Come on, Junior, you’re not watching that film! It’s not for kids!
1984’s sublime fantasy from Steven Spielberg’s paddock of dreams, Gremlins, was, and still is, one of the best and most effectively subversive horror-comedies that Tinseltown has ever produced. It introduced mythical rules and supernatural perversity into a culture that then thrived upon such things. It took us deep into the heart of Midwest Americana, coated with the blissful beauty of a snowy Christmas and then proceeded to rip the guts out of it and ransack all those sparkling packages of Yuletide goodwill with anarchic abandon. The gremlins had come to town and they just wanted to Party!!! And what had looked like a typically Spielbergian slice of suburban fantasy became a notorious yarn of monsters, domestic gadget-violence and grinning moralistic comeuppance. Mums and dads got the shock of their lives … and kids lapped it up. But what was clearly a satire also fuelled a nightmare or two.
It also spawned an entire sub-genre of “little monster” films. We had Critters, Ghoulies, a Troll or two, Hobgoblins, Puppet Masters, Dolls, Dante’s own equally delinquent Small Soldiers, Warwick Davies (!)and a plethora of other sundry micro-menaces. And, finally, it gained its own sequel with Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
This time when Gizmo the cute Mogwai pops his bad news brethren from his furry backside, they hatch out into the fully automated techno-tower of media mogul Daniel Clamp (John Glover) in the heart of impersonal, commercially hallowed New York, and little town terrors swiftly become big city terrorists. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) have left the picture-postcard Spielbergian suburb of Kingston Falls and moved to the teeming metropolis where they both now work within the vast Clamp empire, hoping to one day earn enough money to get married and find a better apartment. Neither is entirely happy with the busy relocation … but then neither is Gizmo, who loses his mystical carer, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), when the owner of that Aladdin’s cave of treasures from the first film succumbs to old age and the stress heaped upon him by the avaricious, greedy demands of Clamp’s remorseless real-estate machine, and finds himself dumped into Clamp’s genetic laboratory high up in this new age tower of Babylon.
After being reunited with Billy, the very kid who got him in all that trouble the last time, history seems to repeat itself and The New Batch then commence doing what they do best and, man, with those teeth and claws and a whole lab-full of toxins, potions and serums at their disposal, they can really carve up the Big Apple if they manage to get outside the complex. Inadvertently, they lock the building down, trapping all the staff and the visitors inside with them, and then they go on the offensive. Their new leader becomes a spider-centaur whilst his big-eared, fang-faced chums rampage from floor to floor. One gains brains (from a jar) and liberally expounds upon the mentality of madness to all who will listen. Another gets a pair of wings and begins an aerial assault on the city streets. Clamp, himself, has to fight for his life and, in a homage to Mrs. Pelzer’s kitchen gadget battle from the first film, uses office equipment to dispatch his grinning aggressor before prepping his company’s “End of the World” video for broadcast. And, worst of all, the Futtermans are coming to stay in Manhattan!
The first film was a really unexpected treat. It was fun and exciting and very funny. It was also dark and scary and had a marvellously nasty EC Comics style streak to it. Dante’s second, and surprisingly unwanted foray into the ‘Berg’s pastiche of 50’s creature-features and a literal reworking of the old Second World War military folktale of “gremlins in the machine”, was made six years after the critical and commercial success of the first film. We had entered the nineties and the concept of big business coming under fire from within was actually on the backswing. Both Gremlins 2 and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall were possibly the last genre gasp of the one-fingered salute to bureaucratic enslavement, with Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers a much more political gut-punch and Alien3 a more Biblical stab at conglomerate evil. But audiences still loved to see authority getting ripped a new one and Joe Dante was always ready, willing and able to provide a witty evisceration job. His new take is part Citizen Kane, part Network (which he had already taken a sarcastic swipe at in the finale of The Howling), part “invasion” movie, and part carnival ride.
