Monday, April 14, 2008

In No Sense Civilized

As an excited New Beverly audience waited for the midnight show of GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH to begin on Saturday night—well, by this point it was about 12:30 Sunday morning, but never mind—Joe Dante was introduced and walked to the front of the theater to rapturous applause. He looked out at the packed house and exclaimed, “Where were you in 1990?”

GREMLINS 2 gets no respect. Admittedly, it came out a few years too late, but it was still unfairly released against the juggernaut that was DICK TRACY to indifferent reviews and so-so business. The original film, which has become a perennial by now, is the one that turns up on the revival circuit so for any fan of the sequel this was the chance. When Dante asked his question, I could have shouted out how many times I saw the thing in 1990, but that would have been no help. All I know is that I was there in the front row, Edgar Wright and Diablo Cody were a few seats over with Quentin Tarantino seated two rows behind me. There it is: a couple of Academy Award winners, the director of one of the best films of the past few years and a packed house all there excited to see GREMLINS 2 late on a Saturday night. On this occasion there was simply nowhere else to be.

After an introduction by Dante in which he told of how this sequel came to be, in how he had felt burnt out after the first film (I think the phrase ‘nervous breakdown’ was used), then in trying to get a sequel without him going Warner Bros. experienced no luck with various scripts, then finally they came to him and said if he would agree to do it, he could do whatever he wanted. He took that ball and ran with it, saying they had a great time making it (in contrast, I’m inferring, to the nightmare of the first one) and this was the movie which came out of that. It really was what he wanted and that was just fine with the studio. Until they saw it, of course. But before that happened, he managed to pull off one of the most truly anarchic studio films which has been seen in modern times.

Before the movie, shown as a tie-in to the Dante’s Inferno festival, we got a run of trailers consisting of what seemed to be about half of the Part 2s that came out in the eighties and into the nineties. Even if I probably didn’t need to be reminded of OH GOD! BOOK II and HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY, it was a petty ideal way to be led into the film we were seeing, which truly is a Part 2 unlike any other ever made. It wasn’t until a night later that the friend I was sitting next to told me that somebody else had leaned over to her, commenting on how much I seemed to be enjoying myself with my immense laughter. She added that the only person laughing as loud as me was Edgar Wright. Hey, I’ll take that. But in praising it, she also said that the film plays like “a gift for anyone who loves movies.” (Thank you for that, Rebecca.) I can’t think of a better way to put it. It’s a film which can only work when it’s a sequel and it’s all the better when it’s coming after a film which proved to be so iconic, notorious and at the same time so patently absurd. It’s “the Mad magazine version of the first film,” as Dante called it, but within all that is some pretty sharp social commentary looking at the road the coming decade was about to go down. “The nineties were looking like they were going to be pretty scary…of course they were nothing compared to how scary it is now,” he said that night.

Like any film released eighteen summers ago, some of GREMLINS 2 looks a little quaint now. That’s unavoidable. But its jabs at conglomeration, cable TV and the loss of the individual in the modern corporate world still have a sting to them (along with such random elements like the Canadian restaurant), maybe because the movie was actually way ahead of the curve. Within all of its big business satire, it still delivers the goods as a monster movie—never as nasty as the first film gets, but that seems to be more of an adjustment for the more overtly comical tone they’re going for this time around. It’s also a great film to see with the right crowd and anyone who’s seen it could certainly guess which scenes play especially well in that context. It’s HELLZAPOPPIN-approach to pop culture in 1990 is what remains hysterical about much of the movie and even if I can think of a few minor caveats—I wish it had a better closing gag, for one thing—it’s a testament to Dante’s talent and unique comic viewpoint in saying just how well this holds up. If its fanbase doesn’t go too far beyond the audience that was at the New Beverly, then so be it. At least a few people have latched on to the hysteria that lies within. So yeah, I probably was laughing that much. The movie earns that response.

I’ve mentioned Dante, but I also have to point out that a lot of the success of that comedy comes directly from screenwriter Charlie Haas as well. Some of its dialogue, in its own way like something out of the glory days of Preston Sturges but maintaining its own unique cadence, is the best that Dante has ever had to work with. I’m still not sure what my favorite run of dialogue in the film is, but the voice announcing the fire alarm has to come close. The film also seems to have more of a fondness for its characters than the first film did and even seems reluctant to turn some of its characters into outright villains like you would expect. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, though both are very good, seem fully aware that the film isn’t really about them and the spotlight is taken by the supporting players like John Glover as real estate mogul/media tycoon Daniel Clamp, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, the returning Dick Miller (the fact that it allows Miller to be heroic on multiple occasions is reason enough for praise) and plenty of other familiar faces, as well as the near-brilliance of Tony Randall’s voice work as the Brain Gremlin. Even Gizmo, as designed by Rick Baker this time around, comes off as a more interesting character in how he’s portrayed in this film. Particularly good is Haviland Morris who creates such a fiercely funny comic portrayal in her role as Marla Blodstone that I’m genuinely surprised that she never did much after this beyond a handful of LAW & ORDER guest shots over the years.

After the film, Dante took part in a Q&A moderated by Edgar Wright. Of course, all of the best post-film discussions take place at 2:30 in the morning. The best parts of the talk had the director talking about the second thoughts Warner Bros. clearly had after telling him that he could do “whatever he wanted” which led to, as he tells it, the studio opening it directly opposite DICK TRACY in an attempt to keep the record set by BATMAN from being broken. Of course, GREMLINS 2 got killed in the process. While Dante indicated that there was a little bit of trimming done when the studio balked at his cut, he says that everything he truly cared about wound up in the movie. And, as he had no hesitation in saying, he’d never get away with making such a film today.

Even if Warners had liked it, I can’t imagine how else they could have sold it other than how they did, which pretty much as a “normal” GREMLINS sequel. That’s what the poster, which hangs on my wall to this day, seems to indicate. So it was up to those who would respond to its subversion to discover what it was really trying to do on their own. And I suppose many of them were at the New Beverly on Saturday night. It’s a truly personal response, I know, but there aren’t many movies that give me as much pleasure as this one. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH, but this particular viewing was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had in any movie theater in a long time.


Anonymous said...

Having Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody show up for a screening of your movie must be the best feeling in the world. Who needs the hassles of directing a movie that makes $500 million when you can be Joe Dante and appreciated rabidly by a small group of people, instead of mildly acknowledge by a mass of people.

Keep these midnight screening reports coming, Peel.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I hope Dante was pleased by the response the film got the other night. I can't imagine that he wasn't. It was fantastic being there and I'm looking forward to the midnight show of THE HOWLING next week. Thanks very much!