Twenty-five years years ago, as the 1990 summer movie season was getting underway, audiences had a plethora of Part II’s to choose from. There was Another 48 Hours and Robocop 2, as well as Die Hard 2 and Young Guns II. Heck, there was even a Delta Force 2. With the arguable exception of Renny Harlin’s odd (and oddly appealing) Die Hard follow-up, most of these sequels were lazy attempts to cash in on a familiar brand name. But amid the general blandness, there was one sequel with something new to offer: Gremlins 2: The New Batch, director Joe Dante’s belated (and wonderfully bloated) continuation of his 1984 hit Gremlins, in which an army of green-skinned monsters wreak hilariously horrifying havoc in the small town of Kingston Falls.
The long wait between movies wasn’t intentional; after the first film cleared $150 million, Warner Bros. requested a sequel, but Dante saw no reason to return to that particular well, forcing the studio searched in vain for another director to take over the franchise. As Dante recalls on a commentary track included on the The New Batch DVD, Warner eventually approached him again and told him that he could essentially make whatever film he wanted, just as long as they would be able to call it Gremlins 2. “Given carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, I decided I didn’t want to remake the original picture,” he adds. “I had it in my head to do something that was a comment on sequels in general and the original movie.”
No one would ever confuse Gremlins 2 with being a remake of Gremlins. A relentlessly self-aware and self-reflexive film, The New Batch is a gag-a-minute live action cartoon that merrily comments on everything from corporate culture to genetic engineering, all while breaking the fourth wall and drowning the screen in Gremlins. The nominal plot involves the human heroes of the first movie, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates), reconnecting with the adorable Mogwai Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) at Manhattan’s self-automated Clamp Tower, the home base of fabulously wealthy tycoon Daniel Clamp (John Glover). This time, Billy fully intends to abide by the three rules of Mogwai care — the ones about sunlight, water, and eating after midnight — but Gizmo inevitably gets doused by a spray of water, setting off a chain reaction that results in the Clamp Tower being overrun by ordinary Gremlins, as well as new strains like spider Gremlins, brainy Gremlins and electric Gremlins.
Perhaps because Gremlins 2 departed so much from the Gremlins playbook, audiences didn’t quite know how to react to it at the time. The movie sank quickly in the crowded summer marketplace, earning a full $100 million less than the original. Still, a small, but vocal cult embraced the movie’s excesses and that cult has continued to expand over time. These days, The New Batch is frequently cited on lists of the all-time best sequels, and Dante himself speaks of it with pride. Here, Yahoo Movies writers Ethan Alter and Gwynne Watkins discuss why Gremlins 2 earns its cult reputation and why, at age 25, the movie’s appeal is still timeless.
Watch a trailer for ‘Gremlins 2: The New Batch’
Ethan Alter: I’m only a little ashamed to admit this, but I have stronger memories of reading the novelization of Gremlins 2 than I do watching the movie. Maybe Dante’s anarchic cartoon logic was all too much for me to process at the time and my fragile little mind found the book, which was written by frequent novelizer David Bischoff, more immediately comprehensible. But how’s the movie now? Pretty fantastic, actually. I watched Gremlins and Gremlins 2 back-to-back, and it’s striking to see just how much Dante departed from the standard sequel playbook, which is one reason why the movie developed the passionate following it has. The first film has its comic flourishes, but it’s primarily a loving horror-themed homage to small-town dramas from Hollywood’s Golden Age (it’s no accident that every TV channel is airing some kind of black-and-white classic, like It’s a Wonderful Life), as well as creature features like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which is also glimpsed in the movie).
Gremlins 2 also has human characters you’re actually invested in, even when the Gremlin action kicks in. But the movie has no illusions about who the real stars of the film are, and grants the supporting flesh-and-blood actors a cursory arc at best. I got the sense that the only reason Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are in the movie at all is so that Dante wouldn’t have to bother with forcing a new character to re-learn all the same rules.
The other thing about Gremlins 2 that stood out to me much more now than it did 25 years ago is the corporate satire. It’s not that the movie is particularly subtle in its targets — it’s not subtle at all, in fact — but my younger self had little to no idea who Donald Trump was, and even if I had, I don’t know that I’d appreciate the digs Dante takes at his then-powerful empire. Daniel Clamp isn’t a direct duplicate of Trump, largely because John Glover plays him as a naïve innocent in a high-tech candy store rather than a Bonfire of the Vanities-style Master of the Universe.
