Reel Spotlight: Director Joe Dante

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With Explorers turning 30 this year, and his new movie Burying the Ex gradually getting a release around the globe, the time seems about right to celebrate Joe Dante’s eclectic back catalogue. It appears to be a recurring trend throughout his career that Dante’s movies are underrated upon release, only to find their audiences much later as beloved cult treasures. From his early days working for Roger Corman, through to his current stewardship of the excellent Trailers From Hell website, Joe Dante’s career has relished bringing the B-movie kicking and screaming into the mainstream.

Dante cut his chops working for Roger Corman, making his directorial debut with 1978’s Jaws cash-in Piranha (later remade as the fantastically trashy Piranha 3D by Alexandre Aja) and uncredited work on the Ramones’ Rock N Roll High School, amongst others. Dante can be seen reminiscing on these formative experiences in the excellent Corman documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, and it’s fun to witness how far enthusiasm and moxy could get you in those days of bootstrap filmmaking.

Following on from Piranha, Dante’s next project was The Howling. Part psycho killer flick, part monster movie, it has a sleazy edge to it compared to fellow werewolf picture, American Werewolf in London, which was released the same year. The Howling comes off marginally second best, but still warrants its devoted following courtesy of some cutting-edge effects and its shady tone. The Howling spawned seven sequels of varying quality, but also marked the first time Dante worked with the excellent Robert Picardo (better known to many as Star Trek Voyager’s wonderful Emergency Medical Hologram) and the second of his movies with long-time fellow Corman veteran Dick Miller. Both actors would go on to appear in many of Dante’s other projects.

Perhaps a less well-known entry on Dante’s CV is his directorial work on Police Squad, the television series prequel to the Naked Gun trilogy that first launched Leslie Nielsen into the role of bungling Detective Frank Drebin. Dante directed two of the six episodes.

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In 1983 Dante directed a segment of the notorious Twilight Zone movie, an anthology feature based on the classic TV series of the same name. The other directors on board were American Werewolf’s John Landis, Mad Max’s George Miller and Steven Spielberg, who would sign up Dante to direct his next movie…Gremlins.

Gremlins is arguably Dante’s finest hour. Working from a Chris Columbus script, Dante crafts a dark-hearted tale of warped pet ownership, as a horde of razor-toothed monsters invade small-town America. Billy Peltzer receives a curious Christmas gift in the shape of furry Mogwai, Gizmo. Having fumbled the strict caretaking rules that accompany the creature, the small town of Kingston Falls is beset by the horrifying Gremlins, terrorising the inhabitants – and having one hell of a good time as they do so. Part horror movie, part comedy, part olde tyme Christmas movie, Dante masterfully balances the tone between all three; one moment delighting us with inventive, grisly methods of dispatching the Gremlins, the next moment presenting us with downbeat reflections on the meaning of Christmas. If Kingston Falls is a play on Bedford Falls from It’s A Wonderful Life, then Phoebe Cates’ grim Christmas monologue would be enough to send George Bailey leaping off the bridge, no matter what consolation Clarence could confer. Gremlins is a gloriously perverted take on the holiday movie. While its gruesome set pieces and comedic monsters provide a damn fun time, it’s Gremlins’ dark heart and sneering underbelly that makes it truly unique and enduring. Its classic status assured, a Gremlins remake is inevitably waiting in the wings. Perhaps instead of churning out endless re-treads of classic movies, Hollywood should take a chance on an original idea and a talented director, which is exactly the route that led to Gremlins getting made in the first place.

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In 1985 Dante helmed Explorers, a tale of three high school friends (River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke numbering among them) who create a backyard spacecraft and set off in search of extra-terrestrial life. Thematically sitting alongside other bored-youth-makes-good sci-fi such as E.T. and The Last Starfighter, it’s a bit of a muddled affair with a rather unsatisfying ending, after showing a lot of early promise. But like a number of Dante’s other movies, time has been kind to it, the warm praise on its 30-year anniversary indicating Explorers has a dedicated and appreciative following.

Innerspace followed in 1987 and is a fantastic science fiction comedy adventure, taking inspiration from Fantastic Voyage as Dennis Quaid’s intrepid test pilot navigates himself around Martin Short’s peculiar body in a mini submarine after a spot of industrial espionage sends his mission haywire. Dante gives us a good old-fashioned caper, with a moral for the kids about self-confidence, as Short and Quaid bond over their shared experiences and try to thwart the bad guys. Dante regular Robert Picardo appears as Stetson wearing villain, The Cowboy, and Meg Ryan also makes an early career appearance. Innerspace also achieves the impossible by making Martin Short more-or-less likeable. It’s a fun, inventive piece of science fiction.

