They’re back! It’s been six years since Gremlins unleashed a horde of malicious monsters on moviegoers. Under Joe Dante’s fun-house direction, the green meanies terrorized the picture-postcard town of Kingston Falls with such vicious glee that outraged parents demanded a new rating, PG-13, as a warning that not all movie critters were as nonviolently lovable as E.T.
In Gremlins 2: The New Batch, second-generation gremlins take Manhattan, setting up shop in a skyscraper, a ”cathedral of greed,” built by the zillionaire developer-TV mogul Daniel Clamp — a character two parts Donald Trump, one part Ted Turner — played by the wild-eyed John Glover. The gremlins have far greater power to cause trouble now, and they’re less interchangeable: Their ringleaders have distinct, quirky personalities. But none is quirkier than their nemesis Clamp, sociopath of genius. The gremlins pick on the wrong megalomaniac this time.
Gremlins 2, released last month against the summer’s blockbusters, will probably not come close to earning the $148 million its predecessor took in. But the reviews have been better, making it one of those rare offspring that improves on its parent. And it represents a major career boost for two of the most talented eccentrics in the movies, Dante and Glover.
Joe Dante is Steven Spielberg’s emissary to the Dark Side. Spielberg creates rosy fantasies for the child in us all; Joe Dante puts the id back in kid. Even at 43, he looks like a bratty teenage mad scientist, with an uncontrollable hedge of hair and a Felix the Cat tie clasp.
Like Felix, Dante is an anarchist wreaking havoc in a cartoon universe. He is even closer in spirit to his best-known creations, the gremlins. But the most revealing peek into his psyche is found in his first big-studio effort, Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), like the Gremlins pictures a Spielberg production. Dante’s segment of that anthology features a telekinetic child who forces grown-ups (and his sister, whose mouth he has sealed over with flesh) to watch bizarre cartoons around the clock. ”Yeah, I think there’s a little bit of me in him,” Dante admits. ”That’s what a movie director does — he gets to make things happen his way. And because of the accident (the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children during the filming of John Landis’ episode), nobody really wanted to be identified with Twilight Zone, so I was working without anybody telling me what to do.” Dante got away with creating one of the weirdest, scariest cartoon worlds in movie history.
Dante’s professional history is pretty strange, too. Born in Morristown, N.J., he became disillusioned at the Philadelphia College of Art, where he went to be a cartoonist. Since the art world had no place for cartoonists, he decided in 1974 to try directing, bypassing film school for the direct route: an entry-level job with Roger Corman, the maestro of such trash classics as Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Little Shop of Horrors. Dante made his first flick, Hollywood Boulevard (1976), in 10 days for $60,000, and his second, the John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978), for $600,000.
Piranha got him a job directing his first low-budget non-Corman picture, The Howling (1981), ”a sort of hip werewolf movie, quite a financially successful picture for Embassy, but not for me.” The Howling, along with a few cartoons scribbled by Dante, convinced Spielberg that he was just the man to make a nightmare on a shoestring. ”Spielberg had a horror script and he wanted to make it cheap, which is why he called me,” Dante says. Gremlins wound up being an $11 million, occasionally horrific comedy that grossed $148 million. Pundits dubbed it ”E.T. with teeth.”
Studio execs clamored for an immediate sequel, and Dante toyed with a Gremlins 2 script by Monty Python’s Terry Jones in which the scaly rapscallions run amok in Manhattan, knocking down the Empire State Building. ”I said, ‘C’mon, I just got off this thing, I’m glad it’s over,’ ” Dante recalls. He also almost became the man who made Batman, but quit abruptly soon after he’d begun. ”I woke up one night and said, ‘I don’t believe in Batman. I believe in the Joker.’ I loved that black humor — the Joker giving a guy a cigar and having it blow up — but I thought, the guy who makes this has to believe in Batman. The studio was appalled — they thought they had this off the ground after so many false starts. But in the end, I think they were happy with the way it worked out.” So is Dante. He still doesn’t believe in Batman.
