Saturday, February 25, 2017

Joe Dante, part X: Fun—but in no sense civilized


Everything that the first one, burdened with establishing the basic premise, simply couldn't be.

Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Charles S. Haas 
With Zach Galligan (Billy Peltzer), Phoebe Cates (Kate Beringer), John Glover (Daniel Clamp), Havilland Morris (Marla Bloodstone), Dick Miller (Murray Futterman), Robert Picardo (Chief Forster), Robert Prosky (Grandpa Fred), Gedde Watanabe (Mr. Katsuji), Christopher Lee (Dr. Catheter), Neil Ross (The Voice of Clamp Enterprises), Hulk Hogan (himself), Howie Mandell (Gizmo), Frank Welker (Mohawk), and Tony Randall (The Brain Gremlin)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The undying theme of Joe Dante's career, from its humble beginnings in Roger Corman's basement, to all his big-budget collaborations with Steven Spielberg, was his worrisome penchant for chaotic cartoon comedy, always visibly bubbling away right below the surface—if not loudly flatulating right out of the pot.  Look no further than Gremlins itself for proof.

By 1989, Warner Bros. had spent five long years pestering the man for a sequel to his biggest hit, and evidently that's how long it took Dante to recognize that what they'd been offering him all along was the opportunity he'd been waiting for his whole life—namely, the opportunity to trick a movie studio into giving him all the money in the world (or $50 million, in an era where even Batman only wound up costing forty-eight), and without any serious supervision at all over how he spent it, so long as what he brought back could be sold as a follow-up to the champion E.T. rip-off of 1984.  Upon realizing this, Dante seized upon WB's deal; and, despite Amblin's participation, not even Spielberg could stop him now.  You can imagine Dante's shrieking peals of laughter, not unlike that of an anime supervillain.

In fact, if you simply watch the movie he wound up making, I doubt you could imagine anything else.  Armed with a mighty budget and full creative control, Gremlins 2: The New Batch marks the moment in history that Joe Dante boiled over completely.  And, yes, he boiled over irrevocably, too.  For the actual release of Gremlins 2 in 1990 likewise marks the moment when those people with the money started to get it through their thick skulls that, typically, Joe Dante movies don't actually make any.

Yet an explosive phase transition has hardly ever been a more agreeable thing; put simply, Gremlins 2 is Gremlins again, but with every problem I ever had with Gremlins solved (or, like Gremlins' wearying Peltzer inventor-patriarch, simply removed), and with almost all the things I already liked about Gremlins done better—much better.

Leave it to a man in his 40s to actually grow as a filmmaker, I guess.  You see, right up until his previous film, Dante's pictures had tended to be at great tension with themselves, their horror/sci-fi material practically at war with all the zany-as-shit slapstick that threatened to break out at any moment, and often did.  Once, Dante let this tension simply snap like a rubber band, and the result was an abrasive masterpiece called Explorers.  More often, though, it merely made a hash of things—even when you liked the hash.  It's not for nothing that Dante's other best features (Rock 'n' Roll High School and The 'Burbs) had been almost pure comedies; and we spoke last time about how The 'Burbs actually saw Dante reining it in, for once, mastering a (slightly) lower key in the process.  Yet, clearly, the last thing Gremlins 2 could ever be called is Dante reining it in.

Well, you'll recall that at the end of Gremlins, Mr. Wing, the wizened old shopkeep, made the journey to the ruins of Kingston Falls, where he convinced young Billy Peltzer—both bloodied and bowed—to surrender his beloved pet and doomsday weapon, Gizmo, to someone responsible enough to obey the three rules that govern Gizmo's biology.  And so Gremlins 2's story begins in Wing's store, with Wing dead, and little Gizmo still hanging around even as the evil (?) urban renewal project led by billionaire developer Daniel Clamp smashes through the walls, sending the poor mogwai scurrying out into the (very) unforgiving light of day.  But before Gizmo can dissolve into a pile of protein slop, he's discovered by a wandering biogeneticist, who takes him back to his (unquestionably) evil laboratory.