But with a screenplay that loses its mystical wisdom in favour of scientific mumbo-jumbo, lead characters that simply go through all same motions as last time and an exceptionally contrived prologue that provides the most eye-rollingly lazy narrative chestnut to get the ball rolling, Dante’s more cynical and elaborate film of the pair loses a few points. Worse yet, there is a simply horrible manoeuvre that enables Billy to be away during the critical cocoon phase, when he is arrested in one scene and then, in the very next, which takes place six hours later, he is released from jail. Again, this is lethargic writing that practically anybody else could have handled better. Arguably, the mid-film interlude in which the gremlins apparently disrupt the projection of the movie we are watching is either a work of genius, or a complete cinematic bombshell that just takes the viewer out of the wayward story altogether. The fact that Dante even allows his first instalment to get reviewed during the course of this second proves that is out heedless of breaking the fourth wall and, therefore, with this meta-stuff being flung about, I’m afraid that I have a tendency to fall into the latter category.
With these elements in mind, Gremlins 2: The New Batch receives quite a bad rap from a lot of people. No, it isn’t as good as the original, and this is borne out quite obviously by the fact Joe Dante didn’t actually want to make the sequel in the first place. It doesn’t possess an ounce of the original magic that made the first film work so well on a variety of different levels, and the sense of threat, although happening on a grander scale this time out, lacks the same sort of immediate impact and shock value as its predecessor that brilliantly yanked us out of our comfort zone. But then again, let’s not be too hasty about dismissing what is still a terrifically fun and deliberately bravura movie that is stuffed to the reptilian gills with in-jokes, ribald chaos, witty dialogue and wacky characters and, of course, a whole new batch of those infernal, diabolical mischief-makers.
It isn’t as good a film as the original by a long way, but this is still perfectly entertaining and pretty damn enjoyable on its own merits.
Dante has some fun with new characters such as Daniel Clamp and Billy’s career-climbing neurotic boss, Marla Bloodstone (Haviland Morris). Clamp is a rather obvious send-up of every media tycoon or company boss that we’ve ever seen (and most notably Donald Trump, of course), but the key is that as idiotic and blinkered as he is, he is not the villain of the piece. When Marla reprimands Billy’s PR artwork and design imagery for the ever-expanding Clamp empire, Daniel Clamp actually endorses it. He even listens to Billy much more than he does his contemptuous second-in-command, Forster (played by Robert Picardo). Morris, on the other hand, is delightfully sexy as the permanently on-edge, office-sniper Bloodstone. With flame-red hair, secretarial glasses and stilettos and a cigarette wedged between her lips more often than Samuel Jackson has one in Jurassic Park, she could boss me around any time.
And then there’s dear old Robert Prosky as Grandpa Fred, the vampire-attired host of Clamp’s TV channel. Suited-up like Grandpa Munster, he is the aging conscience (read cliché) of the story. Before, it was the bookending Mr. Wing, whose mystical mumblings were the backbone of the tale, ensuring that Billy learned about responsibility and commitment. But now Grandpa Fred is the tired, washed-up hack with a heart who acts as Billy’s soul in a funked-up world that is so clearly beyond individual redemption that its masses are expected to tune-in to a soothing apocalypse broadcast should the end of the world prove nigh.
Look, ma … I’m in a movie!
As is customary with a Joe Dante picture, there are lots of cameos, big and small. From Bugs Bunny and Daffy-Duck in the admittedly naff Warner Bros fake intro, to Johnny Rambo on the TV inspiring Gizmo to become “war” in order to survive it, there are lots of cinematic nods and winks, backslaps and in-japery. Having Christopher Lee in there at all was a boon, and it would have been unthinkable not to have had the ubiquitous Dick Miller return as the irascible prophet of ill-tidings, Mr. Futterman. There are also the twins, Dan and Don Stanton, who were pretty busy during this period, what with appearances in Good Morning, Vietnam and T2: Judgement Day. And, let’s face it, you couldn’t have one without the other. Pottering about in the laboratory as assistants to Dr. Catheter, it is actually these two who kick-start the whole shebang by snatching up Gizmo from the streets in the first place. But look a little closer and you’ll find Joe Dante, himself, as the director of the Grandpa Fred show on Clamp TV. And if you glance over there, that’s celebrity film-critic Leonard Maltin playing himself as he is attacked, Emu-style, by the gremlins for offering a disparaging review of the original film on videotape! There is also Hulk Hogan larking about during the ill-advised “cinema-break”, although he does add to the warped attitude of anything goes, and there’s even John Aston, Gomez from The Adams Family sixties TV show, as the janitor whose problems with a faulty drinking fountain lead to … well, all sorts of problems for everybody else.
