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MOVIE REVIEW : There Goes the Neighborhood : Sequel: Joe Dante’s cute-horrific little creatures invade Manhattan in ‘Gremlins 2.’

Cute on top, horrific underneath, the “Gremlins” of Joe Dante’s 1984 chuckle-scream hit in some ways symbolized their own decade. In the ferocious sequel “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (citywide), Dante brings them back, flings them into the belly of the mass consumer beast--midtown Manhattan--and lets them seethe, roar and run riot.

It’s an infernally funny mass entertainment: the Dream Machine snapping at its own tail. In the first “Gremlins,” the grinning green monsters were like amoral greed personified, waging war on the Norman Rockwell-Frank Capra town that harbored them. They were a tarantula crawling out of an angel food cake, a geyser of blood erupting from a Campbell’s Soup can.

Their unwilling progenitor--the cutie-poo fluff-baby Gizmo, who looked like a cross between a Papillon pup and a teddy bear--had a prefab adorableness. His reptilian and ravenous id-children, though, were teddy bears from hell, icky-sticky dragon-rats out to tear up the place and laugh themselves sick. They were as good a symbol of a decade of media sadism, slaked appetites and self-celebration as any other.

Bringing those small-town marauders to New York seems an inevitable notion--teen-age lovers Billy Peltzer and Kate Beringer (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates) have emigrated as well--and Dante and his collaborators milk their premise almost dry. They’ve set most of the action in a monolithic wedge of a building, Billy and Kate’s workplace, the Clamp Tower--whose owner, Daniel Clamp (John Glover) is a double parody of Donald Trump and Ted Turner. His video group puts out a colorized version of “Casablanca” with “a happier ending.”

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The Clamp Tower encapsulates consumer-culture America. It’s dotted with drippy-slick little boutiques and yogurt bars, monitored by a crypto-fascist security system. Upstairs, there’s the Slice-of-Life “designer genes” company run by the mad scientist, Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee). Outside, there’s the emblem of Clamp Industries, the world being squeezed in a vise as if it were a deflating volleyball. There’s even a “Marla”: nasally Machiavellian Haviland Morris.

Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas pump so much satire into their setup that when the Gremlins finally show up, the audience may be rooting for them . Rick Baker, this movie’s Gremlin-maker, has dreamed up a revolting new horde: a voluptuous vamp gremlin, a cock-eyed crazy-Gizmo, a bat-gargoyle and the gang’s new leader, the Brain Gremlin, voiced by Tony Randall in what has to be a quasi-parody of William F. Buckley Jr. Randall steals the show from every other actor, human or non.

Joe Dante is a director who revels in the movie past. Like Spielberg or Zemeckis, he often seems to be dragging us into a world composed mostly of movie allusions. In the first “Gremlins,” this was almost a subtext: the old idyllic realm of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was invaded by the hot-wire hordes of slasher movies and ultra-violence. “Gremlins 2" is allusion-packed, too. The title and credits are a new Looney Tune, written and directed by the master, Chuck Jones; Leonard Maltin pays for his bad review of “Gremlins” by getting strangled on camera and, midway through, there’s a classic reflexive movie gag. (I won’t give it away--but when you see Paul Bartel and Hulk Hogan, you’ll know you’re in the middle of it.)

Chris Columbus, the original writer, made his gremlins fairy-tale metaphors for the glitches in the system. But, for Dante, they’re probably more. They’re symbols of innocence gone amok, the depravity and degeneration of our youthful dreams. They’re us --at our flaming, greed-crazed worst. That’s why they dress up as hipsters or man the stock market phones and the TV stations. As the Brain Gremlin explains, they just want the good things in life.

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They want --and they take --and that’s why they’re ideal emblems of the dark side of the ‘80s. Like corporate raiders or Daniel Clamp, they have no inhibitions about acquisition. Little Mogwai mostly wants to be loved and petted; that’s what makes him an anachronism. (Unfortunately, one of this movie’s jokes has Mogwai turn into Rambo: good for a sight gag, but not a full-blown character development.)

“Gremlins 2" is better than the original, though it lacks the same archetypal horror-movie drive. We lose some characters too long; the last paroxysm is too forced. Perhaps because of budgets or logistics, Dante refrains from having his beasties run wild on location. The entrapment inside Clamp Tower--where the gremlins go berserk, eventually staging frenzied Busby Berkeley routines to a rousing chorus of “New York, New York"--begins to seem constricting.

That’s one of the movie’s two major flaws. The other is the peculiar transformation of John Glover’s Clamp from tyrant to born-again nice guy, even though Glover has it in him to scorch the screen with gosh-guy villainy. What caused this? Wishful thinking? Fear of being Trumped?

All that pales beside the visual bravado of Dante’s attack--and that of collaborators like Baker, Haas, cinematographer John Hora and production designer James Spencer. Dante is a filmmaker with dash, spirit and humor. Even when his pictures seem slight or miscalculated, he sometimes finds ways to make the images stick. He tilts the camera, creates deep focus composition riotous with carnival color.

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Here, the layers of cuteness, satire, suspense and violence spill all over each other like clashing hues in a splatter-painting. In “Gremlins 2" (rated PG-13, despite extreme violence), there are some clunkers, miscues and areas where everybody goes too far or not enough--even more than the first, this is not particularly a movie for children--but it’s also chock-full of shocking humor, life and kitsch in a crazy-house mirror. At its best, it’s Dante’s comic inferno.

‘GREMLINS 2'

A Warner Bros. presentation of an Amblin Entertainment picture. Producer Michael Finnell. Director Joe Dante. Script Charlie Haas. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Camera John Hora. Production design James Spencer. Editor Kent Beyda. Co-producer gremlin and Mowgwi effects Rick Baker. Art director Joe Lucky. With Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, Haviland Morris, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Keye Luke, Kathleen Freeman.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

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MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).


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