The Convenient Coincidence

Most movies begin with a convenient coincidence. And as long as it doesn’t completely insult our intelligence, we as audience members will accept just about any inciting incident. A lonely boy befriends a gentle alien who didn’t make it back to the spaceship in time. An ordinary businessman raises his hand at exactly the wrong moment and gets mistaken for a spy. A down-at-heel boxer just happens to live in the city where the reigning champ is searching for his next opponent. This is what sets the story in motion. You don’t need a degree in film theory to instinctively know the conventions of storytelling. But subsequent coincidences, even just one, will test our goodwill. They are cheats, pure and simple. Deployed by the writer to get out of a tricky spot. Every movie gets one free pass, because that’s how it has to be. One should suffice. One is plenty.

Argh! You're breaking the fourth wall!

When I recently watched Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage again, after enough time had passed for me to forget some of the salient points, the same pesky conclusions came back to haunt me. For one thing, the story progresses too smoothly. Now, a sense of simplicity and orderliness is good. The many clunky flicks out there suggest that it is a difficult effect to achieve. But the advancement of a movie’s plot shouldn’t feel this unchallenged or easy. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway. The Orphanage really runs into trouble about halfway through, when main character Laura (Belén Rueda) just happens to see an old woman she’s been searching for right in front of her car, crossing the street. And this is in some snowy mountain hamlet, far from the seaside where Laura lives. Dude, what are the odds? Things aren’t helped by the abrupt and arbitrary nature of the sequence either.

Everything is spookier in night vision.

As has become customary when I dump on a movie here at OP-dEaD, I now come running to its defense. Because I really like The Orphanage. Rueda gives a superb performance, and the director skillfully utilizes the creepy setting. Also, Óscar Faura’s cinematography is really good. Few, if any, haunted house movies have ever looked better. Besides, if faced with a choice, I’ll usually take subtle chills and a mounting atmosphere of dread over blood and guts. The Orphanage is pleasantly slow, infused with affection and about as vulgar as a glass of milk. But a tasteful presentation doesn’t automatically bestow more free passes. The rules apply. The rules always apply. Want a haunted house movie that sticks to them? I’d recommend The Others or The Devil’s Backbone, both of which are splendido.


A Field Guide to GREMLINS

“I have always liked movies that show a sense of film history. And, if it were only about movies, people wouldn’t like it much. The references are there, but not in a way that would obscure things for anybody.”

– Joe Dante, Fangoria #38 (1984)

Well, it’s Christmas Day. For many people, movies are just as big a part of the holiday season as good food, gifts and quality time spent with friends and family. There aren’t any movies that I have to see each and every year, but there are definitely movies that I can only see around Christmas. Gremlins, which fried my delighted young mind upon its release in 1984, is one such movie. Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which came out that same year, it deserves credit for turning me into a film fanatic. So to mark the 25th anniversary of Joe Dante’s perennial creature feature, and the little milestone of OP-dEaD’s 50th post, here is the OP-dEaD 2009 Gremlins Christmas Extravaganza! Keep reading for lots of information on in-jokes, cameos and other fun stuff …

The Spielberg Connection: Onscreen, the movie is billed as “Steven Spielberg presents Gremlins.” Executive producer Spielberg was the one who came across an early draft of the screenplay (by Chris Columbus), and who brought Dante on to direct. And throughout the movie itself, there are deliberate references to Spielberg’s output. Everyone recognizes the Indiana Jones typeface and costume on the Rockin’ Ricky Rialto billboard near the beginning. A couple of minutes later, however, there is a much more subtle nod to the bearded wizard of Hollywood—as Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) is walking to the bank with his dog, he passes a movie theater that’s currently showing A Boy’s Life. A Boy’s Life was the working title of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the marquee gets my vote as the cleverest in-joke in Gremlins.