Dante regulars Belinda Balaski (The Howling) and Paul Bartel (Piranha) also show up in the foyer of the in-joke theatre, and there’s good old Kenneth Tobey, the stoic Captain Hendry from perennial cult favourite The Thing From Another World, who also showed up in The Howling and even the first Gremlins, as the Gremlin-battered projectionist. But, best of all, there is the late, great composer Jerry Goldsmith, sporting that crazy long white Saruman-like mane of hair as he attempts to get something from the concession-stand, just as the gremlins make their grand assault upon the complex. So that’s all the thanks he gets for composing the barnstorming music for both movies!
Oh, and listen out for the patented Wilhelm Scream as one gremlin-covered unfortunate takes a nose-dive from a high balcony, as well as the voice of Scooby-Doo, himself, Frank Welker, who tackles the tonsils of lead demon, Mohawk.
It has been frequently remarked upon that Christopher Lee only took on the part of Dr. Catheter do make peace with Dante for his appearance in the lamentable Howling II and, if so, he does a bang-up job. He may not be out-and-out dastardly but we have no illusions about his nefarious practices with all those lab-animals. He has a cabinet full of special “ordnance”, in case of experimental breakouts, and Lee is clearly enjoying himself on such a lunatic set. His expression during the really rather awful Mogwai dancing session (which was a clear influence upon Disney’s Lilo & Stitch) sums-up exactly how we feel about the risible little vignette, but his Colonel Kurtz rendition of “The horror … the horror ..” is brilliantly capped-off with a wonderfully abstract, “ … and stuff …” that just tickles me every time.
Adding to the Howling legacy is the casting of Robert Picardo as Clamp’s right-hand yes-man. Now, I know that many people only think of Picardo as the kindly, soothing doctor from Star Trek, but to me, he will always be the guy who played the scariest werewolf in cinema history – sexual psychotic Eddie Quist from Dante’s celebrated lycanthropic howler in the Great Year of Fur, 1981. And he was the voice of Total Recall’s Johnny Cab too!!! With such a wonderful face and that weird, rubbery voice he is almost like a special effect already, so you can see the direct appeal that he had for Rob Bottin’s complex latex and prosthetic wolfman appliances.
Dante’s penchant for film references comes virtually off the rails with the sheer amount of visual asides that he crams Gremlins 2 with. There’s a nameplate on a door that reads “Dr. Quatermass”. We have sound effects culled from Tarantula and The War of the Worlds, tellingly brought-in when Mohawk gulps down the spider-venom and transforms into a deadly hybrid of arachnid and gremlin. The film that Grandpa Fred introduces on his TV show is actually footage from Octaman, which features terrible tentacled costumes designed by a very young Rick Baker. Incidentally, the exact same footage of these monsters swinging their rubbery arms at intended trailer-trash victims was shown in identical circumstances by Roddy McDowell’s faded TV host Peter Vincent in Tom Holland’s excellent original Fright Night. More vintage monster-footage comes courtesy of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which also starred Kenneth Tobey. There’s a gremlin swatting toy biplanes from atop a model skyscraper in a blatant snatch from King Kong. We see Christopher Lee carrying what looks very suspiciously like an alien seedpod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Electronic doors make that classic Enterprise shhh-eee-bomp! noise as they open and close. Trust me, there are many more to find.
He even takes a satirical swipe at his own experience of the concerns parents had over the first Gremlins being too intense for kids with the irate mother (Balaski)reprimanding the theatre-manager (Bartel) during the “cinema-break” sequence. He, himself, had been on the receiving end of such vitriol during that infamous year when the PG13 was first ushered-in by the MPAA, a year that also saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its heart-ripping rituals and monkey-brain banquet, helping to instigate that very certificate (and suffered actual cuts in Blighty) after the furore that Gremlins caused. I was actually present in the cinema when underage kids were hauled out of showings of Gremlins, which as a 15 back then, and it really added to the aura of watching something dark and forbidden. The sequel, although it received a much more lenient rating in the UK of a 12, has a more sexualised charge to it – a horny female gremlin, Billy’s neurotic-cum-nympho boss, and Phoebe Cates finding herself in a very vulnerable, legs-akimbo situation in a creature-infested elevator – and the actual violence, culminating in certain deaths, is a touch more overt than in the first film which had a far more surreal aspect towards the carnage.
