Director: Joe Dante
Stars: Zack Galligan (Billy Peltzer), Phoebe Cates (Kate Beringer), John Glover (Daniel Clamp), Robert Protsky (Grandpa Fred), Robert Picardo (Forster), Christopher Lee (Doctor Catheter), Haviland Morris (Marla Bloodstone), Dick Miller (Murray Futterman), Howie Mandel (Voice of Gizmo), Tony Randall (Voice of Brain), Frank Welker (Voice of Mohawk)
Genre: Comedy / Horror
I’m going to make a couple of bold statements here, and then hopefully I’ll manage to back them up.
Firstly, I’m of the opinion that Gremlins 2: The New Batch is better than Gremlins. Okay, woah there. Let’s be clear. I am not dismissing or besmirching Dante’s original flick, which is an 80’s gem and a sure-fire Christmas antidote just as John McTiernan’s Die Hard proved to be. And just as durable. So Gremlins‘ legacy is safe, all right? I’m just saying, for me, this is one of those rare sequels that goes beyond it’s progenitor. Why? Well, let me move on to my second bold statement…
I think Gremlins 2: The New Batch is one of most overlooked films of the 1990’s. Certainly one of the best American comedy films of its era. I have a few different reasons for this, some of which are undoubtedly personal. So let me try to make a case for what I’m saying here.
I’ll admit I can’t remember exactly when I saw the film for the first time, but I definitely saw it before I saw Gremlins. That there probably contributes significantly to why I hold it in higher esteem. Unique ideas such as this always seem most impactful on first approach. But I’d hazard a guess that I was around 10 years old and had just about discovered that I could record movies playing on television onto VHS. For those of us of that generation there’s a square of black plastic that holds a certain nostalgia; the little one that you could snap off of a ‘blank tape’ once you’d recorded something you didn’t want to lose. Snapping that baby off said “this is a keeper”. I sure snapped it off once I’d watched Gremlins 2.*
I loved this movie, and would watch it repeatedly with that maddening, inexhaustible enthusiasm kids have. I hadn’t seen it in nearly two decades by the time I came back to it recently. But returning to the film, which I anticipated my adult self to find inane and dull (wrong!), I was surprised how much of that warmth came back. How much of it I’d forgotten and how much I was so pleased to be reminded of. And how damned playful it is, prefiguring the post-modern heroics that Quentin Tarantino and Wes Craven would be celebrated for in the years to come. Gremlins 2 predates Pulp Fiction and Scream, but is no less a milestone in Hollywood’s self-reflexive turn in the 90’s. If anything it beats out both in terms of the sheer volume of pop culture references it consumes and regurgitates. It is wholly of its time. But instead of feeling dated, instead it feels more and more like a cultural document. A postcard from when.
Capping the 80’s, it’s also a deliriously unsubtle attack on western consumerism. I’ve lost much of my idealism over the years, worn out of me by a mixture of apathy and pragmatism, but for a while there I was staunchly anti-consumerist. In my twenties I’d refer to Naomi Klein’s No Logo as my bible. Predating my fidelity with that book, however, is my interest in Gremlins 2. I’m being somewhat revisionist here, I know, but I can’t help but think the film’s barbed attacks of blind consumerism and over-reliance on technology had a great impact on my impressionable mind back then. I’m still a technophobe. Perhaps part of my kinship with this film is how these themes bristled doubts and suspicions nesting in my own mind back then.
There’s something decidedly Cronenbergian about CEO Daniel Clamp presenting himself to the old Chinatown shop owner via television at the start of the film. Perhaps this is the film’s first reference point, citing the great Videodrome as an important figure in its own personal blueprint? Clamp reminds us of Brian Oblivion, existing only in a technological world. He’s not human. He’s been mutated out of society into a different realm. The scene sets up the film, in which Clamp is trying to buy out properties in New York in order to expand the reach of his empire. There are no two ways about it; Clamp is set up as the mean, greedy corporate entity. It’s the big guy vs the little guy. The big guy is all sheen; perfect teeth in a wolf’s grin. The little guy is vulnerable and mortal. Too mortal. Within minutes we’re presented with a grieving little Gizmo fleeing the terrifying jaws of a bulldozer.
Billy Peltzer from the first film has moved to New York City with his girlfriend Kate. They both work at Clamp’s pompously named mega-skyscraper; the Clamp Premier Regency Trade Centre & Retail Concourse. Here too we have a sense of the little guy getting swallowed up by the big guy. The redaction of choice. Billy is thought of exclusively as a commodity by Clamp when they eventually meet. But where else is there for Billy and Kate to work? It reflects how, as we get older, the corporate and consumer pressures of western society seem impossible to avoid getting tainted by. We’re swallowed whole, leaving us guessing as to how to exist in our new contaminated environment. How to break free. In that sense what follows with the gremlins is pure wish-fulfillment.
