Eating after midnight with “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” and slipping on a yellow coat to protect the streets from danger with “Dick Tracy.”
Nutshell: Now living in New York City, Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates) are forced to deal with a whole new set of troubles when the Mogwai of mischief, Gizmo, reenters their lives. Working for the all-powerful business magnate Daniel Clamp (John Glover) in his absurdly high-tech building, Billy and Kate discover chaos has booked a return trip to town when Gizmo is splashed with water, thus creating a new round of hideous gremlins, who break free and take over the skyscraper with all manner of menace, parody, and demented monkey business.
1990: To say that I enjoyed 1984’s “Gremlins” would be an understatement. I was a fanatic -- Gizmo was practically a religion during my ninth year on this planet. Scary, silly, and exhaustively playful, “Gremlins” was everything a kid could ask for from his summer entertainment, boasting an impressive corral of creatures and a twinkly Spielbergian touch that helped to swallow the film’s inspiring hold on sinister material. The film was a smash, the merchandising a hit, and a legacy was born with the big-eared, big-eyed, chirpy star of the show. Of course a sequel would be ordered up with finger-snap ease.
But nothing arrived. The follow-up, a veritable sure thing, was caught in development hell, leaving one man capable of thawing the production ice: “Gremlins” director Joe Dante. A filmmaker who wasn’t even interested in making a sequel.
In 1989, my knowledge of the upcoming “Gremlins 2” originated from magazines and assorted channels of fandom. I was aware something was being cooked up for the summer of 1990, but stills and footage were in short supply. And then, attached to “Tango and Cash,” was a teaser trailer that did the requisite job of teasing and trailering, gifting my Gizmo devotion an early sneak peek of the malevolence that was coming to theaters in six long months.
Oooh, the trailer knocked me out of my seat, a prospect of sequel delirium intensified to hysteria with the equally unexpected arrival of a “Die Hard 2” teaser (more on that picture in a few weeks). I was floating after witnessing the “Gremlins 2” trailer; part of me sated now that footage had finally arrived and the rest of me vibrating with impatience as the June 15th release date seemed decades away. The trailer had to be studied frame by frame, but in those days, one shot per showing was pretty much all that was allowed. Remember a time when teaser trailers actually performed a vital function of surprise in a film’s marketing campaign? It was glorious. I’m sure I stayed in my seat to watch “Tango and Cash” afterwards, but my memory of that wintry afternoon solely consists of a liquefied title and that long overdue “2."
June 15th ultimately arrived as promised, and “Gremlins 2” rolled out into wide release…promptly bewildering audiences gathered to spy more innocent Mogwai maneuvering and slapstick Gremlin terror. This wasn’t just any sequel, but a roman candle of big screen mischief -- a live-action cartoon tornado from a director indulging his every last filmmaking wish while embracing the protection of a desperate studio and the cushion of an inflated budget.
“Gremlins 2” was a berserk creation, so utterly disarming in its fearless appetite for nonsense. I couldn’t refuse it, graciously accepting its grinning anarchy like any kid would, pushed back into my seat as Dante brought back the Gremlins as promised, only here their reign of terror was more suited to a whirlwind Looney Tunes mood, necessitating an appearance from Bugs and Daffy in the opening of the film to establish the correct mood. A roundhouse punch of broad comedy and cinematic tributes, my first viewing of the film was simply set aside to take it all in -- I’m not sure I even breathed during that initial taste. A second helping the very next day solidified my delight with the final product, elated with Dante’s impish spirit and his newfound forwardness with the franchise’s often baffling tone.
“Gremlins 2” was madcap and merciless, which was exactly what I was on the hunt for at the time. Of course, it was sublime to find Gizmo and the gang back on the big screen, but the pandemonium of the film left me woozy and thoroughly satisfied.
2010: Time has made it clear that “Gremlins” is my preferred installment of Dante’s franchise. It’s the classic approach to the formula and characters, warmly arranged by a director who obviously wasn’t sure anything about the picture could actually work. It’s snowbound, sweatered, mysterious, and pointedly violent when need be. Perhaps not a film to curl up with, “Gremlins” still retains an unnerving sincerity about it that’s always a welcome sight, introducing Gizmo with a heady wallop of the cutes and some PG-bending peril.
“Gremlins 2” is just plain old nuts. Full on toys in the attic.
