When kids watch horror movies they’re always waiting for the ”good parts,” for the scenes in which the monster chomps down on innocent bystanders or commits assorted other forms of rude behavior. Director Joe Dante, a 15-year veteran of pop moviemaking, still has that childlike appetite for sensation — that, and a kid’s blissfully short attention span. The fun of the Gremlins movies is that they’re really nothing but good parts (at least once they get rolling). In Gremlins 2: The New Batch we’re reintroduced to Gizmo, the cute-as-a-button, Walter Keane-eyed fur ball who’s the seed of all the trouble. Inevitably, someone breaks the rules and spills water on him, producing many of his vicious little beastie-boy brothers (but only one sister — gremlins, it seems, aren’t an equal-opportunity species).
The rest of the movie can be summarized as follows: more gremlins, and more, and then MORE! The way Dante directs, you hardly need a fast-forward button. Like Gremlins (1984), The New Batch is a demonically surreal Muppet movie that leaps from high point to high point, from sick jokes featuring gremlins fed through paper shredders to gleeful anthropomorphic satire. Once again Rick Baker did the special effects, and they’re amazing — the gremlins are so supple and freewheeling you could easily envision them playing nine innings.
The monsters are a trifle more individualized than they were before: They’re like a fiendish (and multiple) version of the Seven Dwarves. There’s one who’s a giggling, cross-eyed nut case, one who looks like Edward G. Robinson, and one who gets transformed into an impish streak of lightning. There’s even one who talks — he drinks ”brain serum” and turns into a supercilious professor (the voice is by Tony Randall, who sounds like he’s imitating George Plimpton), a courtly, bespectacled chap as civilized as his fellow gremlins are nasty. This brain-case is so irresistible that you may think the movie is going to do more with him than it actually does; instead, he ends up being just one more gag. Dante is like a monster-movie freak on a sugar rush: He speeds through the good parts and skimps on everything else. The New Batch tends to go flat whenever its human characters are on screen, but it’s an amusingly unbalanced cartoon — it runs right off the rails and stays there, proudly.
The first Gremlins, set at Christmastime in a small American town, was a send-up of Capraesque sentimentality. Now, Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates) have moved to New York City, and the moviemakers point their cartoon darts at a different target, a Trump-like uber-honcho named Daniel Clamp (John Glover). The satire is thin stuff, but Glover is very funny as the glassy-eyed Clamp, who dreams of a world in which everything is automated.
Most of the movie is set inside Clamp Centre, a high-tech public office building whose ominously drab interiors feature a shopping mall, Orwellian video-surveillance monitors, and an intercom system that follows you to the bathroom and drones greetings like ”Have a powerful day.” When little Gizmo is abducted by a professional gene splicer (played by Christopher Lee!) with offices in Clamp Centre, a janitor sprays water on him, he starts producing gremlins, and the little scaly-faced buggers take over the building. It becomes their outsize jungle gym, a metropolis under one roof.
Once again, Dante careens between treating the gremlins as a joke and a genuine monster-movie threat. (Often they’re both at once.) Even when they’re reaching for people with their spindly, three-nailed claws, their mayhem is so childishly mischievous — pure id — it’s almost innocent. The gremlins are like grislier versions of Animal the anarchic Muppet. At one point, one of them throws acid in another’s face, and the scalded gremlin screams (with pleasure or pain? — it’s hard to tell) and then, out of nowhere, pops on a Phantom of the Opera mask. The gag is such a deadpan non sequitur, it’s surreal. Here, as in the first movie, the gremlins aren’t just figures of fun. They’re in on the joke.
Many directors have made movies for the child in us. Joe Dante makes movies for the brat in us. Gremlins 2 is a limited achievement — it’s nothing but the sum of its own whirring pop-culture mechanics. But that’s more than enough to keep you occupied, and occasionally exhilarated.