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Liquid Nostalgia: Gremlins & Gremlins 2: The New Batch

 

I don't know if anything shaped my childhood memories as much as Steven Spielberg and his production company, Amblin Entertainment. I suppose that might have been his plan all along: make entertainment that is universal, timeless and incredibly memorable. Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Goonies and Tiny Toons are three things I've already covered in this series alone. So, I suppose, it's on to the next and really one of the most unique and endearing little movies from that company.

I first saw Gremlins on television in the 1980s. In fact, it was on television quite a bit. I remember even taping it on VHS when it came on one time and trying to time the commercial breaks where I would pause the VCR, watch every commercial, then anticipate the moment the movie returns which was usually indicated by a  longer-than-usual moment of blackness on screen.  Gremlins was a family movie, but I have a feeling most families weren't going to let their kids watch it. It was dark, sometimes a bit gruesome and no matter how cute our little furry-lead, Gizmo, was, you still had those nasty moments where little green monsters kill and attack quite a few people.

But, it was a comedy at heart. It was a little violent and gruesome at times, but it had a very self-afacing way in its approach. It was silly and sometimes crazy and that funny turn took the edge off the dark monster-mauling violence. 

The sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, pretty much took the comedy aspect of the first and ran with it. That film I actually went to the movie theater to see at our local mall theater in my hometown. It wasn't nearly as scary as the first film and seemed intent on being as goofy as possible. You not only had gremlins, but you had gremlins with personality and actual physical distinction from one another.

At the time, I was pretty apathetic to Gremlins 2. It was fine, sure, but I had pretty much forgotten about it over the years. Then I watched it again when I was older and I realized that, though it may not be as good in my nostalgic mentality as the first film, it's a very good film in its own right. The differences from the first film is why the film was good the entire time.

 The idea of comedy and horror wasn't really new in 1984 when Gremlins first came out, but I Gremlins really got it right in how it kept in legitimate scares but had fantastic tongue-in-cheek comedy to go along with it. It was darker than, say, Abbot and Costello meet The Wolfman and scarier than Ghostbusters, which came out that same year. It wasn't as campy as the horror comedies found in the 70s, like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and was far more universal than Re-Animator, another great horror-comedy that came out the following year.

 

It seemed that Spielberg, who was always a horror movie fan, mixed with director Joe Dante, who was no rookie when it came to these types of movies, just found a unique blend. Not only a unique blend of horror-comedy, twice (Gremlins 2 is unique in its own right), but a unique couple of movies that became part of the collective pop-culture consciousness and a part of my generation's childhood memories.


 

A Brief History of Gremlins

 -The script was written by Chris Columbus initially as a spec and writing sample (screenwriters often will wright original material to show potential representatives and employers). Somehow, it got into the hands of Steven Spielberg, who immediately fell in love with the idea. Gremlins would launch Columbus's career.

-Spielberg, coming off his success producing Poltergeist and Twilight Zone: The Movie, was looking for another horror project, but with a comedic twist. He approached director Joe Dante, whom Spielberg was a fan of after seeing the The Howling and worked with for a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie, and felt he would be a perfect fit for The Gremlins' sensibilities and brought on board Dante's producer on The Howling to oversee the project, Michael Finnel. With all the elements in place (or attached, as they say), Spielberg took the project to Warner Brothers to be developed under his Amblin Entertainment.

-After a few rewrites to "lighten" the film up (more on that below), the script was finalized and ready for production. Phoebe Cates was the first cast in the film as Kate. After some read throughs with relative unknown actor Zach Galligan, Spielberg felt they had great chemistry and cast him in the lead. Almost all of the other actors were cast due to being better known, such as Hoyt Axton as Billy's father, Judge Reinhold and Edward Andrews as Billy's co-workers, and long-time character actor (and Joe Dante film frequenter) Dick Miller as crazy Murray Futterman (and the only actor other than Cates and Galligan to be in the sequel). 

-Special effects were handled and creature designs were handled by Chris Walas, who has worked with Joe Dante and Spielberg in the past - Pirahna and Raiders of the Lost Arc (make up) respectively). Oscar nominated long-time composer Jerry Goldsmith, who also scored Spielberg's previous horror-effort Poltergeist, was brought on board to compose the score. In the end, the budget for Gremlins was only around $11 million.

