If you’re looking for an antidote to the current Hollywood trend of films laying crumbs for sequels, or outright setting further instalments up, then the delightful Gremlins 2 really deserves more praise than it gets.
It’s a film that notably found itself in competition with Disney’s live action Dick Tracy film in the summer of 1990, a face off that ultimately suited neither. The box office of both films fell short of expectations and wishes, and tellingly, neither film got a planned further sequel.
At least not yet. Every six to 12 months or so, a further story pops up about how the planned Gremlins 3 is going. That it may involve the original cast, it may be a reboot, it may involve CG Gremlins this time around. And then a week after said stories, it seems Gremlins 3 goes back into the cage where it’s been kept for close to 30 years.
And that must be music to the ears of the director of the first two films, Joe Dante.
Dante would describe the production of the original movie as “extremely challenging,” with months of stop motion work following the initial tranche of live action photography. He also recalled that Warner Bros “didn’t really believe in it or ‘get it’ until they saw the preview.” The film was overseen by Steven Spielberg, and he protected it: he wanted a finished director’s cut to show to people for the first preview, rather than a rough cut with a temp score. The audience reaction to that first screening told everyone they had something special on their hands.
When the film went on to become the hit it did, Warner Bros – inevitably – wanted a follow-up. This was an era where sequels were rarer than they are today, and the general expectation was that a sequel would do 65% of the business of the original. Again, that’s an expectation that’s reversed in more recent times.
The problem was that Dante didn’t want to make Gremlins 2. He was burned out from the making of the first film, and declined the studio’s offer. Over the ensuing four or five years, Warner Bros would recruit a collection of different writers, each trying to crack which way Gremlins 2 should go. But for an assortment of reasons, the project never got off the ground. By the late 1980s, the studio was desperate for its follow-up. It thus made Dante what he described as “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” If he could deliver Gremlins 2 by a set date, he could have total creative freedom. Dante said yes.
“I had in mind to do a kind of Hellzapoppin’ Gremlins movie as a social satire where anything can happen,” he told me back in 2008. And thus he hired Charlie Haas to co-write a script with him, that “deconstructed the whole idea.” It’s why you get moments in Gremlins 2 that never mind breaking the fourth wall, the characters may as well just grab a popcorn and sit next to you.
For instance, critic Leonard Maltin was no fan of the first film, but a good enough sport to appear on camera saying so. Take a look, and imagine this happening in a modern franchise sequel…
Then there’s the moment where the film apparently breaks down, due to Gremlins in the projection booth. You may recall that it takes Hulk Hogan to sort the matter out. Warner Bros didn’t like this, and wanted Dante to take the sequence out. He kept it in.
It’s smaller things as well. Characters outright questioning the core rules of the Gremlins. Where, for instance, do different time zones come into the not feeding them after midnight thing? Then there was the whole tie-in merchandise, that the film happily lampooned. Dante had his creative freedom, and he really used it: he made a sequel that stands aside from its peers for its boldness, cheek, and bevy of quite brilliant moments.
But on the quiet, there was also another agenda here. Dante has subsequently said in interviews that his aim with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, as it was eventually called, was to stop there being a Gremlins 3. “Obviously there was no real need for another Gremlins movie, so I approached the sequel as irreverently as possible”, he told me. “Which got me into a bit of trouble.”
In particular, Dante was told by studio people that “you can’t make fun of the merchandising.” But, again, he could, and he did. He delivered the film by the given date, and thus got his cut. What he ultimately presented was a film that featured homages to lots of films he loved from the past, a sequel that sidelines the most-loved character from the first film for long periods of time, and a feeling that someone was given a lot of toys to play with, and play with them he did.
What’s more, to date, there hasn’t been Gremlins 3, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch is likely the reason for that. Not necessarily because Dante went off-piste with what Warner Bros and audiences would have ordinarily expected from a sequel. But rather because the box office came in low. That the gap between film one and two was long, that the competition that summer was tough, and that the film would ultimately not find a big enough audience on the big screen.
Not that Dante expects that to stop progress of the film altogether. He’s often said that he fully expects there to be a Gremlins 3, one that uses CG, to open up the possibilities of what’s possible, technically, to do. But then as he said back in 2008, and there’s little reason to think this still isn’t the case, the fact that so many options have opened up hasn’t served the storytellers. “CGI Gremlins would have no limitations”, he said, “which is why I think they’ve never been able to get a handle on the story for another one”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the last we heard on the project – from its original writer, Chris Columbus – was that a full-on reboot was the likely way forward. If the project has to go ahead, then you can understand why. Because who, in truth, could follow directly what Dante had put on the screen before? 28 years on, Gremlins 2 remains a blockbuster sequel well worth cherishing…