This was originally published on Flickering Myth on 25th June 2017.
When an estranged family member delivers a mysterious box to his house, Adam Thatcher initially thinks nothing of it. However, it soon becomes apparent that the metallic container actually has a clock engraved on it, one that begins ticking down with immediate effect. Whenever the dial moves a notch, an ancient creature emerges from the box and kills someone that Adam cares about. Worse still, it transpires that the only one way to prevent this from happening, is to willingly pass the vessel along to someone else, thereby resetting the countdown. Adam is thus faced with an agonising dilemma. Either allow the timer to count down (and let the bodies pile up) or pass the terrible curse along.
Passable monster-design aside, Gremlin is a textbook example of squandered potential, wasting a simple but interesting idea on poor CGI, clunky dialogue and some of the most bizarrely terrible performances ever committed to screen. The basic premise of mixing a creature feature with a Ringu esque narrative, wherein a curse must be passed along before a certain deadline, should have made for a fun genre film. And it would have, were it executed with even the slightest degree of competency or creativity. Alas, that’s not what we get here.
The problems become almost immediately apparent as soon as anyone opens their mouth. Amateurish acting is one thing, but the line delivery here is so stilted and detached, that dialogue exchanges begin to take on a surreal, dreamlike quality. It’s not just one or two of the performers either, everyone in the film speaks like they’ve never had to use words before and are accordingly going through language development on the fly.
In particular, one detective character doesn’t seem to truly understand any of the words that he’s saying, placing intonation in the weirdest possible places and rarely emoting appropriately. It’s like he’s an alien trying to pass for an earthling or something. In fact, everyone in this film resembles a Pod Person, completely unfamiliar with the concept of human interaction. Think Mark Wahlberg in The Happening, but somehow even more confusing.
To be fair, whilst the performances are more-or-less universally horrendous (Katie Burgess fares somewhat better as Adam’s daughter), they’re not exactly helped by the writing, which has everyone constantly declaring what they’re thinking in a highly robotic manner and blurting out more weird non-sequesters than the cast of The Room. Eventually, you might become convinced that this is all some kind of intentional stylistic choice, ala David Lynch. Maybe this Kafkaesque behaviour is supposed to be making us feel on edge. However, it is much more likely that this is all the result of inept direction and bewildering screenwriting.
So in short, the characters’ speech is unnatural, their dynamics are awkward, they make baffling decisions that defy any logical comprehension (“let’s avert suspicion for all these deaths by hiding bodies in our basement, even though we currently under investigation from the police”) and they never properly react to the fantastical events happening around them. Speaking of which, everyone is so curiously passive about the monster here, expressing nothing more than mild surprise at seeing it. Meanwhile, character deaths are treated as essentially a casual irritation, and people accept the arbitrary supernatural rules without so much as bating an eyelid. It all feels so laissez faire.
Take this scene for example; at one point a young couple are assaulted by the titular creature and are forced to take refuge in a car. As the Gremlin tries to break through the glass, they decide to take this opportunity to engage in a debate about the future of their blossoming relationship. They talk about an impending pregnancy, how they will support each other financially and where they might live one day. All while the bloodthirsty demon is thrusting at the windshield with murderous intent. You might be thinking that this is played for laughs, aiming to humorously defuse the tension of the situation by focusing on trivial relationship issues. But no. It’s not a joke, it’s a moment of completely serious drama, in a film that is astonishingly sombre throughout.
Indeed, the choice to employ a super-serious tone in what should be a wacky B-movie feels like one of Gremlin’s biggest missteps. Rather than embracing the inherent silliness of its concept, the film instead chooses to focus on surprisingly depressing subject matter, including child-loss, the devastating consequences of marital breakdown and the psychological toll of living with unbearable guilt. There’s even a 3 minute section devoted to mourning at one point! All of this begins to feel very out of place when the little monster starts scuttling around, making cute squealing noises and offing people in gory ways.
Moreover, any attempts at creating genuine tension are utterly deflated by just how uninvested everyone seems to be in what’s happening. This, combined with strangely muffled sound design and cartoonish special effects, makes everything feel very weak and low energy. Because of this, the film becomes oddly laborious to watch, even at its lean 1 hour 30 minutes runtime.
As a result, by the time the film reaches its confusing, shoddily produced climax (which greatly over-reaches in terms of its budget) , any interest that you might have had will have completely dissipated. Which is a shame, because in a better movie, this ending could have been a riotous blast. Then again, the same thing could be said for the whole film.
Gremlin (2017), directed by Ryan Bellgardt , is distributed in the UK by Star Entertainment.