Retro Review: Deck the Halls With Splatter Cinema: GREMLINS Invade the Plaza Theatre!!!

Posted on: Dec 10th, 2012 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents GREMLINS (1984); Dir: Joe Dante; Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates and Hoyt Axton; Tue. Dec. 11 @ 9:30 p.m.; Sun. Dec. 16 @ 3:00 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

One of the most notable aspects of the classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes series of cartoon shorts is that while they were created for the enjoyment of children, they were written to also entertain those parents accompanying their kids to the theater. They’d frequently wink at the audience, breaking the fourth wall and commenting on the ridiculousness of what was transpiring. Few directors have the right touch to pull this off in live-action filmmaking the way that Joe Dante does, and fewer films succeed at this to the extent of GREMLINS.

From his more cartoonish collaborations with Allan Arkush (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) to his somewhat more restrained horror features (PIRHANA, THE HOWLING), Dante’s modus operandi is to pepper his films with sly humor that acknowledges the fact that we’re all watching a movie. In the hands of some, it could come off as condescending—a kind of “look at us: we’re intentionally making a bad movie, hyuk hyuk!” attitude. But Dante loves this stuff too much to be condescending. In his hands, it all comes across as gleeful subversion; he seems to say that it’s okay to have fun with this medium and the things we love about it. That it’s okay to throw in a special appearance by Robby the Robot for a laugh because who doesn’t love Robby the Robot? That casting Dick Miller in every movie you make and frequently crediting him as “Walter Paisley” (his character from A BUCKET OF BLOOD) is fine, because Dick Miller is a legend and A BUCKET OF BLOOD is fantastic! More than even Tarantino, Joe Dante is the movie nerd’s movie nerd. His films take the attitude that they can have fun with established movie tropes because you should be having fun, and nothing is more fun than the movies.

Which brings us to GREMLINS. Like the classic Warner Brothers cartoons (hey, there’s Chuck Jones in the bar scene!) and Dante’s previous work, it blissfully screws with expectations about what you’re watching. And what it’s playing around with is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Like E.T., the film is about a small-town kid who winds up taking care of an adorable, otherworldly creature, gets in over his head and madcap antics ensue. The first twist to the formula is that Billy (Zach Galligan), unlike E.T.’s Elliot, is college-aged, pursuing his old high school crush (Phoebe Cates) and still living with his folks. But still, that’s not such a departure that it necessarily alters the story dynamic, right? I mean, after his dad (Hoyt Axton) presents him with a precious little Mogwai named Gizmo, even if he breaks the final two of the creature’s three rules (1. Keep him out of bright lights. 2. Don’t get him wet. 3. Never feed him after midnight.), how bad can it get? It’s a Christmas movie, for crying out loud!

GREMLINS' Gizmo is darned cute when he's not wet. Warner Brothers, 1984.

Things can get really bad.

Rather than the film conforming to the E.T. template by having a force from outside threaten the poor little guy and his human pal, and eventually giving us a warm and affectionate send-off, Dante and screenwriter Chris Columbus have Billy make a couple of boneheaded mistakes and potentially doom the entire town. Thanks to Billy, an army of scaly, green and ugly little beasties are running about the place and gleefully killing and eating townspeople just for kicks. Gremlins are gruesomely killed in food processors and microwaves. Phoebe Cates recounts a horrific story about her father’s death. Nobody is safe. It’s almost as if Dante knew that the movie-going public would see Gizmo looking like a little bipedal pug and making high-pitched Howie Mandel noises and generally being so adorable you can barely stand it, and bring their kids to unwittingly witness THE MOST VIOLENT PG-RATED FILM OF ALL TIME. Okay, maybe INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM has it beat, but not by much, bucko. Instead of the heartwarming and heartbreaking farewell of E.T., Billy’s family gets chewed out at the end as a proxy for the entirety of Western Civilization being a bunch of jerks. And all the while, you can practically hear Joe Dante, standing just off-screen, laughing himself half to death.