But his self-automated domain, Clamp Tower, is clearly intended to be a taller, higher-tech version of Trump Tower. On the commentary track, Dante says that keeping the action confined to one building is ultimately what sold the studio on letting him set the film in New York — they were concerned that a larger Gremlins Take Manhattan approach would cause the budget to skyrocket. That single setting is also more in line with the overall Looney Tunes aesthetic, as those cartoons tended to set their characters down in one place and let them run wild.
So what were your impressions re-watching Gremlins 2? Were you already clued into its cartoon-like nature and corporate satire or was that a discovery for you as well? And I’ll ask you what my 7-year-old asked me right after we finished watching it: Which is your favorite Gremlin?
Gwynne Watkins: Though I’m also a child of the ‘80s, I didn’t see the Gremlins movies until I was an adult — so the satirical elements of Gremlins 2 were never lost on me. But I will say this: When I was a kid, I loved this kind of pop culture satire. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know which Frank Sinatra song was being spoofed on Looney Tunes, or that I’d never seen the Citizen Kane scene used as a punchline on Animaniacs, or that Mad magazine’s movie parodies mostly sailed over my head. I loved the idea of being in on the joke, and peeking through the keyhole at an adult world. There’s a lot less of that now in kids’ entertainment, and it honestly makes me a little sad that my son’s TV shows don’t have Lon Chaney impersonations or Marathon Man gags.
But Gremlins 2 does! This movie is so dense with parodies and sight gags that I’m pretty sure I literally blinked and missed a few upon re-watching. And no target is safe, especially not the first Gremlins film. That moment when Phoebe Cates launches into an absurd monologue about Lincoln’s birthday — a nod to her tragic Christmas story from the original film — might be Dante’s most brutal moment of satire.
As you said, though, the biggest target here is corporate and consumer culture, manifested in the Clamp Center and its Donald Trump-like CEO. What’s astounding is that so much of Dante’s wacky parody is now a reality. Twenty-five years later, “smart buildings” exist; cable TV with hundreds of hyper-specific channels (like Gremlins 2’s Archery Channel) is commonplace; and organic peanut butter cups (which one of the frozen-yogurt customers at the Clamp Center requests) are an actual thing. The NY Times Magazine even ran a piece last year called “The Rise of Canadian Comfort Food in the Big Apple.” (Maybe we should go out tonight and try to track down a chocolate moose?)
Most ironic of all, the Clamp Center — intended as an over-the-top fantasy version of Trump Tower — now looks pretty much exactly like Trump Tower. “It’s supposed to be like the inside of Trump Tower, except the real Trump Tower is dour, not really all that much fun,” Dante told Starlog Magazine in 1990. “This is an idealized version where we actually have a Tiffany’s and a 7-11. It’s what these things should be.“ (Trump Tower now hosts a Gucci flagship store and a Starbucks.)
As prescient as Dante was about these things, the movie really does feel like a Looney Tunes cartoon brought to life. There’s an exaggerated, slapsticky quality to every element of this film, right down to the hats worn by the Clamp Center tour guides (each adorned with a replica of the skyscraper). The Gremlins themselves adhere more to cartoon than real-world logic: They appear and disappear in impossible places, and their only driving motivation (besides eating) seems to be causing mayhem. And where do they get all those props and accessories? Part of what makes Gremlins 2 so delightful is the endless inventiveness of the visual gags: the Phantom of the Opera Gremlin, the vegetable Gremlin, the New York tourist Gremlin.
But unlike Chuck Jones, who can draw Daffy Duck a mallet in one frame and erase it in the next, special-effects artist Rick Baker had to painstakingly build each one of those jokes. Gremlins 2 got me thinking a lot about practical effects, because as cartoon-like as this film is, the Gremlin puppets are its life force. And I don’t think the film would be as charming, or nearly as impressive, if all those creatures were rendered by a computer.
But maybe that’s just my generational bias. What do you think about the effects in Gremlins 2? Would it lose its cartoonish charm if the creatures were actual cartoons? Or is a monster movie with puppets now just a hopelessly old-fashioned idea? Since a Gremlins reboot is in the works, these are important questions!
