Sunday, 3 March 2013

The New Batch Revisited

Fed up with Hollywood right now? I know I am. And I know another who most certainly was in 1990: Joe Dante. So, what better time to join us all together for the first installment of a new recurring series in this blog. The Revisited takes a look at a cult movie I've already seen multiple times and picks out the elements that make it work so good. The series also takes a look on how the movie holds up today. The best way to begin this series is to take a look at one of the most unusual, and best, movie sequels ever made. So here you go: Gremlins 2: The New Batch!

The Face Value

Joe Dante is a director straight outta Roger Corman's stable. He's an exploitation filmmaker that found fame and fortune waiting in Hollywood, mostly thanks to his peers like Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis who had risen in power and were able to produce any kind of films they wanted. With Dante, it was his unique mix of slapstick humor straight from Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons, monsters and set ups from 50's science fiction, and biting satire of the good old', red-bloded mom's apple pie Americana. While such subjects undoubtedly sold in the golden age of Amblin entertainment and VHS horror films, studios tended to not quite get Dante's unique visions. One of his better-fared, however, was the anarchic Christmas tale of 1984: Gremlins.

The movie the director himself calls "The Muppet Show on Acid" showed another side to the kind of cute and cuddly plush toy critters the public of the 80's was lapping up. It's also a parody of Christmas movies, what with magic being brought to a small town consequently wrecks everybody's lives rather than brings them together. Dante clearly had a lot of fun with cartoon violence and havoc wrecking little monsters but he felt that the entire story was there. But studio execs had another idea. Ironically, the movie set to destroy the idyllic image and the cutesy feel-good everyone was selling, turned out to be a profitable machine in its own right.

Since Dante didn't want to do a sequel, the producers searched around. No one was eager to follow Dante's footsteps, and Spielberg stuck to his friend's side. So, finally the negotiations got Dante back, but also gave him more free hands to play around with the concept. As it happened, Dante had already planned to do a satire of movie sequels and how useless they are at core. The director's idea was to wreck the entire franchise to the ground before the studio could find someone to direct Gremlins 3. And he was about to have the time of his life doing it.

The Plot

The old Chinatown block where Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) keeps shop is set to be demolished in way of a hyper modern office block built by businessman Daniel Clamp (John Glover). While Wing opposes, his health is in a bad condition, and the property passes on as he dies. After that, his pet mogwai Gizmo runs away from home. He gets captured by the scientists Martin & Martin who bring him to their lab. But Gizmo manages to escape again before they find out that mogwais breed by getting them wet.

Meanwhile, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) has moved into New York with his girlfriend Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) to build a career as an illustrator in Clamp's company. He founds the wandering Gizmo in the building and promises to keep him safe. But of course a freak accident gets the mogwai to breed and soon there's a whole new batch of Gremlins growing. They make a mess of Clamp's building first, and then plan to take over the whole of New York.

The Contents

The characters of the film are quite wise to how the whole ordeal is going down, going from rememberance of the first film to a whole new meta-level of consciousness. The scene where John Astin's clumsy janitor fixes a water fountain with Gizmo attempting to dodge the spraying water is played out purely for laughs. Likewise Dante makes fun of the two other rules. The characters get into an argument of the vagueness of the eating rule: how soon after midnight can mogwais start eating again without turning into gremlins? Also, gremlins can't be beaten by luring them into the sunshine since it happens to be a rather cloudy day. Plenty of scenes show them in quite bright environments anyway.

No "bright light?"

Most of the film works as a bitter letter to plastic capitalism, with gremlins standing in as ravenous consumers, always wanting more and more. But the thing is, the creatures won't succumb to society's norms and act all meek in front of rich people. They do what they want and have no need for hierarchies. Yuppie bistros, late night cable shows, even Leonard Maltin and his damning movie reviews - all get parodied in a machine gun pace.

The building itself has a lot of places set up for various types of comedy. There's a tv station for media satire, a sci-fi lab for some B-movie shenanigans and a food court for some old-school slapstick. A movie theatre set hosts the most meta joke of the movie, with Hulk Hogan appearing to break the fourth wall in order to stop gremlins from wrecking the movie they're starring in and the audience is watching! Did I mention this movie is really, really awesome?

An interesting character is that of Daniel Clamp, a clear stand in for the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Turner. In the beginning of the film he's played off as a villain, a ruthless magnate who won't allow tradition get in his way of progress. He's always seen through a monitor, video-conferencing from his office rather than to appear in place. Later on, small-time bosses in his building have ridiculously tight standards of appearance that they rule to minute detail.

