Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: GREMLINS (recommended!)

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Dec 8, 2009.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    [​IMG]
    Gremlins (Blu-ray)


    Studio: Warner
    Rated: PG
    Film Length: 106 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: VC-1
    Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; English DD 5.1 (compatibility track); English DD 2.0; French, German, Italian DD 5.1; Spanish (Castillian 5.1 and Latin 2.0); Portugese 1.0
    Subtitles: English SDH; French; German SDH; Italian; Italian SDH;* Spanish (Castillian);* Dutch; Spanish; Portugese (Brazilian);* Danish; Finnish; Norwegian; Portugese; Swedish
    MSRP: $28.99
    Disc Format: 1 50GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: June 8, 1984
    Blu-ray Release Date: Dec. 1, 2009

    *Though not listed on the Blu-ray case, these subtitle options are included on the disc.




    Introduction:

    Warner’s “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray of Gremlins should delight film fans and send grainophobes screaming for the exits. Besides being a lot of fun, it’s a demonstration piece for how a textured film with tricky lighting and a lot of dark scenes should be handled on Blu. It gets everything right that Near Dark got wrong.




    The Feature:

    Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), an unsuccessful amateur inventor, visits “Chinatown” in an unspecified city searching for a unique Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). In the store of the aged Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), Rand acquires a strange and adorable creature called a “mogwai”, whom Rand christens “Gizmo” and gives to Billy as a pet. Though Mr. Wing refused to sell the mogwai, his grandson makes the sale in secret, also conveying three essential rules of mogwai care: Keep him out of the light. Don’t get him wet. And no matter what, never feed him after midnight.

    (The temporal relativity of the last rule has been the source of endless mockery, especially in the film’s sequel. In the commentary, Zach Galligan say that people still come up to him on the street to point out that it’s always after midnight somewhere.)

    At home, Billy is working as a teller at the main bank in the little town of Kingston Falls. Similarities to Bedford Falls are intentional and underlined when we see Billy’s mother (Frances Lee McCain) watching It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. The town even has its own version of Mr. Potter in the person of Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), a rich widow who controls the bank and is thrilled to foreclose on destitute families at Christmas. She also bears a strong resemblance to The Wizard of Oz’s Mrs. Gulch in her vendetta against Billy’s dog, Barney (and in other ways that those familiar with the film will recognize). Her own house is filled with cats, all of them named after forms of currency (Kopek and Drachma, among them).

    Billy has a crush on his co-worker, Kate (Phoebe Cates), but he has a rival in bank VP Gerald (Judge Reinhold, still lusting after Phoebe Cates two years after Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Kate also works part-time at Dorry’s Tavern, a beloved local hangout that Mrs. Deagle is trying to close down and where one of the regulars is Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), a recently laid off snow plow operator who is convinced that foreign manufacturers are ruining everything because their wares are laced with “gremlins”. Mrs. Futterman (Jackie Joseph, Audry in the original Little Shop of Horrors) smiles indulgently.

    When Rand brings Gizmo home to Billy, the mogwai is an instant hit. But no one obeys the rules, and before long someone gets the creature wet. (The someone is local kid Pete, played by future Lost Boy and reality TV star Corey Feldman.) Water makes Gizmo multiply, but the new mogwais don’t share his sweet personality. They’re mischievous and conspiratorial, and they quickly hoodwink a gullible Billy into feeding them after midnight, whereupon they vanish into grotesque, blobby cocoons from which they emerge as vicious green monsters who proceed to rampage through the town. They, too, multiply with water – into more vicious green monsters.

    By the end of the film, the gremlins have killed two people that we see onscreen and many more that are suggested off-screen. (The original script by Chris Columbus – yes, that Chris Columbus – had many more deaths, and so did the film’s rough cut.) They’ve also wrecked Kingston Falls more thoroughly than Mr. Potter ever wrecked Bedford Falls in George Bailey’s vision of an alternate reality. “Now I have another reason to hate Christmas,” says Kate, in a scene that Warner executives begged director Joe Dante and executive producer Steven Spielberg to remove right up until the release date. To their credit, they stood firm, because the scene is appropriate to the film and essential to the pacing. It also sets up one of the best gags in the sequel.

    Since Gremlins is a pre-CGI film, all of its effects were achieved the old-fashioned way: puppetry, animatronics, hand-drawn animation and precise editing. This gives the film an old-fashioned look, but to me that’s part of its appeal. CGI work has advanced to an extraordinary agree, but there is a quality that can’t be fabricated when actors share the same physical space as the fantastical creatures with which they’re supposed to be interacting. The Gremlins films are among the most successful at capturing that quality. I’m sure that today’s computer wizards could do a bang-up job with sequences like the one where Mrs. Peltzer fights off the marauders invading her kitchen, or where Billy faces off with “Stripe”, the gremlin leader, in the sporting goods department of the local store. But CGI couldn’t convey the weight and sense of presence that Chris Walas’ nasty creations communicate in Gremlins. And how would you ever get the dog Barney’s reactions? (According to Dante, the dog – real name, Mushroom – was the most natural actor on the set, because he thought the creatures were real.)