Whilst the first film successfully combined Christmas shmaltz and Norman Rockwell Americana, and Spielbergian values with edgy violence and mythical evil, the second has moments when it seems as if it might get even more mean-spirited, which would have been great, but never quite hits the mark. Instead, it threatens much but never really delivers the actually pretty subversive horror that the original was able smuggle in under the radar. For instance, when Mohawk swigs the spider-toxin and mutates, there is a genuine sense of pure dread and malevolence about what is happening. We’re pretty much all in agreement here – spiders, bloody big ones, are terrifying. And the combination of a six-legged beastie with a toothy and malicious gremlin should be downright bowel-loosening, especially given the spooky build-up that Dante provides, all shadows and hideous sound effects, but once we see the mutant-critter, the spell is broken and the threat is completely diminished. Plus, he doesn’t actually get to do all that much. For the pack’s leader, he has none of the aura of the original’s terrific Stripe. Which is a shame as we need someone definitive to fear.
But the devastating broadside that big corporation ethics receives is extremely well-wrought, if dealt in distinctly broad, neon-draped strokes. New York isn’t presented in a good light, which was something of a fresh take after a decade that saw the city become the doyen of a hundred cherished sitcoms and the great tourist attractant of Ghostbusters. The seventies had taken enormous pleasure in painting the place as a vile cesspit of sick and corrupted humanity. The eighties had sought to reverse that. Dante, without pointing any fingers and milking accusations, had told it like it was in his predatory prologue to The Howling at the start of the decade, and then, at the cusp of the nineties, he had reaffirmed that it was a heartless, soulless place that was enslaved to corporate assimilation and doctrine.
The new brood …
The inspired thing about these malicious maniacs is that they all have distinct personalities. Oh, they all want to cause bedlam all right … but the gremlins have always been about individual character which, as we all know, bleeds very healthily into lucrative merchandising. In the original, we had a flasher, a gangster, a drag-queen, a cardsharp and a bucket-head as well as the more infamous Stripe. For the sequel, Dante no longer had Chris Walas to steer the creature-design (Walas was now a filmmaker, himself), so he turned to both Rob Bottin and Rick Baker who would, both, initially turn him down. Bottin had famously used Baker’s groundbreaking techniques to turn a man into a seven-foot-tall wolf and beaten him to punch by getting The Howling done way before John Landis could get Baker’s ultimately Oscar-winning transformation onto cinema screens.
Baker’s gremlins are far more advanced than Walas’, obviously. Years had gone by and the techniques had improved. The makeup supremo had been understandably reluctant to follow in the footsteps of another effects whizz. He wanted to create something new and unique that had his name all over it, not just rehash somebody else’s ideas. But to bring him in, the producers said that he could have a virtual free-reign at creating new characters. This means that we now have fabulously detailed gremlins who can stand up to being seen in bright light (“Bright light! Bright light!”) and in extended closeup shots. But, and this is just me talking now, I think that the majority of the monsters now look overly fascinating to the point of distraction. The dizzy, foolish one that winds-up at home with Billy is all googly, spinning eyes and strangely too “busy” to be either cute or menacing. He is not scary as a result. No, this particular gremlin probably isn’t supposed to be all that scary, but this highly detailed, massively articulated approach also dogs the rest of his kind, somehow rendering them less spooky and altogether more kooky than those that came before. Baker’s approach is intricate and a huge improvement technically speaking … but his tribe lose an awful lot of threat in the process. The spider-gremlin is certainly lacking in full-on creep-out factor, and so is the winged incarnation that swoops down on Mr. Futterman. This sequence probably looked really nifty on paper and in storyboards, but it falls flat in the finished film, I’m sorry to say. It doesn’t help that the hordes of city extras around the beleaguered Dick Miller simply don’t convince. They actually look like … well, just a horde of city extras who are simply watching with bemusement that guy that Arnie stole some guns from in The Terminator and Dennis Dugan took some silver bullets from in The Howling acting very weirdly against something that isn’t really there. If you look, some of them are actually smiling at his predicament and others are blithely walking past. Of course, this is all possibly part of Dante’s view of the unsociable demeanour of the New Yorkers … but if it is, it doesn’t translate well to the film.