Ethan: Those are seriously important questions! After re-watching both of the original movies — and, more importantly, watching my kids watch them for the first time — I’m terrified at the prospect of digital Gremlins rampaging through the reported reboot. Obviously, that’s the easier, more cost-effective option these days, and Dante has never tried to hide what a time-suck the Gremlin puppets were to work with. (On the Gremlins 2 commentary track, he reveals that they devoted six full weeks to the puppet-specific sequences after the human actors went home.)
And, honestly, with the right director and effects house, they probably could design a CGI Gizmo that’s just as expressive and has far more range of motion than the Mogwai model seen in the first and second movies. Gremlins 2 in particular strains to give Gizmo more mobility — I’m thinking of that sequence early on where he scuttles down an alleyway and a later scene where he cuts a rug to Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready” in the science lab — but the efforts are a little clumsy and awkward, relying on the critter’s excessive cuteness to make up for the jerky movements.
Still, there’s so much personality in Gizmo’s adorable little face that I think that would just get lost if he moved into the computer realm. Same goes for the scaly Gremlins who run amok through Clamp Tower. Dante’s formative influences were the creature features of the early ‘50s (an era he lovingly recreated in one of his very best movies, 1993’s Matinee), which made alternately sophisticated and highly suspect use of practical special effects like puppetry and model-work. And, to your point, I think the tactility of the Gremlins is what allows for the movie’s cartoonishness.
That’s especially true in Gremlins 2, which has a much more varied cast of Gremlins than we get in the first movie. Besides commenting on genetic engineering —another prescient observation — this plot device also allows for Dante and his effects supervisor, the great Rick Baker (who just announced his retirement earlier this month, which is a national tragedy on par with Cameron Crowe’s Aloha) to run wild with new creature designs, ranging from that Spider Gremlin to the bespectacled brainy one referred to in the book as “Mr. Glasses.” And as much as my kids adore Gizmo, they fell freakin’ in love with Mr. Glasses and his oh-so-tony British voice (contributed by the not-British-at-all star of The Odd Couple, Tony Randall). And it’s specifically that voice coming out of that puppet that they responded to — I just don’t think it would have the same impact if Mr. Glasses existed purely in the animated realm. It’s the same reason why, Muppet Babies aside, Kermit and the rest of the Muppets have never and (fingers crossed) will never receive digital makeovers.
The other two scenes I have to single out for praise are the ones where the Gremlins literally tear down the fourth wall. The Leonard Maltin cameo, where the critic becomes Gremlin food after daring to criticize the original movie, is pretty great, but Dante’s masterstroke is the extended sequence where the film appears to melt inside the camera and his creatures seize control of the projector. A game of shadow puppets is followed by sanitized version of a black-and-white nudie, and then the theater owner has to call upon none other than Hulk Hogan to get the film back on track. (If they pulled this gag today, The Rock would obviously take the Hulkster’s spot.)
The meltdown scene showcases the extent to which Dante used the complete creative control granted to him by the studio. He even conceived an alternate version for the home video release, where the movie appears to suffer from tracking issues (ah, the glory days of VHS!) before cutting to static, and then John Wayne himself enters the frame to do posthumous battle with the Gremlins. (The novelization replicates this intrusion by having Mr. Glasses lock the author in the bathroom and seize control of the narrative for a page or so.) “I spent a lot time trying to ensure there wouldn’t be a Gremlins 3,” Dante cheekily remarks on the commentary track, and it’s true — there’s basically no way to make another movie after your title characters interrupt this one.
Did Hulk Hogan’s cameo tickle your ’80s nostalgia button as well? And were there any moments that just fell flat for you? I know that I cringed a little bit every time that Billy’s chain-smoking boss Marla came onscreen. I appreciate Haviland Morris’s Katharine Hepburn by way of Joan Cusack in Working Girl impression, but I’m not sure that character could have been saved.
Gwynne: Ah, 1990 — a simpler time, when any problem could be solved by Hulk Hogan! He really is the deus ex machine of Gremlins 2. I, too, love it when the Gremlins take over the projection booth. It’s the most thrilling moment of the movie, a gleeful detonation of the fourth wall that shows no one is exempt from the chaos onscreen. On the one hand, the scene hearkens back to those '50s William Castle horror movies Dante loves, which broke the fourth wall with gimmicks like seat buzzers (The Tingler) and skeletons flying over the seats (House on Haunted Hill).