More obviously still, that lab is in the Clamp Enterprises office tower, where our two refugees from Kingston Falls, Billy Peltzer and Kate Beringer, have found themselves a whole new pair of crappy jobs.  With Kate running tours of Clamp's state-of-the-art "smart" building in a humiliating, building-shaped hat, it's probably fair to say that Billy's doing a little bit better—for he's managed to leverage his marginal artistic talents into a position within Clamp's dream-killing marketing department.  It isn't long, however, before Billy hears a package delivery guy whistling Gizmo's distinctive mogwai song; putting two and two together, he heads up to rescue Gizmo from his dire captivity, and succeeds at his mission.  But while it might seem like our plot's been wrapped up quickly, when Billy once again lives down to our worst expectations, and leaves Gizmo to his own devices, the mogwai manages to get wet.  You know what that means—and with Kate no more alive at the wheel than her boyfriend, there's nobody around to even try to keep Gizmo's offspring from eating after midnight this time.  In extremely short order, the gremlins are back.

But this streamlining of the plot does overlook several salient aspects of The New Batch, above all its opening.  It tells you, in no uncertain terms, just what you're going to be watching here—and that's a straight-up Looney Tune.  Cajoling animation legend Chuck Jones out of retirement just to write and direct his movie's tone-setting prologue, the very first thing Dante gives us in Gremlins 2 is the WB logo set against the Looney Tunes' wormhole, with Bugs and Daffy fighting over the limelight for, roughly, the one thousandth time.  And I'll level with you, being neither especially funny nor at all interestingly-animated, it's not exactly a return to form for Jones.  But it is the thought that counts, and that thought is this: nothing that you are about to see shall be anything less than grandiose in its arch silliness.  Truly anything will go, just so long as Dante (or screenwriter Charles Haas, or special effects maestro Rick Baker) thinks it's funny.

Just like the Key and Peele sketch says, if you can imagine it, it's in the movie.

Then again, even if you took Jones' opening as an opportunity to squeeze in a bathroom break, in any sequel that greased the wheels of its heroes' reunion with half as much bullshit as Gremlins 2 does, you could never claim that it asked you to take it seriously.  Trust in Dante: you surely won't.  But this time, you don't need to; and thus is Gremlins "solved."

At its core, what we have is practically an act of defiance against the very task he agreed to take on, whether that task was making a Gremlins sequel, or, in one unforgettable scene, simply making any kind of movie whatsoever.   But, because it is still Dante, it's certainly a lot of good-natured defiance.  Some of the funniest bits arrive as direct spoof of Dante's own most profitable film—a success which I suppose must've hung like an albatross around his neck, given his attitude here, until he flung it off his neck and kicked it to death like the annoyance it was.  The thing is, it works.  Even things that shouldn't work still work, like when the beasts tear a film critic apart for giving the first Gremlins a bad review.  (In its own, slightly quieter way, it's just as film-breaking as the literal film-break still to come.)  It must be the nicest swipe a filmmaker ever made at a critic who gave him guff, though—it encourages you to believe that if Dante hadn't been able to convince his erstwhile acquaintance Leonard Maltin to actually play himself, he simply would've passed on the gag.

But then, everything about The New Batch's self-parody works, from Billy's frustrated inability to answer fanwank questions about the gremlins' stupid rules, right down to that (enjoyably) eye-rolling moment where Kate starts in on the other personality-defining tragedy that befell her (on President Lincoln's birthday, as opposed to Jesus').  Indeed, it's at this point that Billy ushers Kate offscreen, implying that it might be best if we all stopped trying to pretend our protagonists ever had personalities in the first place.  It's just not that kind of movie; neither was Gremlins, really, but Gremlins 2, smarter than what came before in more ways than one, is actually willing to concede the point.  And yet, even at this extremity, it's still fair to say that our heroes do come off as more interesting here.

