In 1990, Warner Bros. released Joe Dante’s follow-up to the cult classic Christmas horror film Gremlins, and no one really knew what to think of it. Where the first film told a story about a small town coming together in the face of chaotic monsters, the Gremlins sequel was more interested in showing how much destruction the monsters could cause. Gremlins 2 is thought to be one of the weirdest '90s movies to be released by a major studio, and it certainly deserves that status. It’s absolutely bonkers from the very beginning.
You may not remember much of this film besides Hulk Hogan's wall-breaking cameo or the musical number during the film's finale, but Gremlins 2: The New Batch isn’t just some ill-conceived cash grab - it’s a piece of art.
The first Gremlins film falls under the umbrella of the classic Amblin Entertainment films. In the '80s, Amblin was founded by Steven Spielberg and it produced classics about children in peril: Gremlins, The Goonies, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. All of these films tell stories of suburban families who have their lives turned upside down by extreme circumstances. They're heart-warming and they're family favorites for a reason, but Dante wasn't interested in re-creating this formula for the follow-up.
Gremlins 2 was as close as Dante could come to putting his id on screen. He takes swipes at people colorizing black and white films, the concept of sequels, and makes time to include an actor known for starring in B-movie horror films, Christopher Lee.
One of the film's biggest meta moments, when a group of Gremlins actually break the film and Hulk Hogan sets things right, almost didn't make it into the final cut. Dante explained that Warner Bros. executives thought viewers wouldn't understand what was happening. He told Film Comment, "It’s become very difficult to be Brechtian in any obvious way. Studio people don’t like the idea of reminding people that they’re watching a movie. They think somehow people are unaware of the fact they’re in a theater watching this movie with other people around them."
Gremlins 2 might be the only major motion picture that references the fact that it's a sequel to a film by having a film critic trash the initial film in the series before slaying said critic. The scene in question shows real-life film critic Leonard Maltin discussing a VHS re-release of Gremlins and uses the exact same words he used to review the original movie. He notoriously disliked the first film for its gore but agreed to be asphyxiated with a roll of 35mm film by a group of Gremlins in the sequel.
As a child of the '50s, Dante was the first generation to live in a time when television was readily available, and like many directors who are in the same age group, he was influenced by what was on the tube. At the time, it would have been B-movies, Looney Tunes, and a resurgence of the Universal monster films. If anything explains the heights of lunacy Gremlins 2 reaches, it's this combination of influences.
Dante spoke to Syfy about how his disparate influences coalesced when he was a child: "I read a lot of comic books and I read a lot of science fiction. I liked Edgar Allan Poe, I liked Ray Bradbury, I liked Robert Sheckley. In the '50s there were a lot of collections of science fiction short stories and novels. I was influenced by everything I ever read and everything I ever saw."
As pop culture critic Nathan Rabin points out, Dante's entire career has been spent recontextualizing popular art into something different. Dante began his career by editing The Movie Orgy, a mash-up of B-movie clips, commercials, and television spots. From there, he went on to make the Jaws clone Piranha for Roger Corman, and he even directed a section of The Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Whether it was conscious or not, Dante's career has always been about paying homage to what came before him by blowing it up. When you watch Gremlins 2, you can see that the director has a love for these characters. But by completely changing the genre and character motivations for the sequel, Dante was able to make a bolder statement than he ever would have if he'd made a by-the-numbers sequel to a cult classic.
Even though Gremlins 2 revels in the chaos made by its lovable monsters, it also serves as a sly indictment of the culture of the late '80s and early '90s. In 2016, Dante told Syfy: "There was really no reason for another Gremlins movie, so I decided to make a movie about sequels, the '90s, and to make fun of the first movie."
The very building in which the film takes place serves as an all-encompassing home, workspace, and shopping center where the automation works too well for its own good. The idea seemed silly at the time, but in every major urban sprawl there's now an apartment building situated on top of a gym, coffee shop, and a couple of restaurants. Some apartment complexes even sit directly on top of a fully functioning mall. The more it ages, the more insightful Gremlins 2 appears.