Outside of the Bugs and Daffy opener, “Gremlins 2’ is actually quite a responsible sequel for the first hour, reuniting the viewer with famous faces (including the inimitable Dick Miller as beleaguered Mr. Futterman) while developing Clamp’s Trumpesque megalomaniacal tap dance, a shot of ego that’s manifested itself in a superbuilding of sorts, where every need is tended to and everything is automated to service “The Future!” Dante’s reworking the ingredients from the first film, but he’s eager to slowly twist the familiar in unexpected directions, as if attempting to prepare the average popcorn-munching viewer for the buffoonery on the horizon. Blessed with stronger puppetry, an enclosed battleground, and an imagination fresh out of low-budget slavery, “Gremlins 2” lifts off smoothly, setting up a classic showdown between man and Mogwai.
At the hour mark, “Gremlins 2” goes haywire. The signs are there in the early going: Dante parades around numerous cameos from beloved actors of his youth (John Astin, Henry Gibson, and Tony Randall appear -- the latter as the voice of the “Brain” Gremlin) and his early Corman years (Paul Bartel); the director swaddles the film in late night creature feature touches, most pointedly in the character of Grandpa Fred (Robert Prosky); and the film’s offbeat sense of humor is introduced in the first reel with Christopher Lee, here as madman geneticist Doctor Catheter. The film makes plenty of room for a Chuck Jones/Forry Ackerman tone of the ridiculous and the nostalgic, playing directly into Dante’s admirable adolescent streak as he mounts a “Gremlins” sequel that doesn’t actually want anything to do with “Gremlins.”
There’s a beauty to the film’s chaos that still resonates today, though I’ll admit that shift to stupidity is more jarring now than it once was. It’s amazing to watch the film spin into a flurry of absurdity, cartwheeling through film references, goopy effects, banana-peel slapstick, inside jokes, and a satire of yuppie excesses. Heck, Dante even has the nerve to “melt” the print midway through, leading moviegoers to believe some type of projection accident has occurred. A similar situation of disruption was manufactured for the film’s initial VHS release…
And Gremlins? There’s a whole slew of green baddies this time around.
We have a Vegetable Gremlin…
An Electric Gremlin…
A Bat Gremlin…
A Spider Gremlin…
And a Lady Gremlin (hubba-hubba)…
Heck, there’s even a “Phantom of the Opera” Gremlin…
In fact, there’s so much grimy Gremlin activity clogging the story, there’s little screentime left for dear old Gizmo, who takes what amounts to a cameo in “Gremlins 2,” spending much of his screentime in various stages of torture to bulk up his motivation for the film’s clever “Rambo” riff during the grand finale.
“Gremlins 2: The New Batch” still makes me chuckle, though my older self is moderately more resistant to the javelin throw of absurdity that rockets the film along. Still, the sequel is an amazing achievement despite a total lack of sincerity, and any film that can successfully work Slayer’s grinding tune “Angel of Death” into the action is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned.
Nutshell: Hero cop Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) splits his attention between the hunt for criminal activity and the wooing of girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), while making time for a new addition to his life: precocious orphan The Kid (Charlie Korsmo). Rising to power is Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), a ruthless crime boss violently positioning himself to rule the city. Attempting to bring down the gangster, Tracy is distracted by Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), a lustful nightclub singer with ties to Caprice. While the cops chase the criminals, a new menace known as The Blank masterminds a plan to stop Tracy for good.
1990: Looking to manufacture an event movie experience in the vein of 1989’s juggernaut, “Batman,” Disney was fairly shameless when it came to pimping their latest summer blockbuster, “Dick Tracy.” Not that Warren Beatty’s adaptation of Chester Gould’s enduring comic strip didn’t deserve the spotlight, but the film was pumped full of expectations when it hit theaters, pushed on audiences hungry for the next superhero spectacular. Turns out Beatty didn’t exactly make the same breathtaking actioner Disney was selling.
In the summer of 1990, “Dick Tracy” was everywhere, filling merch aisles with all manner of toys and games, while also enjoying a McDonald’s tie-in and a healthy push of promotion at Disney theme parks. The Mouse House needed a hit with this picture, doing their best to crank awareness of a cult icon to astronomical proportions. Even movie theaters were covered with character posters and general “Tracy” iconography, with the centerpiece of this gotta-have-it hysteria being the Midnight Show T-Shirt Ticket.
