Funny story. Back in 1990, when Joe Dante’s gloriously anarchic Gremlins 2: The New Batch completed its improbable journey to theaters, I was working as an usher/projectionist at a multiplex in Kennesaw, Georgia. (A town whose reactionary mayor passed an ordinance requiring able-minded citizens, under penalty of law, to keep a working firearm at their residences. But that’s neither here nor there.) On the night or two before a movie would open, we’d often hold a screening after hours—mostly as a benefit for my pimple-faced brethren, a reward for pushing sodas and popcorn tubs that cost nearly as much as their hourly rate, but also to check to see if there were any problems with the print. And occasionally, there was something that needed fixing, whether it was a “factory splice” that knocked the framing off, or (more often) a human error in building the print. On the very first print I ever put together, for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I spliced the penultimate reel tails-up onto the print. It took an hour to fix. You can imagine my ever-deepening humiliation as a theater full of managers and co-workers had to sit around for that long just to see Captain Kirk talk to God and the crew sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire.
That sense of blind panic came rushing back to me during the employee screening of Gremlins 2. Having seen the first Gremlins, which also featured some chicanery in the projection booth, I probably should have anticipated the joke, but for a split second, it was Star Trek V revisited:
The gag doesn’t really play on DVD, but the entire sequence epitomizes the zany, cartoonish, endlessly referential nature of the film, which operates in the tradition of other pop-culture wiseacres like Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin. (Dante acknowledges the debt on several occasions, like the Warner Brothers animation sequence before the opening credits, and the voice-casting of Tony Randall, star of Tashlin’s 1957 classic Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) Consider all the things that happen in that sequence: The gremlins sabotage the movie we’re currently watching and they’re currently appearing in, sending us deep into the hall of mirrors; they perform a shadow-puppet Abraham Lincoln and run a reel from a leering black-and-white industrial film called “Volleyball Holiday”; a woman complains to the usher (played by director Paul Bartel, in an obscure nod to his 1968 film The Secret Cinema) that the movie is “even worse than the first one”; and the film doesn’t restart until Hulk Hogan starts issuing threats from inside the theater. The “Gremsters” are no match for the Hulkster.
This is what happens when you give a prankster like Joe Dante the keys to the kingdom. Back in 1984, Dante delivered Warner Brothers a hit with the original Gremlins, a surprisingly nasty little horror-comedy that only half-utilized Dante’s yen for Avery-inspired visual gags and sly satirical barbs. To some extent, Dante was doing for producer Steven Spielberg what Tobe Hooper did two years earlier with Poltergeist: Showing the malevolent flip-side of Spielberg’s optimistic science-fiction fantasies like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T., while keeping the world’s most successful commercial director one stop removed from the mayhem. Granted, Dante wasn’t a “de facto” director of Gremlins in remotely the same way Hooper was on Poltergeist, but he didn’t seem to be working with an entirely free hand, either. Between slapstick sequences like an orange juicer gone amuck or a penny-pinching shrew getting slung out a second-story window on her stair-lift, Dante was still hamstrung by conventional story elements and payoffs. (How could he not be? Chris Columbus wrote the script.)
Like it or not—and I happen to love it—Gremlins 2: The New Batch is pure Dante, a $50 million exercise in barely controlled chaos that doubles as a Mon Oncle-esque comment on sterile, mechanized modernity. And the film’s subversive nature is rooted in the fact that Dante secretly aligns himself with the gremlins. Like them, he’s a creature that thrives on disorder; he’s most at home when he’s scribbling outside the margins, picking apart tropes instead of following them. Also like the gremlins, he would like nothing more than to see the film’s ultra-sleek, gadget-filled New York office building fall apart; even before they arrive, Dante is already cracking jokes about runaway revolving doors and soulless corporate complexes. (The tagline for a proposed Chinatown Center: “Where business gets Oriented.”)
The wisp of a plot finds Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates), the small-town teenage lovebirds from the first film, trying to make a go of it together in New York City. Both of them work at the Clamp Premiere Regency Office Center, a state-of-the-art skyscraper masterminded by Daniel Clamp (John Glover), a megalomaniac of Trumpian proportions. As Kate puts it in her official capacity as a tour guide, Clamp is known for “construction, sports, financing, and of course, a popular line of jams and jellies.” While logging time as part of Clamp’s architecture team, Billy finds out that Gizmo, his adorable little Mogwai pet, has been captured by a genetic testing lab on another floor of the building. He succeeds in liberating Gizmo, but the furry creature quickly gets into trouble. Once water from an errant drinking fountain causes Gizmo to multiply, his mischievous offspring soon start feasting after midnight, which turns them into vicious, scaly green gremlins of many varieties. (In another great self-referential moment, a bunch of security guards poke holes in the “three rules” of Mogwai care: “What if they’re eating on an airplane and they cross into a different time zone?”)
Gremlins 2 proceeds in a near-constant state of distraction. Before the opening credits even commence, Dante has started goofing off, messing around with the Warner Brothers animation logo by having Daffy Duck muscle in on Bugs’ territory. And while he had enough fun with Billy’s dad’s misfiring inventions in the first Gremlins, that’s nothing compared to what goes on in Clamp’s tower. Minor glitches like faulty motion sensors on the automated lights or shoddy voice-activated elevators give way to more surreal functions, like a pre-recorded building announcer that’s by turns intrusive (“Welcome to the Men’s Room”), judgmental (“Please remove [your car] from the Clamp parking garage. It’s old and dirty”), and occasionally poetic. When a fire alarm sounds, it’s a stirring moment: “Fire: The untamed element. Oldest of man’s mysteries. Giver of warmth, destroyer of forests. Right now, this building is on fire.”
With the gremlins running roughshod all over the building, Dante is given free rein to pepper every floor and set with jokes. The Clamp Cable Network, for example, includes shows like “Microwave With Marge,” with Marge as a sherry-sipping souse who makes such culinary atrocities as a bologna-and-bean-dip roll-up, or The Archery Channel, where we see a guy dressed like Robin Hood storm out in frustration and snap an arrow over his knee. Then there’s a Canadian Mounties-themed restaurant, and a designer genes laboratory where electro-powered rats are an alternative energy source (one could power a portable radio for a month!) and beakers are marked with helpful warnings like “ACID: Do Not Throw In Face.” And don’t forget studio space for TV critic Leonard Maltin, who offers up the wrong critique of Gremlins on VHS:
Through it all, Dante can’t get enough of those gremlins, so much so that he seems to delight in seeing them torture poor Gizmo. I imagine he feels much the same way about Gizmo as Clamp does at the end of the movie: “I look at him and what do I see? Dolls with suction cups staring out of car windows.” Gremlins 2 is a tribute to the mischief-making cogs in the machine, the kind that don’t lend themselves to cute merchandising. It’s also a great example of what happens when an iconoclast gets to do more or less whatever he wants on the studio dime. Warner Brothers probably didn’t get the sequel it wanted, but then, they didn’t have a cuddly suction-cup-creature directing the film. When gremlins like Dante muck up the works, that’s how Hollywood accidentally produces art.
Next week: Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom
Sept. 4: American Movie: The Making Of Northwestern
Sept. 11: Hiatus (Toronto Film Festival)
Sept. 18: Fight Club