It has long been said that there is no better time to talk about Gremlins than now, and we are nothing if not slaves to that axiom. So, listen ye now to our various thoughts on Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or else we’ll tamper with your stairlift.
What present do you get the child whose father thinks he has invented just about everything? In the case of patent botherer cum travelling salesman Randall Peltzer, you take a detour through Chinatown and come home with a hitherto unidentified creature called a Mogwai. Basically a biologically functional kids plush with the cute dialled up to 11, a Mogwai seems the ideal family pet; placid, cuddly, and on the face of it pretty low maintenance. As Randall gifts the creature (now named Gizmo) to his son Billy (Zach Galligan), he does however have a set of rules by which the young lad must abide: bright light is debilitating and sunlight can be fatal, they don’t react well to water, and you must never, ever, under any circumstance feed them after midnight. Unless, of course, you want a plot to happen, in which case have at it.
It’s not long before Billy inadvertently breaks two of those rules, and Gizmo first multiplies into an assortment of deranged clones which then themselves mutate into a murderous menace the likes of which the sleepy town of Kingston Falls is entirely unprepared for. Small town stereotypes inevitably fall foul of the gremlin army, whose amusingly anarchic endeavours see them dispatch the townsfolk in a multitude of inventive ways, all the while having a whale of time as they manifest their brand of madness in a mode somewhere between Halloween’s Michael Meyers and the cast of Jackass.
Indeed the most fun is to be had spending time with the gremlins rather than any of their human castmates, or Gizmo for that matter, which makes them either the movie’s best asset or it’s biggest problem, depending on how you look at it. If you’ve somehow avoided Gremlins so far in your life I defy you not to have a whale of a time as we watch leader Stripe and his cohorts trash bars, run snow ploughs through houses and launch old ladies out of top floor windows at the end of turbo-enabled stairlifts. If you’re expecting the same level of engagement with the human cast as they make their way enthusiastically yet ever so-slightly workmanlike through Chris Columbus’ script, well…it ain’t gonna happen; not that I suggest Zach Galligan be the one to lay waste to a cinema or attempt to strangle a dog with a string of fairy lights, but you get where I’m going with this.
Harking from a time where Eastern motifs in popular culture were convenient shorthand for “mystery and intrigue” (the “quantum” of their day, if you will), Gremlins is an odd film to revisit now. Having set the box office alight and captured the hearts and imagination of a generation with its blend of “how is this PG?” violence and screwball antics, a quick de-misting of the nostalgia goggles reveals a family film that’s not really suitable for the family, a horror film that’s not really horrifying, and an overall package which is…alright, I guess? Then again I say the same about a lot of films from this period, most notably this movie’s 1984 stable mate Ghostbusters, and enough people disagree with me on that one to suggest I may be entirely incorrect.
Very much a product of its time, Gremlins perhaps benefits most from remaining comfortably in the memory rather than being subject to rigorous review in hindsight. And yes, it is always midnight somewhere.
Sequels are not a rare thing, especially not to very successful movies – 1984’s Gremlins made over $200 million – but fourth wall-breaking, self-referential meta sequels? Those are… less common. Like many sequels, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is similar in both structure and content to the original, only bigger and more. Yet, it’s also… not. It’s really, really not.
The reason for that is returning director Joe Dante, who didn’t have the best of times on Gremlins due to the difficulty of working with the creatures themselves, and wasn’t at all keen on returning for another film. After trying, and failing, for a number of years to create a sequel, Warner Bros. came to Joe Dante and, more or less gave him carte blanche if he were to direct.
So, what do you do if you are making a sequel to a film where the special effects and puppets caused you lots of headaches? Well, obviously the answer is you add many, many more puppets. You also roundly take the piss out of the original, cram it full of jokes and create a live-action Looney Tunes adventure that not so much breaks the fourth wall as shatters it entirely. And it is glorious.
The setting this time is New York City, where Billy and Kate work in the Clamp Center, an ahead-of-its-time smart building, whose automated systems ring particularly true in 2022 by featuring many solutions to problems that don’t exist, and being phenomenally unreliable, one of the great surprises of Gremlins 2 being its prescience. Amongst the tenants of this Trump Tower-like building (Daniel Clamp, played by John Glover, was based on Trump, though Clamp has some degree of self-awareness and is even vaguely likeable, so he’s not a strong analogue) is Christopher Lee’s genetics laboratory, “Splice of Life: Designer Genes”, where Billy re-encounters Gizmo.
Before Billy can successfully get Gizmo out of the building, the unfortunate little creature gets wet once more, and the whole rigmarole begins again, only this time within the confines of a skyscraper, though it’s in the middle of a huge, densely-populated metropolis and the stakes are somewhat higher. But, really, in its plot, which is entirely solid, and, very much in keeping with many sequels, it’s very much more of the same, and that’s fine. The film functions very well as a traditional sequel, and if that was it it’d be acceptable, if perhaps forgettable.
Gremlins 2, though, is unlike any other sequel I can remember seeing, especially to a major studio film, and on top of the traditional structure is a layer of anarchy, winking and meta-commentary. The film picks holes in the plot and mechanics of the first film, features film critic Leonard Maltin reviewing the VHS release of Gremlins, cocks a snook at movie merchandising and finds a fifth wall to break, which shouldn’t even be a thing.
On top of that there are gags every minute, or perhaps even more frequently, in dialogue, props, character names, references and more, in everything from beakers of acid carrying the warning “Do not throw in face” to the determined indifference of New Yorkers to weird shit happening on the street and Kate beginning to recount how yet another national holiday was ruined for her by childhood tragedy.
It’s hard to compare Gremlins2 to Gremlins because they are so similar yet so different. The original is a better film, and a classic, but each time I watch The New Batch I like it more, and I am now far removed from my largely underwhelmed first impression, though, to be fair to younger me, I was ten. Now I know better.
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