Predictably, parents were horrified. One of the teachers at my high school refused to let her kids see the film because the Gremlins “were obviously demons from the pit of Hell.” Outrage from Responsible Parents over the violence in this (and yes, in TEMPLE OF DOOM) is what led to the establishment of the PG-13 rating. But kids? Kids ate this up. They ate it up like pancakes covered in ice cream. Because even if the Responsible Parents didn’t get it, the kids did. And the Irresponsible Parents (like mine, bless ‘em) got that this was all a huge, happy joke.

Don't be fooled. The caroling GREMLINS aren't here for good cheer. Warners Brothers, 1984.

Unfortunately, GREMLINS wasn’t originally released at Christmastime. Fearing that they had nothing to offer for competition during the summer of GHOSTBUSTERS and (again) TEMPLE OF DOOM, Warner Brothers rushed the release of the film and pushed it up by six months. It’s a shame, too, because despite the absolutely epic violence of the film, it’s practically the perfect Christmas movie. Let’s face it: the best Christmas entertainments are fueled by a perverse viewing of Things Going Wrong. Would IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE be what it is without spending the vast majority of the film watching everything that could possibly go wrong in George Bailey’s life go even worse? Would HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS be as enjoyable without watching the Grinch attempt to ruin everybody’s life? Santa Claus in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET may just actually be insane. RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER runs away from home and hangs out with a bunch of losers and reprobates. There was that YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS. It’s not A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS without watching Chuck’s life spiral into a void of existential dread. Christmas is a time for joy and merriment…and bloodshed and death.

…All of which makes GREMLINS the perfect choice for Splatter Cinema to screen at the Plaza Theatre this month. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense at first (Spielberg produced it! Its hero is a little fuzzy critter!), sit back and enjoy one of the few Christmas movies to fully embrace the notion that over-the-top violence can be joyful.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: It’s a Wonderful Life With George Bailey in It: See the Capra Holiday Classic with Family and Friends on the Big Screen at the Vintage Earl Smith Strand Theatre

Posted on: Dec 18th, 2011 By:

By Thomas Drake
Contributing Writer

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946); Dir: Frank Capra; Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers; Wed. Dec. 21 8 p.m. at Earl Strand Smith Theatre; traditional TV screening on Christmas Eve on NBC (Channel 11) at 8 p.m.; Trailer here.

Short: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Medium: George Bailey is a man with big dreams and a big heart. As a youth he decides to set out for the big city and become an architect and explore the world. While he loves his family, he looks down with scorn on his small hometown, BedfordFalls. But on the day he is set to go out into the world, his father becomes ill. The problem is, George learns that the film’s villain, Mr. Potter (No Relation to Harry Potter of the Same Name), plans to take over the bank and remake the town in his dark image. George is forced to take up his father’s mantle and save the town, initially only for a little while, but as he puts roots and settles down, the years slog on. Until fate gives Potter a chance to destroy Bailey. Bailey is at the end of his rope and considers his life a total failure.

Heaven itself hears the prayers of the town and sends an incompetent angel in the form of Clarence to help out. Clarence gets the brilliant idea of showing George Bailey the world without him in it. Horrified, George repents of his wish for death and rushes back to the happy ending typical of Hollywood movies of the era.

George Bailey (James Stewart) at a low moment in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife Mary (Donna Reed) and children try to trim the tree and enjoy Christmas. Copyright: Paramont Pictures, 1945.

Maximum Verbosity: This is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s not every day that a movie can establish a new kind of story that is copied over and over again in many mediums. There might be a story that did this before IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but this Frank Capra-directed holiday classic certainly turned the idea of showing someone what the world would be like them on its head if it did. I’ve seen more television episodes and cartoons that show how critical a piece someone makes in the lives of others roughly based on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE than I can even remember. And I can remember a lot.