Back before everything was allowed an early launch, a midnight debut for a major motion picture was a unique event. To goose interest level in the picture, Disney sold printed t-shirts to act as tickets for the initial early morning screenings, forcing people to wear their “Tracy” enthusiasm, thus creating a clearly identifiable commotion at the local multiplex. I wasn’t one of the lucky few who attended the nationwide event, and I was sickeningly envious of the whole deal. To finally nibble on “Tracy,” I had to wait for the harsh wash of daylight, and there was no swag for us matinee warriors.
To Disney’s credit, they sold “Dick Tracy” the best they could, trying to emphasize the primary colored gangster elements to families, while subtly introducing Madonna’s oversexed role to older audiences, thus making certain the film wouldn’t be disregarded as vibrant pap solely for nosepickers. What the thunderous marketing was hiding was the rather muted mood of the picture, which accentuated musical theater dramatics over the askew hurl of Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
That’s not to say “Dick Tracy” wasn’t a rollicking good time back in the day, but I recall being befuddled by the film’s insistence on musical montages, which always seemed to halt the fisticuffs and Tommy Gun happenings, finding a way to capitalize on Madonna’s presence in the picture. At the time, the idea of music over machismo didn’t make much sense to me.
Perhaps carried away by the hype, “Dick Tracy” registered as a sizably satisfying picture in 1990, though ultimately it worked more as a transitional moviegoing guinea pig, as Hollywood made the move from pull-and-pray blockbuster promotional efforts to a more calculated plan of attack, which could generate hit movies solely through the might of blinding media ubiquity. “Dick Tracy” was an amusing motion picture, but my memories of the film all seem to derive from its publicity, not the movie itself.
2010: Did Warren Beatty set out to make his own Broadway show? Perhaps even more noticeable now than in 1990 is the way “Dick Tracy” emphasizes theatricality over grit, with a piano-tinkling ambiance that indicates a curiously restrained mood, helped along by a selection of Stephen Sondheim songs that act almost as commercial breaks within the movie.
Revisiting “Dick Tracy” with adult eyes was perhaps one of the more enlightening experiences of this weirdo nostalgic chronicle. It’s fascinating to see Beatty actually attempting to infuse a nightclub mood into his comic strip playground, concerned more with sensuality and rainbow noir over more crude instances of violence. It’s a terrific pass at campy gangster cinema, yet the film also surprises with its wit and technological sparkle. I still think the songs suck the energy right out of the picture, but their purpose is more pronounced all these years later. It seems Warren Beatty just wanted to make a musical.
Visually, “Dick Tracy” remains one of the more striking films of the last 20 years. The director commits entirely to the minimalist comic strip aesthetic, creating an oddball world of bold colors, heavy make-up for the mutated rogues gallery, and flashes of hot-leaded criminal mischief. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro rises to the challenge, blending exquisite lighting effects with grand matte paintings and assorted visual tricks, attempting to stay in step with gangster cinema traditions and summer movie motivations. “Dick Tracy” is skillfully mounted, generating an optical wonderland for the viewer, with all sorts of details and photographic vibrancy to study when the film takes off on the wings of a tune.
Also something of a two-decades-later revelation is the cast, which is about as all-star as I’ve ever seen. Beatty called in every last favor to populate this world of gruesome villains and chipper heroes, with a roster of actors that’s too numerous to reprint in full here. There’s a name for nearly every character in the film, providing a game of sorts for movie maniacs eager to sniff out the famous faces buried in the mix. Of course, Beatty is the star of the show, and fills out Tracy’s enormous yellow coat with confidence, submitting a near-vigilante performance at the titular cop. Madonna is perhaps her most effective here, appropriately playing Breathless Mahoney with an ideal amount of lip-licking lust. Strutting around in fantastic costumes (or semi-topless, making that PG rating sweat) and warbling a few tunes, the former Material Girl acquits herself nicely to the panty-melting role. However, nothing gets by Al Pacino as Caprice, a performance so agitated and chewy, I don’t think the actor was directed as much as guided by a series of off-camera gunshots. Pacino’s a hoot, but he’s orbiting Mars while the rest of the ensemble has to stick to the script.
“Dick Tracy” is inconsistent, but it’s an amusing picture. It’s high-flying only when it wants to be, perhaps assuming a series of sequels would open up the franchise to more extensive stunt-happy triumphs. Sadly, while moderately successful at the box office, the hype outweighed the monetary returns, capping Beatty’s dream at one movie. However, it’s a darn good movie.
Coming next week...
Robocop oils up for an ultraviolent, chaotic sequel.
And Alan Alda tries his hand at summer counterprogramming with a matrimonial farce.