Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

If there was any doubt in Gremlins over whether the movie was supposed to be a horror or a comedy (and while it seems to favor comedy, the balance is subtle enough that you could make an argument for the horror), Gremlins 2 starts off, inexplicably, with a Looney Tunes segment featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Now, if this segment had gone dark at the end, like an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon opening up an episode of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror, then that would be pretty creepy. But it doesn't. It's just a Looney Tunes sketch bridging the gap between the Warner Bros. logo and the movie's title screen, which zooms in on a bright and cheery New York City over uplifting, symphonic music. The message is clear. This movie isn't going to scare you. It's going to have a fun time. (If zany antics are your idea of fun).

Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates (yes, that Phoebe Cates) return as the main characters in Gremlins' sequel, giving it a clear link of progression from the first movie. Like Poltergeist III, Gremlins 2 takes the basic premise of the first movie and relocates it to an urban high-rise, replacing the quaint suburban atmosphere of the previous film. Gizmo looks less like a Furby in this movie and more like an ultra-cutesy puppet. The weird thing is, I'm not sure that's an improvement. It's obvious that the filmmakers are capitalizing on Gizmo's potential as the fan-favored mascot of the film, but it just goes in too whimsical a direction.

And he's not alone, either. In the first Gremlins, the behavioral difference between Gizmo - the gentle, friendly Mogwai - and "Stripe" - the mischievous, alpha male bully - had a logical and naturalistic feel to it. Here, the assorted Mogwai are like the seven dwarfs, as if diversified for the purpose of commercial exploitation. The leader of the pack sports a mohawk; the bucktoothed, dopey one makes a "hyuk hyuk" noise; and the hyperactive one behaves like a retarded infant, constantly giggling, with its eyes always spinning in opposite directions. They're not even transformed yet, and I already want to squash them under my boot. Not because they're threatening - but because they're just plain annoying!

Where the physical humor in the first Gremlins was largely limited to pranks and sight gags, the sequel ratchets up the slapstick to an almost Three Stooges-like level. Even in their transformed state, the gremlins' caricaturized appearance takes away from their scariness. They look more cartoonish, more like rubber puppets than they did before. Even the location of the movie - which doesn't so much take place in the city, but almost exclusively within this ridiculous arcology-esque microcosm of an authoritarian, technological society - undermines the atmosphere of the film and makes it much less creepy (and believable) than the Christmas-y small town of the first movie. It's almost surreal at times, but in a very dated, quintessentially turn-of-the-'90s sort of way.

One thing this movie does right is that, as a sequel, it ups the stakes by presenting a newly evolved set of gremlins ("the new batch", presumably). Unfortunately, as in everything else, it squanders the horror potential in favor of comedy - beginning with the ridiculous science lab where the gremlins power up, run by a stone-faced Christopher Lee. One gremlin drinks a brain serum and gets really smart. Another grows wings like a bat, and is also injected with a genetic sunblock (removing the gremlins' primary weakness). A third becomes pure electricity! (We won't talk about the one who turns female and begins acting like a drag queen in heat). Of course, the evillest gremlin of them all has to drink a spider serum.

This all could have been much scarier (and certainly, the spider gremlin is a terror just to see on screen) if it served some other purpose than to give the director an opportunity to crack a bunch of pop culture jokes. The most effective gag is a fourth-wall-breaking sequence in which the gremlins appear to interfere with the projector running the film (and, after making shadow puppets on the screen, replace it with a "nudie cutie" titled Volleyball Holiday, in a rare demonstration of good taste). But the sequence is resolved by Hulk Hogan threatening the gremlins to put the right movie back on. (The home video version of this sequence involves some TV static and channel-surfing, and is resolved instead by John Wayne).

This is a great example of both the movie's strengths and weaknesses. Gremlins 2 has no shortage of good ideas. In fact, it works pretty well as a self-effacing parody (although its sense of humor doesn't really match my own). But where it falters is in its unflinching commitment to humor over horror. For some people, this is not a problem, but rather what makes this movie so great (though a lot of the jokes are dated, which limits its effective audience). But as far as I'm concerned, it took the tenuous balance of the first movie - which was already leaning dangerously towards the comedy edge - and pushed it right over the cliff.

No comments:

Post a Comment