Because it's not like we don't get some great little characters to fill up the dialogue track—and this is one more reason Gremlins 2 is, in many ways, legitimately superior to its progenitor, even after you account for its better gags and more consistent tone.  It's hard to name the standout: there are all sorts of little subplots scurrying around beneath Billy and Kate's kill-'em-all-but-how routine, ranging from Robert Prosky's Fright Night-style aging horror show host, who turns the gremlin attack into a chance to break into serious journalism while wearing a bad Dracula costume, to Robert Picardo's sadistic corporate security man, who receives his comeuppance by being stalked-and-seduced by a reprobate lady Gremlin—whose grotesque "sexiness" is probably the most egregiously Looney Tunes thing about the whole movie, including the actual cartoon material. (Wait: aren't all the gremlins female, technically speaking?)

But if I did have to pick one man who separates himself from the pack, it's John Glover's rapacious capitalist, Clamp, said to be an unholy cross between Ted Turner and Donald Trump.  The background jokes about "Casablanca, now in full color (and with a happier ending)" clearly point to the former; but, of course, Clamp's name and his fetish for real estate development are just about the only things still pointing to the latter.  After all, one of the niftiest examples of Gremlins 2's upending of expectations is how it transforms Clamp's apparent villainy into something worthier and funnier: a puffed-up, self-aggrandizing brand of actual heroism.  Plus, his reveal of the secret escape hatch he's been jonesing to use ever since he built it, a joke executed with unlikely understatement, is quite possibly the most hilarious thing in the whole movie.

Meanwhile, the pre-recorded announcements that fill Clamp's dystopian 20th century panopticon are the 2nd-through-23rd most hilarious things in the movie.  The blithe, verbose cheerfulness of Neil Ross' voiceover never once fails to ironically undercut something or other, including a towering inferno.

But, for all the freshness of its human element, Gremlins 2 is the gremlins' movie, not theirs, and the cast, like the plot, is only really here to hang gremlins-based jokes from.  That's why the ultimate expression of Gremlins 2's willingness to push the premise past its own limitations comes when the little monsters make their way back up to that genetics lab, whereupon they ingest every secret serum they can find.  It's right here that the unmotivated gremlin cosplay of the first film gives way to Gremlins 2's mutant horde of diverse, sharply-defined comic abominations.  They span the gamut, from the theoretically-actually-scary (Stripe's echo, Mohawk, becomes an enormous spider-gremlin), to the most endearingly fucking stupid (there's a gremlin who grows vegetables out of his face, notably hot peppers), down to Haas and Baker's real piece-de-resistance, the greatest gremlin of them all—the one who ingests an intelligence potion, and arises with the soothing, erudite voice of Rock Hudson's neurotic sidekick, Tony Randall, ready to lead the gremlins on their march to world conquest in the single most adorably affable way you could ever possibly conceive.

But there's more: even beyond the metafictional cameos, or the completion of a heroic arc for Billy which Spielberg gently vetoed the first time, the "Brain Gremlin" occasions the single cleverest piece of self-referentiality Gremlins 2 provides.  The critter, once full of serum, transforms just off camera, and returns to his perch already wearing the pair of smarty-pants spectacles that shall soon define him.  At last, it answers the desperate question, "Where do the gremlins' stupid costumes come from?"  And it replies, simply, "Their puppet wranglers dress them when you're not looking, you idiot.  Can you enjoy it now?"  Yes, I can.  You either enjoy it for what it is, or you just tune right out—because there's nothing else here.  That's what's so wonderfully great about it.

It's so lively and playful with its own source that, honestly, it could make you like the first movie more, if you weren't the biggest fan of it in the first place.  (Of course, if you, like most people, were a big fan, there's a solid chance you either hate The New Batch, or you at least like it for completely different reasons.)  Only in the mildest of respects is it a "bad sequel," though—I know every Dante film needs its Dick Miller, but that was still no reason to rob Mr. Futterman's grave.  Even so, despite everything about it that implores you to never treat it as anything but a slapstick comedy, it nevertheless fulfills the most basic task of blockbuster sequel filmmaking with gusto: taking the original's thrills and inflating them all out of proportion with a preposterously large amount of money.  (The Clamp Tower, just to take one example, is a borderline masterpiece of production design.)

And then there's this guy.