-Gremlins was released in the summer of 1984 to great box office success but to mixed critical reaction. It also sparked controversy, alongside Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, about the MPAA rating system. Gremlins was only rated PG, however parents groups felt it was too violent and dark to justify a PG rating, ergo the PG-13 rating was created. Despite the mixed reviews and controversy, as well as being released the same day as Ghostbusters causing Gremlins to only be number two at the box office, the film still managed to bust through the $100 million mark, reach nearly 150 million and became the fourth highest grossing film of 1984.

-Gremlins 2: The New Batch, had a rougher ride. Warner Brothers wanted to jump on the success of Gremlins, however had difficulty getting the sequel off the ground. Eventually, they were able to start putting things in place...six years later. Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg and Jerry Goldsmith returned, however a new screenwriter was brought in by the name of Charles Haas. Rick Baker was brought on to oversee the special effects as well as design new gremlins and mogwais.

-Haas and Dante worked closely on the script because Dante wanted a completely different approach and focus with the sequel to separate from the first film. He wanted what, essentially, was a live-action cartoon and satire of horror sequels.

-Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Keye Luke (as Mr. Wing) and Dick Miller reprise their roles from the first film. Gremlins 2 also brought in familiar actors as well, including Gedde Watanabe as a Japanese cameraman, Robert Picardo who Joe Dante worked with numerous times, John Glover as the head of Clamp Industries, Daniel Clamp, and Christopher Lee as Dr. Catheter whose experiments with genes causes the Gremlins to turn into even greater creatures in the film.

-Gremlins 2: The New Batch wasn't nearly as successful commercially or critically as its predecessor. Joe Dante felt that six years removed from the original had much to do with the box office, however average review scores probably didn't help matters. It had a larger budget than the first film with $50 million, but made no profit as the box office success metered out to a little over $40 million.

-Despite the disparity of success, one thing remained constant between Gremlins and its sequel: Warner Brothers merchandised the films like crazy.  Figures, dolls, games, lunchboxes, books, clothing and even Gremlins cereal were always a constant and, despite there not being any new Gremlins movies since, Gremlins still remains one of the most recognizable franchises in Warner Brothers' stable.


Top Ten Easter Eggs and Fun Things About Gremlins and Gremlins 2

Thinking of a fun Top Ten for Gremlins and/or Gremlins 2 was actually a little more difficult than usual. The films are so self-aware and fun it's hard to make them more fun and silly with a list of "Life Lessons" or "Best Somethings."

But like a lot of movies from the 80s, there seems to be some unique fun facts about the production that you may or may not know. Here's ten that kind of amazed me.


10: Time Travel Exists

Not only did the filmmakers put the original time machine from the 1960 film, The Time Machine, into the movie, but they actually made a gag with it when the scene cuts back to Billy's dad, Randall, on the phone.This is just one of those cool little easter eggs.

 

In fact, that scene has quite a few more things going on in it, if you know where to look.


9: Cameos

Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch are riddled with Cameos. Some are obvious and don't need pointing out, such as Judge Reinhold in Gremlins or Hulk Hogan and, famously, Leonard Martin in Gremlins 2. Some, though, are not so obvious.

 

In this shot, we get three cameos. The Time Machine, as already mentioned, but also composer Jerry Goldsmith on the phone to the left and Steven Spielberg riding around in the foreground.

 

Here we have "Mr. Jones" as Billy calls him. That is legendary animator Chuck Jones, apparently playing himself. Mr. Jones is one of Joe Dante's idols. He's in it only for a few seconds, but it's awesome to see him get a little nod.

 

Not to be outdone by Spielberg, Joe Dante appears as a director in Gremlins 2.  Screenwriter Charles Haas also plays as one of Dr. Catheter's assistants and Jerry Goldsmith, again, appears.

 

But none beat Dick Bukus and Bubba Smith getting attacked by a salad gremlin in 3...2...1...


8: John Wayne is in Gremlins 2

You heard me. Sure, he had been dead since 1979, but Wayne is there. In the theatrical version of Gremlins 2: The New Batch, there's a fourth-wall-breaking moment where the Gremlins stop the film and attempt to put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Well, that didn't make the previously mentioned Hulk Hogan too happy:

However, when the film was released on VHS, it was decided the joke may be lost because there's no longer a "projector room" for the Gremlins to hide in and put on a different film. So, it was changed into something I never knew was in it:

 

Now the Gremlins are hijacking your television and flipping channels. They also flipped by a Bugs Bunny cartoon about a Gremlin, which leads me into:


7: Gremlins was Supposed to Have a Newly Restored Bugs Bunny Cartoon Before it. 

