Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Joe Dante’s solitary sequel is a fine example of why Hollywood studios don’t generally give filmmakers the keys to the kingdom. Warner Bros had been unsuccessfully attempting to come up with a second installment ever since Gremlins proved a break-out hit in the summer of 1984. One that was surprising even by “Steven Spielberg presents” standards. It was as doubtful a sure thing as the following year’s Back to the Future would be for Universal.
Gremlins’ sensibility mined a pitch black humour that the mainstream generally baulked at. Spielberg had misgivings about some of these elements (but also some useful suggestions, such as retaining the ultra-cute Gizmo throughout; he metamorphosed into Stripe originally) and while the tone and sensibility was very much Dante’s, The Howling director more often than not heeded his producer’s notes (Spielberg insisted that Gizmo was the hero, rather than Billy, so the climax was altered accordingly). Dante wouldn’t experience nearly as big a hit again (to date).
Gremlins and the producer’s own Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are generally credited as instigating the PG-13 guidance rating. It’s a kids’ film that is unafraid to push the boundaries of taste and decency; at one point Santa runs into frame, a mass of the titular creatures attached to him. The picture treads a fine line between identification with their anarchy and recognition of their death-dealing menace (friendly xenophobe Mr Futterman survives an attack, but did not in the original script; Mrs Deagle, who is presented as utterly hateful, stays dead).
Five years passed by, and Dante was finally lured back with the promise of complete creative control. Dante’s pervading idea was to treat the sequel as a Hellzapoppin’ style metafiction, a self-referential commentary on the first film; Gremlins 2 is chock full of movie in-jokes, both subtle and overt. This is something the director has always had a taste for, but it becomes a guiding force here, the culmination of which is the apparent breakdown of the film itself; when the reel is replaced with a naturist picture by Gremlins (“Nudie! Nudie!“) in the projection booth, Hulk Hogan climbs out of his seat and instructs the creatures to put it back on or they’ll have him to deal with. This self-reflexivity is also at its most pronounced when Leonard Maltin appears on one of Clamp Cable channels reviewing the first film, only to be overwhelmed by Gremlins. Even the sacred cow of merchandising comes under fire; when Daniel Clamp (Jon Glover) sees Gizmo for the first time he instantly recognises his commercial potential, commenting that he sees “Dolls with suction cups staring out of car windows”.
Screenwriter Charlie Haas (who would work again with the director on Matinee) came up with the idea of setting the film in New York (Dante didn’t want to just retread the same ground as the first picture) and the character of Daniel Clamp (he’s a not so subtle reference to another billionaire corporate tycoon whose initials are D.T.); the restriction of the action to one building allayed concerns of Gremlins overrunning the city from the cost-conscious studio. The working title, Monolith, references Clamp Towers. While The New Batch puns on the science experiments it fails to effectively capture the open season tone of the film (Gremlins Take Manhattan might have been more accurate).
The film didn’t receive a wholly favourable response from audiences or (generally) from critics. It took less than a third of the gross of the first film, and could be seen as an act of gleeful self-sabotage on Dante’s part; he has worked only sporadically in feature films since then. But it’s also the film he notes he put most of himself into, that if a picture of his were to be presented as “A Joe Dante Picture” it would be this one.
That’s definitely the case, and if you (like me) are unwavering fan of the director’s work this will probably be near the top of your list. As such there tends to be little middle ground in one’s appreciation of it; you’ll likely love it or hate it. Anyone hoping for the same mixture of horror and comedy that constituted the first installment is likely to be put off by what has transformed into something bearing more resemblance to a live action cartoon. This is underlined by Chuck Jones’ Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny animation on the opening and end credits, and Rick Baker’s redesigns of the creatures themselves. Gizmo is larger, his eyes especially so, while the Gremlins come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, all of them designed to accentuate the Looney Tunes personalities they have been imbued with.
Production of Gremlins had not been easy, particularly in respect of the puppets. Gizmo, especially, was a source of immense frustration as he had not been designed with what was eventually required of him in mind (as he was originally to have exited the picture when he became Stripe). So in the sequel Dante takes a perverse pleasure in getting payback with all the terrible things he can do to the adorable Mogwai. Punishments include electrocution and being tied to railway tracks, a toy train ploughing into him. If there’s a criticism to be made of his character “arc” (they push him too far), it’s that Rambo parodies had been overdone by this point, leaving a faint feeling that they couldn’t come up with anything better.
