Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 22, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1990)

10. Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Warner Brothers really wanted to make a sequel to “Gremlins.” This is understandable, as the original was the fourth highest grossing film of 1984 and quickly became established as an eighties classic. The public's demand for further “Gremlins” adventures was evident in the number of successful knock-off series. “Critters,” “Ghoulies,” and “Troll” all grew into franchises in the years following Joe Dante's original. WB asked Dante to return for a second “Gremlins” film but he declined. When attempts to make a sequel without him failed to get off the ground, Dante was lured back with the promise of complete creative control. This freedom allowed Dante to make a kookier, wilder film than the original. This off-the-wall approach, combined with perhaps too large a gap since the original, led “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” to disappointing box office. Yet that same wackiness made the sequel into another cult favorite.

In the years since the Gremlins rampaged through Kingston Falls, Gizmo remains in the safe care of kindly Mr. Wing. Millionaire Daniel Clamp is buying up much of Chinatown but Wing refuses to sell his shop. When the old man dies suddenly, Gizmo is scooped up by men who work for a genetics lab nestled inside Clamp's giant, high-tech skyscraper. Billy Peltzer and Kate, it turns out, are recently employed in Clamp Tower. As soon as Billy realizes Gizmo is inside the building, he rescues him. However, the mogwai still ends up splashed with water, spawning another set of evil off-spring. The Mowgli get loose in Clamp Tower, soon enough transforming into gremlins. The office building presents far more opportunities for chaos for the little monsters. Billy and friends, new and old, have to stop the rampage before sundown and the horde is unleashed on New York City.

The original “Gremlins” was torn between Spielberg's desire to celebrate boomer nostalgia for small town America and Dante's desire to eviscerate the sacredness of that concept. The sequel, given over totally to Dante's impulses, fully sets its sight on another hallmark of eighties culture. “Gremlins 2” is a ruthless mockery of consumerism and then-modern convenience. Clamp Tower is a ridiculous monument to excess. Automated voices chatter whenever a door is opened or someone uses the bathroom. Unethical experiments are performed on animals just an elevator's ride up from a frozen yogurt stand. Despite being so high-tech, simple things like revolving doors fail to operate correctly. Naturally, the gremlins tear down this creation, this temple to capitalism and eighties greed.

Dante's targets are not generic. Daniel Clamp is a loose combination of two of the decade's most notorious moguls. Like Ted Turner, he owns several television networks and has a fixation on colorizing classic films. (If this couldn't be more obvious, one of his networks has a very Al-Lewis-as-Grandpa-like actor hosting a late night horror show.) Visually, Clamp draws heavily from Donald Trump, back when he seemed like a far more harmless figure. He slaps his name on everything. He's a feckless self-promoter. Clamp's book is obviously patterned after “The Art of the Deal.” These details mirror our own reality, exaggerating them to fit the film's cartoonish world. Though at least one gag, the Clamp Network's end-of-the-world message, turned out to be totally true.

Yet “Gremlins 2” does not reserve its scorn just for millionaires and big business. The film frequently mocks its own existence. Jokes are cracked about the lore of the first “Gremlins,” the rules that govern the monsters' transformation being scrutinized. We discover Christmas isn't the only holiday that haunts Kate, an especially absurd gag. “The New Batch” is a film that thoroughly understands sequel escalation, doing essentially the original film's premise in a way that's about a hundred times bigger. The story is essentially the same – the Gremlins are even led by a mohawked monster again – but there's more creatures, more gags, more chaos. Gizmo gets doused with water in a ridiculously overblown way. The Gremlins take revenge on a microwave. This idea extends to making fun of other sequels, when Gizmo turns himself into a soft, fuzzy version of Rambo.

Eventually, the sequel's willingness to make fun of itself is pushed so far that the meta fabrics of the story strain and break. At one point, Leonard Maltin appears to review the original “Gremlins,” a great gag that marks Maltin as a great sport. This sets up a later, even greater meta gag. The reality of the movie breaks. The Gremlins shatter break the fourth wall and enter the projectionist's booth. And only Hulk Hogan can save us. Not only is this moment a fitting rebuttal to parents' compliant that the first film was too scary for kids, it's primarily a brilliant violation of the rules that film traditionally follows. Imagine how unexpected this must've been back in 1990.

