Joe Dante is one of my favorite directors of all time. It could be because he also grew up loving monsters, even writing for the zine Castle of Frankenstein before becoming a bona fide director. Or perhaps it’s all the Easter Eggs he puts in his films. It’s probably because each barely contains a lunatic zeal, as if they come right out and say, “I can’t believe someone is paying us to make this movie!”
The original Gremlins was a big financial success and Warner Brothers wanted Dante to make a sequel right away. However, Dante saw that movie as having a finite end, it was a rough experience making the movie and he only saw the sequel as a way to make money. So Warner Brothers moved on without him, inventing all manner of situations where the Gremlins would end up on Mars or in Las Vegas. Finally, they asked Dante one more time and he asked for triple the budget of the original and complete creative control. He got it. Oh boy, did he.
Dante has always felt that too much time has passed between the two films and that the strange cable universe only suggested by this movie has become way too true. Sure, it has. But what I really love about this one is that it tells you right from the beginning that nothing is going to make sense, so just sit back and enjoy it. This is to quote Dante, “one of the more unconventional studio pictures ever.” It’s also probably his most personal film.
While this movie begins — after the Looney Tunes intro we’ll discuss in a bit — in a very ordinary way, by the end it has completely embraced being a cartoon, made in a world where physics and logic don’t apply. What other movie would invite critic Leonard Maltin, who hated the first, to savage that film before the Gremlins murder him?
Mr. Wing (Keye Luke, returning for a cameo) is the last hold out in Chinatown, unable to leave his shop of mysteries and allow it to be razed for the new state-of-the-art Clamp Center, the new headquarters of billionaire Ted Turner/Donald Trump hybrid clone Daniel Clamp (John Glover, who makes any movie he appears in instantly better).
The elderly man dies and Gizmo ends up becoming the test subject of Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee, who apologized to Dante for being in The Howling 2) and his team of maniacs. He’s soon rescued by the returning Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his now-fiancee Kate Beringer(Phoebe Cates, who really would have been a perfect giallo actress and now I bet you can’t get that idea out of your head either).
Clamp ends up meeting Billy, who works in the concept design area, and becomes his friend. That also means that his superior Marla Bloodstone (Haviland Morris, Sixteen Candles, Home Alone) gets attracted to him and starts her pursuit to the consternation of Kate.
Meanwhile, Gizmo gets wet all over again and spawns George, Lenny, Daffy and the most insidious of all mogwai, Mohawk. I mean, this guy is evil even before he makes the change. Soon, they’re tying up Gizmo and electrocuting him, ripping off his fur and hitting him with toy trains.
If you know the rules of the mogwai, of course these bad boys are going to get wet and multiply further, as well as eat after midnight and go full gremlin. It gets even worse when they get into the lab and start trying every formula they can get their hands on, like a mutagen that creates a brainy gremlin voiced by Tony Randall, a vegetable gremlin, an electrical gremlin, a bat gremlin who can’t be destroyed by bright light, a spider gremlin and hundreds more.
Meanwhile, horror movie host Grandpa Fred (Robert Prosky, The Great Outdoors, Christine) turns into an investigative journalist with the help of Japanese tourist Mr. Katsuji (Gedde Watanabe, who played perhaps the most racist character ever, Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles) and the world discovers that monsters have taken over the Clamp building. Also, Murray and Sheila Futterman (Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph) have come to town at exactly the wrong time.
There’s also a completely bonkers moment where Dante involves you, the audience, in the film. Just like in The Tinger when the titular monster breaks free in the theater, the gremlins take over the projection booth, making shadow puppets and showing the nudie cutie movie Volleyball Holiday. Then, Part Bartel as the manager of the theater enlists Hulk Hogan’s help to quell the rebellion of the gremlins. This scene never appeared on home video releases until DVD. That’s because in the TV/video version, the gremlins take over your TV and do shadow puppetry over white noise before changing the channels and finding the John Wayne movie Chisum. The Duke forces the gremlins to settle down. Lee’s voice here was done by Chad Everett.
It’s audacious that this was even allowed to happen, as the studio worried that audiences would just leave. Dante countered by having a test screening where people loved this segment. For once, test screening made a better movie!
Believe it or not, the original cut was even longer. Executive producer Steven Spielberg claimed that there were too many gremlins and several scenes were cut. Way to keep it fun, Steven!
Back to Looney Tunes. Joe Dante talked Chuck Jones into coming out of retirement to animate the opening, which sets the tone for chaos. In fact, instead of the friendly Bugs Bunny introducing the movie, the near-manic Daffy Duck just takes over. In the video version, there is even more of this beginning, including Daffy misspelling the movie as Gremlin Stew and deciding to name it The Return of Super-Daffy Meets Gremlins 2 Part 6: The Movie. This was cut because audiences expected a live-action film and were confused thinking they were watching a cartoon.
Daffy even comes back at the end, as Daffy pops in and out making comments before Porky Pig ends the film. He comes back again and takes over for Porky before the Warner Brothers logo smashes him.
There are so many crazy secrets in this movie. I’ll try and share a few of my favorites.
The end of the world tape that Clamp keeps to show when and if that ever happens is based on the very real Armageddon tape that Ted Turner had instructed CNN to create.
Sylvester Stallone gave his endorsement for Gizmo to dress up as Rambo.
The musical number is stolen nearly shot for shot from the 1934 Busby Berkely musical Dames.
Randall Peltzer, Billy’s dad, was supposed to return after the gremlins were killed at the end and give to Gizmo his newest invention, a wet-suit to keep him from ever getting wet again. The scene was set, Hoyt Axton was available, but everyone thought the movie was too long and the scene would never be shown, so they didn’t shoot it.
If you listen to Gizmo speak to people, he doesn’t always say their names. He refers to Mr. Wing by his real name Keye Luke. And when he meets John Astin, who plays a janitor, he calls him Gomez.
There are music cues from past horror movies used throughout, such as the song from Tarantula when Mohawk transforms into the spider gremlin, the theme from The ‘Burbs when the bat gremlin flies away and a Hammer-esque song when Christopher Lee is in his lab.
Vectorscope Labs has an office in the Clamp building. That’s the company from Dante’s Innerspace. Dr. Quatermass also keeps an office there.
There’s so much to remember here that every time I think I’ve finished writing this, I think of something else, like the Phantom of the Opera gremlin or the fact that Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith are in the salad bar.
Regardless, I love this movie. It continually takes huge bloody bites out of the studio hand that fed it — way after midnight — multiplying and becoming better by the second. It is that most rare of sequels that eclipses the original by many miles.