Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Dir. by Joe Dante
Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Robert Picardo and John Glover
Several years, after the original Gremlins movie, Gizmo the Mogwai’s elderly caretaker dies and his shop is bulldozed to make way for a fancy commercial center. Taken to Clamp Tower in Manhattan by a research scientist, he is freed by his friend Daniel Peltzer, who is now working as an artist in the building. When an accident causes a new group of gremlins to be created, Daniel must try to convince his skeptical bosses that a horde of chaotic creatures is about to descend upon the highly automated “smart building.”
This is yet another of my family’s seemingly endless collection of movies taped off of basic cable during the early 90s. We only had this one, not the original, so I never ended up seeing it until much later, and was positively shocked at its very different tone. I actually really like the original, and appreciate its status as a classic horror-comedy, but if pressed I’d have to say that I actually enjoy this one more.
This…is a very weird movie. Now, I’ve watched some weird movies for this blog so far. I’ve seen giant worms with tentacle tongues, 3000-year-old Chinese sorcerers, suburban serial killers and kung fu disco dancing street thugs. But this might be the most deliberately strange movie I’ve seen in a long time. And I still kind of love it for that.
The original Gremlins was a horror/comedy which expertly balanced both sides of the equation, and still has some genuinely frightening scenes. This movie, on the other hand, seems almost intended as a rickroll of the audiences who went into it expecting something like the first film (and in fact, it kinda was. More on that later). About 45 minutes into the movie, it takes an abrupt left turn and abandons all pretenses at being a horror film. Instead it becomes, essentially, a live action cartoon, getting more and more ridiculous and over-the-top with every passing minute.
While in the original the gremlins were actually quite dangerous, and were a threat to the lives of everyone in the town, here they instead seem to be displaced residents of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s Toontown. If left to their own devices, they’d cause just as much havoc against each other as they would against any of the humans. This feeling is reinforced by the opening of the film, where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck interrupt the credits to argue about who gets to sit on top of the 60th anniversary Warner Bros. logo. It sets the tone for the sheer wackiness that is about to ensue over the course of the film.
Most of the chaos in the movie can be laid at the feet of Christopher Lee’s character, a genetic researcher whose lab seems to be a subdivision of Acme Enterprises. Here, the gremlins go through a series of transformations that ups their variety a hundredfold over the first film, where there was little to differentiate the various individuals. Thanks to the lab’s experiments, we end up with gremlins that are bat-hybrids, part vegetable, made of electricity and, most memorably, one who is intelligent and erudite, like Marvel’s Beast, with the voice of Tony Randall. Even the new version of the original film’s villain, Spike, goes through a transformation, becoming what is essentially a D&D drider in the only real scary scene in the movie.
Once the movie passes the halfway point, many of the human characters disappear for long stretches of time, as the narrative stops to just allow the gremlins to run amok. Nowhere is this more evident than the famous fourth-wall breaking sequence. When originally projected in theaters (on film, of course – this was way before the era of digital projection), the movie suddenly stopped, as if the film had become jammed, and then tore visually on-screen. For any younger readers I may have, this was something that actually happened from time to time with film projection. Usually the audience would be given free tickets to come back another time if they couldn’t fix it quickly.
Before any audience member would have time to get up and complain, however, the shadows of two gremlins in the projection booth appeared, making increasingly elaborate shadow puppets in the light of the projector. The movie then moves to the lobby of the theater itself, where a parent is complaining to the manager about the film’s content. He sends an usher into the theater, who gets Hulk Hogan to stand up from the audience and intimidate the gremlins into restarting the movie. It’s up there with Ferris Bueller’s monologues for me in terms of fourth-wall-breaking stunts, and is the ultimate distillation of what Joe Dante was trying to do with the movie.
That is, of course, fucking with both the audience and studio’s expectations. He had initially been extremely resistant to the idea of doing a sequel to the original Gremlins, as he thought that it had a satisfying ending that didn’t justify a sequel. After trying and failing to get it up and running on their own, the studio went back to Dante and offered him triple the budget of the first film and complete creative control over the direction of the project. Still not wanting to make a sequel, but also not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dante instead decided to make a satire of the original movie, and of overblown Hollywood sequels in general. While I personally believe that he succeeded wildly, critics and audiences were much more split over the movie, and it ultimately lost money.
This is an incredibly silly, over-the-top movie, even more so than I remember it being. However, it’s also a very refreshing departure from most Hollywood sequels, and I really enjoyed it.
-The movie was originally intended to have a much more villainous Ronald Clamp, which is why he’s portrayed as a combination of Ted Turner and Donald Trump. However, they found that John Glover’s performance was just so likeable that they rewrote the script to turn him into a more sympathetic character.
-When the movie was released on VHS, they replaced the fourth-wall breaking with a different scene involving the gremlins turning off the VCR and channel surfing on the TV until John Wayne scares them off. This was the version that I grew up watching, and I didn’t see the Hulk Hogan version until it was finally released on DVD. I now prefer the original, though.
-One of the transformations that I didn’t mention above is where one of the gremlins drinks a formula that makes them explicitly female, with long hair, pouty lips and noticeable breasts. While it’s never clear if the gremlins had separate genders prior to this (they reproduce through parthenogenesis, after all), what is clear is that this trans gremlin seems to be uninterested in participating in any of the anarchy. She’s more interested in a romantic pursuit of Robert Picardo’s security chief character, and becomes the only gremlin to survive the movie because of it. While the character is ultimately played for laughs, the laughs never come at the expense of the transition itself. Once she’s female, the movie just accepts that fact, and the humor seems to be more focused on Picardo’s character’s reactions to being romanced by a two-foot-tall lizard creature. While I don’t feel the need to knock the movie for trans representation in this instance, I do have to fault it for its use of sexual assault (specifically Gremlin-on-human) for humor. Yes, Picardo decides to go along with it in the end, but I detected a lot of overtones of Stockholm Syndrome involved.
-I now understand the gremlin repeating “Is it safe?” while he has Danny strapped to a dentist chair, a joke that always eluded me when I watched this in the 90s.