Just as America was recovering from the ’80s, someone terrifies those of us who survived with Gremlins 2. It’s not terrifying in the sense that it has little monsters who enjoy the taste of flesh so much as it’s, well, Gremlins 2.
Director Joe Dante only agreed to return for this sequel if he had full creative control. Warner’s desperation for a follow-up led to whatever this is. The idea is probably sound on paper, a 100-minute celebration of everything wacky associated with Warner, from their ’50s sci-fi catalog to Chuck Jones animation. To some extent, the Gremlins fit.
The problem isn’t necessarily the lighter side. Maybe the critters are too mischievous to be a threat, but that playful attitude creates genuine laughs. It’s in sync with the first movie, gleefully poking fun at the absurd rule set used to define the universe the Gremlins reside in, and the horror of parents who drug their kids to see the PG-rated original. Gremlins 2 is, wisely, PG-13.
Most of the genuine laughs come courtesy of the first film in fact. It’s hilarious to think Phoebe Cates’ character has yet another darkened holiday to consider after the inconceivable Christmas tragedy divulged prior. There’s also a brief line referencing the Gremlins take over of a theater, where all they want to watch is Snow White. It’s as if the species never evolved, carrying over memories through death… into the new batch. Sorry.
What doesn’t work is the darker side, an oppressive, and quite honestly boring look into a futuristic corporate America. The fear is more about being unnoticed in the chain of command than being eaten. Set designs are stuffy, pulled from any number of bargain bin direct-to-VHS video store staples of the era. The building is an excuse for gags, and those reach for their humor. It’s American capitalism out of control, yet with such a surreal edge, any thoughts of reflecting satire is lost in the cartoonish vision.
Maybe it’s too random of a film, at times the Gremlins totally disconnected from the story, inserted because the film needs a zinger to keep the audience involved. While Gremlins would waste little precious time on side antics, Gremlins 2 doesn’t know what else to do. You can’t blame the effects team, working with a wide ranging series of improved puppets -plus bolder designs- so it’s only natural to push for more screen time.
Force fed into the script are character write-outs (the Peltzer’s inventor father) and insertions, the Futterman’s braving death after being run over by construction equipment of all things. There’s always room for Dick Miller’s Mr. Futterman, but not after being squished and being shoved into a thankless role in a movie overflowing with them. The film is stolen by the title creatures, literally at one point, but it’s what they do with it (or don’t do) that crushes the sequel under its own bulk.
Warner tosses the sequel onto Blu-ray with almost no fanfare and a generally pleasing AVC encode. While a brighter, more vivid film in general than the darkness crushed first, Gremlins 2 puts a strain on the encode with its up and down grain structure. Fitted with hazy photography, smoke-filled rooms, clusters of moving creatures, and a little of everything else, compression becomes the primary concern to create a veneer of film. It doesn’t always come together as intended.
The scan seems relatively recent, free of any print defects first, and precise in its resolution second. Not even the wonders of hi-def can expose the Gremlins as puppets, the paint and sculpting so intricate as to avoid any break in the illusion. Detail is wonderful when it counts, and even humans have their share of close-ups worth taking notice of. Medium shots lose that fidelity, but maintain their integrity. There are no signs of artificial manipulation here.
With brighter visuals comes saturated colors. Nothing malicious, but the greens of the monster’s skin are certainly richer and the plethora of preposterous environments provides ample excuses for primaries to pop. The variety isn’t such a bother, although most of the structure is draped in flat grays. That’s not all that exciting.
Black levels have their ups and downs, mostly effective with a handful of shots proving to fall on the opposite end of the scale. One or two even dabble with black crush before returning shadow detail to its rightful place. A high contrast is, in a way, counter-productive to the rules of the film, many of the hallways brightly lit and control rooms flooded with bright switches, all with no effect on the new residents. Go figure.
What a great, natural, spacious mix this disc carries. Despite an erosion in dialogue fidelity and a score that barely carries a presence (probably why it’s never stuck like the first films), the use of the rear channels is spectacular. This is such a chaotic, frenzied movie that there’s a need to keep up with the on-screen action.
Nothing is missed, from the bustle of New York exteriors to the packed rooms where the Gremlins are going berserk. There’s always something panning around or traveling through the soundfield. Some of the few horror-ish moments, one of them an elevator attack, uses the added channels to induce panic. Creaking on the metal and maniacal laughter signal an incoming assault.
The best part is the projection room sequence, where the Gremlins have torched the film and are in the “projection booth.” All of their mumbled musings will come from behind as if they’re fumbling around to the rear the audience. Sure, it probably worked leagues better when it was originally projected, but the concept’s charms are intact.
Director Joe Dante, writer Charlie Haas, producer Michael Finnell, and Zach Galligan chime in on a commentary track, Dante continuing over a slew of deleted scenes running 22-minutes. A vintage making-of is brief at five minutes, played more for laughs than anything. The gag reel is more effective, especially a recurring clip where a monkey is terrified of the Gremlin prop. An alternate home video sequence in which the Gremlins take over your VCR is here for posterity, along with the trailer.