But when Clamp makes his full appearance, he really isn't such a bad guy. He's a clueless buffoon that doesn't fully realize the consequences of his business decisions, yes. The real villains are his underlings, trying to suck up to the billionaire by trying to please him in the most absurd fashions possible. During the gremlin ordeal, Clamp gets a whiff of the old-timey Americana he had so forgotten, and plenty of his yes-men get their punishments in the forms of various gremlin skits.

The crudest and one of the funniest being saved for last.
As sequels often have more marketability, they usually need a host of new, marketable characters. Dante takes this idea to ridiculous lengths by having a cast of gremlins with various powers and personalities. On the monster side, there are an electric, spider- and bat-gremlin as well as an acid-scarred Phantom Gremlin and the grotesque female gremlin. In accordance there's also a googly-eyed daffy gremlin, a buck-toothed dum-dum gremlin, a Jimmy Cagney-looking gangster gremlin and, most memorably of all, the Brain Gremlin, voiced with an obnoxious Australian upper-class accent by Tony Randall.

In the midst of such a colorful cast, the human actors can't help but to feel like staticians. And that is, even though the actors are awesome. Veterans like Christopher Lee and Robert Prinsky do their outrageous roles with both grace and glee. Dick Miller, a xenophobic and a little racist all-American fruitcake in the first, has transformed into an unlikely action hero for this one. My favorite is still kathleen Freeman's Microwave Marge, a hysterical woman bringing the same kind of layers of camp to this as Una O'Connor did for James Whale's monster movies back in the day. In the nastiest, most vicious blow to the original movie, Dante even undermines its blackest, darkest scene, with Phoebe Cates having a pervertedly tragic reason for hating President's Day as much as she does Christmas.

It's American pop culture and consumerism thrown into a blender and dyed colorful and splashed to screen. Dante evokes the cartoons of old with the same kind of fast-moving never-stopping energy. Which is why it's so apt that the film begins with a short Bugs & Daffy segment animated by none other than Chuck Jones himself. Here's a clear changing of the guards if I ever saw one. It's a shame the studio interfered with Dante's actual Looney Tunes movie so much. That film has several segments good enough to make the viewer wonder if corporate culture cost us another as big a masterpiece in mischief as Gremlins 2 is.

The Legacy

Or: Why the world doesn't need Gremlins 3

Gremlins was a big hit of its time, and there were plenty of films that replicated its formula, such as Critters, GhouliesTroll, Hobgoblins and so on. While most of these were aimed at children or pre-teens, Gremlins had an unique nastiness that worked well on adults too, that proved hard to replicate. Seeing it as a child was actually as exciting as watching a grown-ups horror film. And there are so many pop-culture riffs and spoofs, it's impossible for children to catch them all. I only got the Public Enemy -referencing grapefruit squeeze the last time I watched it, and I've probably seen the movie 10 times.

While Gremlins 2 doesn't have as many horror elements as its predecessor (save perhaps the scene with Spider-Gremlin), it did everything else bigger and bolder. And inexplicably, fell short on the earnings. Perhaps it was due to audience's tastes having modified. Joe Dante himself believes he waited too long after the first movie. Nevertheless, that fact served Dante's ultimate goal of preventing further sequels. Nevertheless, the auteur has now and then toyed with the idea of doing another, simply because, well, the director hasn't had the kind of freedom in his work since.

But having celebrity cameos and broadening the scope just wouldn't work any more. The reason is because there eventually was a bigger film, Tim Burton's underrated 1996 film Mars Attacks! The movie plays out much like Gremlins would if they had access to ray-guns and flying saucers. Mars also takes a step further into mean-spiritedness. While the body count in Gremlins 2 is relatively low, Burton gleefully executes celebrities by the hoardes. His offs include A-listers such as Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Martin Short, and Jack Nicholson twice! Burton also plays out with an all-you-can-eat buffet of disposable plastic pop culture relics, and has silly cameos from such unlikely sources as Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Christina Applegate and Tom Jones.

Since Mars Attacks! still isn't quite as good as either Gremlins movie, I'm thinking the most important thing is that Gremlins are hand-crafted works of love. Mars Attacks! is "just" a silly little catastrophy movie parody and a cartoon movie with plenty of now-shoddy mid-90s computer effects. At best, that's what any new version would be, since Hollywood execs think computer effects are the only way to go now. While that could bring an impressive Gremlin army to the screen, it wouldn't have the same soul.

They should rather remake Critters.

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