Ever since I’ve started writing these “Underrated Gems” columns, I’ve thought long and hard about what I consider to be the most underrated sequel of all time. The other day, the choice suddenly seemed so obvious to me: Gremlins 2: The New Batch. This isn’t just one of my favourite sequels of all time, but one of my favourite films period, and I can’t tell you how many times I watched both Gremlins films during my childhood. What’s surprising is how few people I’ve encountered that have even seen Gremlins 2. I know numerous people who are fans of the original Gremlins, yet have just never bothered to check out the sequel. That may help explain why this film was considered a huge box-office disappointment when it was originally released, as its numbers were far below those of its hugely successful predecessor. However, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is not just some lazy rehash of the original. Well, on the surface, I guess it might seem to be that way, but the film is very self-aware of that and has a field day poking fun of itself and the concept of sequels in general. For years, director Joe Dante kept turning down the chance to do a Gremlins sequel. However, Warner Bros. just could not seem to get the project off the ground without him, so they finally got Dante to agree by telling him something that a major studio NEVER tells a filmmaker: we’ll give you complete creative control, so do whatever the hell you want! I’m sure many executives at Warner Bros. were none-too-thrilled with some of the choices that Dante made.
At the start of Gremlins 2, Gizmo the lovable Mogwai is still living with his master, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke), in their Chinatown antiques shop in New York City, but when Mr. Wing passes away, the shop is torn down and Gizmo winds up in a genetics lab that’s run by a mad scientist named Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee). The lab is also located in a large skyscraper that happens to be the headquarters of Clamp Enterprises, which is run by eccentric zillionaire Daniel Clamp (John Glover). By sheer coincidence, the two major characters from the original film, Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates) also happen to be living in New York and working at the Clamp Centre. Billy eventually comes into possession of Gizmo and reminds us about the three major rules that were established in the original: 1. Don’t expose them to bright light, 2. Don’t get them wet, and 3. Don’t feed them after midnight. Naturally, all three of these rules are broken as Gizmo gets wet and multiplies, creating a new batch of evil Mogwais who eventually eat after midnight and morph into Gremlins. One of the reasons Joe Dante never wanted to make a sequel in the first place is because the plotline of the original pretty much dictated any follow-up would just comes across as an uninspired, formulaic retread, and that the sequel would have to rely on characters continuing to make the same dumb mistakes again. However, Dante did not want to go down this path and had a lot of tricks up his sleeve. The zany, self-referential style of Gremlins 2 is best defined by this inspired gag where movie critic Leonard Maltin, who legitimately hated the original Gremlins, shows up in a cameo to trash the movie and receives a nasty comeuppance for it. Not surprisingly, Mr. Maltin’s review of Gremlins 2 would wind up being far more positive.
Now, I think it says a lot about the anarchic spirit of Gremlins 2 that the original Gremlins movie would even exist and be referenced to in the fictitious world of this sequel. This is a sequel that dares to poke fun of the massive success of its predecessor. It’s quite amusing how Gremlins became one of the most iconic, popular horror films of all time in spite of one of the most ludicrous plot holes in cinema history. We all know the Gremlins are created when you feed Mogwais after midnight, but what the hell does that even mean anyway?! Isn’t it ALWAYS after midnight? Well, Gremlins 2 actually contains a scene where the characters discuss the fact that this rule makes no sense whatsoever (“What if you’re in an airplane and you cross a time zone?”). While the first Gremlins was basically a horror film with a lot of comedic elements, Gremlins 2 is a full-fledged comedy that just happens to be built around some horror elements. Dante and his screenwriter Charlie Haas know that simply repeating the same story again would be awfully stale, so halfway through, they pretty much stop worrying about plot and turn Gremlins 2 into a non-stop series of gags, sketches, parodies and inside jokes that often make the movie resemble a Looney Tunes cartoon. This approach is pretty much established right away when the movie starts off with a cartoon of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fighting over who gets to ride the Warner Bros. logo. If you’re a fan of the film’s wacky brand of slapstick humour, then Gremlins 2 is an absolute blast. The movie goes so hilariously over-the-top that it even has one of the Gremlins drink a brain hormone formula that causes it to start talking with the voice of Tony Randall!
The film more than makes up for its uninspired storyline by placing it within the confines of a very inspired setting: the giant mechanical Clamp Centre. The location makes for some wonderful satire that pokes fun at corporate stupidity and the horrible things that can go wrong when one tries to rely on elaborate automated technology to control everything. The character of Daniel Clamp is obviously meant as a cross between Donald Trump and Ted Turner, and John Glover delivers a delightful performance in the role, investing the oddball zillionaire with such child-like enthusiasm for everything that the character becomes very endearing. Out of all the zany jokes and satirical jabs in Gremlins 2, the most inspired sequence has to be a “breaking the fourth wall” gag that provided me with one of the most surreal moments I’ve experienced in a movie theatre. I originally saw Gremlins 2 at the old Uptown Theatre in my hometown of Orangeville, and the crappy projector wound up breaking at two separate points during the film. Two-thirds of the way through, the film suddenly just stopped and naturally, we all assumed that it was the projector breaking again. So you can imagine our reactions a few seconds later when a silhouette of two Gremlins suddenly appeared on the screen and they started doing shadow puppets! Now, obviously this was a planned gag that involved the Gremlins taking over the projector and stopping the film, but since the projector had already broken down twice during our particular screening, I think a lot of people in the audience were legitimately disoriented and freaked out for several seconds! Of course, this only added to the experience and, as an eleven-year old wrestling fan, you can’t imagine how thrilled I was when Hulk Hogan popped up onscreen and told the Gremlins to start the film again. Sadly, when the film was released on video, they replaced this sequence with a different, much less effective gag involving the Gremlins taking over the TV set and being shot by John Wayne. Thankfully, the original projector gag was restored for the DVD release.
Anyway, that whole projector story pretty much sums up my immense affection for Gremlins 2. I loved the film as a child and I still love it today and think it holds up so well because it’s somewhat ahead of its time. In our current technology-obsessed world, many of the gags involving the automated Clamp Centre play even funnier today. Needless to say, a sequel like this would probably never get produced by Hollywood today and the only reason the film turned out this way is because the studio was very desperate to get it made. Sadly, its underwhelming performance at the box office ensured that daring, self-referential sequels like this were bound to become the exception rather than the rule. It’s hard to explain why the film didn’t do very well, but Joe Dante suspects it’s because too much time had passed since the original and the Gremlins phenomenon had died down considerably. Gremlins 2 still has its fair share of devoted fans today, but also a greater share of people who’ve never even bothered to see it. Over the years, I’ve always gone back-and-forth on whether I prefer Gremlins 1 or 2, but for now, I’ll say that Gremlins 2 is slightly better just because it’s so audacious and one of the ultimate kitchen sink movies that tries to deliver everything humanly possible to its audience. Even when the gags don’t always work, you know you won’t have to wait too long before you’re treated to another bullseye. When it comes to picking the most underrated sequel of all time, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is my hands-down choice. It’s worth watching at any time, even when you’re exposed to bright light, wet, or eating after midnight.