban myths. It is distilled from the stuff of tales told under blankets. It is a reflection of the juvenile imagination of my generation.

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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