One of the earliest depiction of a gremlin or gremlins in film or television came in 1944 in the short, "Falling Hare." As you know, all those great pieces of cinema are owned by Warner Brothers who is also the studio behind Gremlins. The film was going to come out in 1984, forty years later, and this was really before having VHS or DVD on the market. The plan was the mark the celebration with the newly restored short with the new Warner Brothers logo, also making its debut in the film. Eventually, it wasn't added to the film's release.

So, what happened? Well, there's a lot of theories, but I'm in the "the studio heads screened Gremlins and thought 'oh shit' and pulled the idea of putting the short out with it." Bugs Bunny hi-jinx doesn't mesh too well with people getting killed and monsters biting/attacking and so forth.


6: Voice Actors you May Not Have Known About

There's a lot of gremlin characters in the first Gremlins film, as well as a bunch of little fur ball Mogwai things, and most of these were voiced by voice master Michael Winslow, best known for the man of a thousand sound effects and the Police Academy movies and he apparently still cherishes the fact he did them. Also, voice actor and Anthrax and Judas Priest music producer also lent his voice to many as well, notably more in the sequels where the gremlins were more specific in personality - specifically Daffy who probably stole the show in terms of little crazy mogwai.

But something I didn't know, or maybe just didn't bother to know, was that Gizmo himself was voiced by Howie Mandel (for both films) and in the first film, Frank Welker (aka Megatron) voiced Stripe and Mohawk in the second. In fact, Welker was initially brought in to voice Gizmo, but suggested Mandel to the filmmakers instead. His nemesis, Peter Cullen (aka Optimus Prime) also lent a few of his vocal talents to various gremlins and mogwai as well.

One quick extra voice fact. After Tim Curry fell through to voice brain gremlin in the sequel, Tony Randall was brought in instead.


5: Joe Dante Didn't Want to do Gremlins 2...unless...

I would argue that Gremlins 2 is one of the few really good horror sequels. It's not great, but it's fun and memorable and an ode to a lot of things we love about horror movies. But Joe Dante didn't want to do it at first. In fact, he declined the studio when they first approached him to direct the sequel, which was planned to be out a year or so later. Well, they tried and tried for years and could never get anything off the ground, so they approached him again. He said yes...but on one condition: he could do anything he wanted they would have no say.

This, folks, is a rarity, especially for something that the studio looked at as a franchise. So much so I can say I'm incredibly surprised the studio gave him so much leeway. It's not as though he was a big director. Gremlins was his only major mainstream hit and it had been six years. Even better, though, is that Joe decided he didn't want to try and re-create Gremlins. He wanted to make something completely different. Something off-the-wall and insane. He wanted to make a live-action cartoon. He succeeded and we got one of the most crazy and creative films ever.


4: Gremlins 2 is the Hipster of Meta Horror Movies

In other words, Gremlins 2: The New Batch was doing self-referential horror with tongue-in-cheek humor and meta-fictional camp years before it was cool to do. It wasn't the first "meta horror" flick, but watching it again made me realize how it really established certain modern trends that Wes Craven would dabble with in New Nightmare in 1994 and pretty much perfect with Scream in 1996 which, arguably, launched the modern self-aware horror movie. The references to the three rules and picking them about (such as traveling on an airplane or getting food stuck in teeth), the structure of it being a film within a film, blending certain elements of fantasy and reality and more obvious references of "Gremlins" in various forms (including the first movie) and nods to horror icons Rick Baker's work, past Joe Dante films, Grandpa Fred as a nod to Grandpa from The Munsters, pod people and, of course, Christopher's Lee own nod to his iconic Dracula performance.

 

Excuse me. Dracula with a pod coming through.

As silly as the movie is, it's also a very sharp and witty little script. I mean, Lee's character is named Dr. Catheter for crying out loud.


3: Kingston Falls = Hill Valley

The Universal backlot had been used for a lot of film shoots, but usually they hide it a bit better than what we see in Gremlins and Back to the Future, which came out a year later. Things are usually changed and altered, but there's so many obvious structures you can't help but notice due to the fact the films were released so close together (and both produced by Spielberg), especially when someone points it all out like I'm about to.

 

Here we have the town square of Kingston Falls, dressed up and made nice and snowy (with a pretty mediocre matte painting in the background)

 

And here's a shot of Back to the Future's Hill Valley. Same square, only nice and sunny. The courthouse is obviously prominent, but you can recognize a few of the same buildings as well.