There's a good reason “Gremlins 2” can break the rules like this. The film's very first moment has Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, both brought to life in that vivid Chuck Jones style, appearing to the viewer. So Dante brings his Looney Tunes obsession into the open. A similarly anarchic tone directs most of the movie from there. One of the gremlins, named Daffy, acts in an aggressively silly fashion. As the film rolls on, it eventually becomes a series of crazy sight gags. There's an impromptu song and dance sequence. A Phantom of the Opera reference, of all things, becomes a running gag in the last third. Some of these gags, like a talking cow or a subtle “Dracula” reference, are in the backgrounds. Others, like shout-outs to “Wizard of Oz” or “Batman,” are right in front of us.

The true comedic freedom of the film is most displayed in the gremlins themselves. “The New Batch” allows more off the beasts to become actual characters. Of Gizmo's second litter, they each have distinctive facial features and personalities. Aside from the unhinged Daffy, there's the buck-toothed Lenny and the cigar chomping George. The genetics laboratory subplot becomes an excuse to push the Gremlins concept even further. This is what allows the absolute brilliant gag of Brains, an erudite leader of the Gremlins voiced by Tony Randell at his most foppish, to exist. Giving the chaotic monsters a voice, to give television interviews and stock advice, to contrast with his rambunctious brothers, is probably my favorite thing about the entire movie.

As Key and Peele observed, Dante and his team allowed their imaginations to become completely untethered in “Gremlins 2.” So all sorts of new, crazy variations of Gremlins are allowed to exist. Gremlins are gene-spliced with vegetables, a bat, a spider. There's a feminine girl Gremlin named Greta and a gremlin composed entirely of electricity. These are big, crazy ideas and I applaud the movie for including them. Better yet, these concepts are brilliantly realized through some top-of-the-line creature effects. The Bat Gremlin and Spider Gremlin are fantastically realized. Yet even these monstrosities are gifted with personality, as Greta and the Lightning Gremlin are characters in her own right.

If “Gremlins 2” can be said to have any flaw, it's that plot and forward momentum are largely sacrificed in favor of one gag after another. This might have been the one disadvantage of giving Joe Dante totally free reign. (This is hardly a complaint for me but some people bitch about it.) While Rick Baker's special effects are naturally excellent, I'll admit to preferring Chris Walas' slimier and more asymmetrical take on the monsters from the first film. Truly, my only real nitpick with the movie is how Gizmo is sidelined. The original's fuzzy hero is left tied up by the Gremlins for most of the plot. When he does return, using his newly acquired Rambo powers to turn the tables on his tormenter, it feels like a somewhat rushed and underwhelming conclusion to that power struggle.

Compared to the first movie, Billy and Kate sometimes feel a little lost in the story sometimes too. This is no fault of Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates. Galligan has the same gee-whiz, aw-shucks small town boy appeal as the irreversibly wholesome Billy. Cates soon becomes the movie's stone-faced straight-woman. Yet Dante is so in love with his impish devils that you get the impression he would've happily moved on from Billy and Kate if he could have. In fact, John Glover's Daniel Clamp is almost a preferable protagonist. Written as a villain, Glover makes Clamp so likable and charming – more out-of-touch and eccentric than actively bad – that you end up liking him.

The Joe Dante company players put in their appearances here, of course. Dick Miller is back as Murray Futterman, given significantly more to do. Robert Picardo is fantastic as the asshole chief of security, who hilariously micromanages every thing he comes across, even after the chaos starts. Christopher Lee is hilarious as the straight-laced mad scientist who takes delight in the diseases he orders. Haviland Morris is very funny as the office temptress attempting to seduce Billy. Robert Prosky does a pretty good Al Lewis impersonation while making Grandpa Fred a distinct character. I also like Gedde Watanabe's little role, as his improvised camera man.

”Gremlins 2's” disappointing box office was blamed on Dante taking his cartoon sensibility a little too far for mainstream audiences. Maybe. Yet, if the film had come out three years earlier, before the hype from the original had died down, I'm sure it would've done better for Warner Brothers. Not that it matters because the right audience for “Gremlins 2” would embrace it soon enough, launching brilliant Twitter accounts and elaborate homages. There's been rumblings of a third film in the decades since, though I'm doubtful that'll ever come to fruition. While I'll always love the original more, there's no denying that “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” is a hilarious and inspired dose of monster-filled lunacy. [Grade: A]

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