Few filmmakers are as deeply rooted in the history of comedy as Joe Dante. The Gremlins and The Howling director’s sensibility has always been grounded in comedy that regularly broke the fourth wall and winked at audiences. He was the quintessential kid who grew up on the gleeful pop culture parody of Mad Magazine, the transgressive, transcendent anarchy of the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons, the dark comedy of Roger Corman, and the movies of animator-turned-live action director Frank Tashlin, whose fourth wall-breaking comedies, many featuring muse Jerry Lewis (the closest thing we have to a human cartoon), riffed irreverently and ingeniously on movies, advertising, pop culture, and everything else Tashlin found irresistible and vaguely loathsome in equal measure.
While still in college, Dante channeled his gift for twisting, distorting, and subverting the pop culture he loved to ridiculous extremes with The Movie Orgy, an assemblage of B-movie clips, commercials, 16 MM films, and other pop culture debris that, in its original form, ran some seven hours before being cut down to four for a Schlitz Beer-funded tour of colleges.
He then segued into a gig editing trailers for his hero Roger Corman, another job that involved re-contextualizing something someone else had made, transforming the raw material of a feature-length film into a succinct advertisement with a rhythm, pace, and character all its own.
Dante made a movie that was a funhouse mirror version of the original, a proper and audacious sequel to Gremlins that was also, on some level, fundamentally about Gremlins.
Continuing in this vein, Dante next made the leap to directing when he and co-director Allan Arkush took Corman’s love of recycling to delirious new heights by making Hollywood Boulevard, a show-business satire about making movies (naturally) that integrated new footage with heaping helpings of stock footage from previous Corman productions into something that was simultaneously new and old, a repeat and a bold new vision.
Dante then lovingly ripped off Jaws with Piranha for Corman (with a script written by a prolific fellow Corman protege named John Sayles, who would become famous for ever so slightly more highbrow fare) and was rewarded for his ingenious thievery with an ongoing mentorship with Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg and Dante both directed entries in Twilight Zone: The Movie. It’s fitting that Dante’s first big studio movie was also an excavation and resurrection of pop-culture’s past, and that Dante, with his inveterate gift for smart-ass subversion, was infinitely better suited to the task than Spielberg, whose sappy segment paled in comparison to the sinister genius of Dante’s work.
Spielberg then produced Dante’s Gremlins, a brilliant, utterly original horror-comedy that also doubled as a bleakly funny semi-parody of E.T, Spielberg’s suburban world of wonder, and the homey sentimentality of Frank Capra. The movie was an enormous smash, even by Spielberg standards.
The studio wanted a sequel in the worst way, but Dante had little interest in revisiting his greatest commercial triumph until they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: a huge budget and something approaching total creative freedom. For a man who earlier had made cinematic magic on next to no money, that was unbelievably appealing.
In an interview with the A.V. Club, Dante said he finally broke down and agreed to make a sequel to Gremlins because executives told him, “If you agree to do this… we’ll let you do whatever you want.” He went on to elaborate that what he wanted was to make a sequel that was a “comment on the original picture, and a comment on sequels, and a comment on what the world was like at the time.” Dante was obsessed with all things pop culture, and by the time 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch came out, that included the alternately malevolent and adorable creatures he, screenwriter Chris Columbus, and producer Spielberg had made famous. So, instead of going the usual route and making a sequel that was more or less a remake of the first film, he made a movie that was a funhouse mirror version of the original, a proper and audacious sequel to Gremlins that was also, on some level, fundamentally about Gremlins.
Gremlins 2 wastes no time, breaking the fourth wall by opening with Bugs Bunny posing coquettishly atop a Warner Bros. logo before Daffy Duck, as is his wont, busts in and attempts to take over the cartoon with predictably disastrous results. What better, purer way to announce your intention to channel the glorious madness of vintage Looney Tunes than with cameos from Warner Bros. animation’s two greatest icons? Beloved characters from the golden age of Warner Bros. animation turn up at the very end of the film as well (in segments written and directed by Chuck Jones, no less) and in between lies a film that somehow manages to sustain the level of manic invention found in vintage Looney Tunes cartoons for an astonishing 107 minutes. It’s an embarrassment of riches, a movie with a million different wild and subversive gags and ideas that are overwhelmingly brilliant and inspired. It’s less hit or miss than hit-hit-hit-hit-hit.
Part of what makes Gremlins 2 such an unexpectedly trenchant satire is that the gremlins are in some ways grotesque, over-the-top burlesques of the people in the audience.
Haas’ brilliant script is ingratiatingly mean-spirited, particularly in its treatment of Gizmo, the E.T-like fur ball whose adorable antics made him a friend to children everywhere and the epicenter of a merchandising bonanza. Poor Gizmo does not have an easy go of it here. The good-natured abuse begins when his human master dies an all-too-predictable death, and then has his humble little shop torn down at the behest of Daniel Clamp (John Glover), an egomaniacal, big-haired parody of a certain current Presidential candidate with a similar proclivity for slapping his name on everything he owns.
