Creature Features in Review: Gremlins 2 (1990)
This essay contains spoilers for, and assumes prior knowledge of, Gremlins and Gremlins 2. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go watch the films first. So, I’ve written about Gremlins < http://gingernutsofhorror.com/my-life-in-horror/someday-you-may-be-ready > elsewhere. It’s one of the most popular things I’ve ever written online, at least in terms of number of views, which is both gratifying and mystifying. And I feel like I should start by stating the obvious – it doesn’t need a sequel. There’s nothing significant left hanging in terms of plot or character resolution that needed another movie to explore. The movie is, in Aristotelian terms, a complete action. The most you can say in defense of any proposed sequel is that the first movie leaves the door open, what with Gizmo still being alive at the end, but that’s a long way from having a sequel be either needed or, necessarily, desirable.
And sequels to ‘complete action’ movies carry significant risks, let’s face it. Sometimes that risk pays off magnificently (Terminator 2) and sometimes, not so much (Predator 2, Highlander 2, and thank God nobody ever tried to make a Robocop sequel or reboot < http://gingernutsofhorror.com/films-that-matter/the-film-that-made-me-kit-power-on-robocop >). With Gremlins, the temptation, given the open door ending and enormous success, must have been overwhelming. At least for the studio.
You know who is a smart enough filmmaker to understand the huge dangers and potential pitfalls of the sequel? Joe Dante, director of the first movie. Gremlins came out in 1984, and the studio wanted him to start work on ‘2’ straight away.
He said no.
He said, Gremlins is a complete story, a sequel is just a cash grab. Also, Gremlins was bloody hard work (again, as I discussed in my piece on the move, pre-CGI, you actually had to build stuff, and building stuff and making it look good is HARD). I want to do other things.
So, the studio did what the studio does, and went to other people. And got treatments.
And apparently, they all sucked, because eventually they went back to Joe Dante and said ‘please, Joe, make us this movie’.
And here’s what Joe fucking Dante said: He said Okay, I will make your damn sequel, but you will give me TOTAL creative control.
Oh, and three times the budget.
And the studio said, okay.
And Joe grinned. And we got Gremlins 2.
And Joe became a personal hero of mine.
Because, dig it; you know sequels are (often) bullshit. It’s pure exploitation a lot of the time, and worse, a bad sequel can sometimes tarnish the original text, for a lot of people (The Matrix springs to mind for me, I’m sure you’ll immediately have your own personal bugbear in this regard). And fundamentally, you don’t want to do it. There’s an obvious solution; don’t do it.
But there’s a funnier solution: Get full creative control and 3 times the budget, THEN do it, and do it in such a way that you send up the entire notion of sequels, including a brutal deconstruction of the original film in the process, AND get Christopher Lee, AND Robert Prosky, oh and let’s move the whole damn shebang to New York, because there’s this crazed property tycoon called Trump who insists on building huge ugly-assed towers and slapping his name on them, so let’s satirise the hell out of him at the same time, that should be fun.
Welcome to Gremlins 2. It’s glorious. Demented, but glorious.
I guess I’ll start with the satire, because it’s everywhere. Clamp Tower is the oh-so subtle stand in for Trump Tower, and there’s also the Clamp Cable Network he owns and runs. The logo is especially awesome, a giant metallic letter C squishing the globe. Billy and Kate, our heroes from the first movie, both work in the tower – Billy as a cubicle dweller in the graphic arts department, and Kate, humiliatingly, as a tour guide (the hat she has to wear, in the shape of the Tower, just slays me every time I see it).
The attack on corporate culture and cruelty is relentless and as subtle as a brick, but it’s also well done. From Billy’s utterly two faced, ladder-climbing-obsessed boss, to the sadistic head of security whose favourite thing to do is fire people, to Clamp himself, a man seemingly incapable of holding a single thought in his head for more than a second or two before being distracted by something shiny (gee, glad he’s never been put in charge of anything important).
And the organisation and building itself reflect the crass, crappy and slightly deranged character of the owner; the programs on the TV channels are awful, the atmosphere for employees is horribly oppressive, and the (allegedly fully automated) building doesn’t really work properly even before the Gremlins turn up to do their thing. They’ve even – I’m not making this up, I swear – got an animal research lab staffed by Christopher Lee, that seems to exist purely to inflict sadistic torture on the animals within.
Which is where Gizmo comes in.
Two of Lee’s sidekicks find Gizmo wondering the streets, following the demolition of his home. He ends up in the lab, at the mercy of Lee – until Billy hears a lab tech whistling Gizmo’s theme, dopes out that he’s in the building, and busts him out.
And, I mean, the movie is not called Mogwai, so we all know what’s coming – Gizmo gets wet, the new Mogwai are mean to him (actually kidnapping him and substituting one of their own, and shame on Kate and Billy for not realising), they eat after midnight, and Trump Clamp Tower gets one hell of a party thrown.
The Gremlin attack sequences are a delight, as everything from the first movie gets turned up to 11. A film critic slags off the original movie on one of the Clamp channels, only to be attacked and murdered by a gang of Gremlins. They turn up in the TV Kitchen, with predictable results. Best of all, they raid the science lab, giving birth to Spider Gremlin, Flying Sunlight-Immune Gremlin, and Brain Gremlin, who can actually talk (oh, and FemGrem, but let’s not go there).
You don’t need me to go blow by blow, but suffice it to say with the increased effects budget, and all the expertise amassed on the first picture, Dante and the creature crew really go to town.
And it’s great. I mean, leaving aside the satire entirely – when I first saw this as a kid, all that went way over my head – this is gloriously crazed fun from start to finish. The cast seem to understand exactly what they’re about, and the sheer anarchic destructive glee of the Gremlins I find endlessly delightful. And the gags come thick and fast, with some of the crowded scenes inviting a re-watch to pick out all the deranged detail.
That said, the satire – of sequels in general, but also of the first movie – really does take it to the next level, for me. I know the movie has it’s detractors, but I’d hope even the most ardent critic would find it in them to applaud Dante’s ambition – and let’s be honest, sheer cheek.
Some have gone further, as claim it to be superior to the original. I get that, but can’t personally go that far. For me, the first movie creates a lovely mythos, and executes its comedy horror beats perfectly. But more fundamentally, it came first. Gremlins 2, wonderful madcap satire that it is, couldn’t exist without that rock solid foundation to build on. And related to that, Gremlins is just flat out a better story, mainly because Gremlins 2 isn’t trying to be that, exactly – it has other fish to fry.
That said, it’s practically a category error to compare the two movies, I think. Gremlins 2 is, if you’ll forgive the inevitable pun, a totally different animal to the first movie.
And while I’ll never love it in the pure and uncomplicated way I do the original movie, it will always have a place in my heart, for having the sheer balls to look Hollywood in the eye while saying ‘sequels suck!’.
God bless you, Joe Dante. You got a lotta heart, kid.
Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo, http://www.disciplesofgonzo.com
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