Was I nine? Ten? Somewhere around there.
My dad had a pretty robust approach to movies and age ratings – one somewhat at odds with his book policy. Whilst I could read pretty much whatever I liked, generally speaking, if the British Board of Film Classifications said it was only suitable for fifteen your olds and up, I was shit out of luck. Of course, if they said ‘Parental Guidance’, that was treated as good enough, which at the tender age of six led to a cinema encounter with The Temple Of Doom that I will not soon forget (see a future column for that bad boy).
So it was a rare occasion indeed where my dad would say ‘they got it wrong’ and let my younger sister and I watch a ‘fifteen’, and for that reason was a moment of deep celebration for us.
This movie was one of those times.
Our excitement was palpable. For starters, we had the VHS on a 48 hour rental, so we could watch it multiple times (I think we got to twelve viewings in the end). The cover looked exciting – just the box with the pair of eyes, and THAT lettering for the movie name. Dad was working during the day – must have been a half term break – and Grandma was babysitting, so basically, it was all our TV, all the time. And, you know, it was a 15!!! Thrilling beyond words. The anticipation was almost unbearable, expectations sky high.
Gremlins exceeded them with room to spare.
We were hooked from the opening. I’m sure under the harsh light of today’s more savvy and racially aware audience, the opening sequence with an elderly Chinese gentlemen shop keeper is at least a bit uncomfortable (especially the ‘Dragon breath’ gag) but as a couple of yokel children from whitebread North Devon, that sailed right over our heads – all we cared about was that creature.
Gizmo has to be one of the great achievements of physical effects in cinema.
I’d put him right up there with 30’s King Kong
and Carpenter’s The Thing.
The big eyes, gentle, nervous smile, plush hair – there’s not a child alive that didn’t see that movie and immediately say ‘I want one!’. I’ll never know how Furby managed to escape a law suit from the creators of Gizmo – because come on.
More importantly, he’s a character – an absolutely central one. I mean, in plot terms, he isn’t – in raw story terms, he’s the McGuffin – but what genius it was to decide to imbue the source of such chaos and mayhem with such a cute face and lovable character. My sister and I basically fell in love, the way children do, and like all such childhood loves, it’s never entirely left me. If the film were made today, no doubt we’d all rhapsodise about how amazing the CGI fur was, and what a great job Andy Serkis did with the facial expression work. But this was done the old fashioned way – with physical props and a lot of elbow grease, along with some superlative shooting and editing. It’s wonderful.
I remember the pacing being superb, too – the story just unrolls, all the events logically following, enough time spent with each change to assimilate it, without ever dragging for a second. It seems effortless, and I’m amazed how few modern movies manage it – these days, they’re all either cut like MTV movies to the point of confusion if not incoherence, or tedious slogs though ‘worthy’ periods of history.
Wow. Tonight’s ‘My Life In Horror’ brought to you in association with ten your old me, grumpy old man me, and ‘Get Off My Lawn’ film criticism, apparently. I blame the Irish whisky.
Anyway. Point is, this film is a majestic piece of storytelling, beautifully plotted and paced. And the effects are outstanding. I have incredibly vivid memories of replaying the microwave scene and the blender scene over and over again, even using frame advance to enjoy the exploding Gremlin head in all its dark green glory. Similarly, the birth of the ‘problem’ Mogwai(s?), the hatching of the Gremlins, Spike in the pool… in fact, if you can think of an effect sequence in that film, you can pretty much guarantee that I’ve watched it at two frames per second, slack jawed with amazement at the awesomeness of it all.
It’s hilarious. Like the way The Garbage Pail Kids was hilarious
which is to say gross, if not grotesque. And it was scary at the same time. I mean, take the death of the old lady on the stair lift. Yes, she was an irredeemably unpleasant character, but her fate is ultimately pretty nasty – star lift rewired such that she’s fired like a missile out of her upstairs window and into the street. The first time I watched it was in stunned silence.
The second time, I could barely breathe for laughing.
I’m sure that’s an artefact of seeing it as a young kid – and probably a young, sheltered kid at that. I hadn’t been exposed to much, if any, cinematic horror at this point in my life, and Gremlins is, at least in terms of plot structure, a horror movie. Nonetheless, I remember the pattern very clearly – first time through, the whole film was a heart-in-my-mouth experience, with subsequent viewings being an experience so different as to be almost unrecognisable – namely in a state of perpetual giggles.
I was far too young to have the words for any of this stuff, or to understand why it was so good or worked on both levels. Plus, I’m just a gullible consumer of movies, I guess, in the sense that I’m easily seduced by the notion of horror. Like, I saw Arachnophobia when I was a mid-teenager, and thought THAT was a horror movie first time through – and not because I’m scared of spiders either (because I ain’t). But I EXPERIENCED it. I lived it. I got it on an instinctive, gut level, because when you make movies well enough, people don’t need to get film theory or narrative complexity to be blown away. It just happens because you made a fucking awesome movie.
But I’m really grateful I was that young, that naive, that innocent, even. Because I learned so much about horror storytelling from getting to see that movie that way. I mean, it freaked me the hell out. The moment when the record starts playing in the empty house. The howling noise and smoke as the cocoons hatch. Actually, the appearance of the cocoons themselves – so gross, dark, alien. The death of the school science teacher – a masterful piece of suspense cinema, a near perfect ‘I’know’you’re-going-to-try-and-make-me-jump-but-oh-you-bastard-you-STILL-got-me’ scene.
And oh, Spike! Spike with saw blades. Spike with a chainsaw. He’s such a great villain, is Spike. Every bit as much a character as Gizmo, will all the cute inverted into vicious violence and sadism with a smile. The Gremlin creature design is superlative, and Spike as the poster boy is magnificent. I mean to say, the bastard is so scary he even manages to land a post-death jump scare!
Sure, even the first time, the group scenes are funny – in the bar and the cinema. But in the bar, well, Kate is stuck in there with them and that looks like no fun at all, and of course, in the cinema, our heroes getting detected flips the mood on a dime from hilarity to pulse pounding fear. Even in those outright broad comedic moments, in other words, there’s a tense, stressful undertone – at least there was for me, age ten, desperately afraid for Billy and Kate and Gizmo.
Many, many years later, I’d learn this lesson again, with movies like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club. But I think Gremlins was the first time a movie became a fundamentally different viewing experience the second time from the first, and the reason for that is, for all the sight gags and absurdity of the situation, Gremlins is in structure, pacing, and bricks-and-mortar storytelling, a horror movie.
The two days just flew by, and we talked about it for months, years afterwards. The DVD still holds a pride of place on my movie shelf. I genuinely hadn’t thought about it until I sat down to write this – I’d remembered the laughs, the re-watches – but Gremlins was as formative a horror movie experience for me as Jaws or The Thing.
Thank you, Joe Dante, for the horror and the wonder. For terrorising a ten year old kid.
And second time through, for the laughs too.