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Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy Gremlins is largely considered a 1980s classic, but that wasn’t always the case. The film drew a mixed-to-positive response upon release, largely because critics didn’t really understand the film. Some saw it as too funny, some as not funny enough. Nearly everyone saw it as being too violent for its PG rating, but not intense enough to deserve an R (the PG-13 rating had not been invented yet, but Gremlins is one of the films that inspired the new rating, along with other projects like Red Dawn and Temple of Doom). Critics responded negatively to Phoebe Cates’ character recalling the death of her father, who died in a chimney of a broken neck dressed as Santa Clause. But this scene is widely, and rightly, considered one of the highpoints of the film, a darkly comic but heartfelt moment in a monster movie that humanizes its characters without forgetting what it is. Gremlins is a damn well made movie.
It’s fair to say, however, that at the time no one really expected Gremlins to be the runaway smash success that it became. Of course, opening up against a little Harold Ramis and Bill Murray film called Ghostbusters didn’t really give pundits much hope for great success. But the little 11 million dollar Warner Bros. and Steven Spielberg production succeeded anyway, grossing a staggering 148 million dollars upon its initial release. In the years since, Gremlins has rightly been seen as a seminal film of the 1980s, one of director Joe Dante’s biggest successes, and a downright iconic entry in the horror-comedy genre. The film was also incredibly difficult to shoot, however, as the various puppets, particularly the many Gizmo puppets used, continuously broke down time and time again. A scene featuring the titular gremlins throwing darts at a tied up and terrified Gizmo was filmed and then kept in the final cut of the movie by the filmmakers essentially due to frustrations with the puppets. The film eventually even went a bit over budget, according to Spielberg, who was disappointed by the movie’s ultimate cost.
The difficulty in making the original feature film as well as the director’s own uneasiness in making a cash-grab sequel is largely what kept Dante away from making Gremlins 2 for a half decade, and it is honestly surprising he ever came back to the franchise to begin with. Warner Bros., not one to let a potential film franchise just fade away, wanted work to begin on a sequel immediately, but Dante was exhausted from the strenuous production of the first film. He went off to make films like Explorers (the first film featuring both River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke), Innerspace (a childhood fave), and The ‘Burbs (quite possibly Dante’s best film and one of the best films of the 1980s), all three 1980s classics respectively (and all three films that Nick and I should cover for the podcast honestly). When Dante finally decided to come back to Warner Bros. for Gremlins 2: The New Batch, he demanded a much greater budget (50 million dollars – almost five times what the original cost to make) as well as strict creative control (Warner Bros. had almost forced him to drop the iconic Santa Clause speech from the first film, which upset Dante). He was ultimately given both, for better and for worse.
I remember when Gremlins 2 released into theaters. My aunt wanted to take me, but we never got the chance to see it in theaters (I think we ended up seeing Dick Tracy instead, though I never wanted to see that movie in the first place). There was a decent level of hype and anticipation surrounding the project, but it also seemed like Warner Bros. sat on the franchise a bit too long for their own good. Six years is a long time between sequels after all. The film came out the exact same weekend as Warren Beatty’s costly Dick Tracy adaptation, and around the same general time as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Driving Miss Daisy, Total Recall, Pretty Woman, and Back to the Future Part 3. While not all were in the same demographic as Gremlins 2, the film obviously suffered in the box office due to this stiff competition. It ultimately opened with just under ten million dollars during its first weekend. This was seen as a massive disappointment by Warner Bros., considering the film opened weaker than its predecessor had six years earlier and cost much more to produce than that film.
The reasons for Gremlins 2: The New Batch’s box office failures are numerous and extensive, but most lie with the director, Joe Dante. Given complete creative control, Dante went absolutely nuts with the film. The first big change he made was to the movie’s overall tone. The first Gremlins film succeeded largely due to its unique blend of horror with comedy (also one of the reasons why Ghostbusters was such a massive success). Gremlins 2 still features elements of horror and comedy, but the film is much more like a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon than anything else. There’s more slapstick in the film than in all of Dante’s film oeuvre combined. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (we’ll get to the critical re-evaluation of the film in a bit) but it is something audiences were not expecting when Gremlins 2 originally came out. The film continually breaks the fourth wall, makes fun of itself (one of the characters in the film comments on the illogical “rules” behind the Mogwai pet as an inside joke for audiences), and continually parodies and makes homage to other classic film properties (including such esoteric fare as the Hammer Films Dracula features).
Gremlins 2 is also very obviously a satire of 1980s excess, like it is the science fiction/horror/comedy version of something like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street or something. The film takes place in a futuristic New York City office building so advanced that it offers tours to people visiting NYC. Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan reprise their roles of Katie and Billy from the first film, and both work in the advanced office building for Clamp Enterprises, Billy as a businessman/architect/something and Katie as a tour guide. The building and business owner, Daniel Clamp (an excellent John Glover, doing absolutely wonderful work with the silly material) takes a shine to Billy. Unknown to Billy, Gizmo is being experimented on by Clamp scientists, including chief researcher Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee). Dr. Catheter takes mercy on Gizmo, however, and releases him into Billy’s care. Unfortunately, Gizmo gets wet and spawns more Mogwai creatures, who then eat after midnight and transform once again into gremlins. Now it is up to Billy and Katie to save New York City from the terror of the gremlins.
Gremlins 2 hit on a lot of hot button issues of the late 80s and early 90s. Genetics, consumer culture, business, cable television – these are just a few of the targets the film aims for and largely hits on. I remember first seeing the film after its release onto home video, and being largely disappointed with the final product. I didn’t understand the satire of the consumer culture at all, and I couldn’t understand why the movie made continuous references and homages to things like Looney Tunes (the film both opens and closes with all new Looney Tunes animation by industry legend Chuck Jones). At the time, I didn’t want what we got. I wanted another low key but well written adventure/horror/comedy film. I wanted to be frightened and laugh and be entertained for two hours. I was a nine-year old kid, after all. The movie we got was absolutely nothing like that first Gremlins, save for the main characters and the gremlins themselves being present in both properties.
The big secret about Gremlins 2: The New Batch, however, is that it is actually a superior film to the original in almost every way. The movie is wacky, wild, and incredibly funny. Its use of celebrity cameos is genius (Tony Randall as the Brain Gremlin is fucking fantastic absolutely perfect casting). Watching the film as an adult, it is quite obvious what Dante was going for. Gremlins 2 is his big middle finger sticking right in the face of Hollywood. The film is an anarchic valentine to the soulless cash grab known as the Hollywood sequel. Dante never wanted to make a Gremlins 2, but after three critically successful but low grossing films, he pretty much had to in order to keep his Hollywood career going. So he sold out, but he sold out in about the most spectacular fashion he possibly could have. Dante took 50 million dollars from Warner Bros. and made a gigantic, messy “fuck you” of a movie. This had to take incredible guts to do, and I applaud Joe Dante for his efforts. Gremlins 2 is probably the most subversive studio sequel of all time.
It may not have the same spirit as the first and it may lack the original’s more iconic moments, but Gremlins 2: The New Batch has a ton going for it. Though I originally didn’t like the movie, I eventually began to appreciate it as I grew up. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the complicated nature of filmmaking, and I had no idea about the politics that went on behind the scenes of big Hollywood productions. I didn’t know who Joe Dante was, and I definitely didn’t understand the man’s desire to basically make a live-action cartoon. But now that I’m an adult and understand stuff like that, it really makes me appreciate Gremlins 2. It was a box office flop and received a mixed critical response, but damn if it isn’t an anarchic valentine from one of Hollywood’s most deranged, brilliant directors.