Horror films, even a comedic kids creature flick like Gremlins 2, need to have a monster. Sometimes the monsters are human, as in Psycho and Cannibal Holocaust. Sometimes it is an animal, as in Cujo and Jaws. Or it could be aliens, a ghost, vampires, a haunted snowman, or even the devil himself. The point is that the tension and conflict at the heart of every horror film comes from some version of the monstrous. In 1984’s Gremlins, the monsters were the gremlins themselves. The same is true of Gremlins 2. However, the film also sprinkles in a few bad guys who initially seem like they could emerge as monsters in their own right. But, none of these human bad guys are given the full commitment and power of a true monster.
This theoretical approach to horror films is by no means my own. In Robin Wood’s canon text on post-studio film studies, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, he nailed down the basic recipe of horror films: they each have the normalcy, the monster, and crucially, the relationship between the two. This broad and adaptable distillation serves as not only a way to help define the genre, but it also acts as a framework to begin discussion of these films. As horror films got messier and the representations of what is normal and what is monstrous became more fluid, Wood’s theory still holds as a way to begin looking at an array of modern horrors.
Though we know that Gizmo and his fellow mogwai will be the real monsters, the film does an interesting twist on the depiction of its non-gremlin monsters. Each of the foes introduced are later repurposed as heroes. They are not exclusively the heroes of the film, but each of them, in their own way, rise to the occasion and become good guys.
The first such introduction is Daniel Clamp (John Glover), a Trump-esque figure, and his henchman Forester (Robert Picardo). Forester arrives, with Clamp on a video tape, to try forcibly urge Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) to sell his antiques store to Clamp so that he may turn reimagine the neighborhood as an indulgent new real estate development. Wing’s shop is standing in his way, and Clamp is not the kind of man to take no for an answer. This whole interaction plays like some sort of late ’80s corporate bullying, with the exception of the fact that we can hear Gizmo singing to himself from a covered cage beside Wing. From the previous film we know that while Gizmo is harmless, he cannot control his environment enough to remain safe for humanity. Being caged is precisely where he should be. Predictably, Clamp gets his way, the shop is destroyed, and Gizmo escapes the demolition by going to the streets of Manhattan.
All of this should point toward Clamp being painted as a monstrous villain. After all, if he put aside his personal greed and New York-centric manifest destiny Gizmo would never have gotten out of his protective cage, but in the end Clamp is redeemed. He is shown as a savvy businessman who not only aids Billy (Zach Galligan) in conquering the gremlins, but he independently decides to take Billy’s drawings of his hometown and make them into his next development. Clamp is, at his core, a good guy.
Another example of this lack of commitment to villainy is the role of science in Gremlins 2. Nearly the entire film takes place in Clamp’s massive tower in New York City. The building’s early, and ineffective, smart technology is a nod to Jacques Tati’s affection for satirizing automation and modernity. Lights turn off and on on their own accord. Revolving doors trap people in a never ending cycle of neither entering or leaving the building. The building itself is a funhouse that is putting on airs of corporate sophistication. Most importantly to the plot of the film, the tower has a dedicated science and animal lab. It is unclear exactly what experiments are being conducted here, and how these fit into Clamp’s plan for downtown domination, but they are certainly up to something. The lead researcher, Doctor Catheter (Christopher Lee) is ordering up vials of viruses and has cages of animals and insects sprinkled around. When his assistants (played by identical twins, Dan and Don Stanton) find Gizmo fleeing the destruction of his Chinatown home it is clear that the harmless mogwai has fallen into the wrong hands. This trio of doctors threatens to slice up Gizmo to see what makes him tick. Not to mention the fact that their potions and elixirs are what eventually create a greater variety of gremlins to taunt the Clamp tower. Though they weren’t the engineers of the gremlin outbreak, science and modernity certainly made it much harder to thwart.
However this is only the case for a brief part of Gremlins 2. After being responsible for diversifying the gremlins, science and the design of the Clamp tower are ultimately what made it possible to defeat the green menaces. All of the creatures gathered together in the lobby of the building, preparing to take over the city as soon as the dangerous sun set. But Billy and his helpful human gang were able to use fire hoses to soak the creatures, and then transfer a phone call using the sophisticated phone system, which contains a gremlin made out of electricity, to the lobby, quickly making this gremlin gathering into a slurry of gross green muck. The validity and helpfulness of science and technology is restored.
With some literal monsters running all over the place, Gremlins 2 did not need to add additional monsters or villains. It was also not necessary to make these initial bad guys into heroes or helpers in the end, but it did. The overall effect of this pivot is an even brighter ending to the film. Not only did they, once again, defeat the gremlin onslaught, but they did so as a team and we are left without one single surviving enemy. The monsters were all either defeated or became heroes themselves.