Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Chilling at Christmas/1984 Turns 30! A Retrospective: Two More from '84! Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles E. Sellier, Jr.) & Gremlins (Joe Dante)

For my last post of 2014, another 1984/Christmas crossover... and this time it's a double! I've talked about these two briefly before (here and here) but wanted to explore them in a bit more depth, especially as it's still the festive season and all. I mean Christmas day is long gone now but hey, people still have their decorations up and we're still within the 12 days right? 

Besides both being (in wildly varying degrees) controversial Christmas movies, they're also two films that have grown on me exponentially this December. I mean I'd always liked them both but after re-watching them a few times each this year I'd have to say the like has turned to love. Why's that do you ask? All will hopefully become clear as we proceed...

The more controversial of the two by many miles, Silent Night, Deadly Night was famously picketed by angry parents, lambasted by critics and eventually withdrawn from theatres. The killer Santa wasn't exactly new by 1984 but apparently the appearance of the film during the festive season itself, coupled with what I imagine was probably far from subtle advertising... oh, and it's wide distribution (it was an early release for TriStar if memory serves)... so anyway, the above taken all together (and exacerbated by the media no doubt, who love a good moral panic) seemed to create the conditions for a perfect storm of controversy. All this was moot of course as the film was later re-released anyway (playing up the controversy card all the way in the ads... and why not?) and the opening aside, it all seems a bit silly when watched now. Which is not an attack on the film, I should add.

The tragic (if somewhat - and wonderfully - cheesy) story of a young boy whose parents are murdered on Christmas Eve by a low life robbing, murdering sonofabitch dressed as Santa, and later becomes a killer Santa himself after having his mind warped by said ordeal and a less than understanding nun (sorry, I mean Mother Superior) during his later upbringing at an orphanage, this was probably never gonna go down well with the PC and PTA brigades. As usual, these people apparently couldn't see past the surface to what the story was actually about but whatever, their loss eh?

To be fair, there is something a little bit demented about this movie on the face of it... I mean, I'd say the opening is a bit shocking, even after seeing the film many times now. And seeing poor Billy's downward spiral isn't exactly a barrel of laughs either. But this is one thing that sets it apart from many other slashers... we actually get to learn, in detail, what created the monster. 

Once Billy's all grown up though, it seems the tone lightens somewhat and things become more fun. And again, I should clarify here that I do like the scenes set before this too. In fact overall I think it's pretty well constructed, even if it isn't game changing or anything (not that everything has to be).

It's hard to pin down exactly what it is I love about this movie now but I think it's a combination of its atypical narrative (for a slasher), 80s cheese, festive atmosphere, groovy tunes (love the songs included, mostly credited to Morgan Ames and the creepy, sometimes crazy synth score by Perry Botkin) and Linnea Quigley.

I honestly thought I had more to say here but I guess that's it for now (thanks brain!). Suffice to say, I recommend giving it a look if the concept doesn't offend your sensibilities and you're in the market for a festive film with a bit of bite to it. Which brings us neatly to our next movie...

Though it's similar in the sense that it's another subversive film set at Christmas, Gremlins is almost a polar opposite to Silent Night... in other ways... the former actually being family friendly... and further more, it's glossier and possesses grander production values, where as the latter is more down and dirty, as it were.

I'm gonna assume a synopsis is pretty much superfluous with this one. As I said earlier, I'd always liked the film but there was something stopping me from fully embracing it. But as I'm becoming (in some ways) less cynical as I get older I find much more to enjoy about Gremlins these days and now love it. I'd always preferred the sequel (which I'll be watching later tonight as part of a New York New Year double feature with Ghostbusters 2) in the past but sometime this month, the first film overtook it for me (though of course, things could well reverse again later tonight!). 

For one thing, finally seeing a Blu-Ray of the film increased my appreciation a lot. This is a damn nice looking movie and all the festive lighting and trimmings really pop off the screen in HD. And speaking of the season, this arguably possesses some of the best Christmas ambience I've seen onscreen period.

And aside from all that, there's plenty more to feast your eyes on, Joe Dante being a director with a talent for visual gags and one who knows that the devil is in the details. Also, with him being a film buff, there's references strewn throughout for fellow cineastes to pick up on... e.g. there's nods to the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Flashdance and clips from movies including It's a Wonderful Life and Invasion of the Body Snatchers

There's lots more to praise here, including uniformly game performances from a great ensemble cast, sterling effects work (headed by Chris Walas) and a memorable score from Jerry Goldsmith. 

In a way, you wonder if the makers missed a trick here, rushing the film out (though it doesn't feel hurried, to their credit) for a summer release to compete with Ghostbusters. Though, I also wonder if it would have courted controversy a la Silent Night... if it come out during December, as that film did. As it stands, it had its own small sliver of controversy, in the sense that it and another Spielberg production from '84 (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) helped usher in the PG-13 certificate. Yup, it's all pretty much thanks to an exploding Gremlin in a microwave and a ripped out heart apparently.

So that's it for Gremlins and for 2014 folks. The film is now a firm favourite of mine and 30 years down the proverbial line, I think it's safe to say it's now a classic and rightly deserving of a place in the canon of great Christmas movies. Now I'm off to watch Ghostbusters 2 and Gremlins 2 (I'll report back on that tomorrow... or, more likely, sometime this weekend). Have a good un y'all!

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