The Summer Of '80s Movies: 'Ghostbusters' And 'Gremlins' : Monkey See Ghostbusters and Gremlins both hold up surprisingly well on the first night of our Summer Of '80s Movies.
NPR logo The Summer Of '80s Movies: 'Ghostbusters' And 'Gremlins'

The Summer Of '80s Movies: 'Ghostbusters' And 'Gremlins'

Ghostbusters: The trailer pretty much lays it out for you, doesn't it?

Today's big question is this: As between mid-'80s special-effects monsters and mid-'80s puppet monsters, which are more menacing?

Ghostbusters, of course, has more of the former. While you get some "real" monsters as well (mostly in the "Okay, so she's a dog" depictions of the gargoyle-ish creatures), you get a lot more of the straight-up drawn-on-the-screen guys, like the one Bill Murray encounters around the five-minute mark here.

Gremlins, on the other hand, has primarily puppets. And they're very puppety-looking puppets, too. About half the time that Zach Galligan, who plays Billy (a weirdly ageless character who has a job as a bank teller but still lives at home and acts like he's fourteen), is carrying around little Gizmo, they look quite a bit like a ventriloquism act from Star Search.

It also must be said that the gremlins in Gremlins are a lot meaner than the ghosts in Ghostbusters. In spite of all the damage done to a perfectly nice Central Park West apartment building when the (to put it generously) perplexing plot of Ghostbusters leads to the opening of the pathway between Sigourney Weaver's refrigerator and the Temple Of The Demonic Aerobics Instructor, the ghosts aren't really that malevolent. In fact, it's kind of quaint, the way their opening gambit consists of, "I am a GHOOOOOST! I will go to the library and PULL ALL THE DRAWERS OUT OF THE CARD CATALOG BOOGEDA-BOOGEDA! I will EAT ALL YOUR HOT DOGS NOM NOM NOM!"

The gremlins are worse.

Puppet-on-human violence, a Santa tragedy, giant men made from marshmallows, dogs and cats living together, self-defense with a canister-vac, and more, after the jump...

The gremlins specialize in both pranksterish vandalism and merciless killing — both colloquial and traditional mayhem, as it were. This is the thing about the movie I either never knew or didn't remember (I can't remember if I ever saw Gremlins as a kid or not): it has a tone that's very, very hard to pin down.

For a movie produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris "I directed Mrs. Doubtfire and also Home Alone" Columbus, of all people, Gremlins is pretty heavy on the actual horror, but always with a strangely detached wink. If John Krasinski had gotten up in the middle of License To Wed and beaten Robin Williams to death with a tire iron, it would have felt a lot like this movie does, at times.

Never is that more clear than in the scene where the sweet young thing played by Phoebe Cates explains why she hates Christmas. You sort of think you know where it's going, and then you totally don't, and when you bust out laughing, it's hard to be 100 percent sure whether you're laughing with or at the movie. I think it's about 85 percent "with," probably? (The audience I was with didn't care, but found it hilarious either way.)

It's certainly "with" during the flat-out fantastically great sequence in which Billy's mother (Frances Lee McCain) fights off the gremlins in the kitchen. It's just so brilliantly disgusting, the way she keeps finding new forms of violence to inflict with the things she already has on hand. It's like a twisted, mangled version of one of those Kitchen Of The Future black-and-white movies where the housewife can do just about anything using her wonderful array of appliances.

Gremlins finds a remarkable number of creative ways to go over the top. As I wrote on Twitter last night, it's definitely the best movie I've ever seen in which a movie theater full of drunk Muppets is burned alive. It gleefully messes with its own rules — I don't think you can make a monster movie where your monster would ever resort to carrying a gun, or it's not really a monster movie anymore — to marvelous effect.

It's surprising, in retrospect, that a movie this hard to pigeonhole made so much money. It was the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 1984, and it made a lot more than movies that perhaps get more play in the nostalgia industry, like, The Karate Kid, Footloose, and Police Academy.

In the end, I found it periodically incoherent, occasionally scary, mildly deranged, and a very good time.

While I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Gremlins, I was less surprised by how much I enjoyed Ghostbusters. The special effects (as, again, I mentioned on Twitter) are like nothing you would ever see anymore outside of a video made in one day for posting on YouTube. Not only because the cartoon ghosts look so cheap, but because of the hilarious array of implements the guys are carrying around, all of which look like they were cobbled together from barely-disguised everyday items. ("You will never defeat me and my slightly modified canister vacuum! Not once I add...the crevice attachment!")

But it all still fundamentally works. If it's been a while since you've seen it, you might be surprised how small a lot of the comedy is, especially coming from Bill Murray. Despite its many quotable lines (many of which were enthusiastically spoken along with the film by the guy down the row from me, which: Don't do that at a movie, ever, because nobody is impressed by you except you), it's not that much of a setup-punch kind of comedy. (Which is not to say there aren't great lines, as in this clip, which I will caution contains the original, non-office-appropriate language of the film.)

Murray, here, has a great deal of confidence in the audience to know things are funny, and very often, he holds a look that's not particularly broad, understanding that just the held look is funny; that the lack of reaction is the best reaction. Certainly, there are plenty of elements heavy on the mugging — I find Dan Aykroyd hard to take in this movie, compared to the more restrained work Murray and Harold Ramis are doing — but that persistently deadpan feeling returns over and over and plays very nicely against the amped-up effects.

Furthermore, I don't necessarily think of myself as a Rick Moranis person: I wasn't an SCTV viewer, and when the Honey, I [Blanked] The [Blank] movies began to proliferate, I filed him alongside latter-day Eddie Murphy under Unfortunate Presences I Try To Ignore. But he is really, really funny in this movie. The nerd/geek axis is tough to play, because it's been done so much (Ghostbusters came out the same year as Revenge Of The Nerds), but he's so authentically bizarre and looks so much like a wind-up toy that I did laugh just about any time he ran anywhere — which, fortunately, happens a lot.

And let me say this: I don't care if you know it's coming, I don't care if you know what it's going to look like, and I don't care if you consider it an overexposed iconic image of the '80s. When the Stay-Puft Marshallow Man comes lumbering around the corner for the first time, it's funny. Maybe especially on a big screen, where he's so huge. But it works.

So which is more menacing? Well, the puppets are more menacing, but that's because they're doing more menacing things. If the puppets ate hot dogs and the animations killed old ladies, it would probably be the reverse. All in all, a highly enjoyable kickoff to the Summer Of '80s Movies. More to come.