Dante went on to launch a string of misfired sci-fi/comedy hybrids: Explorers (1985, not so good), Innerspace (1987, unjustly neglected but good enough for a Best Visual Effects Oscar), plus the disastrous 1987 B-movie parody anthology Amazon Women on the Moon, made by Dante and a few fellow anarchists. His 1989 stab at a non-special-effects film, The ‘Burbs, was undone by the screenwriters’ strike. ”Fifty percent of the dialogue was ad-libbed by the actors (Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern), and that was a lot of fun. But maybe the fun we had making it doesn’t translate into watching the movie.”
By the late ’80s, making another Gremlins sounded like as much fun to Dante as it did to the studio. ”They said, ‘We’ll let you do whatever you want,’ and this time the improved technology and the budget actually made that possible. We spent as much on the effects in Gremlins 2 as we did on the entire first movie — plus we had a lot more time and we knew what we were doing.
”Gremlins was a conventional horror film with comedy in it,” Dante says. ”This one is really a series of jokes. The idea was to make a movie that was more fun than the first, not as dark, not as scary, because I wasn’t interested in making the same movie over. We said, ‘Let’s take it to an extreme.’ So there are jokes that refer to the first film, jokes that take you out of the film, jokes that make fun of (the production company) Warner Bros. — sort of a Hellzapoppin approach.”
In order to make it all work, Dante assembled a few newcomers — Hulk Hogan, Leonard Maltin, supercartoonist Chuck Jones — and the team with whom he’s made most of his movies. Gremlin creator Chris Walas had become a director in his own right, so Dante lured designer Rick Baker with the promise of total freedom. ”We managed to whet his appetite by saying that he wouldn’t just work with Walas’ designs; he could design a whole bunch of weird crazy gremlins and we’d work them into the script somehow. Somebody came up with the idea of the genetics lab (Splice O’ Life, Makers of Designer Genes) to give us an excuse to have them change into things people don’t expect.”
Baker came up with a few doozies. ”In the script there was a spaghetti gremlin, a mouse gremlin, an elephant gremlin, a gremlin made of electricity,” Dante says. ”We started to think, ‘How much is it gonna cost to do each of these?’ We were just about to drop the electric gremlin when we figured out that we could use him at the end of the story — when it turned out not to be feasible to kill the gremlins by filling the building with cement, as we’d planned.”
Not only are the creatures free to mutate at will — the giant spider gremlin being perhaps Rick Baker’s ghastliest whim — they are now freed by ”opticals” (superimposed shots) to kick up their heels. ”The most difficult stunt of all was getting Gizmo to dance,” Dante says. ”And then we couldn’t get the rights to the song he was dancing to, Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing With Myself,’ so we ended up finding this Fats Domino song (”I’m Ready”) at the last minute that happened to have exactly the same beat. That was the last shot of the movie.”
Like its predecessor, Gremlins 2 boasts a host of jokey allusions to other movies: Apocalypse Now, Body Double, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. But Dante is equally devoted to less highbrow filmmakers. ”There’s a lot of stuff cribbed from Michael Curtiz (Mildred Pierce), a lot of shadows-on-the-wall shots.” The shadowplay scenes are there partly to fake things gremlins still can’t do on camera, like Gizmo weightlifting to bulk up into Rambo. But Dante is always serious about conecting moments in his movies with film history.
”I grew up at Saturday matinees, when kids would go in big groups instead of watching things alone at home on TV,” says Dante. ”They watched, and talked back to the movies, and had a relationship with them. One of the goals of Gremlins 2 was to give the audience a communal fun experience that they can’t get on TV.”
Communal fun is, of course, what gremlins are all about. They are stand-ins for the audience — in the first film, they even took over a movie house, like the insurrectionist kids in Dante’s happy youthful memories. Gremlins 2 is still more jubilantly juvenile, more playfully lighthearted, with few of the shadings that give Dante’s early work its inimitable creepiness. But being more straightforwardly Spielbergian, Gremlins 2 could be Dante’s ticket back to bankability.
Whatever happens, Dante will follow his usual plan. As he likes to put it: ”I just want to make movies as good as they used to be before they got so bad.”