When the film originally came out, it didn’t really do so well. In fact, it might have been doomed to an ignoble death like so many otherwise excellent Hollywood films until someone discovered that it had ‘slipped through’ the copyright trap, and thus became exceedingly cheap for small television stations to run over and over again around Christmas. So it became an American favorite and a classic. Now the American Film Institute, on one of its many arbitrary lists, calls IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE one of the 100 best films ever made—and I’d agree with them on this one. Of course, that was not to last, as eventually the zaibatsus managed to loophole the loophole and now only NBC can show it (Dec. 24 at 8 p.m.).

In a rare holiday treat, the film itself, however, is going to be shown at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre, an art-deco former movie palace in Marietta. With all of the trouble iconic Atlanta film venues have been going through recently such as the Plaza up for sale; with the zaibatsus getting rid of their 35mm film collections; and even books themselves slowly going the way of the Kindle, supporting such grand old institutions as the Earl Smith is more important than ever. An artistic experience isn’t just about the performance, it’s who and where it is being performed. [Ed. note: this screening is not in 35mm, but we still think it’s mighty special to see even a digital print at such a cool Retro venue, esp. if the kids have only seen it in TV.]

Bumbling angel Clarence (Henry Travers) startles George (Stewart) by showing up in a nightgown. Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.

So why do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. Jimmy Stewart is the most awesome actor in all of Hollywood history, and given some of the people that have worked in film, that’s saying a lot. The man was humble and had a genuine all-American quality to him that I found fantastic. That combined with one of his [and Frank Capra’s] other great seminal works, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, to me sums up what it means to be an American. He is the true Everyman hero, the one who stands up for what is right when all others demand that you surrender to the wrong. Indeed, if every man would be as Jimmy Stewart, then the very foundations of evil would be shaken from the world forever. Not that that’s going to happen.

Let’s talk Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence is a delightful fuck-up. When one thinks Angel, one traditionally thinks Cherubim and a Flaming Sword guarding the Garden of Eden, not a bumbling old guy in a hat who doesn’t even have his wings yet. Of course, don’t underestimate old Clarence, because the old guy can turn visible or invisible at will and rewrites the very laws of reality to weave out George Bailey. If that’s what an angel without wings does, you can imagine how many power-up’s you’d need to take on a fully developed one. But his bumbling incompetence is why I like him. I like the idea that God, or at least his minions, are well meaning but not all powerful. But maybe that’s just me. It’s easier to accept the world the way it is if you think that.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE also is a great romance. Donna Reed is easy to lose in the crowd among all of the things that are going on in the film, but as a subplot, George Bailey’s courtship—both before and after they are married—is a true classic. She went on later to have her own highly successful sitcom, but seeing her in this is like all of those obscure ‘80s movies that have actors in them before they became truly famous. Like Kate Mulgrew in REMO WILLIAMS (1985).

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a wonderful romance, too, between George (Stewart) and Mary (Reed). Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.

But I think above all, the philosophy of the film is why I love so much. Life isn’t about wealth. You can’t take it with you, and while it can certainly help in some circumstances, you can’t eat it and it won’t love you. “Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends.” I guess somehow when I heard that, it translated in my mind as, “The true measure of the worth of a human’s life is in the quality and strength of the relations he keeps.” And I’ve lived my life that way ever since. People matter. Friends matter. Family matters. And this movie is the quintessential guide to that.

It might be hokey. It might even have a healthy dose of sappy cheddar compared to the realities of corruption, malfeasance and dereliction we have today. The world needs more George Baileys, because God knows we’ve sure as hell got enough Mr. Potters running around with their derivatives and their credit default swaps and their vast indifference to the suffering of humanity. Our world has come to more resemble the dark mirror of George’s life, where people don’t give a shit about each other. But this is the Holiday season, damn it, and whatever your affiliation (Kwanza, Hannikua, Christmas, Festivus, X-mas), they are all about love and being greater than yourself. (Well…maybe not X-mas which is largely about buying as much as you can and trompling your neighbor in the process.)

Celebrate Christmas by living a bit of it each day of your life. And the best way to do that, is to be like George Bailey. Merry Christmas.

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