Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Unnecessary Sequels: Jaws and Gremlins

So after getting sadly sidetracked by the passing of Mr. Ray Harryhausen, and then being randomly inspired to write about "Matinee" after finally seeing it, I am now back to give you another delicious slice of "Why the hell did this get a sequel?" pie! Last time we looked at two seminal and influential classics, in "Psycho" and "Planet of the Apes". Today's selections will be not be the same kind of film-history milestones, but they are still significant in their own way, and regardless, both great, classic movies.

And before I begin, a reminder that the criteria by which I judge a "movie that didn't need sequels", is just what it sounds like: a film that was great, and a stand-alone piece that was self containing and wrapped up nicely on it's own, that needed no sequels whatsoever to dilute it or even in certain cases detract from it's greatness. And away we go!

Film: Jaws
Year: 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Unnecessary Sequels: Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3-D (1983), Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

A film that, like Psycho, most people are at least generally familiar with, even if they haven't seen it, they know what it is. And similarly to Psycho, Jaws contained an iconic musical strain (in this case by the great John Williams), that would embed itself in popular culture for decades. Jaws was a phenomenon when it released in 1975, one of the first of what would become Hollywood's true "Summer Blockbuster" approach, even though compared to today's fare of that same branch, it stands head-and-shoulders above much that would follow it. Not really the "blockbuster" type of material, while it has it's tense and active moments, Jaws is not an action film, nor even a true "horror" film as most would likely assume or label it. The premise of course being that of a sleepy little coastal town, located on "Amity Island, Massachusetts", a remote location generally as normal as you please, being suddenly terrorized by an enormous, man-eating "Great White" shark. But underneath what could have been a stereotypical "monster on the loose" fare, or even a contemporary of it's mid-70s gore-filled exploitation movies, Jaws was, like much of Spielberg's later work, a quieter, more thoughtful film. In fact most of the film is built on what you don't see, on tense moments, quiet brooding, and human drama.

"The Guys", Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss.

The principle characters in what would be Spielberg's first major motion picture, were an all-star cast just among themselves. Classically trained British actor Robert Shaw played a shark hunter simply called "Quint". Roy Scheider, who had already had an enduring career beforehand, would play perhaps his most iconic role, that of Police Chief Martin Brody. And Richard Dreyfuss, a television actor whose career in motion pictures had just recently started to take off with George Lucas' "American Graffiti",  plays marine biologist Matt Hooper. After considerable hemming and hawing over the prospect of shutting down the popular beach due to shark attacks, the local mayor Larry Vaugn (played by Murray Hamilton), hires the somewhat unstable Quint to rectify the problem, and Brody and Hooper join the expedition to hunt this phantom beast. The story itself is very basic, and as I said, under many other directors it probably would have been played as a straight horror flick. But under Spielberg's watch, the story became more about the three principle characters, as he has had a career-long penchant for focusing on human subplots embedded within his grander concepts. And as such, the film has it's share of quite moments, not only tense, but even a few laughs. Robert Shaw's performance as "Quint", a former navy man who survived a shark attack that killed most of his former crewmen, in particular is a rather good dramatic turn, as he essentially becomes Captain Ahab, hunting his own "Great White", to the point of destructive obsession to the detriment of his boat and his crew. The final product was and is a classic piece of cinema, that launches the career of arguably the greatest director of our modern era. So much so that in 2001 it was included in the National Film Registry.

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."

But, naturally, with colossal box office success also often comes a certain gleam in studio producer's eyes, that whispers one solitary word into their rich little ear: "Franchise". Thus was the case with Jaws, as they decided to make a sequel almost immediately, without Spielberg's involvement. While he was busy making yet another film (that thankfully DIDN'T ever get a sequel) that is now today considered to be a quintessential classic, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", Universal Pictures brought in b-movie director Jeannot Szwarc to make "Jaws 2". A perfect example of a sequel that not only didn't NEED to happen, but SHOULDN'T have happened, J2 went on to be everything it's predecessor wasn't. Where the original went for a thoughtful, tense approach that plays more on human emotion and a fear of a more concealed monster, the sequel does exactly what most bad "creature features" do, especially by the 80s. That is to show too much of the monster, up the gore factor and body count, and otherwise just have a nonsensical sequence of events that leads up to a pointless finale. Poor Roy Scheider agreed to do this sequel, a decision he would regret for the rest of his career, and while he tried his best to salvage his own role, he was sadly set adrift amidst 70s horror movie cliches and honestly just a fairly poor script. Taking everything the first movie had wrapped up with, the giant menace being killed, everything on the quiet island going back to normal, etc., and not only discarding it with the magical appearance of ANOTHER similarly sized and tempered giant, but this time making it even worse, by the Mayor and town's people outright refusing to believe Brody even though they'd already BEEN through all this nonsense and the horror that followed the first time around.