Okay, I know: somewhere around a thousand words ago, this review effectively became a list of things-that-made-me-laugh.  (Such is the pitfall of reviewing comedies.)  So, for a more global critique, let's simply say that Chris Columbus' script for Gremlins, locked in its underdog story and 80s teen movie tropes, wishes it were half as casually witty as Haas' perpetual-irreverence machine of a screenplay.  (Indeed: if The New Batch is like a Jones cartoon, it's at least as much akin those other successors to Looney Tunes anarchy, the ZAZ films like Airplane! or The Naked Gun.)

But, yes, there are a few other weaknesses to Gremlins 2 that do need to be pointed out, like the gremlins' nascent musical number, launched as they prepare to march out into an apocalyptic New York City rainstorm, which gets cut down to not much more than a gesture in the general direction of a musical number instead.  The other small disappointment is also musical, and, surprisingly, that's Jerry Goldsmith.  Usually so dauntless, here he turns in a score that's frankly very good, but not nearly as successful as Gremlins', even working with the same basic material.  (In fact, the re-orchestrated "Gremlins Rag" for The New Batch is even more madcap—in some ways, it's even more menacing—but the great composer admirably, but unwisely, refuses to actually use the crutch he fashioned for himself.)  And, finally, I should admit that a small but noticeable fraction of the comedy doesn't work—take the googly-eyed gremlin's invocation of Marathon Man, the epitome of a reference joke where the reference is the joke.  But, hey: just wait around ten seconds, and any bit that isn't working will soon be replaced by one that does.  (Like the Phantom of the Opera reference joke, which is just fantastic—not least because it begins with two gremlins playing with a jar of acid labeled, "ACID: DO NOT THROW IN FACE.")

It is, I suppose, easy enough to see why audiences turned on the sequel in its year of release: essentially, it made fun of them for wanting one.  But from the distance of almost three decades, The New Batch has begun to get its due, not only as one of the most joyous comedies of its era (nor only as a prescient glimpse at the way post-modern comedies would tend to work in the future).  Rather, it has been redeemed most fully as one of the most characteristic works of one of America's most vulgar auteurs.  It's the movie where Dante went the full Dante, with the kind of resources and freedom that he'd never get to have again.  It is, in some respects, a miracle it even exists, and I'm awfully, awfully glad it does.

Score:  9/10


  1. I write reviews for a local paper... I fall into the fanboy camp when it comes to Dante. Gremlins is my Star Wars.To me it's a perfect film but I'm fully aware nostalgia plays into it. Gremlins turned me onto Roger Corman , Joe Dante and B-movies in general. You verbalized pretty much everything I love about Gremlins 2 -namely it's chaotic Looney Tunes-esque nature. I was in the theater opening weekend when the film "broke"- there was a genuine disappointment/annoyance for a split second. When the shadow puppets began, I never heard so much laughter. It was a purely communal movie moment built from the filmmakers' good-natured mischievousness. Your piece reminded me how rare it is to get a film built from a singular vision/non-committee thinking nowadays. I always found it ironic that it felt more like a Looney Tunes cartoon than Dante's own Back In Action flick. For me, the only reason New Batch doesn't best the original is the curse of nostalgia. I'll stop rambling. I loved reading this. Thank you.

    1. No, man, thank you.

      I did find myself wondering how people reacted to the film break at the time; I'm gratified to see that Dante was able to get 'em, if only for a moment. I guess even back in 1990, Hulk Hogan disapproved of inappropriate venues for pornography.

      You know, I enjoy the redone home video version of that scene, too, but the hand puppets part (which is, probably, the *best* part) really, um, doesn't work when they try to do it against VHS static. I mean, it's just confusing.

      Once I get back to it (and manage to retrace my steps, and review Amazon Women On the Moon), I'll be heading into uncharted territory, Dante-wise--I don't believe I've actually seen any of his movies post-Gremlins 2 until The Hole, all the way in the 2010s. (For the record, though, The Hole is pretty great.) I'm actually looking forward to Back in Action. (And a relatively recent viewing of the semi-abominable Space Jam certainly can't make it any worse, right?)

      If you can answer, what paper? I'm just generally interested.