Gremlins was the brainchild of two disparate forces: Chris Columbus, the titan of family-friendly schmaltz, and Joe Dante, the mad harlequin of American cinema. It was a risky pairing, but it worked, largely because Dante is an agent of exquisite subversion and Columbus offered up a ripe premise for such trickery. In many ways, the film’s improbable success (it was the fourth highest grossing film of 1984) allowed Dante to make even more deceptive, mischievous films, such as Matinee and Small Soldiers.
The tale of the cuddly mogwai Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) and the beasts that he spawns when his “rules” are broken never needed a sequel, but Gremlins 2: The New Batch ends up being something close to Dante’s penultimate expression of his sardonic movie love. Relocating the action from the small town of Kingston Falls to a business center in the heart of the Big Apple, Gremlins 2 essentially follows a similar narrative trajectory: Gizmo is taken from his home, adopted by a wholesome couple, Billy and Kate (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates), gets wet, and gives birth to a pack of evil mogwais that inevitably become the titular reptilian demons. Chaos subsequently ensues.
But whereas the setting of Gremlins was used as a way to cut up nostalgic views of small-town life and homegrown ethos, the setting of Gremlins 2 lends itself to a fully armored assault on media-centric progress, and Dante, working with Charles Haas’s script, gives the material prophetic weight. Run by an ironically up-with-people loon named Clamp (a brilliant John Glover), the business center is an automated madhouse, wired for sound and video and constantly faltering, a testament to capitalistic confusion not unlike the high-rises of Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Toward the end of the film, Clamp even hires an aging hack and late-night movie host, Grandpa Fred (Robert Prosky), as his latest news anchorman, after Fred stages a guerilla newscast from inside the Clamp building when the gremlins take over, going as far as to interview Brain Gremlin.
Voiced by Tony Randall, Brain Gremlin is depicted as the faux-civilized leader of the crazed horde of monsters, but he remains a part of Dante’s unique form of anarchistic vaudeville. Gremlins 2 pays homage to Jack Arnold, Tod Browning, and George A. Romero, in its way, but its relentless tearing at the fabric of narrative coherence, critical interpretation, and thematic consistency suggests a quasi-Godardian experiment in pop filmmaking. At one point, Hulk Hogan, in a decidedly meta moment, threatens the gremlins to put the movie back on after they mangle its imagined projector; Gizmo takes on the role of the story’s Rambo-like hero, headband, flaming arrows, and all; Leonard Maltin gets attacked by a trio of gremlins while delivering a tirade against Gremlins; and the film begins as a Looney Toons short. And then there’s that all-gremlin cover of “New York, New York” and the pinup lady gremlin who straight-up mates with Clamp’s right-hand man (Robert Picardo) by the end of the film.
Not even the central couple is safe from Dante and Haas’s self-aware trickery, as Kate’s abrupt pause to solemnly recount her experience of being molested at a young age is abruptly interrupted by the film’s climactic face-off. Indeed, there’s a sense that Dante sides more with the gremlins than he does with the humans, including Billy’s old friend and neighbor, Murray Futterman, played by Dante staple Dick Miller. And most of Dante’s more horror-tinged set pieces seem to be aimed squarely at stereotypical middle-class worries and entertainments: Billy is tortured in a dentist’s chair; patrons of a frozen-yogurt worry about germs before an evil mogwai erupts from a bucket of candy; and a Julia Child-esque cooking show is terrorized by a Three Stooges-type trio of monsters.
And yet, there’s an odd semblance to the entire ordeal, an unlikely testament to Dante’s bare-minimum approach to narrative consistency and Haas’s seemingly scatterbrained script. Packed though it is with anti-capitalist sentiment and cynicism born of political exhaustion, Gremlins 2 is less concerned with making a statement or a point than it is with losing it at and on the movies, disregarding concepts of clear analysis and embracing a philosophy of joyous cinematic discord.
With this 1080p transfer, Warner Home Video has done very well by a property they probably regard as sour fruit, seeing as the film was a box-office disaster. With the exception of some intermittent moments of crush, this is an excellent transfer, sporting vibrant colors and lovely, perfectly saturated black levels. The clarity and definition of the transfer is stunning, with brilliant skin tones, textures, and surface detail. The audio is great as well, with the dialogue out front and cleanly transferred. Effects sound pitch-perfect and Jerry Goldsmith's lively score is lovingly handled, making for an immersive viewing and listening experience overall.
The feature-length commentary, featuring Joe Dante, Charles S. Haas, Zach Galligan, and Michael Finnell, is a very engaging listen and includes more than enough information on the production, along with Dante's opinion of the films, its influences, and its themes. It renders the six-minute making-of featurette completely useless, but the deleted scenes, including optional commentary by Dante, provide an excellent companion piece to the commentary, giving more sense of how Dante structures his seemingly madcap works. The gag reel is a lot of fun, whereas the alternate home-video footage is a throwaway. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Joe Dante's giddy, diabolical, and terminally underappreciated sequel to the film that made his career arrives on Blu-ray in a solid package from Warner Home Video.