Gremlins Again? A Night With Chris Walas!

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Sitting in a partially lit auditorium I await for a screening of Gremlins accompanied with master special effects guru Mike Walas. The Hollywood Theatre is a historic Portland monument, opening in 1926. We had just taken public transit to the ancient memorial to cinema and arrived on a chilly November night. I acquired popcorn. Butter? Yes. She put too much. Later in the theatre I would recount on how my sticky hands were much like the Mogwai when they were devouring the bits of chicken. Tiny gummy pillowy fingers tracing the edges of puppet mouths while I waited for the movie. Groan. It’s already 7:06 and the movie isn’t playing – oh wait! Here we go! Lights dim, theatre turns black, the show is sold out.

Before the lights went dark I had been surveying the theatre to find Chris Walas. There were a few hilarious attempts at guessing who he was and eventually what gave him away was his comrade RICK BAKER. Rick Baker, if you have ever seen him, can’t be forgotten. A fellow effects maestro himself – he was behind the creature effects for Gremlins 2 – has a distinct exquisite hair-do. It is like Steven Seagel at the time of Highlander length wise and one complete shade of grey. It is fabulous. The two of them sat a few seats ahead of me ready to enjoy the movie. I had to wonder if they had the same groan of “GREMLINS again??” that I had. This had been my umpteenth time viewing Gremlins and it is a film that is ingrained from childhood.

However, I was surprised because I thoroughly enjoyed my experience watching Gremlins. Seeing it on the big screen was mesmerizing and gave me nostalgic hits . This film had been a staple in my household as a flick I watched every week. It was one of the few movies we owned. In a way it describes my tangible memories of cold – with the snowy icey christmas landscape. I watched this film so much that when I see the bits of food (the sandwiches, the chicken) there is a physical reaction. I want that lumpy sandwich and those crispy bits of chicken sitting on the plate.

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While watching the film I was also appreciative of the underlying themes of the film. I found the dialogue about being depressed on Christmas especially moving. There seems to be a shift as you get older. The “bring a grin holiday” starts to become this sinking feeling of loss. Memories spent with family, under the tree, time and time again. We can only be a child for so long and I think Gremlins touches upon this so eloquently that now at nearing 30 years old it made me emotional to watch. Because, now I catch those little references instead of missing them as my attention was solely on the Gremlins creating havoc. This realization got me out of grumpy mood and turned into dizzying pleasure. After all I was watching one of my favorite childhood movies!

My stomach dropped, as it always does, when the “do you see what I see” ominously begins playing throughout the house. The mom kitchen scenes got a roaring cheer from the audience. I can’t help but always think about the film Alien during these sequences. Powerful independent women are my thing. This scene is one of the most powerful in the movie because it is unexpected. Beforehand the audience is led to believe that these compact monsters are DEADLY, ATROCIOUS and UNSTOPPABLE because they kill a full grown man! Suspense generates as the audiences realizes poor sweet Mom will soon suffer a cruel fate to these egg-pod slime balls. That is not the case, as we know, and she fights back. Resourceful and strong. This scene is the highlight of the movie for me and from this point on the thrills and giggles keep climbing to a satisfying explosive resolve. Ending with a lesson and that phenomenal last shot of the Mogwai keeper as he disappears into the cold night.

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The film ends and the moment has come to hear from Chris Walas himself. His face is rugged, woodsman, bearded with kind eyes. He talks excitedly and quick. Passionate. One can tell as he speaks he is on the verge of diverging into a side story which ultimately compliments a main point. He is engaging. More-so than I thought. The true gem of the night was hearing about his experiences with special effects in mainstream media production.

He begins with saying that he is overjoyed that people still want to watch the film 30 years later. As he speaks he keeps saying puppets, puppets and more puppets. This entire time, I never even put much thought into what the Gremlins were, or how they were made. It is a Puppet Story! The word Puppet makes my stomach turn. The Gremlins are not Puppets! But they are! Had I tricked my mind into thinking that these little creatures were actually real? No, they were created. In assembly with Walas as the leader of the Gremlins warehouse.

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Walas was previously working on Dragonslayer. Then, a series of films that collapsed because of low funds etc. He made a pit stop with Piranha. And then, he was given the script to Gremlins and Walas thought it was impossible. Walas becomes really animated at this point and add “it’s impossible, so let’s do it”the crowd erupted into applause. It seems that Gremlins was a challenge, a proving point for Walas. There was many firsts and he was tinkering around with experimental methods. Latex, foam – the gremlins were not all that simple. The effects were before radio control so you had multiple cables coming from each puppet to control them. He noted that one of the biggest Gremlins had to have over 64 cables to animate.

There is a sense from Walas that there was a lot of abrupt changes to the script which challenged the special effects department. He said “the movie is getting more and more impossible as the time goes on” in a hilarious way that made the crowd cackle. Joe Dante, director, often put sudden plot changes which challenged Walas to create new inventive rigs. At one point Walas says that Dante was inquiring suggestions from the crew on how the Gremlins should perform which sent Walas back into the assembly line to create the desired action.

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The vibe with Walas was joyous camaraderie. A fellowship. It was as if we were all at his swanky house in front of a fire place listening to him roll over a drifting thought about how Spielberg’s dog inspired the Mogwai’s fur. We all sympathized with him when he went into his troubles about the assembly of these creatures. A kidney stone here, a broken ankle. Endurance. One thing I can’t even stomach is the cleaning of filthy cigarette puppets as the shoot in the bar where the Gremlins tear it apart took two weeks to film. It stunk! Apparently.

Comically his presentation was plagued with strange technical disturbances. However, his charm and knowledge and willingness to share stories captivated the audiences and we didn’t need his behind the scene footage. Although – that was a treat in it itself. From what we saw; bare bone marionettes, primitive Gremlin skeletons, sketches and mangey Mogwai’s. Another interest was learning that this film was originally a gory horror film. With the mother’s severed head rolling down the stairs, to the dog being shredded. The final film is definitely not that, but it still lives in the horror realm.

A new appreciation comes from me regarding this film and the legacy that Chris Walas created. There were many challenges, set backs and pitfalls that made the production of this film seem impossible. Especially in the department that carries this film – special effects. Although he seemed to play down the role he had, as leader, one can’t help but be enchanted by his accounts of how the Gremlins were created. Without him the scope of creature features could look entirely different today as was his response to one question from the crowd. That thought wasn’t said in a conceited or arrogant way. Instead, it was said in a question of what other creatures could have been created alternatively to the Gremlins.

Ending Thoughts:

It was an interesting way to end the night. Not on how BAD the scope of creature features could have been without Gremlins but instead what could have been created if there was something else. It gives me goosebumps. All in all I had a blast watching a film that I have seen over and over again. It gave me new perspective of the world of filmmaking and the challenges that you can be faced. Nothing is impossible though but it is OK to say that it is – you just have to attempt, to sweat, to bleed for the thing you love most. Very inspiring. OK. Whatever! NVMD!

XoXo

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Author: Gerald Blanchard

Writer, filmmaker, daily food eater, gay horror blogger.

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