We Monsters

From the Chicago Reader (June 29, 1990). A more recent look at this sequel shows that it dates badly, even (and perhaps especially) with all its Trump references. Its gibes all remain on the same level, even when they’re funny, so that it never becomes disturbing (as its predecessor does) or provocative. — J.R.

GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH

***

Directed by Joe Dante

Written by Charlie Haas

With Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, Haviland Morris, Keye Luke, and Dick Miller.

A cautionary tale set in a Frank Capra universe, Joe Dante’s original Gremlins (1984) gives us a kindhearted, unsuccessful inventor named Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) who buys a furry little creature called Mogwai as a Christmas present for his teenage son Billy (Zach Galligan). He finds Mogwai in Chinatown, in a curio shop run by the sage Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), who doesn’t want to sell it, but Wing’s practical-minded grandson, who says they need the money, arranges the deal anyway. Peltzer is warned to follow three rules of animal maintenance: keep Mogwai out of the light, don’t get it wet, and, above all, never feed it after midnight. After Peltzer brings it home, he names the pet Gizmo, reflecting his own taste in crackpot inventions.

After Billy inadvertently breaks all three of the rules, the creature replicates into several more of its kind, which evolve in turn into sinister, malicious beasts. They multiply still further and very nearly take over the town of Kingston Falls — a dead ringer for the town of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life – but are all, with the exception of Mogwai, finally destroyed. To seal the high moral tone, Mr. Wing turns up to reclaim Mogwai, telling Peltzer, “You do with Mogwai what your society has done to all of nature’s gifts. You do not understand. You are not ready.”

This may constitute the “story” of Gremlins, but the thrust of the movie actually lies elsewhere — in a contradiction and repudiation of everything the story seems to be saying on the surface. Just as cute Mogwai becomes a gaggle of monsters, Gremlins in effect conjures up a second movie, diametrically opposed to the first, that gleefully assaults everything the first movie holds sacred: Christmas, Norman Rockwell’s America, consumer society, and good old-fashioned family entertainment. And while the moral side of the movie can be taken as either sincere or cynical, the amoral side seems to break up like the gremlins themselves into an infinity of possible meanings. The marauding beasties can be plausibly read at various points as adolescents, preadolescents, blacks, rednecks, Native Americans, cowboys, Walt Disney fans, chainsaw killers, bums, bikers–anyone can add to the list. It is important to stress, however, that they are true-blue American. Though Mogwai starts off associated with Chinese culture, gremlins are clearly the product of American recklessness; a running gag that continues into Gremlins 2 is the xenophobic neighbor (Dick Miller) who automatically associates every problem that comes up with a foreign invasion of some kind. Furthermore, it’s faintly implied in both Gremlins and its sequel that TV, which Wing despises, has a corrupting effect on Mogwai quite apart from the accidents that lead to his proliferation.

In Gremlins 2 The New Batch, things are on the whole much simpler. For one thing, it might be said that the gremlins here are simply us — nasty little consumers who are just a bit more obvious about their predilections and temperaments than we are. Indeed, one of them, after drinking a “brain hormone” in a mad scientist’s laboratory — a site for genetic research called Splice o’ Life — becomes downright articulate and urbane (with a voice supplied by Tony Randall), and when asked just what it is the gremlins want, he coolly replies, “Civilization: chamber music, the Geneva convention, Susan Sontag.”

Billy’s inventor father is mentioned once, but he never reappears; both his narrative function and his malfunctioning gadgets are taken over by Daniel Clamp (John Glover), a Manhattan development tycoon based on Donald Trump and Ted Turner, whom Billy and his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) both work for. The “fully automated” Clamp Centre with its omnipresent surveillance and PA systems, where practically the entire movie is set, is already a dysfunctional totalitarian monstrosity long before the gremlins get loose in it, and this time there’s no indication that the world disrupted by the gremlins is even remotely worth saving. Clamp himself is too silly and innocent to register as a proper villain — a designation assigned only in passing to a company hatchet man (Robert Picardo) and, to a lesser extent, to an ambitious chain-smoking supervisor (Haviland Morris) trying to lure Billy away from Kate.

Unlike its predecessor, Gremlins 2 has no ambiguous attitudes about its world and its characters, or any subversive agenda apart from its up-front satire. What you see and hear is what you get; it’s often funny but never very profound. The movie invites you to get lost in its amusing details, but it lacks both the suspense and the occasional scariness of the original.

“[My films] aren’t mainstream movies and I’m not a mainstream director,” says Joe Dante in the July issue of Cinefantastique magazine.

“Long, isn’t it?” remarks Daffy Duck while the end credits of Gremlins 2 are rolling; then, somewhat later, “Patently ridiculous”; and finally, “Still lurking about? Don’t you people have homes?”

One might argue that Dante and Daffy are making the same basic point. Both times I saw Gremlins 2 – first at a crowded press show, then at a sparse weekday matinee — the message came through loud and clear. At the press show, by the time Daffy started joshing those of us who were still hanging around — unwilling to let go of a movie that had afforded us so much pleasure, and also pretty sure that Dante, our soulmate, would reward us for staying (as indeed he did) — the more mainstream reviewers in our midst, those fellows who are generally the last to arrive and the first to leave, had long since departed.

Quite literally, Daffy and Dante weren’t speaking to these guys at all. And when it came to the weekday matinee, all the mothers and baby-sitters had bustled off their kids long before the first of Daffy’s interjections; by the time of the last wisecrack, I was the only one left, apart from a few ushers who were cleaning up.

