Three decades later, Joe Dante’s gleefully anarchic monster-movie sequel remains an underappreciated cult classic.
Almost immediately after the original Gremlins was released in 1984 and became one of the year’s most unexpected hits, Warner Brothers began contemplating a sequel and asked filmmaker Joe Dante to return to the director’s chair. Dante ended up rebuffing the offer—partly because of a certain degree of burnout relating to the first film’s massive technical challenges but mostly because he saw the original as a complete story and the only possible rationale for a follow up would be to simply make more money.
Needless to say, the studio had no problem with that and continued to pursue the notion of a sequel over the next few years with others without any success while Dante went off to make such films as the lovely-but-compromised Explorers (1985), the brilliant sci-fi/comedy Innerspace (1987) and the future cult favorite The ‘Burbs (1989). Finally conceding that perhaps Dante was responsible for at least some of the success of Gremlins (the ads for the first all but ignored him to play up the presence of executive producer Steven Spielberg), the studio once again asked him to direct, this time throwing in the sweeteners of a vastly increased budget and complete creative control.
Realizing that he had been given the rare chance to do virtually anything he wanted, Dante agreed. The result, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, would prove to be one of the wildest and most anarchic projects produced by a major studio during its time — and certainly the craziest sequel to hit theaters since Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).
As noted, Dante initially turned down the project because he could not see a way of continuing a story that already seemed to come to a satisfying conclusion. Where could you go from there? Make them bigger? Make them wetter? Send them to a new locale like Vegas or Mars (ideas which had actually been batted around by the studio during their search for a director)?
After Dante began to work with screenwriter Charlie Haas, they came up with two key bits of inspiration. The first was the decision to relocate the setting from the quaint little town of Kingston Falls to New York City and make one of the key characters a billionaire named Daniel Clamp (John Glover) who owned a vast multinational conglomerate known as the Clamp Corporation. When it was determined that having gremlins running loose on the streets of the city would be too expensive, the idea came to set nearly all of the action within the walls of Clamp’s headquarters, a vast “smart building” that housed everything from a genetics lab to a cable network and contained all sorts of technical innovations just begging to be tampered with by certain creatures.
Although presumably a coincidence, the notion of setting the action inside a building cannot help but recall Die Hard (1988) which had come out two years earlier but had not yet ascended to its peak on the pop-cultural mountain. That, along with the inclusion of a character clearly inspired in part by Trump (though Clamp proves to be more benignly goofy than outright evil) adds a certain amount of inadvertent frisson to the proceedings.
…one of the wildest and most anarchic projects produced by a major studio during its time…
The other stroke of genius came when it was decided to take the very pointlessness of doing a Gremlins 2—a concept that only the marketing department could fully embrace—and make that the point. While the original movie essentially served as a satire of both the ‘50s-era monster movies that Dante grew up watching and the cinematic celebrations of small-town America conjured up by the likes of Frank Capra, the chief satirical targets of Gremlins 2 would be the original film and Hollywood’s propensity to make unnecessary sequels to hit films that were usually bigger, louder and more expensive than their predecessors but which rarely came close to their ultimate accomplishments.
There’s a nominal plot of sorts—Billy (Zach Galligan), who works at the Clamp building with longtime girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates), is reunited with Gizmo, Gizmo gets wet and multiples and the hordes of creatures run wild as our heroes try to prevent them from escaping the building and getting loose in the city. But it basically serves as a tenuous laundry line for a relentless series of sight gags, puns (the most infamous occurring during a visit to a restaurant specializing in Canadian cuisine), non-sequiturs, in-jokes and as many bits of pure insanity as Dante and Haas could devise.
Dante has cited the surreal Olsen & Johnson comedy classic Hellzapoppin (1941) as an influence; one of the best-known jokes—in which the gremlins supposedly sneak into the projection booth of your theater and screw around until a famous member of the “audience” sets them straight—is a direct homage.
Many of the funniest jokes are the ones that specifically poke fun at the first film, including a group of incredulous people poking holes in the logic of the sacrosanct rules regarding the care and feeding of a Mogwai, a reprise of Kate’s traumatic story of how she discovered there was no Santa Claus and even the merchandising. Even film critic Leonard Maltin turns up to reiterate his negative review of the original Gremlins at one extremely meta moment. The self-satire is such an important component that it almost feels as if it had somehow managed to merge with its own eventual MAD Magazine spoof.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Gremlins 2 is how Dante was able to take a project that was put into production for the most overtly mercenary of reasons and transformed it into, with the possible exception of Matinee (1993), arguably the most personal of his features. It’s self-indulgent, but the kind of self-indulgence that most movie buffs could easily embrace. He managed to lure legendary animator Chuck Jones out of retirement to provide a couple of minutes of new animation featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to open the film. He also not only brought back veteran character actor/good luck charm Dick Miller as the paranoid Mr. Futterman (already a triumph considering that the last time we saw him, a snowplow was going through his house) but gave him an expanded role that allowed him some genuine heroics.
More than that, Gremlins 2 is perhaps the purest example of Dante’s cinematic attitude. From the earliest days of his career with the infamous super-sized compilation The Movie Orgy (1968), Dante has always demonstrated an unabashed love for American popular culture that is nevertheless often tempered with a critique of its excesses. This film is like watching a pop culture bomb exploding and then gleefully exploring the residue left behind. You see everything from movie parodies (Dames, Marathon Man, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? with Tony Randall as the voice of the erudite “Brain Gremlin”) to rock music (turns out Gizmo really digs Fats Domino) to the expanding world of cable television and beyond is grist for laughs, and nearly all of them stick.
And yet, having been given a free hand to make exactly the movie he wanted, Dante then had to sit back and watch as it was essentially rejected by the marketplace. Part of this was perhaps the inevitable result taking so long to get the film up and running that audiences had moved on to other things. The other reason for its lack of success would prove to be just as mercenary as the impulse behind its existence.
When hired, the only real stipulation that Dante was given by Warner Brothers was that it had to be ready for a Memorial Day weekend release. He was set to go, but at the last second the studio got nervous about the tracking numbers for one of the other big summer titles, Warren Beatty’s hugely expensive and star-studded Dick Tracy. Fearing that it might break the opening weekend gross record set the previous year by Warner’s Batman, decided to shift Gremlins 2: The New Batch to the same weekend in the hopes of drawing away enough viewers to keep it from outdoing their prized property. The record stood, but it still wound up being trounced by Dick Tracy. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, its release proved to be sadly short-lived.
Dante never got a chance to work with that level of control again, and his experience making the delightful Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003), which was made for a less accepting Warner regime, was so fraught with tension that he basically abandoned working for them altogether. He now bounces between indie films like The Hole (2009) and Burying the Ex (2014) and television assignments.
Gremlins 2 is perhaps the purest example of Dante’s cinematic attitude.
Although Gremlins 2 would be tagged as a failure in the short run and help short-circuit Dante’s career with the studios, it would get rediscovered and reevaluated in later years and become one of the rare movie sequels to be generally regarded as superior to the original. By 2015, its position as a cult classic was solidified to the point where the comedy team of Key and Peele based one of the best sketches from their acclaimed TV show around how a movie so deliriously strange could have come to exist in the first place.
Like so many of the creatures seen in the Clamp genetics lab, Gremlins 2: The New Batch was a wild mutant of a movie that was too weird to survive for long in the marketplace. However, unlike most of the movies from that era, it has more than stood the test of time and continues to reign as the most lovingly loopy would-be blockbuster sequel to make it through the studio system in one piece.