A look back at the 'Gremlins' films as 'Gremlins 2' hits Blu-ray
Joe Dante has always been a tough director to pin down. A true aficionado of drive-in movies and camp fare, Dante has always mixed horror and humor in his films with uneven results, going back to his early classics "Piranha" (1978) and "The Howling" (1981). His greatest success, however, was "Gremlins," which he got the job to direct following a slow period in his career. Produced under the banner of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, "Gremlins" is the kind of '80s horror/comedy/coming-of-age movie that many have a fond memory of but few have been able to emulate (see last year's "Super 8" as an example).
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"Gremlins" came out on Blu-ray in 2009 to commemorate the film's 25th anniversary and is being reissued in conjunction with the Blu-ray premiere of "Gremlins 2: The New Batch," the 1990 sequel that reunited Dante with "Gremlins" stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates for an altogether different experience. While "Gremlins" steadily walked the line between comedy and horror, "Gremlins 2" obliterates all that and plunges full steam ahead into wild, anarchic slapstick, surrealism and outright insanity.
In the original, inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) stumbles upon an adorable, exotic creature known as a Mogwai in a Chinatown shop while looking for a birthday present for his nerdy son Billy (Galligan). Without the shop owner's consent, Peltzer brings the creature, nicknamed Gizmo, home and briefs Billy on a few rules: No bright lights, no water, and no feeding after midnight. Naturally, all are broken, and poor little Gizmo ends up spawning a horde of nasty little reptilian monsters that wreak havoc on the little town of Kingston Falls on Christmas Eve, as Billy and his would-be girlfriend Kate (Cates) try to stop them.
"Gremlins" was a dark little film (its original script was even darker) that was one of the titles which jump-started the push for a PG-13 rating. It's funny and entertaining, yet has a subversive, nasty streak and some considerable violence, both by the gremlins and against them. There's a glee to the proceedings during the scenes in which the gremlins overtake the town, a feeling that Dante would extend to nearly the entire running time of the second film.
In "Gremlins 2," Billy and Kate are both working in New York at Clamp Enterprises, where unbeknownst to them, Gizmo has fallen into the hands of a research team (led by Christopher Lee!) and once again becomes the source of an army of vicious little gremlins. Billy teams with Clamp himself (John Glover) and security chief Forster (Robert Picardo) in an effort to keep the menace contained within the building, all while the creatures run rampant and even begin evolving into bizarre new forms, such as the super-intelligent Brain Gremlin and the pure energy Electrical Gremlin.
While "Gremlins" followed a fairly standard narrative structure and tone, "Gremlins 2" throws all that out the window, instead just taking the viewer on a wild ride through one crazed scenario after another. Dante deliberately invokes the feel of Looney Tunes cartoons and references many other movies, including the first "Gremlins" itself. As a result of its sheer lunacy, the response to "Gremlins 2" was mixed; it did not fare as well at the box office as its hit predecessor, while critics and audiences were split on whether it was superior to the original or a lesser follow-up.
Looking at it now, "Gremlins 2" is not a strong film plotwise but is purely a blast to watch for the way that Dante and screenwriter Charles Haas pile on the gags. It's a more expensive film than the original, which gives Dante a lot more room to play, and he takes advantage of that to fashion what is essentially a grisly, goofy full-length live-action cartoon.
The review copy we received of "Gremlins" seems to be just the same 25th anniversary edition issued in 2009, with no new restoration of the movie done. That's a shame, since "Gremlins" looks rather hazy on hi-def and could stand to use some digital refurbishment. "Gremlins 2" does not look exactly startling on disc, but the image is sharper and the colors pop out much more than they do on the first film, adding to the cartoony atmosphere.
The original "Gremlins" came with a smattering of deleted scenes on Blu-ray along with a vintage "making-of" documentary plus cast and crew commentaries. "Gremlins 2" adds 20 minutes of deleted footage to its bonus menu, along with commentary from Dante, Galligan, Haas and producer Michael Finnell (Dante is one of the more upbeat commentators you'll hear on a disc, even after all these years). Also included is a documentary, gag reel and an alternate home video sequence in which the gremlins seemingly hijack your television.
Whichever "Gremlins" films you prefer, both are satirical love letters to the horror genre, the spirit of the old Looney Tunes cartoons, and the movies themselves, with plenty of cinematic in-jokes and character-actor cameos sprinkled throughout. Their malevolent glee and genuine nastiness are also refreshing and bracing in these days of more committee-fashioned, personality-free films. If the "Gremlins" films have anything, it's personality -- even if it's green and scaly.
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