 

Here is the theater in which all the Gremlins in the first film get blown up in (left), which is the exact same theater that Marty McFly crashes into with the Delorean (right...that theater just can't get a break). On a side note "Watch the Skies" was the alternate title to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and "A Boy's Life" an alternate title for ET.

 

Across the street, you can go get some aerobics done in 1985 (which is the diner in 1955) in Back to the Future or go to 1984's Gremlins and deposit your weekly check in the bank to save up for that Intellivision.

Almost all the changes between the two films is just cosmetic, the layout it essentially the same, and kind of weird to see now being a big fan of both movies.


2: Gremlins Was Going to be Much, Much, Much Darker

Gremlins, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is why the MPAA created the PG-13 rating after parents complaints that a "PG" just wasn't right for those films. Gremlins may be full of puppets and with a lot of humor, but there's also quite a few deaths, violence and blood. Not exactly "PG" material, certainly (which is why Gremlins 2 easily got a correct rating with PG-13). But, believe it or not, it was going to be even darker.

Some cut scenes included: excessive stabbings of the teacher with syringes, Billy's mom being killed and decapitated, the family dog killed and eaten and, my favorite, a scene where the Gremlins invade a McDonalds and kill and eat all the customers (but leave all the hamburgers). Both Gremlins and Gremlins 2 have a nice assortment of deleted/alternate scenes you can readily find, but I would have loved to see some of those original draft scenes actually shot.


1: Gizmo was Going to be the Villain

As you know in the first Gremlins film, Gizmo gets wet, sheds a bunch of little Mogwais who later turn into "bad" Gremlins that play poker and watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Amongst these bad Gremlins is a little guy named Stripe, who became the "main bad Gremlin" in the film. Well, it turns out Stripe wasn't originally going to be a separate character at all. In the original script, Gizmo was going to start out as the cute adorable creature, then morph into the main bad guy as Billy seeks to take him and all the Gremlins down. Spielberg put the kibosh on that, noting that if you take Gizmo away the audience may not know what to feel because Gizmo was an appealing character on his own.

 

Look at him...plotting...thinking...probably determining the best way to kill you...in 3D.

It's incredibly hard to imagine Gizmo as a bad guy, but at the same time it would have made for one bold and daring little movie. To take the audience-appealing cute face of the gremlins movie and turn it into the ugly, killer villain would have been one amazing thing to see.


 
 
 
Do you know what nobody ever really brings up about Gremlins? Like Die Hard, it's, technically, a holiday film. Well, at least for me it is. But either way it's never in the vernacular of discussion when people start talking about the great holiday movies. It's a Wonderful Life? Sure, but it lacks Gremlins. Miracle on 34th Street? Sure, but no Gremlins either. How about Charlie Brown or Rudolph TV Specials? Nope, no Gremlins, but they do have nice music. From top to bottom, the first Gremlin's film is rooted in the holiday. There's snow, caroling, lights and presents and holiday cheer that involves quite a number of deaths. It's not just a holiday film, it's a wonderfully delightful and unique holiday film that still manages to end with the same message about family and being together on top of it. Just because there's a little green monster with a chainsaw doesn't mean it's any less about the holiday spirit.

That focus and tightness might have gone from its sequel, but Gremlins 2: The New Batch had a completely different focus: just be fun. There's really no commentary other than "corporations suck" but it sure enjoys giving the middle finger to it all. It is, quite literally, a cartoon - so off-the-wall that you simply must succumb to its ideology of "sit back, turn off your brain, have fun." Less scares, more slapstick humor and parody references of pop culture.

I can't say I cherish the sequel as much as the first, but I certainly respect it. The first, though, is the initial reason why I wanted to do this installment of Liquid Nostalgia. Gremlins was a huge phenomenon and a major part of what I, personally, identify with the 1980s - right up there with Michael Jordan, Ghostbusters and Nintendo. It's also a movie I always have to stop to watch when it's on. There's something incontrovertibly charming that I've never been able to quite put my finger on. I mean, the film is fun, but it's also dark.

It's probably the puppets. Yeah...has to be the puppets.

Either way, every holiday season Gremlins is up there with A Christmas Story in terms of must-watch holiday classics. The holiday spirit is threaded through the entire film, from the setting and decoration to evil green things dressed in their winter best and singing Christmas carols. It's also one of the best films Amblin ever put out, and one of the defining films of my 1980s childhood.

 

 


 

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