Joe Dante’s Inferno, by Bob Connally

20 Feb

Last summer in my look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I expressed my unabashed love of Looney Tunes. Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 masterpiece featured essentially every Looney Tunes star in a cameo role and while there is a lot of wacky humor in the film it has the story and structure of a detective movie. In 1996, the Looney Tunes stars were given bigger roles in Space Jam, a film that holds a strange nostalgic power for many Millennials that escapes me. A few moments aside, the comedy is weak and it’s a visual nightmare. The moment Daffy Duck and Bill Murray share a frame is however a great contribution to American cinema. 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action is now largely forgotten, even by me and I saw it. Thirteen years before however, that film’s director, Joe Dante, unleashed a film that truly captured the off the wall spirit of Looney Tunes in a way that neither Space Jam nor Back in Action came close to doing. He did it, in of all things, a sequel to one of the biggest commercial hits of the 1980s.

Dante is hardly subtle about his intentions with 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The film opens like a Looney Tunes short as Bugs Bunny lies atop the WB shield. This is quickly interrupted by Daffy Duck who insists that he ride the shield, “because I, personally, have all the talent around here.” Of course this works out about as well for Daffy as most things do and he finally yields to the feature presentation. This is a far cry from the almost storybook narration the first Gremlins opens with. Immediately there is a sense that not only are we not in for a rehash of the first movie, but that Gremlins 2 is not going to play it safe. 

“I think that in some ways,” Dante states on the Blu-ray commentary, “this is one of the more unconventional studio pictures ever. …If it weren’t for the fact that the studio was in a dire need for another one of these movies… I can’t conceive of us getting away with this or anything like it.” So desperate was Warner Bros. for a sequel to Gremlins that after numerous unsuccessful attempts, the studio told Dante he could essentially do whatever he wanted to and call it Gremlins 2. “I had it in my head to do something… that was sort of a comment on sequels in general and the original movie which we actually rag mercilessly on in this picture.” It’s essentially the anti-Ghostbusters 2 in that sense, a movie released the year before, both sequels to films released on June 8, 1984.

Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) have left their small town of Kingston Falls for New York City (“NEW YORK CITY?!” – sorry, it had to be done), sharing an apartment and each working in the Clamp Center, a state of the art building of tomorrow…today! Billy creates concept art for new Clamp projects while Kate is a tour guide for the building, forced to wear a kind of retro-futuristic flight attendant’s uniform that is hilarious to look at every time it appears. The gremlins figure into this when the building’s owner, billionaire Daniel Clamp (John Glover, Smallville) attempts to buy the property Mr. Wing’s shop is located upon. After Wing’s death, Clamp’s people find Gizmo who becomes the subject of experiments by Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee). It doesn’t take long for the frightened Gizmo and Billy to find one another however, but of course, accidents happen and soon Gizmo gets wet creating several devious and violent new gremlins who run amok throughout the Clamp Center, eager to get out into the city once it gets dark.

This set up is necessary to give the film a structure and for there to be some kind of stakes. However, Dante devotes no more screen time than is necessary to this because his real interests here are in exploring the bonkers goings on inside Clamp Center and to create wildly different kinds of gremlins than we had seen before. For his part, Daniel Clamp is a cross between Ted Turner and Donald Trump as we knew him in 1990. Originally conceived by Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas as a villain, Glover, “was so likable and boyish and gee-wiz,” as Dante would later say, “he started to become sympathetic.” While his employees all seem terrified of him and his underlings (most notably Forster played by Dante mainstay Robert Picardo) run the operation like a police-state, Clamp himself has a goofy warmth (think Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood if he was successful) and he takes an immediate shine to Billy when they first meet.

Clamp Center itself is a massive “smart building,” highly automated and with a disembodied voice in the bathroom making sure that you wash your hands. There are issues with automatic revolving doors and shoddy video phones however that pop up throughout the film. Clamp Center seems to have the same problems Billy’s father had with his inventions in the first movie only on a much larger, more expensive scale. In addition to Dr. Catheter’s laboratory, the building houses Clamp’s far reaching media empire, with a cable news network in addition to The Archery Channel, a cooking network (who could imagine such a thing?), and in a direct swipe at late ‘80s Ted Turner, a network that colorizes classic black and white films.

The word “insane” in regards to movies has become terribly overused in recent years- I’m looking at you, Cracked- but it absolutely applies to Gremlins 2, thanks of course in large part to the personalities of the various gremlins that terrorize Clamp Center and threaten New York. A Key & Peele sketch from a few years ago envisions a pitch meeting in which several writers throw out bizarre ideas such as, “Brainy Gremlin,” “Electricity Gremlin,” and, “Vegetable Gremlin,” with the head of the team stating in no uncertain terms that none of the ideas pitched will be in the actual movie. The sketch concludes on a caption which reads, “All of that is in the actual movie.”

