Friday, November 7, 2014

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 106 mins., theatrical release date: June 15, 1990)

In the 35 years since his solo directorial debut with 1978's Piranha, Joe Dante proved himself to be one of the most lovable anarchists in the cinema biz. His imagination is the product of both a garrulous, genuine love of film and the puckish, feverish invention of a Warner Bros. studio animator. Under Roger Corman's employment and Allan Arkush's partnership, he proved he could sell New World Pictures' line of B-movies with shrewd, demented glee. Even better was when Dante got the chance to make his own independent, irreverent fan favorites like Piranha and The Howling. And then Steven Spielberg, the man Dante was once tasked to rip off, saw his potential and started him small with a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, which finally led him to the blockbuster promised land that was 1984's Gremlins.

Naturally, the sadistic suburban chaos of that anti-Christmas classic proved a tough act to commodify. Neither Dante nor Spielberg were satisfied with the many half-baked treatments sent their way, not that Dante expressed much interest in a sequel to begin with. Desperation caused Warner Bros. to approach Dante with the ultimate enticement for any artist, the lure of total "creative control." I can only imagine the great, Grinch-y grin which graced Dante's mug, as that same mischievous smile was what I got numerous times watching that long-delayed sequel, 1990's Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

The studio was angling for a summer hit to compete with Disney and Dick Tracy, but Dante's flick wasn't the underdog success story you wished it would be. Gremlins 2 grossed merely a third of the original's profits, while Gremlins screenwriter Chris Columbus cornered the family market later that year with the massive, $476 million take from Home Alone. Dante had no interest in hackneyed sentimentality and bumbling slapstick, so once again, whatever Dante glory gleaned from the experience was purely archaeological.

1990 was the year Warner Bros. celebrated Bugs Bunny's 50th anniversary on the backs of two flop sequels, the second being The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter, and that one was preceded by an actual cartoon short, Box-Office Bunny. But it was the wraparound animation in Gremlins 2 which had the input of the legendary Chuck Jones himself, after Dante had him in a cameo for the original Gremlins. The movie even begins with the classic Warner logo as presented in the vintage Bugs toons, perched wabbit and all, instead of their reliable blue sky bumper. And sure enough, egotistical Daffy Duck storms in to steal the spotlight only to suffer a fruitfully embarrassing comeuppance.

The next 100 minutes of live-action antics only get much, much Loonier from here.

Gizmo, the cuddly Mogwai mascot/failed household pet, is back at Mr. Wing's (Keye Luke) Chinatown antiques emporium, but New York City's gentrification trickles down like water to start the chaos anew. The trouble begins when tycoon Daniel Clamp, glimpsed only via pre-recorded videocassette delivered by chief assistant Forster (Robert Picardo), wants to buy out Wing's property to build his own version of Little China. The answer again is a direct "No," but it's not like old Wing sounds fit enough to continue fighting. Six weeks later, Wing passes on, and a dozer duly levels his shop, with Gizmo scrambling to escape the wreckage. But the creature won't be homeless for long, as Clamp's tower has men in low places, namely the Splice of Life genetics lab technicians who seize him for study.

Also in Clamp's service are Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates), the Kingston Falls lovebirds now seeking upward mobility at the billionaire mogul's high-tech, sky-scraping office block. Billy overhears a mailman humming a familiar melody in his design department cubicle, which is enough to spur him to rescue Gizmo from the surgical clutches of laboratory head Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee). Despite Billy's command to keep out of sight until Kate arrives to pick him up, Gizmo ventures out and in the path of a faulty water fountain, which inevitably yet accidentally breeds another clutch of rogue Mogwai not ready to play nice.

The first rule officially re-broken, then naturally comes the dreaded prospect of them eating after midnight. Luckily, the yogurt and salad bars are open all night, and when Kate brings home not Gizmo but a cross-eyed, cackling impostor, he pigs out on chicken and throws the rest of dinner back in the couple's faces.  Freshly cocooned, it isn't long before the Gremlins hatch, and, of course, you realize this means war.

And not just in the Bugs Bunny sense, but a battle worthy of Rambo as the introductory scenes tease out.

The battleground are the many floors of the Clamp Center, already a subject of Tati-style satire from the moment it's introduced given the corporation's sign has the world squashed in a vise. This "smart building" is equipped with revolving doors which travel at 100 mph, inconvenient eco-sensors that go off when menial workers sit inactive for too long and an overbearing PA system possessed of eerie intelligence. In greeting you upon entrance, the announcement is that you "Have a powerful day." Should you enter the executive washroom, it knows if you forgot to wash your hands. Parked in a restricted area? It will straight-up insult your taste in automobiles. And the fire alarm? Well, you need to hear that one for yourself.

Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas establish this larger-than-life locale as a narcissistic totem to a character modeled trenchantly on both Donald Trump and Ted Turner. Somehow, it not only feels fresher than the original's Capra-esque winter town, but more expansive and ripest for ruination. Daniel Clamp is the entrepreneur to end them all; his self-made empire, already recounted in a best-selling autobiography, corners the market on cable television, construction, sports, finance, jams, and jellies. Filmed on location in Clamp Tower are such niche programs as: "Microwaving with Marge," hosted by the titular soused chef (Kathleen Freeman); "The Movie Police" with Leonard Maltin, who wasn't a fan of the first Gremlins; and whatever is airing on The Archery Channel, where the current Robin Hood actor has snapped his bow in protest.

Having established all these facetious facets, I hope you are duly prepared for the madness once those Gremlin pods melt away. This is undiscovered territory far from what Chris Columbus and, for that matter, FX master Chris Walas ever dreamed of. Let's not forget to clap our clamps and claws for Rick Baker, another in the movie's roster of MVPs, for supervising the creation of this new and improved batch. Thanks to Dr. Catheter's crimes against nature, the Gremlin menace evolves to the degree where the building's occupants are terrorized by an arachnid Gremlin, an electrical current Gremlin, a bat gremlin, the Brain Gremlin who injects the latter with "genetic sunblock" (granting it immunity against bright light, that third no-no in the protection manual), and the Miss Piggy/Bugs-in-drag creation that is the Lady Gremlin, who gets the vapors near the pompous Forster.

Lucky for us, also, is the human defense team which proves equally clever in regards to performances. Zach Galligan is made a more active and honorary foil than before, especially amusing when he makes a wrong turn at Albuquerque and into a Marathon Man reference, and Phoebe Cates gets to flex comedic muscle in a couple of meta moments. There's even the welcome return of Billy's former neighbors and snowplow attack survivors, Murray and Sheila Futterman, played by the no-nonsense Dick Miller and the jovial Jackie Joseph. And Baker has given Gizmo an animatronic overhaul, not just an adorable miniature puppet but an expressive creature able to command the tightest of close-ups.

John Glover, previously having provided eccentric flourishes to his must-see roles in 52 Pick-Up and The Chocolate War, plays Daniel Clamp impeccably against type and emphasizes a child-like wonder which elevates the character from mere yuppie caricature. Haviland Morris, a severely undervalued comedienne who started in Sixteen Candles and whom many feel should've taken Madonna's lead in Who's That Girl, gets a juicy character with the name of Marla, a name solidified in Charlie Haas' 1989 final draft before the Maples/Trump headlines broke wide open. With her loud mane of orange hair, hysterical Brooklyn accent and jittery, chain-smoking poise, Morris is a ball of fire made flesh.

As a late-night horror movie host and aspiring newscaster boasting an uncanny resemblance to Grandpa Munster, Robert Prosky makes a witty impression. Ditto Kathleen Freeman as the dubious cooking expert who adds sherry by the dollop whilst ingesting it by the trowel. Gedde Watanabe, the 1980s precursor to Ken Jeong who was also in Sixteen Candles with Morris, is his reliably hyperactive self as an overzealous shutterbug. Real life identical twins Don & Dan Stanton, of Good Morning, Vietnam and T2: Judgment Day, play Martin & Lewis, the quirky assistants of Dr. Catheter, the disease-obsessed mad doctor played with exquisitely creepy camp by Christopher Lee.

Look, I could go on about the subtle in-jokes and cameos, including many of Dante's friends since the New World years and a couple of WTF surprises which others have spoiled for me. I could talk about how the movie includes any number of offbeat gags involving serene nature videos heralding the apocalypse, characters openly poking holes at the nature of the three rules and the (in)correct uses of microwaves, paper shredders and wet cement. I could geek out over Tony Randall's hilariously haughty voice work as the Brain Gremlin, which culminates in a joyous performance of "New York, New York" which is sublime beyond words. I can applaud the movie for disarming us with more than enough delicious black comedy, as appetizing as the Chocolate Moose served up in that Clamp Canadian-themed restaurant, but doesn't forget the scares and the slime where it counts.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is fondly remembered among Dante aficionados not just because it was so undiluted and unconventional, but also hilarious enough that the hits outweighed the misses. The film's reception and cult legacy kind of reminds me of Savage Steve Holland's Better Off Dead, another film which used a familiar plot as an excuse to dream up surreal situations and comic set pieces. And if Holland saw himself in the John Cusack role, Dante imagines himself a Gremlin in the machine, a pop culture prankster of minimal pretension and maximum destruction. This is my Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it freaks me out. It's a legitimately sardonic, side-splitting and sanity-proof take-off from Dante's biggest hit, which cannot be said about the next film I will cover...

The last thing we need is a fight.

1 comment:

  1. Superb review, truly nails what the film offers. It is one that I need to review someday, not to mention the original film.