It took five years to lure the director Joe Dante back to Warner Brothers to shoot a sequel to “Gremlins,” a family-oriented horror comedy that had been a big hit for the studio in 1984. Granted a rare degree of creative freedom, Mr. Dante seems to have set out to make the sequel to end all sequels. And if he didn’t quite achieve that noble goal, he did manage to create one of the most ferociously anarchic films ever made, a riot of topical gags, pop-culture references, political allusions and formal inventiveness that remains outrageously entertaining in its new Blu-ray incarnation.
The original film, written by Chris Columbus (“The Goonies”) and produced by Steven Spielberg, had some memorably transgressive moments (one involving an electric juicer). But at heart it was a reassuring, Reagan-era fable about the importance of following rules. Billy (Zach Galligan), a teenage resident of a Capraesque small town, receives an unusual pet as a Christmas present — an irresistibly cute, furry creature of mysterious Asian origin called a mogwai. As long as certain requirements are met — Gizmo, as the creature is named, must never be exposed to sunlight, sprinkled with water or given anything to eat after midnight — he’ll remain a loving, cooing companion.
But the minute those rules are broken — and of course it doesn’t take long — Gizmo starts breeding less benign versions of himself: scaly, sharp-toothed creatures with mean yellow eyes, who burst out of pustules on Gizmo’s back and throw themselves into a campaign of mindless destruction.
“Gremlins” is grounded in a fundamental division in American popular culture, between the sweetness and sociability of the Disney features, and the unbridled id of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes shorts. If the forces of Disney win in the first film — the gremlins are lulled into complacency by a screening of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” — the barbarian hordes of Warner Brothers dominate the sequel. Beginning with an animated prologue featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, directed by the Warners animator Chuck Jones, “Gremlins 2” abandons Disney’s rural settings for an environment far more congenial to the Looney Tunes ethic, New York City.
After more than two decades some of the gags in “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” are still disturbingly topical. Most of the action takes place in a Midtown office tower redolently named “the Clamp Premiere Regency Trade Center,” named after its developer, a certain Daniel Clamp (John Glover), who combines his healthy ego and real estate rapaciousness with some Ted Turner-like tendencies. (His cable network offers “Casablanca” “now in color and with a happier ending.”) Other jokes may require footnotes (Hulk Hogan, anyone?), while others seem eerily ahead of their time. Christopher Lee makes an impeccably timed entrance as a research scientist working on genetically altered Frankenfood.
Mr. Dante’s cheerful, everything-into-the-blender approach recalls one of the great nonsense comedies, H. C. Potter’s 1941 adaptation of Olsen and Johnson’s manically improvised stage show “Hellzapoppin’ ” (a film that, alas, still can’t be screened above ground in the United States because of rights issues). But “Gremlins 2” is also a horror movie, though in a distinctively Dantean way. Where the recent wave of zombie splatter comedies has amply demonstrated one basic principle of audience psychology — when things become too scary, they become funny, as anxiety finds an outlet in laughter — Mr. Dante has long worked from the opposite, more provocative position.
In his most personal films, including his remarkable contribution to the episodic “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983), “Explorers” (1985) and “The ’Burbs” (1989), Mr. Dante operates along the thin line that separates humor from horror, as in those dimly remembered but deeply traumatizing Saturday morning cartoons — black and white hallucinations from the Warner studios, the Fleischer brothers and other, more obscure independent animators — in which things got a little too far out of hand. (A prime example is the Fleischers’“Bimbo’s Initiation,” a 1931 short that can be found on YouTube.)
Mr. Dante reminds us that not all anarchy is pleasurable, that a loss of control, a descent into a world shaped by irrationality and unchecked, infantile impulses can be as disturbing as any digitally generated monster or exploding silicone head. It’s not a comforting message, which may explain why we have yet to see “Gremlins 3” — but hope springs eternal. (Warner Home Video, Blu-ray $19.98, previously released DVD $14.97, PG-13)
by Dave Kehr