Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Dawn of the Dead and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. All of these films have one thing in common; sequels that got it right. Following up a critically acclaimed and beloved film is no easy feat, but sometimes, just sometimes, there are sequels that not only build off previous installments but improve upon them. And no. That was not a typo. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is absolutely one of these rare and elusive creatures.
When approaching a sequel it’s important to cultivate, foster and reverently respect previous narratives to create a unique and…ah, who are we kidding. Gremlins 2 is completely bonkers, absolutely absurd and all the more brilliant because of it. After many follow up screenplays failed to get off the ground, it was looking like the Mogwai was destined for the ‘Well Regarded One Hit Wonder’ category of creatures. It was only when the studio got desperate and agreed to let Joe Dante and writer Charlie Haas do basically whatever they wanted that the Mogwais ironically found themselves back in the spotlight.
Young sweethearts Billy and Kate move to the Big Apple, land jobs in a high-tech office park and soon reunite with the friendly and lovable Gizmo. But soon, a series of accidents creates a whole new generation of Gremlins. The situation worsens when the devilish green creatures invade a top-secret laboratory and develop genetically altered powers, making them even harder to destroy!
Between its self-aware attitude, pointed social satire, star studded cast and anarchic tone, Gremlins 2 has a lot going for it. But no matter how great all of these individual components are, all of it would have been for naught without the Gremlins themselves. Due to a scheduling conflict, original Gremlin creator Chris Walas was unavailable to work on the newly green lit production. (That project was actually Walas’ directorial debut The Fly II) Knowing that Gremlin creation and manipulation was no easy feat, Dante’s list of potential experts who were qualified was rather small. Luckily, the production lucked out when they convinced special make-up effects icon Rick Baker to enter the world of the Mogwai.
With his years of expertise and incredible work on films like An American Werewolf in London, The Fury, Videodrome and Starman, Rick Baker was a godsend to the production. Not only was he (and his talented team) qualified to recreate and operate the creatures convincingly, he also knew that in order for the film to succeed and be a true Rick Baker production, the Gremlins would need to evolve. Inspired by Walas’ original and beloved creature design, Baker saw endless opportunities for the creatures, and Dante and Haas embraced the change. Promising Baker complete creative freedom, Dante and Haas put the Gremlins above all else and agreed to figure the rest out later.
According to Joe Dante: ‘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”. Let’s take a closer look at some of amazing creations, alterations and techniques utilized to bring this new batch to life, shall we?
What is Gremlins without Gizmo? The cutest, sweetest, most perfect little alien dog creature that has ever existed deserved the extra special attention to detail that Baker bestowed on him. Making slight alterations in Gizmo‘s facial features, Baker gave Gizmo a more expressive and slightly more cartoonish look for the sequel. Along with his facelift, Gizmo also learned a few new tricks for his latest turn in front of the camera. Simply looking adorable was not enough. This time around, Gizmo would be required to do two unprecedented things; walk and dance.
While this may initially sound like a rather simple task, it was actually anything but. Requiring a mix of puppetry, special effects and post work, this new physical freedom for Gizmo was surprisingly innovative and a necessary development in his character. Crucially important, these absolutely lovable actions not only endear us even more to Gizmo, they also set the stage for later physical actions that we see in the movie. By organically working in seemingly simple behaviors like these, it supports Gizmo‘s storyline later in the film. Without them, not only would these physical actions have seemed awkwardly surprising, they would have felt rather unrealistic as well.
‘The most difficult stunt of all was getting Gizmo to dance. 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.’ – Joe Dante
Finally, one can’t talk about Gizmo‘s role in Gremlins 2 without talking about Rambo. Celebrating the popularity of media in the late 80s, Gremlins 2 capitalized and embraced society’s obsession with pop culture at every possible opportunity. Showing that no one was immune to the magic and allure of cinema, Gizmo himself is shown to have quite the affinity for everyone’s favorite deeply traumatized Vietnam War veteran, John Rambo. The specific choice to use Rambo was in and of itself an Easter egg. For the score, Gremlins 2 once again called up the iconic Jerry Goldsmith (who also has a cameo in the film). Goldsmith, among his wealth of film credits, also happened to score Rambo 1-3. After getting permission from Sly Stallone to use film footage and Rambo‘s likeness, it also allowed Goldsmith to use his own Rambo cues during Gizmo‘s ‘suiting up’ montage. Pretty cool right?