A Feast for the Fans’ Eyes: When Rand Peltzer (an underused Hoyt Axton) calls home from the inventors’ convention, the scene is a film buff’s dream come true. The man in the cowboy hat, who glances into the camera, is the late Jerry Goldsmith. (Goldsmith, as any soundtrack collector knows, was Dante’s dependable go-to guy for orchestral scores.) Also during the course of this scene, a reclining Stephen Spielberg zips by in a weird little car/wheelchair, before Robbie the Robot shuffles across screen from the opposite direction. (We see Robbie on the telephone moments later, reciting lines from Forbidden Planet verbatim.) Also, the time machine from The Time Machine (1960) can be seen in the background, but it has disappeared in a puff of smoke during a cutaway.

The Joe Dante Repertory Company: It must be a delight to work for Dante. Aside from his extended relationship with Goldsmith, he is famed for using the same actors in many of his pictures. Dick Miller, my favorite character actor of all time, is the most celebrated example. Here, and in the sequel, he appears as Murray Futterman—town drunk, snowplow driver and vocal patriot. In a charming touch, Jackie Joseph plays the part of Mrs. Sheila Futterman—the pair had appeared together in Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors 24 years earlier. The lovely Belinda Balaski, already familiar to fans from Dante’s Piranha and The Howling, puts in a sympathetic appearance as poor Mrs. Harris. Another of the director’s stalwarts, Kenneth Tobey, plays the gas station attendant. Miller is certainly the most fun to watch, but the cleverest bit of casting may well be Jim McKrell. In Gremlins, he reprises the role of reporter Lew Landers, the very same part he had played three years earlier in The Howling.

An Animated Cameo: As they sit in Dorry’s Tavern, an elderly gent named “Mr. Jones” compliments Billy on his caricature of evil Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday). Billy’s kindly friend is none other than Chuck Jones, legendary king of Warner Bros. cartoons.

Quite the Character (Actor): Mrs. Deagle, who rules the town’s real estate affairs with an iron fist, is a heartless widow. At least she’s kind to her numerous cats, all of whom have names after currency (e.g. Kopek and Dollar Bill). It’s also clear that she remembers her late husband with great affection, judging from the large portrait of him that hangs in the staircase. The man in the photograph is actually esteemed character actor Edward Arnold, who was known for his stout build and commanding baritone. Since he played imposing big business types in various Frank Capra movies, Arnold was an obvious choice for the late Mr. Deagle. (He didn’t appear in It’s a Wonderful Life, though, the clearest Capra antecedent to Gremlins.) Since Arnold had already been dead for 28 years, the producers needed permission from his estate to use his likeness in the movie.

Howling for More: Apparently, The Howling was the movie that originally put Dante on Spielberg’s radar. (I guess that’s how Dante ended up directing one of the tales for Twilight Zone: The Movie.) And there are at least three references to my favorite werewolf movie in Gremlins. One is Lew Landers, obviously. What’s more, the Kingston Falls movie theater has lobby cards from The Howling on display. All well and good, but as crafty in-jokes go, nothing beats the smiley face sticker on the Peltzer family refrigerator. Smiley face stickers are an important story element in The Howling, used as a kind of signal between Dee Wallace’s newswoman and madman Eddie “The Mangler.” (Eddie, incidentally, was played by Robert Picardo. Yet another Dante regular, for some reason Picardo doesn’t appear in Gremlins.)

Fangs for the Memories: As the gremlins hatch from their slimy cocoons, Gizmo watches in terror from inside a motorcycle helmet. And in the mist, we can barely glimpse a copy of Fangoria, the preeminent horror magazine. It’s issue number 30, which just so happened to feature Twilight Zone: The Movie on the cover. And just a few issues down the line, Gremlins would appear on three consecutive Fango covers.

Movie Marinade: Since Gremlins is steeped in movie lore, it’s only fitting that scenes from numerous old movies are prominently featured. It’s a Wonderful Life, To Please a Lady, Orphée and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers play on various television sets. Moreover, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has apparently taken the place of A Boy’s Life, holds the gremlins in thrall towards the finale … and ¡SPOILER! ultimately spells their doom.

