A month late here, but with the fourth Matrix film exploring its own existence as product made by Warner Bros., it seemed appropriate to do a midnight screening of the last sequel that attempted to kill the same master.
A key moment always sticks out to me in director Joe Dante’s maddened Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Working in the laboratory of their mega-corporation the Clamp Center, a trio of scientists headed by Christopher Lee (who else?) encounter the titular creatures drinking experimental liquids, products of gene splicing and other incalculable exercises in heterogeneity and cross-fertilization. Watching the creatures transform into unholy concoctions as a result of ingesting improbable fluids (a wonderful opportunity for special effects genius Rick Baker to run wild), Lee’s character laments their efforts to tamper in God’s domain by “splicing” various species together. In the middle of this speech, the film starts to burn. Not the set, not the characters in the film world, but the celluloid itself. In one of the most unexpected Bergman rips ever, the Gremlins take over the projectionist’s booth of the film we are watching, causing the linear progression of celluloid to stutter and stammer, to go a little mad. Reorienting popular cinema’s grammar, the Gremlins tinker and test, prod and provoke, splicing themselves into the film and sending it spiraling outward, running amok, going haywire. The natural rules of filmmaking no longer apply, Dante suggests. For this cinematic mad scientist, cinema is an experimental, liquid fusion of strange currents, impossible tensions held just barely together with comic, frictive energy.
There’s a long genealogy to that moment. Just a few years before The New Batch, Noel Burch coined the “Frankensteinian” dream of cinema, referring to film’s animating and reanimating sensibilities, its capacity to charge and energize, to channel energies and hopefully not only direct but trouble those energies, to ask us to rethink the energies of our own existence anew. Cinema combines sets, shots, and elements from different extra-diegetic locations, assembling them and generating a new monstrous reality out of real-world materials, such that what we might see as the passage of a minute in the same room in a film combines shots filmed in different locations, and on different days. In The New Batch, cinema is laid bare as a mad scientist’s playground, an experimental assemblage of possibilities and dangers, experiments and failures. And like any mad scientist’s experiment, the creation plays the creator just as much as the reverse is true, rendering illusions of order and hierarchical control specious at best, hideously illusory at worst. Not for nothing does one of the Gremlins turn into electricity, prompting the “heroes” to re-contain it in a telephone screen, its dangerous liquidity rechanneled and thus neutralized.
Essentially the entirety of Gremlins 2 takes place in the Clamp Center, itself a mad scientist’s concoction meant to lay bare the artifice of set design. Ostensibly a contiguous space, a New York City skyscraper, no reasonable viewer would dare recognize the set designed by James H. Spencer as a real-world possibility with any meaningfully utilitarian purpose. Unambiguously and unapologetically a playground space where the first film’s protagonists Billy Peltzer (Zack Galligan) and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) are set loose as new employees, Gremlins 2 feels like a genuinely bad actor, a film running away with its production company’s money, making a mockery of the rules of Blockbuster filmmaking in the act. Dante is clearly the Gremlin behind the camera here, turning the proverbial monster in the machine (Gremlins originate as a myth about WWII-era planes missing parts) into an interrupting presence let loose in cinema itself.
This, in other words, is Dante self-consciously messing around with Hollywood’s money, letting us know that he isn’t doing anything “good” with it, and that he’s having a hell of a time doing it. I very genuinely cannot fathom how he got away with releasing this. Perhaps tied with only Robert Zemeckis at the time for his genuine desire to explore the possibilities of cartoon physics in Hollywood cinema, and vastly more cynical about doing so, Dante’s film finds its other closest analog, perhaps improbably, in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. Which, come to think of it, is hardly unsurprising: that deliriously absurd Southern-fried miscreant of a film was similarly the product of a director who had tried out Hollywood and found it impossibly stultifying, and who similarly explored the space where American dreams of animating and reanimating connective technologies (cinema, trains, radio, etc) with life-saving, life-justifying vitality turned into nightmares of control and corporate greed. For Dante’s part, he turns away from, and then vandalizes, any semblance of cinematic narrative cohesion, mocking pretensions that a film might be an internally connected and cohesive unit. There is, essentially, no narrative at all to The New Batch: the gremlins are let loose in the building, the building is locked down with the employees inside, and havoc ensues. Dante sometimes said that he enjoyed scribbling in the margins of a film to make it his own. The New Batch is the one film where he let the margins eat away the center.
Gremlins is, admittedly, no less troubling for its anarchic spirit, drawing on and metastasizing the racial implications famously latent in the original film, both subverting them and using them. In that 1984 classic, American xenophobia is analyzed and skewered by forces let loose by white America’s desire to package and present contained, helpless images of foreign others, namely Gizmo (Howie Mandel), who plays the “nice” Gremlin who has to be controlled, domesticated, and cared for properly lest it let loose violent impulses and ever-propagating offspring who disobey and give in to carnal, libidinal impulses. The first Gremlins asks whether the illusion of hermetically-sealed, white-washed Americana can withstand the exaggerated fear of hybridity it has to generate in order to legitimize itself, and The New Batch turns these questions into an explicit indictment of consumer capitalism. Corporate experiments create these strange new hybridized Gremlins (one part-electric, one part-spider, etc, etc) but cannot contain them, much as Hollywood produces stereotypes of racial others that in these films bite back.
Even the heroic Gremlin is not spared the film’s comic inquest. When Gizmo, returning in this film mostly to be tortured by his “bad” offspring, seeks his revenge on the other Gremlins, metaphorically saving the day from the unpacified others, he adopts the most all-American visage he can muster, parodying Rambo II, where Stallone famously replays the Vietnam War to “win” this time. By dissociating the look from its nominally realist (but obviously absurd context), Dante parodizes America’s racial revenge fantasies. Here, Dante anticipates his more overtly pointed Small Soldiers, with its somewhat crude literalization of action figures as war-mongering for children. When Gremlins 2 finally closes by positing that the original film was itself just a corporate product on a set, it recursively mocks the rampant ‘50s nostalgia of the 1980s as pre-packaged domesticity, pointing the way toward Dante’s Matinee while becoming an Ouroboros, eating and vicariously revealing its predecessor as part of the system being critiqued.
Before getting to such an end, Charles Haas’s script and Dante’s direction are, dare I say it, Tati-esque, proliferating background gags, skits, and sketches amalgamated into a tenuous narrative that would more accurately be called a “situation.” Like Tati, Dante explores the nooks and crannies and everyday order and chaos of modernity, exposing modern spaces as both dehumanizing circles of coming and going (the front door to the building owned and run by the Trump-esque Daniel Clamp (John Glover) is a revolving door that traps people in an endless repetition) and a potentially revisable space if confronted with sufficient disregard for reason and an appreciation for the comic violence that may be necessary to overturn the system.
Fittingly, then, Gremlins 2 is really more of a mad experiment than anything, in that it proves nothing but tests itself at every corner. (In one bit, there’s a somewhat uncomfortable but provocative moment where Cates begins to recall her physical and sexual molestation in the previous film, only for this film to abruptly intervene and rush her ahead, as though mocking Hollywood’s capacity to bear witness to trauma authentically, or that this film might meaningfully reference its predecessor at all). It’s the same spirit that drew Chuck Jones to lambast consumer capitalism in his Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote shorts, the latter increasingly chasing an impossible goal with newer and fancier technology that only fails him again and again. The New Batch hardly makes a case that it can escape this endless circle, but part of its point is that it, itself, as a capitalist product, couldn’t possibly come close anyway. Instead, it burns the money in our faces, and asks us to develop a taste for the chaotic energy and the creative destruction we see on screen.