    If you’re the type of viewer who points at the screen and calls out, “Fake!”, you probably should skip this film. (Or maybe not; I often wonder whether people of that predilection enjoy the “gotcha” more than the film.) The effects work is easy to spot, because, let’s face it, gremlins and mogwais don’t exist. But if you enjoy a good horror comedy – and the gremlins, for all their meanness, have a truly wicked sense of humor – this is a classic.

    It’s also a field day for trivia spotters. Joe Dante was a pop culture auteur before Quentin Tarantino got his first job as a video store clerk. Every time I watch this film, I spot some new obscure detail. I don’t know how many times I saw it before I realized that Chuck Jones has a cameo. (If you have to ask . . . )




    Video:

    Unless you’re a film philistine (see Wells, Jeffrey), this is a very fine transfer. Colors are strong and accurate, blacks are deep, and detail is excellent. A significant portion of the film takes place at night or in darkened conditions, and it is obvious that the film was somewhat underlit to help “sell” the various puppet figures, especially in sequences involving multiple gremlins. This results in an image that is frequently grainy, and as far as I can tell, nothing has been done to reduce the grain for this Blu-ray. As a result, none of the fine detail has been lost, and you can clearly see what you’re supposed to see even in the darkest sequences, such as the movie theater where the gremlins gather to watch Snow White.

    Since I received this review disc somewhat late, I’ve sampled a few reviews elsewhere. Even some reviewers who appreciate Warner’s efforts to preserve the grain seem to be under the illusion that future “remastering” may somehow harvest a cleaner image from original elements. While such hopes may be well-intentioned, they overlook the realities of technological history. As with The Godfather, where the cinematography had to adapt to certain limitations of the makeup, the cinematography of Gremlins had to adapt to limitations of the available effects techniques, which were being invented as the film was made. In addition, many of the film’s shots involved optical compositing, which, unlike today’s digital compositing, builds in an unavoidable layer of deterioration that all the remastering in the world cannot remove. Short of a frame by frame repainting – which would raise issues of revisionism – I doubt Gremlins will ever look significantly "better". (The quotation marks are because I think it looks just fine.)

    Will some viewers complain? No doubt. Should anyone pay attention? I wouldn’t, and I hope Warner doesn’t.



    Audio:

    The TrueHD track is not particularly impressive. This is no surprise, because the same was true of the 5.1 remix on the 1999 DVD on which this TrueHD track is obviously based. Gremlins was originally released in stereo surround, and when that track was pulled apart for discrete 5.1, the result was a somewhat thin-sounding mix with front-centered dialogue, Jerry Goldsmith’s score in the front left and right, and a few sound effects (mostly footsteps) in the surrounds. Encoding a thin-sounding mix for lossless doesn’t automatically make it sound full, and this is certainly the case here. It’s not a bad mix. It’s just not a noteworthy one.


    I was struck by the fact that Warner chose to include the original stereo track, but unfortunately it’s only offered in DD 2.0 at 192kp/ps. It’s interesting that the studio is willing to go to 640kp/ps for their DD 5.1 tracks on Blu-ray, but still insists on holding their 2.0 tracks to 192kp/ps. By offering the higher rate for 5.1, Warner would seem to have conceded that the additional bits offer a sonic benefit. Why not apply that same logic to the 2.0 track, especially since it’s the original audio format? If necessary, one of the foreign language tracks could have been sacrificed, especially as there are subtitles.

    Then again, does it really matter? Gremlins features one of the cleverest and catchiest scores that the late Jerry Goldsmith ever wrote. It doesn’t matter whether you listen to it over a tinny radio speaker or the finest sound system on earth. Watch the film, then try to get Goldsmith’s themes out of your head. I dare you.




    Special Features:

    All of the special features have been ported from the 2002 special edition DVD. The video for all special features is in standard definition.

    Filmmakers Commentary with Director Joe Dante, Producer Michael Finnell and Special Effects Artist Chris Walas. This is the more informative of the two commentaries on the disc, because the group is smaller and the participants are more familiar with the nuts and bolts of the production. Of particular interest is the production’s long gestation period, while Walas and his team figured out how to create the effects of Gizmo and the gremlins on screen. The pre-production stretched on for so long that Dante directed his segment of the Twilight Zone movie in the interim, although that film was released later. Also of interest is the critical and ongoing role of executive producer Spielberg, who found and bought the Columbus script, picked Dante to direct it (based on Dante’s film The Howling), brought it to Warner when it became clear that the budget required a major studio, protected Dante throughout the production, but also insisted on changes when he thought they were essential. (And how right he was: In Columbus’ original script, Gizmo disappeared halfway through the film and never returned; Spielberg recognized what a mistake that would be, not to mention destroying the sequel possibilities.)

