4 out of 5 stars

When Gremlins was released, nobody predicted it would become a modern classic. Produced by Steven Spielberg (Jaws) and directed by Joe Dante (The Howling), the comedy-horror became one of the highest-grossing pictures of the decade. Initially earning approximately $150M at the box office in 1984, on a modest $11M budget, it was also a success with critics. Following in its wake came a host of ‘little monster’ copycats, including Ghoulies (1985) and Critters (1986), before its own sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

Warner Bros. wanted to capitalise on Gremlins by turning it into a franchise and offered Dante the chance to direct a sequel. However, due to a taxing production schedule and believing the narrative had already come to a fitting conclusion, Dante refused the offer. The studio then approached various directors with concepts for scripts that never got developed, including sending the Gremlins to Las Vegas and Mars! After returning to Dante with the promise of a larger $50M budget and complete creative control, he finally agreed if he could embrace a go-for-broke anarchic spirit. It was a decision that led to The New Batch becoming a very different beast.

1990 was the year Warner Bros. celebrated Bugs Bunny’s 50th anniversary. The studio wanted a summer hit to compete with Disney’s Ducktales The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), but Gremlins 2 wasn’t the underdog success story they were hoping for. With it’s bold satirical and self-referential tone, the director’s follow-up proved too smart for its own good. The New Batch grossed merely a third of the profits of the original, $40M. Meanwhile, original Gremlins screenwriter Chris Columbus cornered the family market later that same year with Home Alone (1990), which grossed $470M.

Taking place several years after Gremlins, small-town couple Billy (Zack Gilligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates) have moved to New York City for a new life together, where both work for tech mogul Daniel Clamp (John Glover) in his glistening Clamp Tower. Meanwhile, Gizmo’s owner sadly passes away and the furry Mogwai is seized for study inside the science department of the same building. Billy finds Gizmo and rescues him from the lab but, while hidden in his desk, Giz is accidentally touched by water and produces a new batch of evil Mogwais that eventually evolve into Gremlins and wreak havoc. So it’s up to Billy, Kate, and Giz to prevent the troublemaking monsters from spilling out onto the streets of Manhattan.

Original cast members Zach Gilligan (Waxwork) and Phoebe Cates (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) return as Billy Peltzer and Kate Beringer. Billy’s slightly more mature but still cheerful and optimistic, while Kate has become more cynical and pessimistic after her prior experience in Kingston Falls. However, their earnest goodheartedness in a sea of corporate cynicism makes them delightfully endearing. Also, fans of the original will be pleased to see brief appearances from Dick Miller (Night of the Creeps) and Jackie Joseph (Little Shop of Horrors) as the Futtermans.

All the new cast members chew the scenery with glee, delivering plenty of laughs. Having played eccentric characters in 52 Pick-Up (1986) and Innerspace (1987), John Glover delivers one of the best performances of his career as oddball zillionaire Daniel Clamp—a man satirising Donald Trump and Ted Turner but with a more child-like optimism. Robert Prosky (The Last Action Hero) also stars as a kooky late-night horror movie host called Grandpa Fred, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Grandpa Munster. Not only that, but horror legend Christopher Lee (The City of the Living Dead) hams it up as mad scientist Dr Catheter. Although some would argue each character is just an overblown caricature, it’s clear each actor is having enormous fun here.

Admittedly, The New Batch is an acquired taste. Whilst the first Gremlins was a light-hearted horror with comedy elements, The New Batch is a zany comedy with horror elements. It’s a live-action cartoon, made clear in the opening featuring the classic Looney Tunes logo with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck trying to introduce the movie. This animated short by Chuck Jones (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) sets the anarchic tone and it only gets wackier from there.

Dante maintains the cartoonish spirit as the action shifts into live-action and doesn’t let up. Many of the parodies are tongue-in-cheek references to famous movies—from The Wizard Of Oz (1939), Rambo (1982), and Phantom Of The Opera (1986)—but one comedy standout is when Billy and Marla Bloodstone (Haviland Morris) are seen having dinner in a Canadian-themed restaurant. They’re served by a waiter dressed as a Mountie, while dining on chocolate served from a moose’s head! As something that will completely go over the head of younger viewers, it encapsulates this film’s oddball tone. 

It’s easy to argue The New Batch was ahead of its time. Clamp Tower, echoing Trump Tower, is a “smart-building” where everything is controlled by computers—a futuristic idea at the time, but such automation is becoming common in ordinary homes. Clamp Tower also contains TV studios making shows like Microwaving With Marge and The Movie Police but also a food court and science laboratory. Watching extras getting stuck in automated revolving doors and listening to the quirky PA announcements (“Casablanca, now in colour, and with a happier ending”) make this location feel like a character unto itself.

Nothing in The New Batch feels safe, as this sequel even dares to poke fun at its predecessor. It’s amusing how Gremlins became one of the most iconic and popular horror films of all time despite so many ludicrous plot holes. We all know Gremlins are born when you break one of the three rules when looking after a Mogwai: never let it eat after midnight, never let it get wet, and always avoid sunlight. One scene finds a group of security guards actively questioning Billy over these rules (“What if you’re in an aeroplane and you cross a time zone?”), so Dante’s acknowledging the absurdity outright. Even when The New Batch threatens to become too insane, we’re treated to the sort of fourth-wall break one would expect from a Mel Brooks comedy… like when the film we’re watching “breaks down” during the screening and a cinema manager asks Hulk Hogan to threaten the Gremlins into restarting the picture!

The real stars of the show are the Gremlins themselves, of course. In terms of SFX, they’re surprisingly authentic for something released in 1990. The original designs by Chris Walas (The Fly) are maintained here, but Rick Baker’s (An American Werewolf In London) evolution of them is ingenious and more expansive. The animatronic and puppet FX are handled so well, especially during their en masse rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. The gore is also interesting, most notably during a scene involving a Gremlin and a paper shredder that surpasses the original’s microwave murder.

To add a bit of variety this time, some of the Gremlins find their way to the “Splice Of Life” laboratory and drink various chemicals. This leads to all manner of new Gremlins emerging, including a ‘Vegetable Gremlin’, a ‘Spider Gremlin’, and an ‘Electric Gremlin’. There’s also a ‘Brain Gremlin’ (voiced by The Odd Couple‘s Tony Randall) who develops the ability to speak and can have an intelligent conversation with humans. During an interview by Grandpa Fred, this smart Gremlin declares “we want the niceties: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, traditions. We want to be civilised”… then we cut to a view of the monsters dressed as corporate lackeys, drunk and cackling. Together with shifting events to a metropolis, it represents the director’s idea of US consumer culture brilliantly.

Probably my favourite aspect of The New Batch is how it subverts audience expectations. Instead of trying to surpass what came before, Dante twists the sequel into being a self-aware parody. It surpasses the original in a lot of people’s opinion. It certainly avoided the trap Ghostbusters II (1989) fell into the year before by trying to recreate the magic of another 1984 classic. Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas (Matinee) knew that repeating the story would be tedious for audiences, so The New Batch eschewed formula to become something gloriously unique.

USA | 1990 | 106 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Joe Dante.
writer: Charles S. Haas (based on characters created by Chris Columbus).
starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert J. Prosky, Robert Picardo, Haviland Morris & Christopher Lee.