At the same time, the self-referential Gremlins 2 scene was a few years ahead of the game, predicting the meta-horror trend ushered in by Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996). In fact, one of my other favorite scenes in Gremlins 2 — the one where a security guy mercilessly ridicules the “rules” that govern Gremlins, until a Gremlin breaks through the switchboard and attacks him — is practically a blueprint for Scream.
Did any parts of The New Batch fall flat for me? Well, the gags about the Japanese guy with the camera (played by Gedde Watanabe, a.k.a Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles) certainly haven’t aged well. I also find the hammier character actors (Marge from the microwave cooking show, the twins in the genetic lab) much less fun to watch than the ones who play it straight (Christopher Lee, God bless him).
Although Marla the redheaded boss is certainly one of those hammy characters, and I must admit that I like her. Maybe it’s because I have a weakness for that '80s career-woman archetype. I love her power suit with the giant peplum and her corporate-speak dialogue. (When she’s caught in the spider web: “I’m trapped in some sort of adhesive, polymer material and I’m on deadline!”) I want her to start a new corporation with Janine from Ghostbusters and the aforementioned Cynthia from Working Girl. The hair alone would make them unstoppable.
I want to talk a little more about the multitude of film references in Gremlins 2. It’s no wonder that film nerds like us are obsessed with it, because it’s such a love letter to cinema. As we’ve said, it’s mainly an homage to golden-age Hollywood horror. But there’s also a full-on Busby Berkeley musical number, a scene of Gizmo tied to train tracks Perils of Pauline-style, a Gremlin who quotes The Wizard of Oz, and more contemporary references to films like Rambo and Marathon Man. (How great is that Marathon Man gag, with Daffy the cross-eyed Gremlin squealing “Is it safe?” In answer to one of your earlier questions: Daffy is my favorite Gremlin.)
There’s an urgency to these fast-and-furious references, like Dante tried to pack in every movie that came into his head while he was filming. Maybe he was mourning the rise of cable TV, which in Gremlins 2 is largely portrayed as dull and pandering. As much as the Gremlins breed violence and chaos, they also bring the magic of movies back to the grey, computer-controlled Clamp Center. Clearly, the filmmaker sides with the Gremlins.
One thing we haven’t touched on is the genre of Gremlins and Gremlins 2 — they’re horror comedies, which is a form that probably peaked in the '80s. But it’s a tricky thing to pull off. Gremlins is actually kind of scary; Gremlins 2, not so much. Does it matter?
Ethan: The other appropriate thing about The Wizard of Oz gag in Gremlins 2 is that it echoes the first movie — Kingston Falls’s resident crotchety old lady, Mrs. Deagle, is introduced in precisely the same manner as Miss Gulch, the Toto-obsessed cyclist that Dorothy later encounters in the land over the rainbow as the Wicked Witch of the West. Miss Deagle’s fate is a little different, of course (death by stair lift as opposed to bucket of water), but it speaks to Dante’s rolodex of references. I also love the completely random Phantom of the Opera homage he throws in there, something that he even admits on the commentary track is completely unnecessary.
My current favorite reference, though, is the one I only just figured out on this re-watch. It involves the last scene, where Clamp’s right-hand man, Frank (played by Robert Picardo of Star Trek: Voyager fame), is locked in a bathroom with the last surviving Gremlin: a Veronica Lake-style dame with long, flowing green hair and blood-red lips. He’s been resisting her forced affections all this time, but in the final shot of the movie, he finally gives in and sinks to the floor, a resigned smile creeping over his face.
As a kid, my imagination only traveled so far as to the implications of Frank’s moment of surrender. Seeing it now, those implications are a little more obvious, but I’m also convinced there’s another, very specific reason Dante ended the film this way. Simply put, it’s his homage to one of the most famous conclusions in movie history, the last scene in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, when Jack Lemmon’s Daphne finally fesses up to her paramour, Joe E. Brown’s Osgood Fielding III, that “she” is really a “he.” “Well, nobody’s perfect,” Osgood replies, and the two continue to speed away to their happy ending. Frank doesn’t come out and say, “Nobody’s perfect,” but that smile is absolutely his Osgood moment.