    Cast Commentary with Director Joe Dante and Actors Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller and Howie Mandel. The group is too big, and they clearly don’t know each other well, as there are too many pauses. It also sounds like most of them haven’t seen the film in a long time. There are some interesting stories as scenes trigger memories, but too many of them are of the “he was great to work with” variety.

    Gremlins: Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (6:21) (4:3). This vintage featurette contains on-set footage with Dante, as well as interviews with Spielberg and various cast members. It also features excerpts from the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Falling Hare” in which gremlins are prominently featured. (At one point the cartoon was to have appeared in the film, but it disappeared during editing.)

    Additional Footage with or without commentary (10:26) (1.85:1; non-enhanced). This is a fascinating selection of eight additional scenes from the extensive material removed during the editing process that whittled nearly an hour from the original rough cut of Gremlins. As Dante explains in the commentary, extensive subplots were removed and the roles of certain characters were dramatically reduced. For example, Mrs. Deagle once had a much more nefarious purpose behind her interest in foreclosures (a brief hint of it remains if you listen closely to the newscast at the end of the film). Judge Reinhold had a larger role and is later encountered in a location perfectly suited to his character. The film’s opening was originally longer and followed Rand Peltzer on his search for Billy’s present; in editing the filmmakers realized they could get into the story faster by using a narration instead.

    Unlike many deleted scenes, these couldn’t be reinserted, because many of them are merely a sample of entire sequences that would have to be restored. They provide a fascinating insight into how less plot can make for a better film.

    Gallery. A collection of behind-the-scenes still photographs and sketches.

    Trailers (1:85:1; 16:9 enhanced). The original trailer for Gremlins is included, along with the trailer for its re-release and a trailer for Gremlins 2.




    In Conclusion:

    In the 1984 featurette, Spielberg observes that Gremlins isn’t a horror film, and it isn’t a spoof. He’s right, because it’s some of both. When the gremlin leader Stripe attacks Billy with a chainsaw, he’s spoofing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – but he’s also attacking Billy with a chainsaw, and he fully intends to kill him. The gremlins who descend on Dorry’s Tavern may breakdance on the bar room floor, but they also fire a gun at Kate, and they only miss by accident. They sing “Heigh ho!” along with the Seven Dwarves right before they spot Billy and Kate behind the screen and rip through it en masse to chase them down and shred them to bits. It’s that strange mixture of raucous humor and cheerful blood lust that makes them entertaining monsters and Gremlins a durable film.





    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
     
  2. Adam Gregorich

    Owner

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    Thanks for the review. I'm glad I snagged it at Targoet on Black Friday for $12.99
     
  3. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    Thanks for the review confirming a solid transfer, Michael.

     
  4. Dave H

    Dave H Producer

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    I watched this last night (via Netflix) and thought it looked very film-like. I was happy there was no apparent DNR used.
     
  5. Stephen_J_H

    Stephen_J_H All Things Film Junkie
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    I'm gonna have to get this one. There's a wonderful anarchic spirit to this film that is unique to Joe Dante's work as far as live action filmmaking goes, and is a direct descendant of the anarchy present in the classic Looney Tunes. Why else would there be a Chuck Jones cameo. I'm snapping this one up as soon as I can.

    Great review, Michael. I had no idea who Jeffrey Wells was before your review, and now could care less what he thinks. I found this comment on his site rather apt:


     
  6. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    Thanks, Stephen.

    Wells has been a movie columnist and reviewer for over thirty years, but he's not one I usually pay close attention to. I used this particular piece, which is six months old, because it's rare to find someone who's supposed to be knowledgeable so forthrightly declaring themselves to be anti-grain.
     
  7. Brian Borst

    Brian Borst Screenwriter

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    That's even more noticeable in the sequel, but somehow that one wasn't liked as much as the first one. I always though the opening gag with Bugs and Daffy and the actual movie breaking were hilarious. I hope that one will be released on Blu too.
     
  8. SilverWook

    SilverWook Cinematographer

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    Have you seen the fan made update of the film break scene? It's amazing!



    It would be nice if Warners could include this when Gremlins 2 hits Blu Ray.
     
  9. Brian Borst

    Brian Borst Screenwriter

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    I laughed really hard during the Exorcist bit (the voices of the Gremlins instead of Regan already did the trick) but after a couple it got a bit boring, I think. And I do think a new Gremlins movie should be made, but only when they're done with puppets.
     
  10. Colin Jacobson

    Colin Jacobson Producer

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    I had no real problems with the grain, I was less happy with the number of actual print flaws and the general murkiness of much of the image - murkiness that I didn't think related to attempts to "sell" the effects. Some of that's an 80s film stock thing, but I still thought this was a pretty dull, drab image...
     

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