Like everything else in Joe Dante’s wonderfully bizarre Gremlins 2, the odder the reference, the better the joke. And few things could have been more odd than Phoebe Cates’ Kate Beringer recalling how her father died dressed as Santa Claus upon a Christmas Eve past when he got stuck in her family’s chimney during the first movie’s supposedly spooky third act.
But in Gremlins 2, Dante and Gizmo find a way to make things even weirder when Ms. Cates hilariously adds a new wrinkle into the sacred Gremlins mythology by recollecting the horrors of what happened to her…on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday! Now did she mean Feb. 12 or Presidents’ Day? Like the movie’s plot, it’s hard to tell the intention other than pure madcap insanity. As with all madness, there’s a certain level of genius at work that elevates Gremlins 2: The New Batch into the rarified air of being superior to its predecessor, a fact so few ‘80s nostalgists realize.
There is no denying that the original Gremlins movie is a 1980s Amblin classic with all that entails. In the aftermath of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), there was no bigger household name than Steven Spielberg, the charming blockbuster auteur who was producing one masterpiece after another with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (everyone gives him a mulligan on 1941). This string of pure family popcorn bliss was so profitable that he founded Amblin Entertainment in 1981 with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall to expand his growing name brand to a series of parent-trusted thrill rides, making him that decade’s closest equivalent to a living Walt Disney.
Before 1990 rolled around, Amblin would produce The Goonies, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Land Before Time, and a series of other reliably entertaining all-ages flicks. The unofficial member of this list also would include 1982’s Poltergeist, which like E.T., brought the strange and supernatural to an otherwise picturesque image of small-town America, set somewhere between Bedford Falls and Hitchcock’s version of Santa Rosa.
When Dante was hired to film Chris Columbus’ script based on a World War II era superstition, it became steeped in the kind of storytelling that Amblin was known for, and of which Dante was also a fan. Set in Kingston Falls, likely a few counties over from George and Zuzu Bailey in Bedford, Gremlins is a touching story of Small Town, USA being attacked by ferocious creatures who do wicked things. In the midst of it all, young and strapping Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and girl next door sweetheart Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) embark on a coming-of-age…let’s cut to what people care about: nasty little critters that do lovably mean-spirited things to the local bumpkins.
The thing is, nobody exactly knows what a gremlin is. Originally a gallows humor gag about why planes crashed amongst the RAF during the Second World War, the term endured largely thanks to a Roald Dahl book and a hilarious Warner Bros. cartoon short featuring Bugs Bunny from 1943. And it is like a Looney Tunes cartoon that Dante approaches these creatures’ logic. Sure, they may start all cute and cuddly like a next-generation ET when in mogwai form—seriously what is cuter than Gizmo?—but add a dash of water and some late night feeding, and you have little monsters that will run you over with a bulldozer and then laugh about it at a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Gremlins is at its best when Gizmo is warming audiences’ hearts by singing for attention or when his own progeny is throwing darts at him before murdering the mean old female Mr. Potter across the street. The rest of the holiday suburbia they can keep. Hence why Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a hidden gem in the wasteland of cash-in sequels.
Despite making barely a quarter of the 1984 original’s domestic box office take, The New Batch is the mayhem of choice for any discerning Gremlin (voiced by Tony Randall). And that’s probably because there is a Gremlin voiced by Tony Randall doing a solid cover of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” in this movie! There’s also everything from Leonard Maltin to Hulk Hogan in-between with John Wayne making a posthumous cameo on the VHS version.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch has an ever-increasing value nearly 25 years on from its 1990 release because it is a merciless satire of Hollywood sequel formulae. As the movie industry continues to build their entire calendar around sequels, prequels, and even side-quels, Dante found himself in a rare position by the time he shot the second Gremlins movie in 1989: he had complete creative control over a sequel he had no interest in making.
The story, as thin as it is, of the original movie had a definite conclusion when Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) appears at Billy’s front door to reclaim Gizmo from the lad and all his lazy, American counterparts who lack the responsibility to raise a mogwai. There was no more story for Dante, but Warner Bros. and Amblin were eager to franchise Gremlins even after six years had passed since the original film. Thus, Dante got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, so he made the ultimate sequel: a self-hating film that is a mockery of not only the first movie, but also of the concept of sequels in general.
If the best part of Gremlins was the nasty affluent neighbor getting hers, then the sequel would be crawling with Mr. Potters. And where could you find a finer collection of scummy, indifferent narcissists just waiting to become mogwai chow than in New York City? By simply relocating the narrative to a state-of-the-art Manhattan high-rise run by a Ted Turner wannabe (John Glover), Dante immediately cultivates an environment to be as wacky and nasty to his characters as possible while maintaining audience approval.
Many axes are ground to the sharpest of points, such as Glover’s Daniel Clamp having an incessant obsession with colorizing Casablanca, much like the real Turner’s crusade to colorize Citizen Kane (one can also see Glover watching a colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life when a Gremlin comes to kill him in the film). Likewise, career-oriented business folk also end up on the chopping block for Gremlin attacks in the picture. Even the aforementioned Maltin was obviously game for a joke, as he appears on one of Clamp’s cable shows trashing the VHS release of the original Gremlins for its gleeful violence (much as he actually maligned the picture in real life) before being devoured by the Gremlins themselves.
