RETRO REVIEW: Don’t Get Them Jolly! GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH Brings Hell-iday Cheer to Splatter Cinema at Its New Location Cinevision!

Posted on: Dec 7th, 2014 By:

splattergremSplatter Cinema presents GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990); Dir. Joe Dante; Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates and Christopher Lee; Tuesday, Dec. 9 @ 8:00 p.m.; Cinevision Screening Room; Tickets $10 (cash only); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema is back! After a brief spell hosting films at the Chambers of Horror Halloween haunt, Splatter has teamed up with ATLRetro Kool Kat Ben Ruder’s Enjoy the Film and the Cinevision Screening Room to bring us the brilliantly bloody and the sublimely sickening. And while this month’s feature probably isn’t the first flick to spring to mind when you think “splatter,” its wildly imaginative and horrific effects work, combined with its completely uninhibited attitude, all add up to a perfect way to kick off a new era of Splatterdom this holiday season. Because after a seven-year search for a 35mm print, they have returned to bring you…GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH.

There are people who sincerely believe that a sequel is automatically inferior to its predecessor. They’ll tell you, for instance, that STAR WARS is a de facto better movie than THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK because it laid the necessary groundwork for the latter film’s existence. These people are what I like to call “wrong.”

Case in point: GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. Now, don’t misjudge my feelings: I unabashedly love the original GREMLINS. It’s one of my favorite Christmas movies and I’ve gone on about it at length here before. But I have a special place in my heart for its sequel. And that place is front row center. While GREMLINS paints a raucous picture of monster-fueled anarchy breaking out in idyllic Small Town, USA, GREMLINS 2 is pure madness in the Big Apple from start to finish.

As opposed to the more direct plotting of the first film, the storyline in GREMLINS 2 is more a series of hooks from which director Joe Dante can hang gags; and as such, it’s pretty all over the place. After the death of Gizmo’s owner Mr. Wing, the mogwai falls into the hands of the science division of Clamp Enterprises (headed by the always-welcome Christopher Lee). He is rescued by old friends and coincidental Clamp employees Billy Peltzer and his fiancée Kate Beringer (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, reprising their roles from the first film). However, a series of accidents cause more mogwai to be created, and havoc erupts in the locked-down Clamp Center as the gremlins plan to escape into New York City. There are constant sub-plots about disgruntled cable-show hosts, Billy’s job prospects and his flirtatious boss, out-of-town visitors, etc. But as I said, they’re mainly there to provide launching pads for parodies and jokes.

gremlins-al lewisWhile the first movie evoked the feeling of Chuck Jones Looney Tunes shorts with its self-referential send-ups of Spielbergian cinematic suburbia, it still played within the confines of a Spielberg movie or a late-period Jones cartoon. It was dark and violent, but still warm in the way that producer Steven Spielberg’s family films and so many of Chuck Jones’ later cartoons frequently are. Jones’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, for instance, lets us relish the Grinch’s delicious villainy by softening the blow with redemption and acceptance. Lessons are learned, people get better, and he—he himself, the Grinch—carved the roast beast.

GREMLINS 2, on the other hand, channels pure bizarro Jones. I’m talking DUCK AMUCK. THE DOVER BOYS AT PIMENTO UNIVERSITY. DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24 ½TH CENTURY. It’s almost nothing but wall-to-wall psychosis and fourth-wall breaking. It knowingly and overtly parodies GREMLINS. (At one point Leonard Maltin shows up to pan the first film, and is attacked and devoured by mogwai.) It features Christopher Lee as…well, Christopher Lee playing a villain. Sure, the character is nominally Dr. Catheter, but the point of his presence is for Christopher Lee to be identifiably playing Christopher Lee playing a villain—much like how he shows up in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN to play Christopher Lee playing Dracula. There are countless in-jokes hidden away in background details, like some Will Elder story in a 1950s issue of MAD. There are parodies of other films, like RAMBO, THE WIZARD OF OZ, KING KONG, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and many more. Daniel Clamp, the head of Clamp Enterprises with a burgeoning cable television empire, is a parody of both Donald Trump and Ted Turner. Even Al Lewis’ late-1980s stint for Turner as “Grandpa” hosting horror flicks on TBSSUPER SCARY SATURDAY is parodied. Hulk Hogan shows up for no good reason whatsoever. A plot turn that sees the mogwai become genetically mutated not only allows a Wile E. Coyote-esque “super genius” gremlin to exist, but also creates a hotsy-totsy female mogwai in order to bring us some “Bugs Bunny in drag” sequences. And to drive the point home completely, Bugs and Daffy Duck bookend the movie. If the first movie let the insanity of a Warner Brothers cartoon invade our mundane reality, this movie rejects your reality and substitutes its own.