But alas, "Jaws 2" wasn't enough. Like some shitty cash-in sequels tend to do, it made quite a lot of money, enough at least to justify further milking of the property. And in 1983, right at the height of the 80s resurgence of "3D", came "Jaws 3", or more accurately "Jaws 3......D", because that's clever (hey, they're still doing it today, with the CURRENT 3D resurgence). Now, just to key you in on how stupid things would get, the tag-line for this summer blockbuster, I shit you not, was "The Third Dimension is TERROR!" A cheesy tag-line/concept it shared with equally crappy cash-ins of the time, "Friday the 13th III" and "Amityville 3D". As if being in 3D wasn't enough, they decided to go full on ridiculous with the third film, setting it in San Diego, at the SeaWorld park there, and yes, a brand NEW giant monster shark shows up in a timely fashion to terrorize the brand new (and ill advised) underwater tunnels they're debuting. You can imagine how this movie plays out, so I won't get too deep into it. But sufficed to say, as with most drawn-out horror franchises, the installments tend to get crappier and sillier-by-the-sequel, and that remained true here. I will say that as he would continue to intermittently do his entire career, Dennis Quaid made the poor choice of starring in this turd, and he would go on to alternate between great and "why?" roles to this day.

Yes....those are "3D" shark teeth exploding at the screen. Technology aside, things haven't changed much.

Last but certainly not least, even though I'd rather not mention it at all, was the fourth installment. And it absolutely takes the shit cake when it comes to "bad sequels", as 1987's "Jaws: The Revenge" actually makes "Jaws 3-D" look pretty swell by comparison. If you think Jaws terrorizing SeaWorld is bad, just wait. The plot, in a nutshell, is that Martin Brody (thankfully not played by Scheider again), has died of a heart attack. His wife, Ellen (played by Lorraine Gary in Jaws 1, 2, and this thing), believes his heart attack was induced by a shark. She goes to live with her son Sean and his fiance. Her son, a police deputy, after surviving shark attacks in the first two films, magically also dies, this time directly at the hands of the damn shark. So now (oh....SPOILERS), the poor lady is left with only one surviving son, her family killed, she is convinced purposely targeted, by this fuckin' shark. So what does she do? Naturally, what any leading lady in a crappy horror sequel would do, she sets out for revenge. Hence the subtitle of the movie. Right? Not quite. She goes to stay with said surviving son (Lance Guest, Alex from "The Last Starfighter"), and people keep on dying, it would seem, because the shark is actually trying to get HER, so it's the SHARK'S Revenge. Because a totally unrelated shark would totally know about Brody's wife who had zero interaction with the first "Jaws". Regardless, she figures she better offer herself in sacrifice to this cruel movie-sequel god, to stop further killing, because that totally makes perfect sense. And the rest plays out about as nonsensical and silly as you'd likely imagine.

Much like Psycho, the original Jaws is a great, dramatic, and very "against-type" film. A true classic in every sense of the word. And just like Psycho, Jaws' unneeded sequels do everything they can to completely shit all over that, and drag the franchise down to mediocre depths (pun intended). The only cure, also like Psycho, is simply to pay the "sequels" no mind, and only watch the original film. Because unless you just really love silly, nonsensical bullshit, they're basically just chum floating on the waves.

Film: Gremlins
Year: 1984
Director: Joe Dante
Unnecessary Sequel: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Another Spielberg related gem, this time with ol' Steve acting as producer, 1984's "Gremlins" may not be considered a classic by some, and certainly not to the level that a movie like "Jaws" is regarded. But honestly, it's one of the best films to come out of the 80s, and it's a steadfast classic that still holds up today. This was the product of some serious talent, produced by Spielberg, written by future big-hit director Chris Columbus, and the film that would really launch the career of former Roger Corman protegee Joe Dante. And as a bonus, it even had a great score done by the great Jerry Goldsmith. Gremlins was a mega-hit of the 80s, and in fact was such a good film that it even made a shit-ton of money despite the fact that it released the same exact week as even-bigger-hit "Ghostbusters". And like that movie, Gremlins was a deft combination of horror and comedy elements.

Just two dudes, hangin' out.

The feature creature of the film, so to speak, was the tiny, cute little dickens pictured above, a creature that the Chinese shop owner where he was found called a "Mogwai". This particular little fella received the name "Gizmo", after his buyer Randall Peltzer's penchant for inventions. But like Peltzer's own gizmos, this seemingly innocuous situation, bringing a strange critter home as a gift for his son, goes awry. Not due to Gizmo, of course, as that critter is one chill dude, with nary a care in the world beyond comic books, television, and humming his own iconic theme tune. His owner, Randall's son William "Billy" Peltzer (played by Zach Galligan), is an aspiring comic artist who works as a bank teller to help support the family while Randall tries to sell his (usually dodgy) invention ideas. Well, "Mr. P" leaves on a business trip to go and try to do just that, leaving Billy and his mother Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), home alone and ripe for some untimely Christmas-season disaster. The Mogwai have three major plot points....ahem, RULES, that must be followed to the letter, or else all hell will break loose. 1. Keep them away from bright light, because it'll kill 'em. 2. Don't get them wet, because who needs water to live, right? And 3. Don't EVER feed the rascals after exactly midnight (regardless of time zone issues), because JUST DON'T THAT'S WHY.

Regular party animals, rocking out to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves".

The film manages to find a nice balance of outright silly and genuinely creepy, and while it certainly has some more violent/gruesome moments, past a certain age I'd say this still works as a "family film" as much as it does a "horror" movie, something you can't say about Jaws. The idea of Gremlins in the first place, stemmed from World War II, as soldiers would blame tiny critters no one could actually see (whether truly serious or not) for mechanical failures, untimely mishaps, and general pandemonium. And while deadly, that's what the title characters of this film really specialize in. Naturally, the plot points (RULES) are broken, at least the second and third (in order), starting with Billy's teen friend Pete (80s kid/teen star Corey Feldman) accidentally spilling water all over Gizmo while trying to hold him (because he's just so damn cute you HAVE to hold him). A half dozen little Mogwai inexplicably pop out of poor Gizmo's back, and while all equally cute, unlike their "father" they seem to have a natural mean-streak. Most especially the ring leader "Stripe", so named for the funny 80s mohawk he was born with. Well, it isn't long before dad leaves on his trip, and well meaning sad-sap Billy is suckered by those devious Mogwai into feeding them after midnight. Next thing you know, they're cocooned in Xenomorph eggs (if you got that, high five), and about 12 hours later, they all hatch as the not-so-adorable persons you see above. Well, shit goes down, (SPOILERS) Stripe jumps in a YMCA pool, and from there it's off to the races, as Gremlins overrun the fictional quiet little town of Kingston Falls. So it's up to Gizmo, Billy, and Billy's girlfriend Kate (played by the gorgeous Phoebe Cates), to fight these fuckers off and take back Christmas.

This pretty much speaks for itself.

So, all in all, Gremlins was a really awesome movie. Well made, well written, well directed, well acted, well.....everything. It had cool pop-culture references, great music, funny moments, memorable characters....pretty much everything you could ask for in your run of the mill holidays horror/comedy. But again, with success, often comes people at the studio who want more money. Now a couple of things should be pointed out. The first being, that not ALL great successes at the box office automatically churn out cash-in sequels. Great examples of movies that stayed great, stand alone pieces, would be the aforementioned "Close Encounters", or another iconic 80s film, Richard Donner's "The Goonies". Secondly, not ALL sequels are bad, or even unneeded, as proven by many hits like "Back to the Future Part II" or "Aliens". And there are even a few certainly unneeded sequels that STILL turn out pretty great, as would be the case (at least in MY opinion) of "Ghostbusters II".

And to be perfectly fair, the movie I'm not about to discus, "Gremlins II: The New Batch", falls more into that latter category than it does into a genuinely "bad sequel". Because honestly, really looking at it, it's NOT "bad" by any means. It was directed once again by Joe Dante, scored once again by Jerry Goldsmith, produced again by Spielberg, and features at least a few of the original main cast (the others thankfully just being omitted, not replaced). I honestly think that over the years I have gone back and forth on whether or not I like or dislike this movie, and after recently watching them both again, I have to say, that while I can state unequivocally that it is a sequel that REALLY didn't need to be made, and that it doesn't even work as WELL as a sequel as Ghostbusters II did, I do find it ultimately likeable. The plot in a (very quick) nutshell is that Billy and Kate have moved to "The Big Apple", New York City, where they both work in an enormous (and ridiculous) skyscraper office building. Meanwhile Gizmo's owner Mr. Wing (the Chinese Shop owner from the first film) dies of old age, and he is left to be kidnapped and taken to the same building as a lab-rat. Madcap of course ensues, leading ridiculously to more little Mogwai, also bad-tempered (including a NEW ring-leader with a mohawk, this time named.....well..."Mohawk"), they eat after midnight, wham-bam-thank-ya-Sam, and "Here we go again!".

On paper that all sounds like a recipe for something potentially worse than "Jaws: The Revenge", but because to lure Joe Dante back to make this sequel (that he originally didn't want made), Warner Bros. had to give him a large budget and full creative control, while it's not GREAT or by any means a classic like the original, it does honestly turn out alright. The movie even features cameo appearances by quite a few character actors and "cult" film favorites, such as Christopher Lee, Dick Miller (returning as Mr. Fudderman), John Glover, Henry Gibson, John Astin, and even Hulk Hogan. It also brought animator Chuck Jones out of retirement for some "why not" bumper bits featuring the Looney Tunes characters. All in all, Gremlins II is a film that certainly didn't need to be made, as even Dante originally felt that the first film wrapped up nicely and that a sequel might detract from that. But on the other hand, it is entertaining, and manages to have at least a bit of that "get to see what the characters are up to" feel that Ghostbusters II more successfully achieved. So yeah, Gremlins should have stayed solo, but I would also say that Gremlins II is just silly enough in the right ways to merit seeing.

So until next time, stay out of bright lights, don't eat after midnight, and whatever you do, DON'T go swimming off of seemingly innocent beaches! Cheers.

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