This may help to explain why a movie like Dick Tracy is beating Dante’s at the box office. Like its predecessor, Gremlins 2 is basically a puppet (and Muppet) show that’s democratic and easygoing, without the tyranny imposed by either stars or an assertive story; and by beginning as well as ending with what appears to be a Warner Brothers cartoon, it can’t be said to have a clearly demarcated start or finish the way that conventional consumer products do. (Although it’s long been unavailable in this country, apparently due to rights problems, the hilarious 1941 Olsen and Johnson comedy Hellzapoppin – which probably wasn’t much of a commercial success either–provides a model for many of the wildest self-referential gags here.) Dick Tracy, by contrast, which is totally unambiguous about when it starts and stops, is oligarchic, spastic, and so ruled by stars and story that there’s not much space left for anything else. Consumption rather than engagement is what the big summer hits are all about — a situation that reminds me of the children’s drinking cup that has “the end” written on the bottom. Experiences like Gremlins 2, no matter how much fun and full of surprises they are, tend to be rather amorphous and open-ended, but things like Warren Beatty, Madonna, Tom Cruise, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are quantifiable and easier to market.

The point of a movie like Gremlins 2 isn’t really consumption at all, at least not in the usual sense. It’s a movie that you spend an evening with as you would with a friend, enjoying its company; it doesn’t ask you to grovel at its feet or to be spoon-fed by it. By contrast, Warren Beatty’s grandiose idea of moviemaking, harking back to the tradition of David O. Selznick, treats the audience like grateful inferiors, and, sad to say, it works. Dante’s apparently less mainstream position is that all those people out there in the dark are his equals.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating the difference; after all, the original Gremlins, which was pretty democratic as well, and almost as easygoing, grossed over $200 million worldwide, and it lacked both stars and very much narrative. But one of the main ideas of the sequel is how much things have changed in only six years — even more than the move from small-town America to Manhattan implies. Mr. Wing, whose curio shop is the only obstacle to a Clamp development project, dies during an ellipsis in the opening reel, and the only elder statesman who comes anywhere near replacing him is, significantly, a disgruntled TV actor — Grandpa Fred (Robert Prosky), an old-time vaudevillian who introduces horror movies on TV in a cape and heavy makeup. (He’s the one who winds up an impromptu talk-show host, interviewing the brainy gremlin on Clamp’s own cable channel.

Perhaps the biggest single difference between Gremlins 2 and its predecessor is the degree of urgency and discovery in each picture. Executive producer Steven Spielberg’s original idea for the first Gremlins was that it would be a fairly straight horror film, and Dante’s goofiness edged it more and more into comedy while it was being shot. (Spielberg should be credited, however, with protecting the movie’s most curious and creepy scene from suppression by other executives: the teenage heroine Kate’s deadpan black-comedy monologue about her father being discovered dead in a chimney when she was nine, dressed as Santa Claus and with a broken neck — a monologue that becomes the reference-point for an elaborate gag about Lincoln’s birthday in Gremlins 2.) If, formally speaking, Dante went all the way back to French film pioneer Georges Melies for certain aspects of his visual inspiration (as Terry Gilliam did in a different way in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) — reviving a sense of pure spectacle that periodically suspended the narrative by concentrating on extended creature-laden tableaux — he still provided enough of the usual generic payoffs to keep the consumption freaks satisfied. This time, while the tableau principle is again at work, the generic payoffs seem a good deal more perfunctory, and apart from the satire, there’s less framework and context for most of the action. Gremlins taking over a fancy New York skyscraper is more of a premise than a plot, and the characters don’t exist independently of this premise.

Nearly all the dark elements in the original are kept firmly under wraps. Nobody dies this time except for the mad scientist — an updated Dr. Moreau type called Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee), who is more a juicy movie icon than a character in his own right. There’s also much less cruelty here, nothing like the stingy old lady in Gremlins – fashioned after Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life and Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz – who fantasizes about torturing Billy’s beloved dog, or the gremlins’ hanging the same dog from the porch ceiling with a string of Christmas-tree lights.

Ever since Gremlins, Dante has seemed the most intelligent and progressive of the postmodernist Hollywood directors to have evolved under Spielberg’s sponsorship, a group that includes, among others, Tobe Hooper, animator Don Bluth, and Robert Zemeckis. (I should point out that “Dante” should be read here as auteurist shorthand for Dante and his production team — which includes such regulars as producer Michael Finnell, cinematographer John Hora, and production designer James Spencer, as well as screenwriter Charlie Haas and coproducer Rick Baker, who supervised the special effects.) Despite his compulsive citations of other movies (more plentiful than ever in Gremlins 2, which endears him to film buffs but may leave the rest of the audience out in the cold) Dante can’t be written off as a copycat. He always applies his encyclopedic knowledge of movies with critical discernment and imagination, and he’s plainly having a field day in Gremlins 2.

Conceptually speaking, however, his new film is less fresh and audacious than his episode for Twilight Zone–The Movie or his features Innerspace and The ‘Burbs, and even its best moments never match the queasiness of the climactic sequence in Explorers. The reasons for this seem to be twofold. The special-effects work, while excellent, is so extensive that it tends to swamp any conceptual basis behind it — a problem that to my mind also works against certain portions of Hitchcock’s The Birds (which Dante seems to be using here as a frequent reference point). And the fact that Dante made this movie in the first place appears to be the consequence more of the studio’s desperation to develop a sequel than of any driving inspiration on his part. Nevertheless, it’s good to have the little nasties back again, if only for the good sense that they manage to convey about the times we’re living in — specifically, the Clamp Centre that we’re all trapped inside — and what to do about them.

This entry was posted in Featured Texts. Bookmark the permalink.