All this to say that there is nothing in this movie I do not love wholeheartedly. Far from being sleek and streamlined, this movie is maximalism in action: gag piled on top of gag, with everyone involved in the movie completely game. Joe Dante is at his peak here, with impeccable timing and incredibly nuanced detail all in the service of pure wackiness. Christopher Lee gets to show off his rarely utilized comic chops. Tony RandallTony Randall, people!—is absolutely perfect as the super-intelligent Brain Gremlin. Dick Miller has a sizeable role, and that’s practically reason enough to see it right there. The screenplay by Charlie Haas (OVER THE EDGE, MATINEE) captures just the right balance of meta-humor and cleverly constructed plot dynamics so that we are never just bogged down in jokes; there’s a solid through-line that propels us along. Throw in the typically top-notch (and at times both monstrous and disgusting) effects work of Rick Baker and his crew, along with the gift of a bigger budget, and you’ve got a sequel that is every bit the equal of its predecessor, if not surpassing it.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

 

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Retro Review: Revisiting THE VISITOR, The Most Insane Non-Indie Horror Movie Ever Filmed in Atlanta

Posted on: Jul 12th, 2014 By:

Contraband Cinema presents THE VISITOR (1979); Dir. Michael J. Paradise; Starring John Huston, Paige Conner, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, Lance Henriksen; One Night Only, July 12 @7:00pm, Eyedrum; Tickets $7.00 at the door and actress Paige Conner will be attendance.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Early in THE VISITOR, an 8-year-old girl opens a wrapped present at her birthday party. Because we’ve been watching the movie, we know that the present contains a tacky statue of a bird, but now the girl inexplicably finds a gun. She grins, points it at partygoers, but then casually tosses it onto a table, which causes it to fire a slug into the back of another character, who then waits the length of a dramatic pause before collapsing to the ground. The entire incident goes from gift-giving to gunfire tragedy in less than 10 seconds.

The reaction among my friends watching the film in my living room was loud. “Wait, what?” “What the hell just happened?!” After a few moments and a few laughs, they calmed, awaiting the explanation that was sure to come.

But, of course, this is THE VISITOR we’re talking about. Explanations aren’t on its agenda, not when every second of screen time is another opportunity to smash a morsel of blazing, brain-melting insanity directly into the film. This is a movie in which legendary Hollywood director John Huston plays an “intergalactic warrior” matching wits with his greatest nemesis, a pre-tween telekinetic and her pet falcon. This is a movie in which director Sam Peckinpah plays an abortion doctor and Lance Henriksen an evil basketball team owner. This is a movie in which skating rinks and street food shops are the sites of supernatural murders. This is a movie in which the fate of the universe is decided in late-1970s Atlanta. But, above all, this is a movie that exists.

THE VISITOR fits loosely into the subgenre of supernatural child movies that bloomed in the wake of William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973). Instead of a demon, little Katy Collins (Paige Conner) is under the sway of an evil intergalactic force named, of all things, Sateen, whose fractured soul is being reborn into children on Earth. I think. Honestly, the film is a tough to puzzle out, as if its heady ideas were being translated through some unfamiliar language which, in a literal sense, they were. The film was an Italian-American coproduction, written and directed by Italians and then translated into English for the sometimes-baffled American cast. But the film also routinely garbles cinematic language, connecting scenes and images that don’t make logical sense, dropping plot threads as soon as they’re introduced, and failing to explain, well, anything. In THE VISITOR, a guardian can tell a character that nothing bad will ever happen to her again about five nanoseconds before someone runs that character into a glass aquarium, and it’s not just OK, it’s expected. Anything less insane would belong to another movie.