Glover makes his Donald Trump surrogate far more endearing than the real thing. Rather than an exemplar of toxic hatred, he comes off as more of an overgrown child who has never been told no, and consequently does not know the meaning of the word, but the character is enormous fun all the same, and even oddly likable in spite of himself.
Gizmo is introduced playing chess and watching television early on, then exits the film eagerly inquiring whether his new/old owners (an attractive, earnest young couple played by Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates) have cable television. Unsurprisingly, he seems to have gotten most of his ideas about the world from television and movies, specifically Rambo.
Gremlins 2 sends Gizmo on a hero’s journey, but refuses to allow him to do much of anything heroic. The filmmaker treats him the way a Mad Magazine parody would, as a furry little merchandising bonanza whose job is to be adorable and do little more than serve as an accidental catalyst for the action. The film even gets a dig in at the exceedingly cuddly, marketable nature of his appeal when Clamp spies him at the end of the movie and proposes merchandising the crap out of him. The film gets to have it both ways, exploiting Gizmo’s adorableness (even a glowering mad scientist played by Christopher Lee grudgingly concedes that he’s cute) while parodying and subverting the shamelessness of his kid-friendly construction.
But Gizmo is adorable and he once again moves the story along when he ends up in Clamp’s most prized possession, a largely automated building that suggests what Jaques Tati might come up with if he were blessed with a Steven Spielberg budget and had a broader, wackier sensibility. There, Gizmo accidentally comes into contact with water and begins to spawn a potent new strain of Mogwai monsters.
The building is a character unto itself, and because it never stops talking, it even gets many of the best lines, which it delivers in the upbeat tone of someone announcing a sale in aisle three. For example, when it catches fire late in the film, it notifies the inhabitants with the wonderfully wordy warning, “Fire: the untamed element, oldest of man’s mysteries, giver of warmth, destroyer of forests. Right now this building is on fire. Yes! The building is on fire! Leave the building! Enact the age old drama of self-preservation!”
The other best lines all belong to Brain Gremlin, a brilliant comic creation with the scaly exterior of a reptilian alien monster and the highbrow intellect and vocabulary of Christopher Hitchens. Imagine a cross between Gore Vidal and a Ghoulie and you’ll have a sense of his incongruous majesty.
Gremlins 2 flaunts its influences, in part by casting Tony Randall, the star of Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as the voice — and the soul — of Brain Gremlin, an erudite monster whose master plan is for these crazed, feral creatures to attain the riches of civilization, namely “the Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag” and “dinettes, complete bedroom groups, convenient credit, even though we’ve been turned down in the past.”
It feels like Dante crammed enough ideas for a half-dozen sequels into a single overstuffed extravaganza.
Gremlins 2 shares with the seminal 1950s satires of Tashlin a sense that capitalism, advertising, television, and show business are all, on some level, insane lies we have convinced ourselves are incontrovertible truths. And as the madness and the anarchy escalates in Gremlins 2, that thin veneer of civilization begins to shatter. Part of what makes Gremlins 2 such an unexpectedly trenchant satire is that the gremlins are in some ways grotesque, over-the-top burlesques of the people in the audience. The gremlins begin as terrifying, sub-human monsters, and over the course of the film, they devolve into typical Americans: violent, insane, rapacious, obsessed with consumer products and trashy pop-culture, gluttonous, half-mad, and unabashedly, unapologetically vulgar. Hell, even Gizmo, the good one, is a TV-addicted fuzzball who models himself after Rambo and loves to boogie to rock and roll.
The malevolent gremlins are mutations of Gizmo but they quickly evolve into mutations of mutations as gremlins of seemingly every stripe and variety begin to appear, from a bat gremlin to a spider gremlin to a gremlin tarted up to look like a two dollar Parisian whore. As a hilarious and insightful Key & Peele sketch suggests, it feels like no idea for Gremlins 2 was ever shot down for being too crazy, extreme, cartoonish, or preposterous. One transcendently ridiculous moment occurs late in the film when, deep into their delirious rampage, Brain Gremlin suddenly morphs into a 1950s Frank Sinatra and leads his monster kin in an elaborate song and dance number straight out of an old MGM musical. Another features a Hulk Hogan cameo that is arguably the apex of his entire entertainment career.
Gremlins 2 inhabits a world where both it and its predecessor exist and are explicitly posited as fictional movies. Gremlins comes into play when Leonard Maltin, who hosts a movie review show filmed in the building, pans a video re-release of Gremlins and is terrorized by actual gremlins for his trouble.
The film is a glorious tribute to controlled chaos that starts off strong and builds an unstoppable momentum until it’s almost too much of a good thing and the fun becomes nearly overwhelming. It leaves audiences exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure. It feels like Dante crammed enough ideas for a half-dozen sequels into a single overstuffed extravaganza, and after Gremlins 2 failed to live up to commercial expectations, a franchise with enormous potential that is beloved by the public lay dormant for a quarter century.
As of late there has been talk of a remake or a reboot or a sequel or some manner of resurrection. I would argue that it would be wrong to mess with the anarchic comic perfection of the first two films but Gremlins 2 is a stirring reminder that in the right hands, with the right script and the right spirit, a sequel to a beloved pop culture touchstone can be not only warranted but damn near essential.
Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin