I watched Prometheus this weekend for the first time and was delighted and not only for the baffling character logic, the gaping plot holes, and the blockheaded pretension to intelligence. I was most pleased to discover that it belonged to one of my favorite quirky subgenres: the Christmas movie-that-isn’t. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and even Better Off Dead all take place around the holidays, but the connection is incidental, really only there to point out that late December in Southern California looks like spring anywhere else. Of course, sometimes the holiday is used as the impetus for the entire plot, where a well-meaning father buys his kid a gift that is way more trouble than it’s worth. But I’m not here to talk about 1984’s Gremlins since I’m pretty sure that’s considered a next tier classic in the creature feature pantheon, and pretty much everyone has heard of it. Initially dismissed as “muppets with blood,” the film took root in the subconscious of my generation, becoming at once a sentimental favorite as well as nightmare fuel. The purpose of Now Fear This isn’t to discuss movies you’ve already seen, or plan to see, or are avoiding because everyone you know is like “you gotta see this thing!” The purpose is to suggest something you might not have heard of or dismissed as garbage, and Gremlins doesn’t fit the bill. Its 1990 sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch does.
Gremlins was a pretty big hit at the time it came out (and along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom responsible for creating the PG-13 rating, which is presently fucking up movie quality, but that’s neither here nor there), and a sequel was inevitable. Joe Dante, the director of the original, passed, feeling he’d already said all he needed to say on the subject of gremlins running amok, ruining Christmas and microwaves. Warner Brothers tried to find someone else, and when they couldn’t, approached Dante again several years later, promising him total creative control and a budget three times the size. Dante signed up, but instead of delivering a monster movie in the vein of the original, had other plans: a massive prank on the studio.
The man was serious when he said the original had a proper ending. Uninterested in following the continuing adventures of Billy, Kate, and Gizmo, Dante decided on a parody/homage, a big budget live-action cartoon to simultaneously spoof and exalt his most famous creation. He scaled the violence back, removing almost all the blood from the equation, leaving behind the muppets. The gremlins were less interested in killing people than they were in putting on short comedy sketches, referencing famous films, or performing delirious musical numbers. The gremlins were still evil, but it was a funnier kind of evil, sort of like a really good Special Olympics joke.
All the gremlins needed was a new arena to play in, and Dante gave them the perfect one. This time they are in a fully automated skyscraper where literally everything can and does go wrong. The whole place acts like a giant version of one of Hoyt Axton’s inventions from the first film, down to the frequent malfunctions. The irony of it all is that the building was already in chaos before the gremlins even showed up, although their arrival does speed things along a bit. Though there’s a lot of comedy to be had from the jinxed environment, Dante seldom lingers on any one snafu, giving the impression that this whole house of cards is about five seconds from exploding into confetti and whipped cream. Additionally, the automated building speaks to people in smarmy pre-recorded messages, forsaking brevity for some bizarre sense of friendliness. This has the effect of making the skyscraper seem like the kind of casual acquaintance who stands too close and makes uncomfortable eye contact while he asks about your recent colonoscopy. The long-winded and philosophical fire alarm in particular is one of the funniest goddamn things I’ve ever heard in any movie.
Billy, Kate, and Murray Futterman are back to fight the gremlins, but Dante is not that interested in his human protagonists. He’d rather spend time with his gremlins, and almost seems to resent the heroes when they try to stop the little monsters from having so much fun. Gizmo is less of a presence here, relegated mostly to being tormented by three of his original progeny, and later in a series of short training scenes. He rescues Kate (and gains fiery revenge), but he is no longer the hero of the film.
Dante’s allegiance lies with the gremlins to such a degree that he gives them a voice. The skyscraper includes a genetic engineering lab, presided over by horror superstar and actual killer of Germans Christopher Lee. Once the gremlins get in there, they begin modifying themselves with bizarre results. None change moreso than one, who after drinking a brain hormone, suddenly gets glasses and speaks in Tony Randall’s voice. Brain Gremlin gets the film’s best lines, and remains the architect of my fundamental view of economics. Only two things in the world have intrinsic value: canned food and shotguns.
There are numerous callbacks to the original film, but they take the form of parody rather than the natural escalation of a sequel. Gremlins attack a woman in the kitchen, only this time, it’s Microwave Marge, the pissdrunk host of a cooking show. Kate has a dark association with a holiday, but this time it’s ridiculous. They even lampoon Leonard Maltin’s poor review of the original film by having him on to get his comeuppance.
The effects have improved as well. The original gremlin puppets were the work of Chris Walas, the effects man behind the Cronenberg masterpiece The Fly. He passed on Gremlins 2 to direct The Fly 2, a film I will not be profiling on Now Fear This. Rick Baker agreed to build the gremlin puppets, only once he was assured that he could create greater variation amongst the monsters. This is a bit like losing Kobe Bryant to free agency and somehow winding up with Kevin Durant. The creatures are a triumph of puppeteering, with incredible range of motion, facial expression, and malevolent life. The only rough spots are the few attempts to show a complete shot of Gizmo walking or dancing. The technology isn’t quite up to the task, but I give them points for trying.
Gremlins 2 is the rarest kind of sequel: one that doesn’t give a flying fuck if you liked the first one. Because of this, and the six year wait between films, it was initially dismissed. Since then, its cult has been steadily growing. It’s a good idea to join now, if only so we can finally get our rendition of “New York, New York” going.