Just as the problems with Gizmo in the first film gave rise to narrative decisions in the sequel, so too did thorny plot points. One of the best scenes sees a group of technicians quizzing Billy (Zach Galligan) on the enormous holes in the logic of the three rules. Another has Kate (Phoebe Cates) recount why she doesn’t like Lincoln’s Birthday, parodying the much-ridiculed scene in the original where she explains why she doesn’t celebrate Christmas. This merciless decimation of the Gremlins is undertaken with such exuberance and glee that it is irresistible.
Talking of the ostensible protagonists, while they are offered a minor subplot (Kate suspects Billy of cheating on her), both are most definitely secondary to the muppet mayhem. Spielberg’s main note to Dante on seeing the rough cut was “Too many Gremlins”, and even in the finished film sees the third act consist mainly of indulgent gags at the expense of plot; essentially the funny business that we saw in the tavern in No.1 extended as far as Dante thinks he can get away with.
Which is fair enough as, whatever the window dressing, all that can happen in a Gremlins movie is “Gremlins are unleashed, cause carnage, are defeated”. So this essentially a series of sketches comprising a movie. That said, some of the plot mechanics work surprisingly well (the electric Gremlin, put on hold within Clamp’s telephone, resurfaces at the climax as the means of defeating the new batch).
Of the new Gremlins characters (the sugar to sweeten the pill in getting Baker on board was that he wouldn’t just be repeating Chris Walas’ original designs), Mohawk is essentially Spike reheated (eventually consuming Spider serum to become a Gremlin-Spider hybrid) but the hyperactive Mogwai is a crazy delight. Giggling manically, his eyes rolling around, it’s no surprise that he consistently caused Galligan and Cates to corpse (there’s a question of how he becomes a Gremlin, though, since he didn’t eat after midnight with the other Mogwais). Later, we see him in Gremlin form, torturing a restrained Billy with a dentist’s drill, asking “Is it safe?” (a nod to Marathon Man).
The Gremlins’ invasion of the Towers’ genetics lab (“Splice of Life”) results in other amusing creations. One consumes the vegetable medley and ends up with lettuce leaf ears (a deleted scene shows him later having been hooked up to a salad dressing drip). Bat serum results in a winged Gremlin flying through an outer wall and leaving the Batman logo in its wake. A female Gremlin becomes besotted with Chief of Security Forster (Robert Picardo).
Best of all is the Brain Gremlin (who appears to grow a pair of spectacles as a testament to his mighty intellect), a witty and erudite treat. Voiced with zest by Tony Randall, his take on the Gremlins’ worldview is hilarious and deliciously barbed.
Grandpa Fred: Creature what is it that you want?
Brain Gremlin: Fred, what we want is, I think, what everyone wants, and what you and your viewers have: civilization.
Grandpa Fred: Yes, but what sort of civilization are you speaking of?
Brain Gremlin: The niceties, Fred. The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition… that’s what we’re reaching toward. Oh, we may stumble along the way, but civilization, yes. The Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag. Everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries, that’s what we aspire to; we want to be civilized.
At one point, in a stock exchange suite overrun by Gremlins (screaming “Buy! Buy! Buy!” and “Sell! Sell! Sell!” into telephones), we see him holding court.
Brain Gremlin: Well, it’s rather brutal here. Right now we are advising all our clients to put everything they’ve got into canned food and shotguns.
If the Brain Gremlin steals the show from the other puppets, Jon Glover does the same from all the other actors. The corporate satire is by turns razor sharp and broad strokes, but Glover makes Clamp immensely likeable. He grants the billionaire a childlike enthusiasm that bellies his status as a cutthroat businessman presiding over a soulless office environment. Indeed, it is Forster who is presented as the real villain of the piece.
Nothing works very well in the fully automated Clamp Towers, and what does has no human feeling behind it. Everything is calculated; the art (“Tonight, on the Clamp Cable Classic Movie Channel, don’t miss Casablanca, now in full color, with a happier ending”), the employees (Henry Gibson is fired for taking an unapproved smoking break). Entropy is evident in the doors that over-revolve and monitors that cut-out, even before the Gremlins get into the system. Meanwhile, the building announcements are disarmingly verbose and cheerful in respect of potential disaster.
