Monday, June 18, 2018

Gremlin (2017) Review

Last week I found a movie online called The Jurassic Games, and right after I watched it, I instantly declared it my favorite movie of 2018 so far. Obviously, it’s only been a few days since then, so that’s still the case, and I liked it so much that I decided to look up the writer/director Ryan Bellgardt and check out some of his earlier work. Turns out he has two other features credited to him on IMDB, one from 2013 called Army Of Frankensteins, which I actually picked up a few years ago and just never got around to watching, and another from last year called Gremlin. Just by virtue of the insane title and the fact that it’s Bellgardt’s first movie, I probably should have started with Army of Frankensteins, but I thought it would be interesting to watch his evolution as a writer and director in reverse order, so I started with Gremlin instead, and if anything, it only makes me more excited to see what else this guy is capable of.

On the subject of titles, it’s already pretty ballsy to name your modern horror movie about a diminutive killer monster so closely to one of the most beloved horror/comedies of all time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people who come across Gremlin might just dismiss it out of hand based solely on the presumption. The movie doesn’t try to ape the 80’s classic or its far superior 90’s sequel in any way, instead opting for a fairly dark and effecting supernatural thriller that’s surprisingly down to Earth apart from its one clearly out there central conceit. It’s about a family already struggling with personal tragedy and festering dysfunction beset by a mysterious paranormal force that threatens to break the family bonds that were already bending, gradually escalating hardship upon hardship in ways they can’t hope to escape from and can only barely understand.

If that premise sounds eerily familiar to you, its because in the broadest strokes, it deals with a lot of the same themes as the new critically acclaimed horror film Hereditary, which I hated so much that it compelled me to return to online movie reviews after a several year hiatus, just so I could warn people about how bad it is. At the risk of sounding like a troll at this point in the middle of my Gremlin review no less, I was able to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude as I saw the parallels play out in Gremlin and actually be executed so well in contrast to how terribly these same themes were tackled in the so-called scariest film since The Exorcist. As far as I can tell, Gremlin received none of the fanfare or mainstream critical buzz of Ari Aster’s new film, and if I can in some small part remedy that past wrong, I’m happy to do so.

I don’t just bring up Hereditary because of the broad strokes either. There are clear structural similarities that I am sure are entirely coincidental, but nonetheless striking enough to make Gremlin a recommendation purely on the novelty of comparison. The biggest of these would regrettably be a major spoiler for both films, but if I can dance around it a bit, both movies start out as one thing, than dramatically shift into another at the half way point after the families involved suffer very similar tragic events that open the floodgates of supernatural evil to propel the rest of their respective narratives. The difference is that Gremlin’s narrative is actually satisfying because it comes about from an organic series of escalating complications that build upon one another and bring together the individual character arcs and the larger story, instead of just presenting a bunch of interchangeable bits of spooky imagery and random bullshit.

To be honest, apart from a solid prologue setting up an intriguing mystery, the first half of Gremlin was actually beginning to feel a bit underwhelming. You get your characters set up, each with their own personal dilemmas to seed in potential interpersonal conflict and then once the titular gremlin starts literally popping up, I was starting to wonder if this was going to turn out to just be a generic, if generally well made creature feature. This would have been perfectly fine in its own right, just nothing special, but then that plot turn punches you in the gut at the half-way mark and everything changes. Suddenly those incidental character beats start to matter more to the supernatural mechanic of the movie, with two plot beats in particular involving pregnancy and adultery becoming much more pivitol to the plot than I anticipated they would be.

At the heart of Gremlin is a curse not unlike the sexually transmitted stalker from It Follows, only instead of a death sentence that requires you to do a thing everybody loves and is probably doing anyway to pass it on, this one forces you to do something few people could ever bring themselves to do. The curse is a box containing a monster that slips out when you’re not looking and kills anything it sees. If you try to throw it away or leave it somewhere, it will always come back, and the only way to be permanently rid of it is to gift it to someone you love, condemning them to make the same choice and hope the person they choose continues the cycle, with the natural risk being that someone along that chain will inevitably hesitate or disbelieve long enough to let the monster loose. Like the It Follows curse, there are a million nitpicky ways you can deconstruct the mechanics of this, but if you’re willing to just accept that this family is human and doesn’t think with the ridged logic of someone watching a movie and analyzing in hindsight, it’s not hard to consider that you might fall into the same trap they do, letting mistakes in judgement compound and spiral out of control until the point of no return.  

The realistic way in which the characters react to and struggle with the chaos unfolding around them is what makes Gremlin more interesting than your typical monster movie. A significant section of the film deals with the family debating and then carrying out the concealment of a dead body, because they know that they wouldn’t be able to explain to the police that a magical box gremlin was the culprit. Then later, they have to grapple with the morality of complicity when they’ve been pushed to the breaking point and suddenly realize that they have a candidate for re-gifting that technically counts as a loved one, but one that they’d be willing to sacrifice if it means protecting their core family unit. Gremlin could have easily settled for a repetitive litany of special effects kill scenes, but it takes the time to explore the characters instead so that you care about them beyond how they potentially might die.

If I had one major issue with the film, its with the ending. Gremlin presents a primary conflict that is by its own stated nature essentially unresolvable, and then attempts to kind of resolve it in a way that isn’t so much disappointing, as much as it feels like the ending to a different movie altogether. I was instantly reminded of the end of 10 Cloverfield Lane, where a grounded psychological thriller suddenly just threw in an alien fight in the third act to justify the Cloverfield imprint. The ending to Gremlin is not nearly as incongruous, but it feels like a twist for the sake of a twist more at home in a pulpier movie, or a feature length episode of the 90’s Outer Limits TV show. I’m typically not a fan of ambiguous endings that leave the conclusion of a movie up to the audience’s interpretation, but I’m almost tempted to make an exception here and say that might have been better, if only because the cyclical pattern of the Gremlin curse would seem to preclude a more concrete endpoint.

There’s a good chance that you probably hadn’t heard of Gremlin before now, as I’m pretty up on new movies as they come out and it completely passed me by last year. If not for my own experience with the writer/director’s most recent film, I likely never would have had any reason to bother with it, and I’m glad I did. If you’re sick of horror movies that are too reliant on jump scares, meaningless atmospheric visuals, and other tricks to distract you from the lack of a real story, Gremlin is a fine antidote to your lazy horror fatigue that puts in the work and doesn’t put on airs. It’s not the scariest movie since The Exorcist, but its the kind of movie that actually digs deep into the humanity of its characters to derive horror from your empathy, beyond your visceral, sympathetic response of how you would feel if the circumstances of the film were happening to you. I highly recommend Gremlin, and now I get to watch a movie about an Army of Frankenstein’s monsters fighting in the Civil War with what appear to be steampunk cyborgs. So wish me luck I guess?

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