Fun, But In No Sense Civilized: The Irreverent Existence of Gremlins 2
There are some movies which simply should not exist. Nevertheless, they insist upon doing so, in defiance of the artistic conventions and business practices of the film industry. They burst into reality by sheer force of will, despite being unmarketable, over-ambitious, or too offbeat to earn back their massive budgets. When you watch them, you can’t help but wonder if a massive prank has been pulled on the studio that funded them. These films are special anomalies, and they are to be treasured. One such film is Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
I first encountered Gremlins 2 as a young kid, home alone with a rented VHS. I’ll never forget my first viewing of the mid-movie “breakdown” sequence, in which your tape (or reel, in the theatrical presentation) appears to warp and fail, only to reveal that the titular creatures have taken over the film itself. I stood up to adjust the tracking, freezing in place when I realized what was happening. A movie had tricked me, and in so doing, reached out and engaged me in a way I had never imagined. I had loved film since before I could talk, but its possibilities had just been blown wide open. Memories of childhood can be overdramatic, but I stand by my assertion that Gremlins 2: The New Batch was a truly life-altering experience.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the breakdown was a direct homage to the frame-breaking gags of William Castle’s films of the 1950s and ‘60s. As I grew up and evolved into a full-fledged cinephile, I began to recognize the ingredients in The New Batch's anarchic pot luck. Its mutated DNA runs deep with everything from The Tingler to Hellzapoppin', from Chuck Jones to Michael Curtiz. Director Joe Dante takes all his cinematic passions and threads them into a hyperkinetic livewire of a movie that's always just as ready to pay tribute to Hollywood as it is to ram a freight train into it.
It’s because of Gremlins 2’s rather unusual journey to the screen that it became a study in what makes Dante tick. He had scored a surprisingly huge hit for Warner Brothers with the first Gremlins, and the studio was naturally itching to launch Gizmo and friends as a franchise. Exhausted by the harrowing production schedule of the 1984 film, Dante and his producing partner, Michael Finnell, flatly refused to immediately return to the well. Warner spent six years trying to get a sequel off the ground with various creative teams, attempting everything from “Gremlins Go to Vegas” to “Gremlins on Mars”. Desperate to cash in before the brand cooled, they finally returned to Dante with an offer no filmmaker can refuse: complete creative control. Enlisting screenwriter Charlie Haas for a fresh take (the original film had been Chris Columbus’s first Hollywood script), Dante and Finnell launched Gremlins 2 as a playground of glorious self-indulgence, and a reaction to the very idea of blockbuster sequels.
The film squarely takes aim at the consumerism of its time (its time being precisely 1990), filling its “smart building” setting with genetic engineering labs, cable TV studios, frozen yogurt, and power ties. It even turns on itself, the original Gremlins being a constant target of its ridicule. The ever-charming John Glover takes center stage as Trump/Turner analog Daniel Clamp, though a rewrite was needed when he proved too likeable to be much of a Trump stand-in. “You make a place for things, things come,” Clamp laments in the movie’s denouement. He’s not just talking about the inevitability of his soulless corporate tower being overrun by monsters. It’s a perfect metaphor for Gremlins 2 being willed into existence by a studio’s thirst for franchise dollars. If you demand that artists repeat their previous successes for the sake of a paycheck, that success will metastasize into a weird, unmanageable specter that consumes itself and explodes in an unruly chaos of self-referential irreverence. Even Clamp’s final turn, a plan to build a replica of the first film’s Kingston Falls as “the biggest, most sensational quiet little town you ever saw,” foreshadows the exploitation of nostalgia that would begin in earnest not long after the film’s release.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch was a flop in just about every aspect upon its original release in the summer of 1990. Critics and audiences just weren’t sure what to make of it, and it failed to recoup its rather massive budget. Only in recent years has it found reappraisal as a cult classic and a harbinger of Hollywood foibles to come. It shaped my view of cinema at a formative age, and it’s still probably my most-watched movie. One of the great oddball auteurs tricked a studio into funding a massive statement on why the movie he made for them shouldn’t be allowed to exist. From its calamitous Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck prologue to its Busby Berkeley finale, it’s a beautiful cinematic aberration that will never be forgotten. “I spent a lot of time on Gremlins 2 making sure there would never be a Gremlins 3,” Dante quips on the DVD commentary. His success rate is going on 27 years now. Whether or not there is eventually a Gremlins 3, there will certainly never be another Gremlins 2.