The story is that when Steven Spielberg hired Joe Dante to direct Gremlins (1984), he wasn’t expecting much more than a small scale horror film. Dante had previously directed two creature features – Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), two small budget horror movies which had developed a cult following in the early 1980s. Spielberg it’s claimed, had envisioned Gremlins as being closer to these two films than the final product that Dante delivered.
This probably overstates the issue a bit as Spielberg would have been involved throughout the process, watching over it as it morphed from a small town horror into a very dark comedy laced with genuine scares. The end product was a box office and critical success and soon after its release people started talking about the possibility of a sequel. It was the right time for scary fun too: Gremlins opened on the same day as Ghostbusters and both films went on to gross over $200 million each.
Initially Joe Dante wasn’t interested in a sequel. The first film had been an arduous experience and he thought that the climax tied everything up nicely. In the end, only the promise that he could approach it pretty much any way he wanted to brought him back. Left to his own devices (which unfortunately hasn’t happened as often as one would have hoped throughout his directorial career) Dante went all-out crazy.
Whereas the first film was set in small town America – the land of It’s A Wonderful Life – Gremlins 2 is transferred to the flips-side of the American experience – the big city and the might of big corporations. Billy (Zack Galligan) is now an artist working in the Clamp Centre, a brand new ‘smart’ building in which everything is automated (if not quite working). He‘s living in a small apartment with Kate (Pheobe Cates), who works in the same building as a tour guide. Their hopes of success have taken a knock and now they’re on the road to resentment, lost in the big city.
We start with the death of Mr Wing (Keye Luke) and the demolition of his store. Gizmo, the Mogwai from the first film, escapes and is found by Martin and Lewis (Don and Dan Stanton), who work for the evil Dr Catheter (Christopher Lee) in a laboratory located in Clamp Centre. By chance Billy is able to rescue Gismo but soon the Mogwai gets soaked in water sprouting from a faulty water fountain and spawns four new Mogwai (George, Lenny, Mohawk and Daffy). Of course, it doesn’t take too long before the offspring become Gremlins and all hell breaks loose.
This is where the fun really begins. Up until this point, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, whilst having plenty of laughs and giggles, has been treading water somewhat. We aren’t here to watch a satire of the idiosyncrasies of corporate culture (Colorisation of black & white films, what is deemed appropriate art for an office, how technology has allowed employers to spy on employees), or a send up of such characters as Donald Trump or Ted Turner. We want the little green creatures in all their riotous glory, and in this respect, Gremlins 2 doesn’t only live up to its billing, it actually surpasses the first film. But Joe Dante was never a director to take the head-on, obvious approach. Where some saw money, he saw absurdity, and like the final act in his 1985 film Explorers, he took people’s expectations and used them to pull the rug from under their feet.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a sequel in name only. In actual fact, it’s very much a send up of the first film, taking all the main selling points, all the most successful moments, and ripping into them with unabashed relish. The rules for keeping a Mogwai? Perfect fodder. Phoebe Cate’s famous speech about the death of her father? We can have some fun with that. The Barroom sequence is dialled up to 11 and becomes a huge musical sequence, harking back to the heyday of Hollywood musical extravaganzas like Ziegfeld Follies or the Gold-Diggers films of the 1930s. It even parodies the critical reception of the original film, with a cameo from respected critic Leonard Maltin being attacked by a bunch of gremlins whilst giving a scathing review of the VHS release of the first film as he had on its original release, (“Just kidding, It’s a Ten!”).
The Fourth Wall is not only broken but is shattered into a million pieces and what we have left is a Meta-comedy the likes of which we’d seldom seen before. Airplane and The Naked Gun both parodied various films and genres to absolutely classic effect, but no film has ever intentionally parodied itself to the extent and the success of Gremlins 2.
Perhaps the most unusual moment was inspired by a scene at the end of Gremlins when the creatures are all gathered together in a cinema watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film is interrupted by our heroes as they sneak behind the screen to set off an explosion. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is itself interrupted in a spectacularly unexpected way; the film shudders and stops playing and, for a second, it looks like there’s an issue in the projection room. The problem? Gremlins of course. In the cinema version we have a brief cameo from Hulk Hogan, sitting in the cinema watching the movie (dressed as if he’s about to enter the ring), threatening the Gremlins if they don’t restart the film. In the home video release it’s the video tape which has been tampered with and Hogan is replaced by John Wayne doing the threatening (in a scene from his 1970 film Chisum).
The second half of the film is zany and totally over the top – Flying Gremlins, Spider Gremlins, Fruit Gremlins, a Gremlin cougar trying to seduce Billy (doing her best Jane Russell impersonation), and a great homage to Rambo are some of the many delights. Gremlins 2, for me, is the greater of the two films, simply because it disregards all boundaries. Perhaps the greatest new addition is the Brain Gremlin (voiced by Tony Randell) who can not only rationalise what is going on (“Well right now we are advising our clients to put all they can into canned food and shotguns.”), but can also belt out a pretty good version of ‘New York, New York’!
And the human characters are just as over the top. We have the return of the Futtermans (Dick Miller, and Jackie Joseph) who are completely out of their depth in the big city but a little more prepared in the fight against the Gremlins; Grandpa Fred (Robert Prosky), the host of a late night horror show who spends the whole film dressed up as Dracula; Dr Catheter who just wants to experiment on everything and anything, and lacks any sort of moral compass (“All they have to do is to eat three or four children and there’d be the most appalling publicity.”); Haviland Morris as Marla Bloodstone, an ambitious vamp who tries to seduce Billy because she thinks he has a big future in the company; Daniel Clamp (John Glover), who was originally written as a bad guy but who morphed into a dim-witted, out of touch billionaire who doesn’t seem to take the consequences of what is happening very seriously at all.
Nothing from the original film is sacred and this upset some people and may have contributed to the lack of success of this sequel. It had a budget of $50m but only grossed a little over $41m at the US Box Office. For many, the change of direction and the fact that the second half of the film is, admittedly, little more than a series of gags piled on top of each other with great speed, meant the film lacked any clear narrative. This is something I would certainly concede, however, the series of gags are just too much fun for the film not to be considered entertaining. And for this reason, I prefer Gremlins 2 to the first film, even if it is a marginal preference. Just as I loved the third act in Explorers, the outlandish Over-The-Top quality of The New Batch is something I can, and have, watched repeatedly without ever growing tired of it.
In the words of the Brain Gremlin, “Now, was that civilized? No, clearly not. Fun, but in no sense civilized.”
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10