Late last year, a lone academic quietly created an organization devoted to the analysis of a single but inexhaustible artifact: the 1990 horror comedy Gremlins 2: The New Batch. If you haven’t seen the movie, it cannot be explained to you — but if anyone could make you understand its power and resonance in 2018, it would be this scholar.
Gremlins 2 is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is its gonzo commitment to the heightening moves expected of a sequel. It features bizarre cameos alongside screen veterans like Christopher Lee, an over-automated city skyscraper in place of the original’s suburban holiday setting, a CEO character modeled partly on Trump and a host of harebrained creature innovations once lovingly skewered on Key & Peele. You might argue that whatever dark and satirical elements were at work in Gremlins are given free rein in Gremlins 2, that it turns the subtext into text — which makes it the ideal subject of meticulous inquiry. To watch Gremlins 2 is to finally understand ourselves.
I got in touch with the founder of the Institute for Gremlins 2 Studies, who declined to reveal their name or location (the Institute itself is listed as being in both New York and Rhode Island) to talk about their important work, which now includes the Quarterly Journal of Gremlins 2 Studies — subscribe here. Along the way, we discussed the corruptions of philosophy, digital special effects, gender as performance, avant-garde aesthetics, Hulk Hogan’s possible crypto-fascism and the existential dilemmas at the heart of this puzzling franchise. In the end, I realized just how much I have yet to learn.
Hi! Thanks for taking the time to discuss the finer points of this incredible film. I myself only watched the original Gremlins for the first time a few weeks ago, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch a few days after. I have to say, nothing in the first movie prepared me for the second. How would you describe the leap from one to the other? And what might my sense of shock say about that transition?
There’s the old line that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. The same could be said of the Gremlins films. I think that Gremlins 2 resonates so strongly because the contemporary viewer can identify with the characters, who find themselves living in an over-the-top parody of past events. I think we all have a suspicion that the same is true of the real world.
Speaking of the real world, Gremlins 2 insists on breaking the fourth wall in ways that seem to violate that convention itself, which is to say these meta-narratives don’t even find a consistency among themselves. It’s incredibly jarring to see, for example, Hulk Hogan address the Gremlins by speaking directly to the camera, as if we are the Gremlins — or to watch the Gremlins attack Leonard Maltin as he pans the first film years after the fact (and later learn that he gave Gremlins 2 three stars). Is this just disorientation for its own sake?
The film seems to borrow a number of techniques from avant-garde cinema and theater. When the fire alarm goes off, it tells the employees in Clamp Center to “enact the age-old drama of self-preservation,” which is similar to how some experimental plays involve reading directly from the stage direction. There are also the instances you bring up.
But I think that Hulk Hogan’s appearance deserves closer inspection. You see, the original intention behind many of these techniques is to shock and antagonize the audience into critical thought. Brecht, the playwright who pioneered many of these techniques, was a devoted leftist. But this kind of theater can be co-opted.
Hogan can also be read as a demagogue or a fascist agitator, who violate taboos and say what their audience would like to, but cannot. And yet, the transgressions they give voice to are precisely those which the system covertly allows or even requires to function. Similarly, breaking the fourth wall seems to threaten to destabilize the film — but it doesn’t. It is this transgression, this wink at the audience, that actually has the opposite effect, and holds the film together.
That’s interesting because, of course, the contemporary notion of a “Gremlin” arises from inexplicable failures in technology — the invisible bug in the system that brings the whole thing crashing down. So would you say that Gremlins, contrary to this definition, are the demons that keep our technocracy from collapsing? That glitches keep the program online?
There are many ways to interpret the Gremlins. However, I don’t see them in quite the way you describe. The Gremlins go beyond the acceptable transgressions: They very much threaten the system represented by Clamp Center. The Gremlins could perhaps be captured, could be used in such a way that keeps the current system functioning, but the disciplinary, centralized control of Clamp Center is incapable of containing or routing them. I think this is the question that Gremlins 3 would have to address — could new, dispersed methods of control contain the Gremlins? Or would they find a way to short-circuit and sabotage those as well?
What other territory would you like to see covered in Gremlins 3?
