Reel Rumbles #41: ‘Gremlins’ vs. ‘Bad Santa’

21 Dec

In This Corner…

Everybody wants to make sure they remain on Santa’s “Nice” list, to ensure a lack of charcoal in the stocking on the big day. But let’s face it: Sometimes being Naughty can just be a lot more fun. Spend some time this holiday season with some of cinema’s naughtiest Christmas creations as Reel Rumbles presents: Gremlins vs. Bad Santa

Round One: Story

It starts innocently enough. Young Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) receives an innocuous Christmas present from his father (Hoyt Axton): an adorable little creature called a Mogwai, named Gizmo. But a failure by the Peltzer family to strictly adhere to the three rules of Mogwai babysitting – keep him out of the light; don’t get him wet; and, whatever you do, don’t feed him after midnight – unexpectedly turns one sweet, fun-loving little Mogwai into a veritable army of uncouth, vicious and downright horrendous Gremlins. And the sleepy town of Kingston Falls experiences anything but a silent night for Christmas.

Meanwhile, Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) is the poster child for “Naughty” as, year after year, he takes a job as a department-store Santa Claus in a scheme to fleece the stores on Christmas Eve. But Willie’s life is flushed further down the crapper every year, to the point where his partner in crime (Tony Cox) has become tired of hauling his bacon out of the fire. Still, one fateful Christmas, as Willie is on the verge of discovering the layer below rock bottom, his chance encounters with a vixen with a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham) and a lonely, socially-awkward boy (Brett Kelly) give this Bad Santa a new lease on life. Well, sort of.

Neither of these tales is your typical, heartwarming holiday fable. And, at first glance, they’re pretty different from each other: Gremlins is a vicious little monster flick, while Bad Santa is comedy of the blackest kind. But they both generate genuine laughs amidst their particular brands of “horror”, and entertain in a delightfully subversive way.

Bad Santa does feature a pretty conventional conversion, of sorts, in the vein of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch or Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge (though tackling it in a highly unconventional way). Gremlins, meanwhile, is the kind of film one would expect to be more at home during the Halloween season. (In fact, a fellow Flickcharter who hadn’t yet seen Gremlins remarked to me that she didn’t even know it was a Christmas movie.) Yet, the holiday setting is just as crucial to Gremlins‘ story as it is to Bad Santa. Bad Santa is not like any other Christmas comedy you’ve likely seen, but the truly twisted mashing of genres is one of Gremlins‘ greatest strengths, and enough for it to claim victory in this early round.

Advantage: Gremlins

Round Two: Script

Gremlins is highly adept at both making one jump out of his or her seat, and having one in stitches with laughter, often within moments of each other. Similarly, Bad Santa is chock full of disturbingly hilarious moments while invoking genuine emotion from the audience for some of the major characters. It’s a balancing act that both scripts handle with surprising aplomb.

Perhaps it is the very nature of the creature feature, then – or simply my own familiarity with the film – that makes it easier to point out certain plot holes in the proceedings of Gremlins. It does not diminish enjoyment of the movie, but the inevitable “whys?” pop up every now and then if one examines the plot too carefully. Bad Santa seems to have fewer logic lapses in the depiction of its depravity, and thus comes out slightly on top here.

Advantage: Bad Santa

Round Three: Performances

Keye Luke as the mysterious Grandfather, Dick Miller as the cantankerous Murray Futterman and Polly Holliday as the positively despicable Mrs. Deagle are all memorable, but for the most part, the blander human cast of Gremlins is completely upstaged by the creatures with which they share the screen. It’s Frank Welker‘s growls and Howie Mandel‘s squeaks coupled with classy puppetry that carry the mayhem of film.

So, this round is almost a total knockout, because Billy Bob Thornton (delivering a performance for the ages) is enough to defeat Gremlins‘ human cast all by himself. As Willie Stokes, Thornton is foul-mouthed and uncouth in ways most people can only imagine. And with hilarious support from the likes of Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Cloris Leachman and the late Bernie Mac and John Ritter, he’s practically unstoppable. Certainly, Willie steamrolls on autopilot through his life; here, he mows over the competition in short – and profane – order.

It’s a cheat, because obviously the “performances” of the puppeteers in Gremlins deliver the film’s zaniness and sweetness in spades, but to make it clear-cut, we pit human actors against each other, and the winner is readily apparent.

Advantage: Bad Santa

Round Four: Direction

In a way, this round is the polar opposite of the last. Of course, there is such a thing as comedic timing in the direction of movies, and Terry Zwigoff finds all the right moments and the right pacing to make Bad Santa a naughty Christmas treat. Yet, it’s not hard to start thinking that all he really needed to do was aim the camera in Billy Bob Thornton’s general direction, and he still would have struck gold.

Meanwhile, it’s all the creature chaos that sells Gremlins, and Joe Dante is the man responsible for choreographing all that mayhem. His little monsters switch from sweet to vulgar to downright scary at all the right moments, and he strikes just the right balance. In a way, the puppets swing this round opposite of the way they did the last.

Advantage: Gremlins

Round Five: Christmas Cheer

Okay, so after four rounds, our competitors seem pretty evenly matched. Time to go into overtime. (All right, I’m mixing my sports metaphors…)

These movies are anti-Christmas in a big way. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a drunk, profane, womanizing, child-hating department store Santa. But, of course, at the end of Bad Santa, even Willie Stokes learns a bit about the true meaning of Christmas…in his own messed-up way.

Gremlins offers us murderous little monsters dressing up as Christmas carolers to off a miserable old woman. They mow down a guy with his own snowplow and brutally assault Santa Claus himself. The classic carol “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is given twisted new meaning. And who can forget the tale related by Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) of finding her father stuck in the chimney in a Santa suit…only after discovering the smell days later?

You want the perfect anti-Christmas Christmas movie? Gremlins sticks to its guns, baby.

Advantage: Gremlins 

And the Winner Is…

Upon careful examination, it seems like a close battle. Both of these movies are great counter-programming for the holidays. Bad Santa may shock you with some of the things it will have you laughing at. But, meanwhile, Gremlins is a classic in every sense of the word. Whether my decision is affected by the fact that I have known and loved Gremlins for most of my life, but was only exposed to Bad Santa this year, I don’t know. But Gremlins‘ combination of comedy, horror and lampooning of Christmas is near-perfect. (Just ignore those plot holes; you’re supposed to.) The winner of this bout: Gremlins.

Before you go, here’s an extra little shot of holiday cheer:


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