First Go for the Logo: As well as all the allusions to movies past, Gremlins hinted at important things to come. This happened to be the first movie ever to feature the famous Amblin Entertainment logo, Amblin being the production company of Speilberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. But observant viewers may notice that the logo is incomplete. The outline of the moon is there, but not the moon itself. The finished article would not grace screens until the following year, when it could be seen in The Goonies.

Gremlins is full of references to everything from Flashdance to Star Wars. You discover a new pop cultural reference, or at the very least some new detail, every time you see it. Fittingly, in light of the Christmas setting, it’s a movie that just keeps on giving. For more information, you might want to check out the movie’s IMDb trivia page.

Killer Hedgehogs from Outer Space!

As befits the approaching holiday season, OP-dEaD will soon pay tribute to Gremlins, Joe Dante’s masterpiece of mid-80s monster mayhem. But for now, we’ll make do with a close cousin: Stephen Herek’s Critters. In the wake of Gremlins’ success, director/co-writer Herek’s inspired debut was probably the only movie to come close in terms of success and relative critical praise. It left comparable, second-rate fare like Ghoulies and Munchies in the dust, and spawned three decent sequels. However, the comparison to Gremlins is a tad unwarranted. For one thing, according to Wikipedia, Critters was in development before its illustrious predecessor. And the similarities between the two are fairly superficial. In my opinion, Critters is more the bastard, spiny-backed offspring of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

The calm before the storm.

Fans know that E.T. started out a very different proposition. The suburban setting was the same, but Steven Spielberg initially envisioned the alien visitors to be downright vicious. In these early stages, his next project after Raiders of the Lost Ark was titled Night Skies. But at some point during pre-production, Spielberg changed his mind and the result was the cuddly little guy who trounced box office records in 1982. Rather than scrap the idea for Night Skies entirely, though, Spielberg got Tobe Hooper on board and the discarded project morphed into Poltergeist, another box office winner from the same year. And as a kind of completely unrelated what if?, Herek served up his mean-spirited space porcupines in 1986.

E.T.? Is that you?

Critters has a simple and wacky setup, as a band of malevolent little creatures escape from a prison asteroid and hightail it to Earth. These fugitives from interstellar law, or “Crites,” have a couple of deadpan bounty hunters on their tails, and the whole thing is obviously played with tongue firmly in cheek. Choice moments include the bounty hunters crashing into a church, a critter’s vain attempt at eating a firecracker, and another one biting the head off of an E.T. doll when it fails to answer him. But the knowing approach doesn’t preclude an affectionate tone, most prominently conveyed here through the likeable Kansas family at the center of the mounting chaos. Herek is clearly fond of his characters (maybe even too fond), and he peppers proceedings with well-judged in-jokes.

This is going to end badly!

Aside from the incident of stuffed alien mutilation, there are many other deliberate echoes of E.T. Dee Wallace Stone, who played the mother in both movies, is the most obvious parallel. Scott Grimes, as the fresh-faced Bradley, tools around on his BMX bicycle, just like Elliot did. And when he ventures out into the mist with his father (Billy Green Bush), it’s hard not to be reminded of all the flashlight action in E.T. Nadine Van Der Velde plays Bradley’s older sister. She’s a bit stuck-up in the early scenes, but we warm to her eventually. Robert MacNaughton had a similar function as the older brother in E.T. The ship in which the critters have escaped, or at least its entryway, is also a clear reference to E.T.’s vessel—albeit much cheaper!

Tonight's forecast: Foggy!

As a dose of 80s entertainment, Critters works a treat. The central family plays it straight, while the bounty hunters, town oddballs and critters provide the comic relief. Tim Surhstedt’s photography lends a lovely golden glow to the daytime scenes, and composer David Newman does a credible John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith pastiche. Things do fall apart toward the end, but not enough to erase a positive impression. Critters is the kind of innocent movie that nobody makes anymore. It’s fun.

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