Welcome to No Shame November! This week we’re diving into the pop culture we love that society tells us we shouldn’t.
For some, it was Sex and the City, thanks to the show’s lure of high fashion, squad goals, and big love. For others, it was Woody Allen films, which painted Manhattan as a haven for intellectuals. For me, it was a trio of silly sequels that made me fall hard for New York City. Those were Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), Ghostbusters II (1989), and of course, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
As a kid, I watched these movies over and over, letting their version of New York go from fiction to fact in my enthralled imagination. I became enamored with the excitement that the city promised. Far from the small town I was growing up in, this was a place of adventure. Sure, Home Alone‘s Kevin McCallister and Gremlins’ Billy Peltzer had thrilling quests in the former films’ hometown outings. But for the bigger, wilder story that a sequel demands, you need a bigger, wilder setting. You need a city where gremlins, ghosts, and Wet Bandits could run amok for a couple of acts without too much notice.
Long before I’d set foot there, I felt I knew New York City from all the scenes that played out on screen. Home Alone 2 swept me from the grandeur of The Plaza Hotel to Central Park’s winding paths and quaint footbridges. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’s breath-taking exterior came courtesy of Gremlins 2, as the Futtermans took snapshots of it before battling the flying Bat Gremlin. Ghostbusters II ushered me through New York’s bustling sidewalks, where bickering locals couldn’t be bothered to stop a runaway baby carriage. Then, it whisked me underground to a spooky abandoned subway line. And climatically, it offered a unique look inside the truly iconic Statue of Liberty.
That some of their settings were pure fiction didn’t occur to me, and in the end, it didn’t matter. Sure, Duncan’s Toy Chest may not be real, but the immersive environment was reminiscent of FAO Schwarz, where enormous stuffed animals were awe-inspiring and absurd. Gremlins 2 was chiefly shot in Los Angeles, meaning Clamp Center and all its hi-tech razzle-dazzle was movie magic. Even within the movie, this central setting is treated with contempt, meant to mock the real-life millionaires who were conquesting through Manhattan real estate and media outlets with a ruthlessly self-satisfying vision. Yet, to a kid who’d never seen a skyscraper in real life, it was a place of incredible innovation and a promise of a bigger world.
These movies weren’t outright enamored with New York. Sure, their location shoots showed off the incredible architecture, beloved landmarks, and bombastic energy of the city. But each also made a spectacle of grime, crime, and New Yorkers’ allegedly bad attitudes. Pedestrians were alternately portrayed as grousing, apathetic (even to Bat Gremlin attack), or violent (props to the blonde businesswoman for punching out Marv, twice). In Gremlins 2, the subplot about gentrification points out the coldness of Manhattan business, that would wipe out a neighborhood for a garish tower of ego. As for the Ghostbusters, they not only battle an ancient evil spirit but also must traverse grotesque tunnels, where rats are “the size of beavers,” and a river of glowing pink ooze is considered only slightly out of the ordinary. Then, in Home Alone 2 — oddly the only of these sequels not considered a horror movie — Kevin’s foes are convinced that this lost kid is doomed to be murdered. Tim Curry’s snooty concierge warns a fretful Mrs. McCallister, “There are hundreds of parasites out there, armed to the teeth!” And when Kevin ducks the Wet Bandits in Central Park, Harry crows victoriously, “Grown men come into the park and don’t leave alive!”
This was a place of adventure…where gremlins, ghosts, and Wet Bandits could run amok for a couple of acts without too much notice.
I wasn’t blind to this ugliness. Eventually, I saw past it. Like Kevin says to the Pigeon Lady, “At first, you looked kind of scary, but the more I think about it, it’s not so bad.”
The more I looked, the more I saw a place where I could thrive. Billy Peltzer and Kevin McCallister showed me that New York was a place where a small-town kid could chase their dreams. It was where wise-asses — like Kevin McCallister and Peter Venkman — could be appreciated. There, women with big personalities and fierce style could have hair fire-engine red — or violently green — and be as sultry and sassy as they wanted to be. (Looking at you Janine Melnitz, Marla Bloodstone, and Greta Gremlin!) NYC is unapologetically a place for weirdos, like a TV vampire who dreams of being an anchorman, an unhoused Pigeon Lady who has a heart of gold, or a motley band of paranormal-investigating scientists and ghost-plagued artists.
But perhaps most importantly, these movies presented New York as a place where all these wise-asses and weirdos could be living wildly different lives, and still come together to save the day. In Home Alone 2, Kevin takes what he’s learned from his newfound friends to best the Wet Bandits. In Gremlins II, Billy and his oddball crew thwart the monster army’s plan to rampage through the metropolis. Finally, in Ghostbusters II, it is the mood of the city that saves it. The secret of the ooze is that responds to emotion. So, when this vibin’ goo is pumped through the Statue of Liberty, it’s the goodwill of New Yorkers that drives her to march down Broadway. Well, that and the power of Jackie Wilson’s banger, “Higher and Higher.” Ultimately though, it is the city-dwellers’ song of “Auld Lang Syne” that shatters Vigo the Carpathian’s stranglehold on the eponymous heroes, leading to a spirited happy ending that still makes me tear up.
These movies might be goofy, cheesy, or even conceptually bonkers. For me though, they’ll always hold a special part in my heart, because they were my tour guide for the greatest city on Earth. They are what made me first fall in love with New York City’s majesty, mayhem, and potential. They are what led me to my true home. And be it ever so wild, there’s no place like home.