Christmas Slay: Joe Dante on Gremlins
With the high street a cacophony of Jingle Bells covers and TV a vomit of Xmas specials, this month's re-release of Gremlins offers 100 minutes of anarchic respite from the insanity of the season. The Skinny spoke to its director, Joe Dante
Picture the scene. It’s Christmas Eve. A fresh dusting of snow has turned the quaint, picket fence-lined streets of Kingston Falls into a living snowglobe. In the largest home in town a miserly property tycoon, Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday), spends the holiday alone with only her cats for company. As she settles in for a lonely night she hears the sweet sound of Christmas carolers at her front door. Perhaps this is the moment in the picture where the scrooge will realise the error of her ways? Will the sight of these angelic singers warm her heart? Will she have the standard issue epiphany that it 'tis a time for giving?
In any other toothache-inducing Christmas confection it would, but this scene is from 1984’s Gremlins, the comedy-horror masterpiece from Hollywood’s anarchic jester Joe Dante (The Howling, The 'Burbs, Matinee), and those carolers are the film’s eponymous knee-high monsters. With hairdos and attitudes like punk rockers, the gremlins drink beer, blow their noses on the curtains, drive snow plows through walls without a license and turn this sleepy suburb into party central. Mrs Deagle’s fate? She gets propelled at breakneck speed out of her third floor window after one of the creatures turbocharges her Stannah Stairlift.
Gremlins returns to UK cinemas this month thanks to a re-release by Park Circus, but it feels like it’s never been away. Not only is Dante's movie still influencing filmmakers – Tim Burton recently paid homage by incorporating some gremlin-like reanimated Sea-Monkeys into Frankenweenie – it continues to appear on TV schedules every December, adding some much needed spice to a month of insipid Christmas programming. Is this the secret of its longevity, its irreverent attitude to the season to be jolly? “It does start out as a kind of regular Christmas movie,” Dante tells me by phone from his office in Los Angeles. “It’s got the fake snow, and it’s filmed on a little back lot, and everybody’s fairly cheery and nice, and then, of course, there’s this dark undertone that creeps out. It begins like It’s a Wonderful Life but ends like The Birds.”
Dante is the master of this type of subversion. In fact, the gremlins make a neat metaphor for the 65-year-old director's filmmaking MO. These rambunctious reptiles start life as an adorable ball of fur called Gizmo, a mogwai, who’s so sickeningly cute that you wouldn’t want to hug him for fear of squeezing him to death. Dante’s films also appear to have soft exteriors but they soon reveal their spikier core. Take 1998's Small Soldiers, for example, which was dismissed on its release by shortsighted critics as being little more than a live action rip-off of Toy Story. But you don't need to look too hard to see that this family film about a militarised franchise of GI Joe-like action figures trying to commit genocide on a peaceful alien toy range is really a trenchant attack on US foreign policy.
The chief satirical target in Gremlins is consumerism. As well as the darkly hilarious demise of Mrs Deagle, the film is scattered with potshots at the Reagan-era American dream. The film begins with crummy inventor Randy Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) surreptitiously purchasing Gizmo from a Chinese antiques dealer, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), as a Christmas present for his clean-cut teenage son Billy (Zach Galligan). When Billy fails to obey the three cardinal rules of mogwai ownership – keep them out of sunlight, don't get them wet and, most importantly, never feed them after midnight – Gizmo multiplies into other mogwai that in turn metamorphose into vicious gremlins that proceed to terrorise Christmas. Women, children, dogs, radio DJs, men of the cloth, Dick Miller – no one is spared their rampage. At one point Santa even has his face chewed off. If anyone missed the barbed social commentary amongst the carnage of gremlins being microwaved, decapitated and burned alive, fear not, because Mr. Wing turns up in the film’s coda to take back Gizmo and deliver this stern tongue-lashing: “You do with mogwai what your society has done to all of nature’s gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready.”
With the western world in the middle of a recession caused by unregulated free-market economics, now is the perfect time to re-embrace Gremlins’ sly critique of unabashed capitalism. “What goes around comes around,” says Dante with a gentle chuckle. “Christmas has been over commercialised for years, certainly in this country, and there are subtle messages, and sometimes not so subtle messages, in a lot of my movies. But yes, there is a certain anti-consumerism theme underlying Gremlins, which is much more pronounced in the sequel.”
That gonzo sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, didn’t quite fly with audiences the way its predecessor did. Indeed, poor box-office has been, post-Gremlins, the story of Dante’s career, which has resulted in a more sporadic output in recent years. What’s refreshing, however, is that he’s never sold out, and continues to make idiosyncratic movies that bristle with the off-the-wall energy of his heroes Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin. “I have one rule,” he tells me, “I try never to make a movie that I wouldn’t go see, and so if it’s interesting enough to me that's when I try to make it personal and make it my own.” But Dante has found that in the modern filmmaking culture this personalisation is increasingly frowned upon. “The studios would rather have a movie with no rough edges, that won’t offend anybody and makes as many people happy as possible.”
Dante earned his filmmaking stripes making movies that were 99% rough edges, under the tutelage of Roger Corman, as so many of today’s American baby boomer directors (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, etc.) did. Dante’s first gig with Corman’s New World Pictures was cutting the trailers for its coming attractions, but he soon moved up the exploitation ladder and graduated to director himself, co-helming Hollywood Boulevard in 1976 with Allan Arkush and directing shameless Jaws rip-off Piranha in 1978. Endearingly Dante, unlike most of Corman’s protégés, has never tried to shake off his B movie beginnings. “That’s because I love those types of movies,” he says. “I’ve studied them, they’re part of the way I think; I never feel I need to ennoble a genre, I just like to work in it.”
Despite remaining the runt of Corman’s movie brat litter in terms of award success, he can certainly stands shoulder to shoulder with his more celebrated alumni when it comes to artistry, as testified by the presence of Gremlins 2 on Slant Magazine's recent best 100 films of the 90s list. I put it to Dante that his films are so smart it takes audience and critics a while to catch on to their undoubted qualities. “Well gosh, I don’t know,” he says bashfully. “Time will tell. I’m a firm believer that you really can’t tell the worth of a movie the year it’s released because there’s just so many other conflicting factors. Some of our favourite movies, The Wizard of Oz, Touch of Evil, Vertigo even, weren’t revered when they were released and didn’t make any money. Movies have to age a bit, like wine, to see what’s there.”
After 28-years of maturing, I’m pleased to report that Gremlins’ cocktail of social critique, coal black humour and slimy horror is as potent as ever.