I don’t know that the horror comedy genre necessarily peaked in the ‘80s; I feel like I see at least two or three attempts every year or so, and while a lot of them are middling to awful, the ones that work — I’m counting Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Bride of Chucky and, yes, even Club Dread amongst that number — are pretty great. But I do agree that it’s a tricky balancing act to walk, and as you pointed out, the two Gremlins movies approach their blend of “horror” and “comedy” in noticeably different ways, with the first going for more scares while the second concentrates solely on laughs. And really, that was the only way Dante could have approached Gremlins 2 if he wanted to follow through with his stated intention of making a follow-up that didn’t just remake its predecessor — a common sequel trap.
Now, it’s worth noting that audiences at the time didn’t appear to agree with his choice, as Gremlins 2 grossed far less than the wildly successful original: Gremlins earned over $150 million in 1984, while The New Batch barely cleared $40 million six years later. And I can certainly see viewers who loved the “boo” moments in Gremlins being disappointed with the way Gremlins 2 studiously avoids any hint of horror. Even the movie’s goriest sequence — the Gremlin that Clamp stuffs into a paper shredder — is so comically over the top, it bears a closer resemblance to the infamous restaurant scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life than a Friday the 13th murder. I have a feeling that if and when the Gremlins reboot happens, it will hearken back to the spirit of the original film, which had its comic flourishes without going completely off the deep end.
And you know what? I actually prefer that. I wouldn’t want the next Gremlins to try and imitate Gremlins 2. The charm of the film — and, I suspect, a primary reason for its cult following — is that you can’t replicate all the elements that make it tick. It’s a sui generis sequel, one that was only possible because of Warner Bros.’s hands-off attitude and Dante’s determination to never settle and make the obvious choice. (Funnily enough, that’s the exact combination that also resulted in this year’s jaw-dropping blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road. And that’s another movie I don’t think anyone will ever be able to imitate, including George Miller.) No matter what the future of the Gremlins franchise holds, The New Batch will always feel surprising and…well, new.
Gwynne: Yes, that Phantom homage might be totally superfluous, but think about how much care Joe Dante took to set it up! First we see the vials of acid in the genetics lab, helpfully labeled “Acid – Do Not Throw In Face.” Then we see a Gremlin get hit with the acid during a skirmish, and another Gremlin hands him the iconic half-mask. By the time he reappears playing the pipe organ, that Gremlin has been outfitted with a scarred face and a full Lon Chaney sneer. In the end, I think that’s what I most admire about Gremlins 2: The New Batch: that total commitment to each sublimely silly detail.
I also love how Dante ends the movie by pointing the target at himself. The whole movie is drenched in nostalgia for a bygone era of films and small town values. But in the end, Grandpa Fred — the steward of those classic drive-in horror movies — gives up the Dracula act to become a news anchor. For a moment, it looks like Mr. Clamp has seen the errors of his materialism, saying that the Clamp Center “wasn’t a place for people — it was a place for things. And when you build a place for things, things come.” But then he quickly turns his attention to his next project: creating a new, modernized version of Billy and Kate’s beloved hometown Kingston Falls. The Gremlins are vanquished (except for Frank’s blushing bride), corporate culture bulldozes on, and everyone leaves smiling.
I agree that the Gremlins reboot would be wise to adapt the tone of the first movie, rather than the second. (And you’re right, it was unfair to say that the horror-comedy genre peaked in the '80s when Shaun of the Dead wasn’t yet a gleam in Edgar Wright’s eye.) Gremlins 2 wouldn’t be half as much fun without the knowledge, carried over from the original Gremlins, that these creatures are capable of being genuinely scary and evil. That said, have you seen the amazing fan film that puts the Gremlins into Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman, Goonies, and The Exorcist? It makes me think that the Gremlins still have a few great Hollywood spoofs left in them.
We’ve just received the sad news of Christopher Lee’s death this week, so it seems fitting to end with a word about him. Joe Dante specifically sought him out for the role of mad scientist Dr. Catheter, because of his love for Lee’s classic Hammer Horror films. (There was even a Dracula joke for him in the original script; the scene was cut, but appears as a DVD extra.) If Gremlins 2 mourns the golden age of filmmaking, Lee’s career is a wonderful illustration of how Hollywood continually reinvents itself. From Dracula to The Wicker Man, from the Star Wars prequels to The Lord of the Rings, Lee never stopped being a star — but the fantasy and horror genres evolved, expanded, and gave him a whole new showcase for his villainous charisma. In Gremlins 2, Lee is a delight, spoofing himself with gusto, but never forgoing that trademark dignity. It might be his most fun role ever, and today, it seems a fitting one to remember him by.
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