However, the real heart of the movie is announced early when the WB logo is interrupted for a Chuck Jones animated short of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny doing battle over starring in the flick. This kind of fourth-wall shattering humor is what Gremlins 2 thrives on. The first movie was a product of the Amblin oeuvre with its heartwarming storybook logic, as epitomized by the three rules of the mogwai: don’t let them into sunlight (it kills them), don’t get them wet, and don’t feed them after midnight.
However, the sequel openly mocks these childlike decrees when the Clamp Media control room staff grill Billy about how a creature like the mogwai could exist in a world with shifting time zones. If a mogwai was on a plane between New York and LA, could you feed it at 11pm on West Coast time? If it is jet lagged, is everyone on the plane a goner?
Even Billy and Kate’s story is purely incidental to get straight to the Gremlin mischief. They have moved to New York and conveniently work at the same media empire that is performing nasty experiments on Gizmo when Mr. Wing dies in the first five minutes. This obviously facilitates Billy coming to Gizmo’s rescue by stealing him away from the mad scientists a few floors up…and then immediately getting the world’s cutest would-be muppet wet.
Besides still not being married and living in the same apartment—good luck getting that into a family film these days—Billy and Kate have not changed one iota. Instead, they mostly react to Gizmo and get the ball rolling for Gremlin fun. Normally, such lackluster development in a sequel would be a handicap to the film, but it is just clearing the deck for cameos like Christopher Lee as the mad scientist who wishes to play god with Gizmo. Little does he know that Gizmo is this world’s god: a furry creature who is now treated like the merchandising golden goose, dancing to Fats Domino and literally being synergized by Billy’s corporate marketing overlords onscreen, giving audiences their first visible taste of “toyetics.” Plus, by the end of the film, Gizmo is dressing like Sylvester Stallone from Rambo: First Blood Part II and turning paperclips into deadly weapons. Who wouldn’t follow that into battle?
Yet, the best sequence of Gremlins 2, crystallizing its strangeness, remains at the halfway mark when Gremlins literally burn out the movie’s film reel, causing the screen to go blank as they perform shadow puppets on the screen. Apparently a boon with audiences surprised to see the movie “stop” in 1990, at least until Hulk Hogan scares the Gremlins into starting the picture up again, the movie has an even more hilarious little-seen alternate take on this sequence from its original 1991 VHS release. On the cassette, the VCR tracking tape goes haywire and the Gremlins confiscate the TV, changing the channel again and again until they land on a John Wayne movie, and Wayne shoots the little varmints dead, permitting the movie to proceed. Now mostly a YouTube novelty, the sister sequences remain one of the savviest examples of breaking the fourth wall this side of Mel Brooks.
All of these tricks help hide the fact that the movie is essentially the same story as the first film, except now without feeling. Billy takes adorable Gizmo home (or to his office in this case), and sets him off on mischief. But looking back, despite Gizmo’s cuteness, the sentimentality of the first film ranks in a distant last for all that movie’s charms. Rather, the film is remembered for Billy’s mom slicing and dicing Gremlins in the kitchen, and the little suckers singing Christmas carols outside the home of their next intended victim. The feel-good stuff only ever felt serviceable at best. Why feature more family time when we can have Bat-Gremlins and Electro-Gremlins running amok?
Gremlins 2: The New Batch is ultimately pure anarchy, a true descendent of the Warner Bros. cartoons with its unencumbered imagination allowed to run wild. It’s a movie unafraid to stop the climax dead in its tracks for the “New York, New York” musical number that gets mashed-up with a Woody Allen-inspired use of “Rhapsody in Blue,” and a randomly brilliant homage to the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney Sr. A free-wheeling journey into Dante’s mind, the movie feels akin to being trapped inside Arkham Asylum (Batman also gets a shout-out) with Daffy Duck cartoons running on a loop. To list all the meta-hysteria is a fool’s errand, but to notice how unlike its 1984 successor it tends to be is not.
The first Gremlins is a product of a studio system determined to make thrilling, but approachable family entertainment with a slight edge (Gremlins is credited along with Spielberg’s very own Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for facilitating the PG-13 rating). Dante may have added a tongue firmly in his cheek, which allowed the movie to rise above, say, Harry and the Hendersons (also Amblin), but it also created a movie at odds with itself. When Gizmo and friends are not onscreen, viewers don’t know if they should take Phoebe Cates wistfully tearing up about dear old dad being found dead in the Christmas Eve fireplace seriously or not. Purportedly, even Spielberg was perplexed by the sequence and suggested it be removed, but left the decision to Dante. But in Gremlins 2, not only is the audience on board with her Presidents’ Day soliloquy, they should be ready to salute the valor it takes to make a punchline of itself.