The Harryhausen homage of stop-motion during this set-piece is nice but it doesn’t work half as well as the animated crowd-scene in the first film when Stripe’s swimming-pool birthed army ambles into view down the street. But I am nitpicking here.
Let’s face it, this time out, wee have fruit-ravaged gremlins, bullet-riddled gremlins who spout freshly chugged chemicals from the holes in their torsos, even electronic, lightning-zapped gremlins that can travel around the building’s circuitry, frying the odd unwitting human. This film, far more than its forebear, is all about transformation. Literally, however, and not metaphorically … so don’t go looking for any deeper meaning to it all. Dante has a riot with the chemicals in the Splice of Life lab. The entire mob guzzles jars and beakers full of toxins in order to re-enact personality/physicality modifications that have taken licence from everything from The Phantom of the Opera to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Spider-Man, and from the cosmic bat-vampires of Lifeforce to the gender-bending of Dr. Jekyll (again!) and Sister Hyde!Dante is a film-buff and he makes movies for fellow film-buffs and, in this respect, his work is always a joy to watch.
These gremlins much more fluidly, though watching Gizmo’s little legs go a-trundling down ventilator shafts, John McClane-style, can’t help looking a mite daft. And, be honest, Gizmo is a real bore. We want the bad boys, don’t we? Not the goody-goody fur-ball. Mind you, who doesn’t feel sorry for him when Billy traps his paw in the drawer? Ahhh, bless …
Once he had latched on to Jerry Goldsmith, Dante found it hard to let the maestro go. Utilising the great man’s talents on Innerspace, Twilight Zone: The Movie (although he was hardly alone in that decision), Explorers, The ‘burbs, Matinee and Looney Toons: Back In Action, which was to be Goldsmith’s final film score before his death, he found a great creative symbiosis in their relationship. Bringing the composer back on board for Gremlins 2 was a no-brainer. Exec Producer Spielberg knew the benefits of a Goldsmith score just as much as Dante and with the original music becoming such a bonafide classic, replete with that irresistible Gremlins Rag and more demented Stravinsky fiddle-playing than a thousand devils going down to Georgia, the signature themes make a very welcome return. This isn’t a straight rerun of the original soundtrack, though. Plenty of the same phrases return, albeit with a fair degree of new orchestration, and this is a case of repetition and familiarity being a good thing. John Williams was perhaps the master of the serialised score, with Jaws and Jaws 2 and both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises reverberating through the collective film-going subconscious, and it is certain that he would have structured a lot of new material alongside the tried-and-trusted fanfares, but Goldsmith, who rarely maintained such recognisable motifs even during his phenomenal scores for The Omen trilogy and his various Star Trek scores, knew that his Gremlins themes were strong enough and valid enough to carry straight on into the next adventure. This, naturally, aids with the streamlined continuity of the two films when paired-up as a double-bill. But he creates a great new theme for Lee’s mad doctor, full of bizarre, comedic SF sizzle from electric organ, and there is some giddily sinister stuff for the transforming creatures. His ebullient style is the thematic glue that binds the two films together.
Overall, Gremlins 2 provides a neat expansion on the mythos. It doesn’t wreck what has gone before and it contains a great many elements that work very well indeed. It was always going to suffer in the wake of the original’s success, though. Dante was convinced that too many years had passed since the first film, and that a sequel seemed like so much studio desperation. He was partially right, of course. Although the idea of another Gremlins outing was always going to be alluring, the fact that the original had broken new ground and had pushed boundaries meant that any follow-on had a lot to live up to. It is not, therefore, surprising to discover that the second movie sometimes strains for effect and fritters too many frights away in favour of laughs.
It was a gamble but, on the whole, I think it pays off.
Our Review Ethos