It is genetic research and animal testing that arguably gets the biggest swipe to the face though, being the germ of much of the chaos that unfurls in the Clamp building. Christopher Lee’s on gleefully camp form as Dr Catheter (there’s a story that the first thing Lee did on set was apologise to Dante for appearing in the woeful Howling 2: Your Sister Is A Werewolf), his ignorance of the mogwai’s life cycle precipitating much of what follows. He doesn’t know the ‘rules’ and doesn’t care to.
There are little jokes everywhere in this film, from Gizmo making himself a paperclip rope ladder to an announcer promoting a colourised presentation of Casablanca, now ‘with a happier ending.’ The script is very witty. The latter joke cited here keying into the film’s self-awareness. Gremlins 2 knows it’s just a movie. But it uses that platform to take satirical potshots at ‘the system’. Decisions like tinkering with classics to make them better fit market research, for instance. The idea of entertainment as formula as opposed to creative alchemy. 80’s futurism is lambasted constantly also, as Clamp’s high-tech building suffers a number of faults, or when visitors are asked to move ‘old’ vehicles from the parking lot for aesthetic reasons. Even the dumb jokes make me smile (the chocolate moose?).
But it’s not until the gremlins get loose in the Clamp building that things really become anarchic. The precise moment comes when a side character starts nitpicking the aforementioned ‘rules’. In response the film kills him, the gremlin Mohawk literally bursting out of the system. This moment kicks the film into a higher gear. Chaos, inevitably, reigns. Electronics blow. Mayhem ensues. Dante’s film suggests such rigorous order as the high-tech Clamp building is unsustainable. Can-go-wrong, will-go-wrong becomes the rule. Clamp yes-man Forster’s response is that these ‘rodents’ must obey the chain of command. A fellow employee’s expression as response to this writes his fate immediately.
From here the film is positively overstuffed with cut-aways and comic asides. It’s almost sketch comedy. The rat-a-tat rate of fire is as sustained as it’s success rate. Recent hits of the time like Tim Burton’s Batman get referenced (fortunately that one’s proved rather durable) as well as the prevalence of ultra-violent action cinema, product placement… you name it. Even microwave ‘cookery’. Body horror gets further nods, suggesting screenwriter Charlie Hass really is quite a fan of Cronenberg…This could all appear scattershot, but the consistent hit ratio of the material makes it all seem tonally cohesive. Gremlins 2 is basically here to hold a mirror up to pop culture and poke as much fun as it possibly can.
Dante’s film is also self-referential with regards to his own canon. Witness an early scene in which Henry Gibson is given a small cameo as a fired employee. Gibson appeared prominently in Dante’s previous feature The ‘Burbs. And, of course, Dick Miller is here as well; more or less Dante’s human calling card. If these early moments are mere Easter eggs to fans, then later on Dante proves capable on sending himself up further. Leonard Maltin cameos as himself recording a review of Gremlins in which he trashes the film. Dante calls out his own detractors. It also adds to the warping effect of the movie itself. Gremlins 2 sets itself up as a direct sequel with recurring characters, but then acknowledges full force that it’s ‘only a movie’. Matlin gets attacked by the gremlins, of course.
He’s not the only good sport on board. Hulk Hogan cameos in a scene of similar effect; the gremlins having gotten into the projector room of the film itself, which burns up. We’re left watching the pesky creatures perform shadowplay, before putting on an old dirty movie. “This is worse than the first one!” a dissatisfied audience member cries. We’re now outside of the movie. The film’s taken a temporary EVA. Hogan gets out of his seat and gets mad, threatening action unless Gremlins 2 resumes. Cinema aware of itself, reminding the audience of its own fraudulence. But it’s celebratory. Enjoyably indulgent. And funny.
Gremlins 2 loves movies. And reminds the viewer that they feel the same way. Perhaps it is that above all that makes me shine to this movie the way I do. I first saw it when my love of cinema was in its infancy, but it was there prompting me to embrace and enjoy this medium as much as I could. Subconsciously or not, I evidently took the message to heart. If you have similar memories of this film, and have left it in the past, I recommend reconnecting. If you snapped off that black square of plastic like I did, rest assured, this one was always a keeper. Rewind and press play.
*Wow. How wrong does that sound?