THE VISITOR is the fevered brainchild of Italian schlock producer Ovidio Assonitis. He was The Asylum of his day, grabbing any idea that had traction in the public and churning out his own low-cost replica. From THE EXORCIST he invented BEYOND THE DOOR (1974). From JAWS (1975) he developed TENTACLES (1977) (also starring Huston!). From PIRANHA (1978) came, well, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981). Right away, however, something felt a bit different about THE VISITOR. The production had a whiff of class about it as Huston’s name and cachet attracted more big names to the cast, including the likes of Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters and Glenn Ford. Assonitis even shot scenes in Rome, Italy, before moving the production to the tax-friendly vistas of downtown Atlanta.

Paige Conner in THE VISITOR (1979). Drafthouse Films.

For locals the film not only exists as a virtual tour through a past version of the city—including looks at Underground Atlanta, The Omni and other retro locales—but as a dubious legacy for some of the Atlanta’s most famous figures. The credits reserve a special thanks for Mayor Maynard Jackson, who worked hard to bring the production to town, and the film owes memorable scenes and locations to the cavalier whims of Ted Turner. According to legend, Assonitis wagered the fate of the production on a Hawks game with Turner. If the Hawks won, the production would get access to Turner’s home as a shooting location free of charge. The Hawks did indeed win, and the production not only gained access to Turner’s home, but the Omni as well for a key scene in which the possessed little girl explodes a basketball with her mind. (Supposedly, eagle-eyed fans can spot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the scene as well as radio personalities Neal Boortz and Steve Somers. So there’s that.)

It’s unclear whether the city or Turner were grateful for the chance to contribute. THE VISITOR flopped miserably (and predictably) at the box office, perhaps because the world just wasn’t ready to see Franco Nero (DJANGO [1966]) as Jesus Christ or to see Lance Henriksen attacked by a ceramic switchblade bird. The film made a paltry amount of money at the box office, and that’s just counting the money they got to keep. In an interview on the film’s DVD, Henriksen talks about the film’s legendary badness and his embarrassment at a screening in New York when he heard audience members demanding their hard-earned money back. Henriksen’s opinion of the film represents the consensus at the time of its premiere, but time has a way of changing the story, and THE VISITOR’s story has changed.

The film’s first supporter was supposedly Huston himself, who immediately recognized something special hiding among the frames of the film and kept an elusive VHS of the movie near his deathbed. It took longer for audiences to catch on, but a few did, and a passionate cult helped the film become a regular at midnight screening and trendy repertory houses. Audiences came for the irony and stayed for the film’s unrivaled uniqueness. THE VISITOR doesn’t make a lot of sense, but compensates with mood. THE VISITOR has a dreamlike tone, cultivating something like madness out of its odd juxtapositions of tone and images, or of the powerful performances in service of a story that can’t be unraveled. The film appears assured and confident in the story it’s telling, leaving audiences wondering if the answers are in there after all, just waiting for a keystone piece of information to unlock them. Does it make sense that Henriksen’s evil, but certainly human, tycoon character needs to marry his girlfriend in order to create another wicked psychic child? Probably not, but Henriksen seems to believe it, so why shouldn’t we?

The big coup for THE VISITOR in its reassessment came earlier this year, when Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the trendsetting Alamo Drafthouse theater chain in Austin, Texas, released a wonderful new Blu-Ray edition of the film, made with the kind of loving care and attention usually reserved for a Criterion Collection release of a prestige classic. It’s safe to say that more eyes have been on the film in the past year than in the past few decades, and the movie seems to be well on its way to a complete rehabilitation.

By this point in the article, you probably have an idea if THE VISITOR is for you. If it is, then I highly recommend seeing it as soon as possible, and Eyedrum, along with Contraband Cinema, are giving you the chance. Saturday night, July 12, the art gallery is hosting a screening of the film with actress Paige Conner in attendance. Alongside the film will be an art exhibit featuring “new and original pieces based on this unique film by a variety of local artists.” This is a special opportunity to experience a forgotten piece of Atlanta cinema history in the midst of its revival and rediscovery.

THE VISITOR, at long last, has arrived.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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