Okay, so Phil isn’t exactly enamored with every movie Joe Dante’s made. To this day 22 years later, he can’t decide if the excruciating sunburn or GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH was the more painful that summer day.
The first time I saw GREMLINS 2, it was summer 1990. I was about to graduate high school, and for a brief time I was dating my incredibly hot neighbor from across the street, Louisa. About a week after our first date, Louisa invited me to the beach with her family. I automatically accepted; only a blind man or a fool would pass on the opportunity to see Louisa in a bikini (and oh, how the sight of her in a pink bikini makes me drool, even remembering it some 22 years later). So she and I joined her mom and mom’s boyfriend, my sister Sarah and Louisa’s brother, who shared the awesome name Phil. It was a hazy, overcast kind of day, and little did I know just how vicious that veiled sun could be. Long story short, I got my first sunburn, a blistering affair that covered every available inch of skin on my body. It burned so bad, I got nauseated and later wanted to tear every piece of flesh off my muscle and bone. In the midst of my agony, my friend John Gibbons called to ask if I wanted to see GREMLINS 2 for free at the movie theatre he worked at in Patchogue. I have no idea why I agreed, but I did. Maybe I thought a good GREMLINS flick would get my mind off my agony. Oh, it did not. In fact, it enhanced my agony to the breaking point. I remember lying in bed that night, my skin burning in Hellfire no matter which portions of it contacted the mattress, cursing GREMLINS 2 for piling onto my pain.
The story goes that GREMLINS was such a huge success, Warner Bros. kept at Joe Dante to make a sequel, and he held his ground in steadfast refusal. This went on for five or so years, and finally Joe agreed, on one set of terms: he could do whatever he wanted with the film. These conditions are almost unheard of with major studios, so rare that the only major case in horror that I recall is James Whale after FRANKENSTEIN. Under basically an identical scenario, Whale went wild with his fancy and created BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, a far superior film to the plodding first effort. Though many people will lie to you and tell you otherwise, the same cannot be said for THE NEW BATCH.
What Dante decided to do was break down the fourth wall, and make a straight comedy that served as a commentary on just how ridiculous the first GREMLINS was; and do so in such grand fashion that the sequel could never be topped. What he actually did was undermine everything that made the original not only funny, but scary. When I watch GREMLINS, I’m always reminded that it’s not really a kids’ movie (though I saw it myself in a theatre when I was the ripe age of 12). It’s got cutesy Gizmo, but it’s also got some terrifying horror in it, with a bunch of monsters that are heartless killers. With THE NEW BATCH, it’s all for laughs, and sadly there aren’t many that don’t fall flat.
Billy Peltzer and his girlfriend Kate have moved on to the big city, where they work in the lower echelon of the Clamp Corporation. The Clamp Tower is part office building, mostly side show, with a genetics lab, cooking demonstrations, a horror show hosted by Grandpa Al Lewis lookalike Grandpa Fred, and tour guides wearing hats that are replicas of the tower itself. It’s also right around the corner from the little Asian shop in which Rand Peltzer found Gizmo, the world’s most famous Mogwai. The rapacious Clamp wants to buy the shop so he can raze it and build a massive construct in its place. When Gizmo’s handler dies, the Mogwai escapes and ends up in the genetics lab. When a janitor accidentally sprays him with water, it’s obvious where this is going.
But it’s going so far out of control that there’s no reeling it in. I don’t even know where to begin to give you examples how, because every frame is crammed with them. Here’s as good a place as any: one Gremlin drinks a potion in the lab and becomes incredibly cerebral. But Dante and screenwriter Charles S. Haas aren’t content with that, no; the Brain Gremlin ends up as a guest on a talk show as the chaos runs throughout the building. There’s a winged Gremlin that bursts through a wall, and leaves the Batman logo behind. And then Dante and Haas push the plot to make him become a gargoyle. Leonard Maltin gets killed by Gremlins while giving his review of… well, GREMLINS. The low point of all this is when the Gremlins attack a movie theatre, and much like William Castle’s Tingler, get into the projection booth. But leave it to—oh my God, Hulk Hogan! to save the day. Dante delves into such wretched excess with THE NEW BATCH that I don’t know how anybody who even moderately liked the first film could find anything beyond slight joy in this one.
But lo and behold, there are droves of fans who actually prefer GREMLINS 2 to GREMLINS. I like to call these people insane. Except for Joe Dante, who holds that opinion. I just call him wrong. Gone is the terror of Stripe and co. in the first film, removing all their venom much like the pie fight did with zombies in George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD. In its place is a bloated mess.
There is some small joy to come out of the sequel. The shining star is John Glover as Daniel Clamp. On that hellacious day in the theater, his insane verve and refusal to let Gremlins potentially destroying his tower and Manhattan take away his smile was the one thing that kept me from screaming in agony. Ever since Glover has been one of my favorite actors, so much that back in 2007 I took a trip onto Broadway to see him in The Drowsy Chaperone, and reveled at meeting him. I can sum up my love for his performance for you: I still generally refer to Glover as Clamp when I speak of him.
The returning players also provide nice work. Zach Galligan is still lovable as Billy, the average American kid with a Mogwai, and Phoebe Cates is cutesy as Kate, even in her Clamp Towers hat. Dick Miller is classic as Murray Futterman, who now has PTSD over the Gremlins, and Jackie Joseph is solid as his dimwitted wife. And of course, Gizmo rules. He’s cute as a button, and he toughens up in a Rambo inspired montage, adding new dimensions to his fuzzy little character.
Dante’s stock players Robert Picardo and Belinda Balaski are their particular brand of awesome. Picardo plays a sleazy Clamp Corp. exec who gets his comeuppance from an amorous female Gremlin. Balaski appears as a mother complaining about film violence to the theatre’s manager, echoing an incident that occurred to Dante in real life.
And Christopher Lee, according to Dante, came up to the director on the first day and apologized for appearing in THE HOWLING II. The proper move, of course.
As much as I hate to admit it, there are a few funny jokes at the expense of the first film. Such as when Billy tries to explain the rules that govern Mogwais, and some TV studio folks belittle him with logic. And of course, there’s Kate’s Lincoln’s Birthday tirade, which mocks her Christmas tale from the original. Even I laughed at these two jokes.
And Dante chose to use Slayer’s “Angel of Death” from their Reign in Blood album to accentuate a Gremlin’s transformation into a spider Gremlin. Even back in 1990 when Slayer still scared the Hell out of me, I acknowledged this as awesome.
On that vicious day under that cruel sun, Sarah actually got sunburn on her corneas, which I didn’t even know was possible. Her eyes were in burning pain for a week. I still say my eyes suffered worse, because they could still see, and they witnessed GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. Fortunately not too many eyes saw the film, which cost a ton more than the original, and panned out to be a huge flop. It pretty much guaranteed there would be no GREMLINS 3, and after Dante’s carte blanche second effort with the titular creatures, that’s about as beautiful as Louisa in a pink bikini.