Joe Dante's anti-Christmas-movie Christmas movie

I re-watched Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) this week for the first time in almost twenty years; it was a movie that made a big impression on me at a very young age (I was probably five or so when it aired on NBC).  I can remember humming the theme music, listening to the children’s “book and tape” tie-in (it was narrated by Hoyt Axton!), and attempting to read the novelization.  I was already very familiar with the film by the time Gremlins 2: The New Batch came out in 1990, at which point my dad took me to the theater to see it—how cool is that?  As a somewhat morbid child drawn to all things scary and gory, I enjoyed Gremlins as a solid horror movie, and I remember being a bit confused at how much it made my dad laugh.  It’s both, really—an exemplary blend of scary, gross, and funny, in the tradition of some of the best horror films.  This blend of horror and comedy is one of Dante’s specialties: in the Gremlins films, his classic werewolf flick The Howling (1981), and his segment for the Twilight Zone movie (1983), he has a way of intensifying the giddy fun of being scared, of feeling so keyed up on the very texture of horror—its lurid colors and canted angles, its musical zaps and stings—that you feel like your head is going to start spinning with pleasure.  Dante understands the crucial element of fun that’s almost always necessary in horror cinema; it’s something that he has learned from his two main influences, drive-in monster movies and the Looney Tunes cartoons. 

Dante’s films are fabulously intertextual; he’s constantly quoting from, embedding, or cheerfully ripping off some other film.  Televisions are always on in the background, often so that Dante can take jabs at the media (local news is one of his favorite targets), but just as often playing the movies from which Dante’s own movie derives.  So in The Howling (a real howler in more ways than one) characters watch The Wolf Man and the Big Bad Wolf blowing down the house of Disney’s Three Little Pigs.  

Gremlins finds Dante taking aim at a different genre.  From the opening credits sequence, set to Darlene Love’s great rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” we know that we’re in a Christmas movie.  But not a Christmas movie proper: Joe Dante’s take on the genre of the Christmas movie, replete with dead Santas, monstrous Christmas presents, decapitated gingerbread men, and a showdown in the toy aisle of Montgomery Ward.  The idyllic image of an old couple listening to carolers is later parodied by the miserable Mrs. Deagle (a combination of Scrooge, Mr. Potter, and Elmira Gulch from The Wizard of Oz) greeting “carolers” at the door with a pitcherful of water, only to find that they’re actually…gremlins.  She thinks she’s in the world of It’s a Wonderful Life; we know that she’s in the world of Joe Dante.  Original rating: ***½  New rating: ****   

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