The Key & Peele sketch, while hilarious, suggests that the madness of Gremlins 2 is a negative, but for viewers who are on the film’s wavelength (of which there are more and more 29 years after its release) it’s what makes it a unique and quite special movie. These new gremlins have more distinct personalities than the original ones and Dante really lets them loose to the point that they attack Leonard Maltin while he’s delivering a scathing review of Gremlins on one of Clamp’s many cable channels. Taking it even further there’s the crème de la crème of fourth wall breaking scenes when the gremlins tear apart the reel and take over the projection booth, leading to a cameo by Hulk Hogan who is seen inside a movie theater trying to watch Gremlins 2. It is as bonkers and hilarious as you could possibly want that to be. Cleverly, Dante created a different version of that for the VHS release which made it appear that the gremlins had gotten into your VCR and had invaded Chisum starring John Wayne. The Duke then kills three gremlins dressed as cowboys.

The highlight of all gremlin characters however is of course the Brain Gremlin voiced by an absolutely perfect Tony Randall who gives his sinister mogwai a snooty accent as he speaks of their desire for civilization, all while every other gremlin gleefully tears Clamp Center to pieces. Randall clearly understood and appreciated what Dante was going for and it’s one of the great vocal performances of all-time.

Not content to stop there, the film even makes an open mockery of the three rules set up in the first Gremlins: 1) They hate bright light and sunlight will kill them. 2) Don’t get them wet (otherwise they multiply) and most importantly of all, 3) Never feed them after midnight. It’s the logic of rule number three in particular that Dante and Haas enjoy tearing to pieces.

While Dante seemingly never thought up a crazy idea that he didn’t put into this movie, there is always the sense that he is in full control of the film and it’s clear that real thought and care were put into everything we see on screen. Dante’s other accomplishment as a filmmaker here is getting his impressive ensemble cast in tune with what he’s doing. As Daniel Clamp, John Glover is a joy to watch whenever he pops up and his role becomes more substantial as the film roles along. Christopher Lee is pitch perfect in his imposing mad-ish scientist role and even though it makes no real sense for the Futterman’s to be visiting Billy and Kate instead of Billy’s parents, it’s wonderful to see Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph back. Truly there’s no movie that couldn’t be improved by the presence of Dick Miller.

As the human lead, Zach Galligan is the straight man Gremlins 2 needs and he remains someone we can relate to and root for. Phoebe Cates for her part is subtly fantastic and hilarious. Just a few years after the release of Gremlins 2, she chose to do different things with her life and has become an incredibly successful boutique owner with a still running strong 30-year marriage to Kevin Kline. Primarily as an actress she’s remembered for one scene in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but honestly she was remarkably talented and funny and I just miss seeing her in movies. Her monologue in the first Gremlins about why her character hates Christmas is one of the more memorable and shocking scenes in ‘80s cinema. Cates delivers it with an integrity that locks the audience in and 35 years later people are still questioning the funny to mortifying ratio of that scene. In one of the more clever callbacks you’re likely to see in any movie sequel, Kate begins a similar monologue about her hatred of Lincoln’s birthday, which if you’ll remember from the first movie, she hints at before going into the Christmas monologue. The reaction of Billy and the other characters present as they impatiently cut her off to deal with a very immediate threat is absolutely priceless.

Gremlins 2 is full of such delightful moments and details such as the reveal of Clamp’s “End of the World” tape which is based upon Ted Turner’s planned apocalypse tape, which at that time was only a rumor publicly. It was just a few years ago that the real thing was leaked onto the internet. The Gremlins 2 version is, not surprisingly, the superior one.

“I spent a lot of time on Gremlins 2 trying to make sure there wouldn’t be a Gremlins 3,” Dante would say on the Blu-ray commentary. The lukewarm box-office and critical reception upon its release in June of 1990 would essentially ensure that. Really though where could Dante have possibly gone from there? It’s a case where we should probably be thankful that Gremlins 2 wasn’t the hit the original movie was or else Warner Bros. would have insisted on a third and it’s hard to imagine there being anything left to say with it. Dante had gone full Looney Tunes and it was beautiful. The top of the mountain had been reached.

In an era when post-credits scenes only really existed in comedies such as this one, Daffy Duck jumps over Porky Pig to deliver the old, “That’s all folks.” Once again, this works out about as well for Daffy as anything else does. As the looniest of the Looney Tunes, Daffy is the perfect character to close out the craziest summer blockbuster sequel of all-time. Or at least until Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 would come along.

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