After many elaborate torture sessions perpetrated by the Gremlins later in the film, Gizmo decides that he has had enough. Letting the spirit of John Rambo flow through him, Gizmo dons the infamous red bandanna and forges himself a bow and arrow made from simple office supplies. For the montage, it was needed to see Gizmo manipulate and bend materials while creating his weapon. To do this, Baker and his staff created a giant Gizmo half-costume for a person to wear. This not only allowed the cameras to get a very close-up look at Gizmo, it allowed the cast member to place their hands inside Gizmo‘s and create much more detailed and realistic movements than they could ever get with just a puppet. Small details like these are truly what makes the film so incredibly magical.
Every good Mogwai needs a villainous counterpoint, and for Gremlins 2 that baddie comes in the form of Mohawk. Playing off of Walas’ character Stripe, Baker created his own unique Gremlin leader that payed homage to Stripe through subtle usage of coloring, attitude, and hairstyle. Further evolving Mohawk‘s look, Baker added an expanded reptilian element to Mohawk‘s appearance. Similar to Stripe‘s leathery, lizard-like skin, Baker bestowed Mohawk with a splotchy, textured skin that oozes with vibes reminiscent of a sea creature. Other small, subtle changes like ear shape, proportion and a row of spines running down his back makes Mohawk unequivocally Gremlin, but New Batch all the same.
One also can’t ignore the truly incredible evolution implemented with Mohawk and company in regards to the Gremlin gestation period. Rather than little fuzzballs that pop off like Tribble‘s, Baker took the transformative power of the Gremlins to a whole new level. Extra goopy, extra throbbing and disgusting, Gremlins 2 adds a new and visceral layer to the Gremlin species story.
“Extra goopy, extra throbbing and disgusting, Gremlins 2 adds a new and visceral layer to the Gremlin species story.”
Along with these outward physical changes, Mohawk and his counterparts also evolved in practical ways as well. For starters, Mohawk and friends developed a much more developed use of their hands. Similar to Gizmo, this small matter may seem insignificant, but by developing a way for the Gremlin puppets to grasp and hold items opened up a veritable wealth of possibility.
Most notably, these techniques are evident and on full display in the scene where the Gremlins take over Microwave Marge‘s TV show. As chaos erupts, we see the Gremlins grab pots and pans, throwing them into the microwave. This feat was only possible due to the newly developed puppet mechanics and works to further lift the veil between movie magic and reality.
Perhaps Baker’s biggest gift to Gremlins 2 was his incredibly creative, stunningly marvelous mutated creation Gremlins. Vegetable Gremlin? Sure, why not. Bat Gremlin? Bring it on. Brain Gremlin? Electricity Gremlin? Spider Gremlin? LADY GREMLIN!? Each and every one of these creations not only allowed Baker and Company’s talents to shine through, it also played into the film’s overall feeling of excessiveness, absurdity and commercialization.
Running throughout the entire film, there is the sub-text of heightened 80s materialism and the evolving commercialization happening in society. Near the very end of the film, Clamp Media mogul Daniel Clamp (John Glover) makes a comment on Gizmo‘s appearance and potential for merchandising. While the moment is quick and tongue in cheek, there is absolutely some truth in the statement. By imbuing each of these new Gremlins with very specific looks and personalities (including Daffy and George), it allows room for character work and visually recognizable differentiation. Hand in hand with this comes the potential for merchandising.
“Vegetable Gremlin? Sure, why not. Bat Gremlin? Bring it on. Brain Gremlin? Electricity Gremlin? Spider Gremlin? LADY GREMLIN!?”
