In this edition of “Time to Revisit…” I take a look back at Joe Dante’s underrated 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which came about four years too late on the heels of its hit predecessor but nevertheless managed to live up to (or arguably top) the first film in almost every way imaginable.
Agreeing to direct only after Warner Bros. wooed him back with the promise of full creative control over the finished product, Dante infused the film with a go-for-broke sense of wit and an anarchic spirit, transforming what could’ve been a rote Hollywood sequel into a genuinely subversive piece of popular entertainment.
While at the time this off-the-wall sensibility resulted in general indifference from moviegoers and the film’s ultimate failure at the box-office, it is nevertheless a genuinely inspired work that more than deserves a reconsideration by modern critics and audiences.
Beloved Favorite: Gremlins (1984)
Number of votes on IMDB: 48,577
The Plot: After his unusual new pet – a furry “mogwai” named Gizmo – is exposed to water, suburban teenager Billy Peltzer inadvertently unleashes a mob of deviant pint-sized monsters.
Why it’s so celebrated: Gremlins was one of the top-grossing films of the 1980s and a critical success, initially making nearly $150 million domestic on a modest $11 million budget. Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, the film catapulted director Joe Dante into the Hollywood stratosphere and launched the career of writer (and future A-list director) Chris Columbus. Following in its wake came a host of copycat “small monster” movies (though it has been claimed that both Ghoulies and Critters were conceived prior to Gremlins‘ production period) as well as a belated 1990 sequel. In the present day the film is warmly remembered as a must-see classic of popular cinema and an essential entry in the ’80s-era Amblin canon.
Why it’s time to backburner it for awhile: There’s no doubt that Gremlins is a fun and surprisingly dark ’80s genre film (that Phoebe Cates Santa monologue never gets old), but it’s been widely celebrated ever since its release and Christ, we all know it’s good. By contrast, its less commercially-successful sequel gets largely overlooked despite the fact that it’s the equal of, and arguably better than, its predecessor. Which of course brings me to…
Beloved Favorite: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Number of votes on IMDB: 25,512
The Plot: Billy Peltzer must deal with another round of gremlin mayhem after a new horde of the nasty creatures are unleashed in a high-tech New York skyscraper.
Why it’s not so celebrated: First off, I should take a moment to mention that there is a cult of ardent Gremlins 2 fans out there, and moreover I’m certainly not the first online journalist to champion the film. But when looked at overall, it still remains a woefully underrated effort. One obvious reason for its box-office failure (it ended up making slightly over $40 million on a $50 million budget) was the fact it took six years for the film to come out, an eternity in Hollywood sequel-dom. On a creative level, the movie proved far too “out-there” for the majority of moviegoers, with an audaciously satirical and self-referential tone that perhaps proved too smart for its own good.
Why it deserves a revisiting: Gremlins 2 is quite literally one of the purest distillations of a popular director’s style ever released by a major studio. Granted full creative license by Warner Bros. in exchange for agreeing to direct the film, Dante made the most of his near-unprecedented artistic freedom by making the film a highly-subversive meta-commentary on modern life, and even went so far as to poke fun at the original for its plot holes (“What if they’re eating on an airplane and cross into a different time zone?”). His insertion of a seemingly endless bounty of gleefully unexpected gags, including one famous scene in which the gremlins “sabotage the film reel” (changed to a less-effective bit in the VHS version but later reinstated on DVD), brings the enterprise to a level of inspired absurdity that never feels labored .
And yet for all of its artistic bravado, Gremlins 2 still works as popular entertainment. Loaded with clever slapstick moments, striking set design, mostly-excellent effects and sequences of exuberantly over-the-top action, the entire film plays like candy for the eyes. Regardless of how it was received at the time, Dante proved with the film that he was capable of melding his cerebral sensibilities – apparent from the very beginning of his career with intelligent genre efforts like Piranha and The Howling – to an aesthetically stimulating, popcorn-friendly visual palette. His delight in being given the opportunity to make exactly the movie he wanted is apparent in every frame, each one alive with a striking depth of visual detail.
It’s a shame, then, that unlike the first movie, a Gremlins 2 Blu-ray has yet to see the light of day. While it may be that Warner Bros. is simply waiting for the film’s 25th anniversary to come up like they did with the original, I’d guess the real reason is that they just don’t see the value in it. And why should they? It’s a creation representative of nearly every studio executive’s worst nightmare – a bigger-budget sequel that refuses to play by the rules.