Ghosts, Ghosts, Witches, Gremlins

Scrooge (aka A Christmas Carol): adapted by Noel Langley from the novella by Charles Dickens; directed by Brian Desmond Hurst; starring Alastair Sim (Ebenezer Scrooge), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit), Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley), Francis De Wolff (Spirit of Christmas Present), and Michael Dolan (Spirit of Christmas Past) (1951): The 1951 version of Charles Dickens’ venerable holiday novella remains the gold standard, though I wish CBC would stop showing the colourized version on Christmas Eve. 

It has a real sense of horror about it, never moreso than in the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Past shows Ebenezer Scrooge that all around people swarm the ghosts of those damned to impotently try to help people because in life they failed to help people. This is Hell. It’s also great because Alastair Sim is great. He’s convincingly angry and shriveled at the beginning, and he’s convincingly nutty at the end after his reformation. His giddiness suggests a sort of ecstasy that initially terrifies his housekeeper, in one of the funniest scenes in any Scrooge movie. Highly recommended.

Dolores Claiborne: adapted by Tony Gilroy from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Taylor Hackford; starring Kathy Bates (Dolores Clairborne/St. George), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Selena St. George), Judy Parfitt (Vera Donovan), Christopher Plummer (Det. Mackey), David Strathairn (Joe St. George), and John C. Reilly (Constable Stamshaw) (1995): Little Tall Island off the coast of Maine supplies the setting for this terrific character study, acted terrifically and generally directed and adapted successfully from Stephen King’s novel. 

While the direction and screenwriting are solid if a bit programmatic, the performances by Kathy Bates, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judy Parfitt should have netted the film a host of acting Oscar nominations. It’s a Stephen King adaptation that merits the sort of robust second life that The Shawshank Redemption received after its theatrical release. It’s also the most affectingly feminist of all King adaptations, the one most attuned to the casual humiliations of patriarchy. Nova Scotia plays Maine, btw. Highly recommended.

The Witches: adapted by Allan Scott from the book by Roald Dahl; directed by Nicolas Roeg; starring Anjelica Huston (Grand High Witch), Mai Zetterling (Helga Eveshim), Jasen Fisher (Luke Eveshim), and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Stringer) (1990): Dark children’s movie made from an even darker Roald Dahl novel. Orphaned Luke and his grandmother must battle the Grand High Witch and all the witches of Great Britain in order to save the children of Great Britain from a terrible fate. The Jim Henson studio puppetry and animatronics are terrific. 

Anjelica Huston is comically terrifying as the Grand High Witch, while Jasen Fisher makes for an appealing and heroic boy hero. The movie is gratifyingly horrifying, though a tacked-on ending that isn’t in the book really needed at least a couple of lines of set-up: it’s perilously close to a concluding title card that reads ‘Poochie Died on the Way Back to His Home Planet.” And yes — that Nicolas Roeg!  Recommended.

Gremlins: written by Chris Columbus; directed by Joe Dante; starring Zach Galligan (Billy), Phoebe Cates (Kate), Hoyt Axton (Randall Peltzer), Keye Luke (Mr. Wing), and Polly Holliday (Mrs. Deagle) (1984): Gremlins is a blissfully nasty critique of capitalism, the commercialization of the American Christmas, ‘small-town values,’ and the American family in general. That it was a huge box-office success in 1984 seem remarkable, though having Steven Spielberg’s name attached to it didn’t hurt. He did produce it, after all, through his newly formed Amblin Entertainment.

But boy, does the small town of Kingston Falls ever get dismantled literally and figuratively! When Zach Galligan’s Billy gets the mysterious creature known as a Mogwai from his generally absent, incompetent inventor of a father (Hoyt Axton), he names it Gizmo and then pretty much ignores the three warnings about what one must never do with a Mogwai. 

His casual attitude leads to a small-town apocalypse that is, admittedly, really his father’s fault more than his: the Mogwai wasn’t actually for sale from Keye Luke’s mysterious shop owner. The shop owner’s grandson’s need to make some money off a Hoyt Axton desperate for a unique gift for his son to compensate for his lengthy absences from home — whew! — sets the whole disaster in motion.

And so it goes as all Hell breaks loose after an initially idyllic beginning with the lovable Gizmo, voiced by a cooing Howie Mandel. Once the army of Gremlins is unleashed, Christmas is ruined. Really, really ruined. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates make for an appealing pair of leads, but it’s the real-world special effects of the Gremlins and the Mogwai that dominate the movie. They’re marvels from creature creator Chris Walas and his studio. 

The script from a young Chris Columbus is sharp and nasty (indeed, it was rewritten by Spielberg and company to tone it down). Joe Dante’s direction has a real sense of anarchic menace throughout, though he’s also very good at the quiet, slightly askew Norman Rockwell world of the movie’s first act, a ‘happy’ small-town mask that’s already slipping off as the movie begins to reveal the shiny happy skull beneath the skin. The mohawk on the chief evil Gremlin is one of a long string of signalling evil through a haircut generally favoured by harmless punk rockers and their fans at the time the film came out. Oh, culture! Recommended.

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