Following the original Gremlins release, Gizmo was everywhere. Lunchboxes, stuffed animals, toys, etc. Hell, even the fast-food chain Hardee’s had its own line of Gremlins storybook movie tie-in records. But that’s just it. It was mostly Gizmo. Now, don’t get me wrong, Gizmo is arguably one of cinema’s cutest creations and deserves endless amounts of adoration. But limiting a film’s merchandising to such a small amount of characters is well, limiting. By diversifying the recognizable creature creations in Gremlins 2, a literal wealth of merchandising opportunities were created. (I say this while looking over at my shelf covered in NECA Rambo Gizmo, Stripe, Flashing Gremlin and Spider Gremlin figures)
While each of these mutation Gremlins are awesome, I’d like to call special attention to Brain Gremlin. Just like Gizmo and Mohawk, Brain Gremlin pushed the boundaries of what Gremlins were capable of. After ingesting an intelligence serum, a basic run of the mill Gremlin goes through a Jekyll and Hyde type transformation and comes out with a new level of intelligence and the added ability to speak eloquently. Once again, this simple evolution may not seem like much, but of course had its own particular set of challenges. For Brain Gremlin, Baker had to come up with a way to match Brain‘s mouth and facial movements up with the pre-recorded dialogue recorded by actor Tony Randall.
In order to pull of this feat convincingly, Baker manipulated a technology created by the robotics and sound company Gilderfluke & Co. to match up Brain‘s facial movements with the audio. While originally used to sync up lights to music for large concert or theater performances, Baker’s team were able to modify the technology just enough to work for their own purposes. The inspiring adaptation and merging of puppetry, technology and practical special effects is just one of many incredible ways that Gremlins 2 truly deserves more credit than it gets as a remarkable feat of filmmaking.
Again, from Joe Dante himself: “In the script there was a spaghetti Gremlin, a mouse Gremlin, an elephant Gremlin, a Gremlin made of electricity. 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.”
Similar to the OG Gremlins, there is a moment (a very long moment) when absolutely everything goes off the rails in Gremlins 2. This is where we get a veritable smorgasbord of Gremlin antics playing out all over Clamp Center. Gremlins dancing, Gremlins destroying custom-built Lego Gremlins, smoking, drinking and flashing poor Phoebe Cates…again. We even get Gremlins interrupting a film screening of their own film and getting threatened by Hulk Hogan (a touching nod to William Castle’s The Tingler). There’s even a Phantom of the Opera gag involving an acid burned Gremlin filmed just like Lon Chaney was back in the day. But where do all these crazy, amazing ideas come from?
It’s time to address the elephant in the room; the Key & Peele sketch about the brainstorming process for Gremlins 2. While the sketch is indeed a fictionalized imagining of the writer’s room, it’s not entirely wrong either. In a commentary track, Dante talked about how exactly they came up with the massive amount of Gremlin gags executed in the sequel. Surprisingly, it was fairly simple. It involved a sheet of paper, hung up in the break room. Anyone involved with the film in any capacity could simply write down an idea for a Gremlin gag. Genius, right?
“[Gremlins 2 is] a remarkable time capsule of a society in flux and what can happen when a team of creative individuals are given their rightful creative freedom.”
With the astounding amount of radical-ness that unfolds in Gremlins 2, it’s hard to know where to divert one’s focus. It’s a remarkable time capsule of a society in flux and what can happen when a team of creative individuals are given their rightful creative freedom. Gremlins 2 strays so far from the original formula and atmosphere, and yet embodies it all the same. It’s a fantastical, wholesome world that manages a fine balance of reflection and projection at the same time.
Foreshadowing many societal ‘advancements’ and developments that were yet to come, Gremlins 2 is far more intelligent and predictive than people give it credit for. And yet, none of it would have been possible or as effectively executed without the gloriously insane, timelessly endearing addition of the Gremlins themselves. The Gremlin’s mythos, personalities and very existence are miraculous in and of themselves and still stand, 30 years later, as a beautifully mischievous tribute to the magic of movies.
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