Sometime around fifteen years ago, A Christmas Story was something of a modern cult classic. It was kind of amusing and kind of off-beat, and you could make a connection with someone if you mentioned it and it turned out you both liked it. Or, at least, that’s how it was where I grew up, which was the area of Northwest Indiana where the story was set. A funny thing happened in the late ’90s, though. TNT started playing the movie on cable for 24 hours straight during Christmas, the concept caught on, and now, thirteen years later, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know about Ralphie, his Red Rider BB gun, and Scut Farkus. But another funny thing happened, too. After so many years of repetition, the movie has started to feel a whole lot less quirky and fun. At this point, it’s probably the most overrated holiday movie ever, and all it takes is one person dropping quotes from it at a Christmas party to get me to make internal noises of frustration.
Joe Dante’s Gremlins has had almost the exact opposite lifespan. It came out a year after A Christmas Story, was a pretty gigantic hit right away, and established itself as one of the iconic ’80s blockbusters quite quickly. But, over the course of the last couple decades, its influence has faded a bit. Despite the fact that the movie is set during Christmas, and is about the perfect Christmas present just as much as A Christmas Story is, its horror elements have kept it from getting into the regular holiday rotation. And, apart from Christmastime concerns, Gizmo and the Gremlins were once as big of icons in the genre filmmaking world as Indiana Jones’ whip and a time machine Delorean, yet you never hear about today’s young people getting hip to Gremlins in the same way that they do Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future. It seems to me that A Christmas Story could benefit from being put away for a while, and Gremlins could use some regular cable airings to remind people of how great it is. What do you say, TNT? Who’s doing your programming over there?
What do they have in common?
Both of these movies are set in small towns during Christmas. They bring to life idyllic visions of suburban life covered in snow, Christmas decorations, Christmas carols, and Christmas cheer. They also both have perfect Christmas presents at the center of their plots. In A Christmas Story, it’s Ralphie’s (Peter Billingsley) quest for the most glamorous present a little boy from his era could imagine: a BB gun. In Gremlins, it’s Billy’s (Zach Galligan) receiving of what seems like the perfect pet: a Mogwai named Gizmo. In addition to that, both films end up having plot threads where a pack of wild creatures ruin Christmas. In A Christmas Story, it’s the Bumpus Hounds’ trashing of the family turkey, and in Gremlins it’s Gizmo’s Gremlin progeny taking over the entire town.
Why is A Christmas Story overrated?
It would be too easy to pick on what weak actors Billingsley and Ian Petrella, the kid who played his younger brother, are. Or even how over-the-top Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin are as the parents. This is a silly movie, so let’s not pick on the acting. Instead, let’s pick on the storytelling. When you get down to it, this really is just a movie about whether or not a boy is going to get a BB gun for Christmas. That’s the only overarching conflict that goes through the entire film. Which begs the question, who cares?
Really, instead of a coherent narrative that flows from beginning to middle to end, A Christmas Story plays like a series of kind of nice vignettes about suburban life during Christmastime. There’s the standing up to the bully subplot, the tongue on the flag pole subplot, the trip to see Santa subplot—it’s the sort of movie you fall asleep to after eating a holiday meal. That’s why it needs to be played over and over again, because it takes four or five airings for you to catch all the scenes. And when all is said and done, they’re only slightly the worse for wear for being watched out of order.
Something of a bigger conflict is introduced when the Christmas turkey is ruined and the family doesn’t know what they’re going to do for dinner, but that’s just a subplot that gets introduced and wrapped up right quick so that the film can manufacture a climax. This one could have been helped out a whole lot if it featured a subplot that developed throughout the film where everything systematically started going wrong for the family’s Christmas celebration, and then everyone could have experienced a moment of character growth when they put their desires aside and just accepted the holiday for what it was. But, instead of that, Ralphie gets exactly what he wants, and any of those elements prove to be too half-baked to really matter.
Why is Gremlins underrated?
People who haven’t seen it for a while tend to forget that Gremlins is a Christmas movie, but this thing is such a Christmas movie that the first act practically feels like a Charles Dickens story. You’ve got Dick Miller playing the neighbor character, hating everything foreign, driving a tractor to the bar, and generally being a gruff old man like he’s Barkis from “David Copperfield” or something. You’ve got the evil rich lady putting everybody’s husbands out of business and threatening to kill Billy’s dog, like she’s as privileged, sadistic, and damaged as Ms. Havisham. The only thing missing is a ghost from Christmas past or future. All of this setup has you practically begging for a Christmas miracle.
Looking at the iconography of this film is like taking a time machine back to the ’80s, too. Who didn’t have a Gizmo doll, or lunchbox, or branded something back in the day? The creature design on the Mogwais and the Gremlins and the subtle similarities they share was so inspired. The main theme that plays when the Gremlins are getting up to mischief stands up next to any of the other pieces of memorable movie music from the era. And the old-timey practical horror effects Dante employs are just so slimy and gross. This movie is the perfect balance between being kind of funny and fun, but then having a scene or two that could totally traumatize a kid; which makes for the sort of movies that you always remember most fondly from your childhood.
Whether you’re eight or thirty-eight, watching Billy’s mom take on a bunch of Gremlins in her kitchen like some sort of Rambo badass is great stuff. She explodes one in a microwave, purees one in a blender, and stabs one repeatedly with a butcher’s knife. Can you imagine people letting their kids watch a movie like this these days? The ’80s were a golden era. A golden era where old ladies could have the motorized chair that carries them up the stairs fiddled with to the point where they get launched out of an upstairs window and hit the pavement across the street. A golden age where a movie could end with a voiceover narration warning kids that Gremlins are probably living in their house right that moment, thus ensuring they won’t sleep that night. If there’s anything that could end the current war on Christmas being led by Ricky Gervais-obsessed, atheist, anti-zealots, it’s a little dose of that ’80s awesomeness
Evening the odds.
Whether you prefer A Christmas Story or Gremlins as your go-to Christmas pick, you have to admit that both of these movies are ridiculously racist toward the Chinese. They both paint people who have traveled here from that country as being strange others who can’t quite grasp the intricacies of God’s language: English. In Gremlins, the Chinese characters get to play the magical foreigner and not just the clueless immigrant, though. They know stuff that Americans don’t, and Keye Luke gets to look at the Peltzer family like they’re idiots. At least if Gremlins took A Christmas Story’s place on the airwaves, you wouldn’t have to cringe at your uncle laughing way too loudly at the “FA-RA-RA-RA” gag. That shit gets uncomfortable.
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