Building Announcement: Fire: The Untamed Element, Oldest of Man’s Mysteries, Giver of warmth, Destroyer of forests, right now *this* building is on fire.
Building Announcement: Yes! The building is on fire! Leave the building! Enact the Age Old drama of Self-Preservation!
In the men’s room departure is greeted with “I hope you washed your hands”.
Dante’s playfulness is fully evident in his casting choices. He reassembles a number of regulars along with some choices that result from having one eye on movie history. Preeminent of these is Christopher Lee as the marvellously named Dr Catheter. Lee plays Catheter with deliciously refined menace, and it’s a disappointment when he exits the proceedings.
Robert Prosky’s Grandpa Fred is less effective. A movie channel host based on Al Lewis’ Munsters character, Grandpa Fred embodies Dante’s nostalgia for old B-movies but only becomes interesting to watch when sat opposite the Brain Gremlin. Robert Picardo is saddled with a fairly one-note villain and as a result is less engaging than he was Dante’s earlier Innerspace.
Haviland Morris makes the most of the fast-talking competition for Billy’s affections, Marla Bloodstone, while Kathleen Freeman is great fun as the increasingly soused Microwave Marge. The Addams Family’s John Aston has an amusing cameo as a janitor; Don and Dan Stanton (also seen in Terminator 2) display fine comic timing as twins in Catheter’s genetics lab.
Galligan and Cates are game returnees, both of them fulfilling their roles as “straight men” in reaction to the pandemonium taking place. Dick Miller is a prerequisite for any Dante film so it was inevitable that Mr Futterman would be back. I don’t think he quite fits the story, but both Miller and Jackie Joseph (as Mrs Futterman) are endearingly fish-out-of-water in the Big Apple.
Talking of which, the New York, New York production number, put on by the Gremlins and sung by the Brain Gremlin, that forms part of the film’s climax finds the director in his element, thumbing his nose at conventions and illustrating exactly why he considers the movie to be “one of the more unconventional studio pictures, ever”. The musical choices are eclectic to say the least; while Jerry Goldsmith’s score follows from his work on the original, elsewhere Dante throws in songs ranging from Fats Domino to Slayer.
It seems strange that some reviews criticised Gremlins 2 for hewing to closely to the format of the first film, since that’s exactly what it’s at pains to prevent wherever it can. It’s inevitable that the bare framework of the plot must remain the same, but in setting, theme and targets Dante has fashioned a film that is completely its own beast. It’s all the sadder that the director’s projects since have been so intermittent as he was firing on all cylinders here, crowning a fine run of subversive ’80s pictures. He has occasionally noted the prospect of Gremlins 3 or a reboot and that it would no doubt be a CGI affair. Whilst he doesn’t say he burned his Warners bridges with The New Batch, he observes that the studio has not approached him. But he would be open to returning, and I for one would love to see that happen. Cinema needs more Joe Dante.
Addendum 05/09/22: I’m including this because, well, it’s outrageous. One Jay Dyer suggests Gremlins 2 is “ridiculous” – yes! – before invalidating his entire analytical oeuvre with this oafish utterance that it’s “utterly abysmal as a film”. He goes on to refer to “unbelievable predictive programming” (but then, sometimes satire IS satire). ‘Genetic modification of foods for nefarious purposes, all run by the reportedly British Intelligence man himself, Christopher Lee” and “we see a new type of Gremlin emerge at the end of the film – the transgender Gremlin! (I shit you not)”. “So in a vastly transformed America where towers come under attack, mad scientists unleash the demonic – resulting in the acceptance of transgenderism, as the final scene of the film includes a man marrying a trans Gremlin. I am not joking” I know you aren’t Jay, but what are the signifiers there? Is the trans Gremlin supposed to be any more appealing than the widely denounced “haemorrhoids?” scene in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? I think it’s also worth noting – and sure, we only have their word on it, but look at the lack of box office – that Warner Bros let Dante do what he wanted, Spielberg steered clear, and the picture is just about as postmodernist as a movie can get without collapsing in upon itself (hence “utterly abysmal”). Conversely, Donald Marshall suggests the Gremlins are based on the Vril.
Addendum (02/02/23): Well…. Just let me check the above addendum. Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers – so not just because it means Dyer was on to something – it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.