I have previously stated that if Warner Brothers used CGI in Gremlins 3, I would issue a Gremlins fatwa against them. But now I’m not so sure. Gremlins 2 managed to create something new by amplifying and warping the decadence of the Hollywood sequel. In Dante’s Inferno, the only way out is to go further down. The same is true of director Joe Dante’s creation — if we wish to escape the sterile culture of neoliberalism, we have to embrace the decay. This anti-CGI stance may just be another veiled form of retromania.
Also, a Wasp Gremlin would be cool.
To shift gears a bit, I’d like to ask about Gizmo’s narrative arc. As you’ve tweeted in the past, he’s the survivor of two extinction events, but in Gremlins 2, he achieves some agency and fights back.
It’s puzzling that the Gremlins abuse Gizmo, since he is in effect their mother — a fact he subverts with self-conscious machismo by embarking on a Rocky-style training regimen, ultimately morphing into a different Sylvester Stallone character, Rambo. Meanwhile, the film ends with a human submitting to the affections of what appears to be the only female Gremlin. What is the movie telling us about gender, especially as performance?
Gremlins reproduce asexually through budding, they have no biological sex. Gender, to them, is just a performative construct borrowed from human culture. Add to this the fact that Gremlins have an ancestral memory (they destroy a microwave, which was used to brutally murder a Gremlin in the first film), and what we have are creatures whose experience of being is entirely different than anything we can imagine as humans. Concepts such as queer temporality and queer futurity are rather new developments in human thought, but similar ideas would be fairly central to some kind of “Gremlins Philosophy,” if perhaps the Brain Gremlin had lived long enough to write a book.
Greta Gremlin is the exception. She is not just the only female Gremlin, but the only sexual Gremlin. There is a certain existential horror to Greta — she has gone from a being with the ability to asexually reproduce (and therefore inherently complete), to one whose desires require an other for fulfillment. This, one imagines, would be rather traumatic. Of course her gender is performative, but because there are no other Gremlins who share her desires, she must look to a human for fulfillment and thus adopt certain human behaviors.
Do you identify with the Brain Gremlin?
The Brain Gremlin is a bit of a detestable figure — he guns down that helpless Gremlin in the propeller hat. But plenty of figures in the philosophical canon are morally compromised. Many have been influenced by Heidegger despite him being a Nazi and then running off to cosplay as a rural peasant instead of taking any kind of responsibility for that fact. I view my relationship with the Brain Gremlin in a similar way — I cannot endorse him, but I cannot entirely disown him either.
What do the Gremlins really want? They seem, in most ways, insatiable — as if the wanting is their only joy. In other words, I wonder if the Gremlins are happy.
The Gremlins are hedonistic, but not the kind of “enlightened hedonism” that is so prevalent today. They drink, they smoke, they engorge themselves on food, they put themselves in suicidally dangerous situations. Maybe the combination of ancestral memory and rapid reproductive capacity means that they don’t value their lives the same way we do. Or maybe, due to their short lifespans, all of life’s pleasures are completely novel to them.
But if there is one thing that can be said, it’s that they take pleasure not in wanting, but in doing, in being. In the Splice-O-Life lab, the Gremlins physically transform themselves into a number of mutated forms, for no reason apart from their own curiosity and pleasure. They don’t hesitate. They aren’t paralyzed by fear of choice. They just grab a vial of experimental genetic material and guzzle it down like it’s a cold beer.
For the purposes of framing this piece, is there any identifying information you can share about yourself, the location of the Institute, what sort of staff it employs and how it came to be founded?
As for myself and the Institute, here is what I can say about its origins: I remember when I first encountered Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It was a bleak November day. At first I didn’t think much of the film, but slowly it began to devour my thoughts. I’d think about it every waking hour. I looked at the world and all I could see was a reflection of Gremlins 2.
Its power frightened me, so one day I walked across town and donated my DVD to a thrift shop, thinking I could rid myself of this curse. But then it started to return to me in my dreams. I’d dream of Mogwai. I saw Gizmo chewing through the bars of a cage. I saw a flock of Bat Gremlins blotting out the sun. I saw the Brain Gremlin execute Wolf Blitzer with a revolver on live TV. I tried to stay up. I took caffeine pills and drank gallons of coffee, but sleep would always catch up with me. I had no choice but to embrace it: that’s why I founded the Institute of Gremlins 2 Studies.
Others will dream that I am mad, and I will dream of Gremlins 2. When all men on Earth think day and night of the film, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or Gremlins 2?