How "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" was the last gasp of auteurist madness in Hollywood
Warner Bros.

How "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" was the last gasp of auteurist madness in Hollywood

Thirty years ago, Hollywood studios were still in the dark ages when it came to capitalizing on their most commercially viable intellectual property. 

In human-speak, they sucked at making sequels. 

For every competently managed franchise like “Star Wars," Indiana Jones or “Lethal Weapon," there were ill-considered cash-ins like “The Sting 2," “Cocoon: The Return” and “Arthur 2: On the Rocks." The studios’ “problem” was that they weren’t green-lighting every film with an eye toward a sequel. They were obsessed with high-concept blockbusters but less concerned with how, say, “Top Gun” might launch a series and, potentially, a spinoff adventure for Iceman and an origin yarn featuring Maverick’s pop and Viper. 

So when a movie became a hit, they were often caught flat-footed. What now?

“Gremlins” exemplifies this predicament. Based on a spec script by Chris Columbus, the Steven Spielberg-produced horror-comedy captured moviegoers’ fancy with its adorable “mogwai” Gizmo, whose care is contingent on three rules: Don’t get him wet, don’t expose him to bright light (especially sunlight, which will kill him) and never, ever feed him after midnight. Of course, all three rules are broken in the first act, which leads to the spawning of the mischievous/murderous title monsters. 

To the surprise and delight of Warner Bros., “Gremlins” wound up being the fourth-highest-grossing film of 1984; it also created the exact merchandising windfall spoofed in the movie. The studio obviously wanted a sequel ASAP. There was just one problem: The film’s visionary director, Joe Dante, wanted no part of it.

Dante was not your typical on-the-make director of that period. He was a walking encyclopedia of movie history who knew precisely how the studio intended to use him. Rather than squander his newfound cachet on more of the same, Dante made three hugely inventive originals — “Explorers, “Innerspace” and “The ‘Burbs” — that established him as a sardonic Spielberg. Dante loved the same sci-fi flicks and monster movies that his dream-weaving contemporary grew up on, but he viewed nostalgia as an easily commodified dead end. He considered the times that spawned these fantastic flights of pop culture and tweaked viewers for their warm-blanket memories of a less tolerant era — while also taking the piss out of the ‘80s mindless machismo and crass consumerism. 

Unfortunately, Dante’s trio of post-“Gremlins” films failed to catch fire at the box office, so acceding to WB’s pleas for a sequel wasn’t the worst idea. Furthermore, given that the studio had no clear idea for a follow-up save for “more," Dante, even coming off three commercial disappointments, had them over a barrel. So the studio granted him complete creative control for “more,” and he ran with it.

The first film left the door wide open for a sequel with the elderly shopkeeper (Keye Luke) informing Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), “Perhaps some day, you will be ready. Until then, mogwai waits.” But no one left the theater eager for the further adventures of Billy and Gizmo. Getting the Gremlins into an environment where they could wreak maximum havoc was the key, and the smart building of Daniel Clamp (John Glover), an affably megalomaniacal hybrid of Ted Turner and Donald Trump, gave Dante all manner of possibilities. The skyscraper housed offices, restaurants, TV studios… it was a billionaire shut-in’s dream. It was also a buggy structure vulnerable to mischief, which made it the perfect playground for the Gremlins. And Dante.

Dante’s gamble with “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” was that audiences were just as tired of rehashed sequels as he was, so why not go for broke and give ticket buyers a razzle-dazzle orgy of non-stop chaos? Dante’s model-for-madness was H.C. Potter’s 1941 film adaptation of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin’," an anything-goes olio that kicks down the fourth wall and casts narrative coherence to the wind. He gave free rein to Hollywood’s king of creature creation, Rick Baker, and the maestro responded with a wild assortment of mogwais and gremlins that referenced the entirety of film history (from Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera” to Tim Burton’s “Batman”). 

WB got its money’s worth. Moment to moment, “Gremlins 2” packs the frame with so much activity you’ll be discovering brilliant throwaway gags on your sixth viewing. It mercilessly lampoons the first film (itself an anti-consumerist broadside), the play-the-hits mentality of sequels (most acutely via Phoebe Cates’ President's Day monologue, an absurd callback to her genuinely horrifying Christmas remembrance from the original), Ted Turner’s colorization crusade (“’Casablanca’ now in color and with a happier ending”), bizarre culinary trends (the Canadian restaurant that serves “chocolate moose” and pipes in Gordon Lightfoot songs) and America’s worship of wealthy white men. (Clamp’s bestselling “I Took Manhattan” is clearly modeled after Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.") 

There’s also a scene where a gremlin accosts ex-NFL star and Miller Lite pitchman Dick Butkus at a salad bar, and ex-NFL star and Miller Lite pitchman Bubba Smith attempts to rescue him. That a) there’s zero setup for this, and b) these guys were as out-of-date as Clara Peller when it came to hawking product makes the throwaway scene even funnier.

Alas, moviegoers were not in the market for pop culture anarchy in 1990. “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” opened to a disappointing $9.7 million dollars over the June 15 weekend, finishing fourth behind “Dick Tracy," “Another 48 Hrs.” and “Total Recall." Much was made of “Gremlins 2” arriving six years after the original, but “Another 48 Hrs.," an overproduced slog starring a disengaged Eddie Murphy and a sleepy Nick Nolte, was eight years in the making. It was everything Dante was railing against, and yet despite poor reviews, it grossed $80 million domestically, while “Gremlins 2” topped out at $41 million.

Would Dante’s sequel — the “medley of my hit” as he likes to call it — have fared better had it not gone head-to-head with the summer’s most heavily hyped blockbuster in “Dick Tracy”? Marginally perhaps, but the film still had a huge problem: It treated moviegoers with too much respect. 

Dante didn’t want to patronize his audience with lazy fan service and mythmaking; he wasn’t interested in the origin story of the mogwai, nor did he want to explore the Peltzer family bloodline. He just threw a big-screen party that, unfortunately, had limited appeal at the time. Thirty years later, self-professed film geeks would embrace the Easter egg hunt quality of the movie, but there’s not a chance in hell WB would OK a fourth-wall breaking concept like the gremlins taking over the projection booth and plugging in a DCP of Pitof’s “Catwoman."

The green-lighting of “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” in 2020 would be contingent on a three-movie arc, an expanded Gremlins universe, a TV series — all of which is probably in play for WB right now as it toys around a reboot of the property. It’s a corporate, by-committee nightmare that Dante saw coming (and had to deal with on subsequent productions like “Small Soldiers”). When you bring your precious mogwai of an idea to a movie studio in this day and age, you better be ready to turn it into a gremlin.

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