In between Explorers and Innerspace Dante directed segments for 1987’s oddball portmanteau Amazon Women on the Moon, a fairly hit and miss outing that might best be filed under the category ‘for completests only’.

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In 1989 The ‘Burbs arrived on our screen, fusing suburban paranoia to classic mad doctor horror themes, through the lens of a sitcom-perfect neighbourhood. The ‘Burbs has been in the news recently due to the passing of Rick Ducommun, who played rowdy neighbour Art Weingartner, constantly egging on Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) to ever more manic lengths. Underappreciated in its own time, The ‘Burbs has picked up quite the cult following in recent years. It’s full of hyperactive energy, riffing on horror staples as Ray and Art take their neighbours on a paranoid adventure around their street. Underpinning it all is an intriguing mystery, which, in spite of the laughs, makes for a thought provoking watch. Audience and characters alike spend the duration of the film asking themselves ‘who are the real bad guys?’ and ‘who is the most deranged?’ – the weird Klopeks, or the ‘normal’ suburbanites? Hanks is at the top of his game, verging on mega-stardom but still safely in his ‘earlier, funny ones’ period. Sure, the Academy might recognise his performances in worthier fare like Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but Hanks has never been better than when playing an everyman facing off against a bizarre situation – The Man With One Red Shoe, The Money Pit, The ‘Burbs. Rounding out a stellar cast are Carrie Fisher as Ray’s wife Carol, tethering Ray’s free-flowing insanity to a dose of reality; neighbourhood layabout Corey Feldman, and Bruce Dern as Rumsfield, the military-obsessed neighbour. Trivia fans may be interested to learn that the street in The ‘Burbs is the same set used for Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives, which is very apt, as The ‘Burbs subverts every nuclear family, American Dream sitcom and movie that came before it, and has gigantic fun in doing so.

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In 1990, Dante was allowed more or less a free reign from the studio, resulting in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the utterly berserk sequel to the 1984 original. Like a Looney Toons cartoon writ large, everything is thrown at the screen to see what sticks. A lot works, a lot does not. The creature design is wild, the fourth wall is broken and Christopher Lee plays a doctor named after a device that drains urine. Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller appear, and capitalist excess is broadly mocked in the form of thinly veiled Donald Trump character, Daniel Clamp. While Gremlins 2: The New Batch certainly has its moments and makes for an entertaining watch, much like the Gremlins themselves, it’s a much different creature to the original. Played more for broad laughs, it lacks the dark heart and cutting edge of the original.

After Gremlins, Dante directed and worked as creative consultant on the short-lived, but rather excellent TV series Eerie, Indiana, about the strange and oddball goings-on in the most ‘normal’ town in America. An inventive and highly entertaining series, the final episode featured Dante playing himself, as he once again breaks the fourth wall. The series sadly only lasted a mere 19 episodes.

Next up was 1993’s sublime, yet criminally underrated, Matinee. A couple of young brothers obsess over the afternoon horror movies of the early 1960s, as John Goodman’s William Castle-esque movie producer brings his latest shocker, Mant, to town. Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Matinee effectively parallels the fictional terror of the movies against the real-life horror of oncoming nuclear annihilation, with a solid coming-of-age tale as its foundation. The movie-within-the movie, Mant, is a total joy that you’ll wish was real, as Matinee wears its big heart proudly on its sleeve as a love letter to the movies. Matinee is Cinema Paradiso for people raised on Universal Monsters. It’s one of Dante’s finest efforts, and with any luck Matinee will find its audience in time. However, it currently remains cruelly overlooked, with only a couple of very rudimentary DVD releases to its name. If ever there was a movie to define the term ‘hidden gem’, then it’s Matinee.

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Following on from Matinee, Dante helmed the more family-friendly Small Soldiers, about two groups of warring, sentient toys, and the Space Jam follow up, Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

Dante also directed two episodes of the excellent horror anthology series Masters of Horror, including the well-received and gloriously unsubtle episode, Homecoming, wherein zombified American soldiers return from the dead and exercise their right to vote, to depose the Bush-a-like president who sent them off to war.

Of late, Joe Dante has plied his trade with TV work, directing episodes of Hawaii Five-0 and Witches of East End. In 2009 he directed The Hole, about a bottomless hole/gateway to Hell in a family’s basement. And his latest movie, Burying the Ex, has thus far received a limited release. He does however maintain the excellent Trailers From Hell website, where fellow directors and movie nerds contribute articles on their favourite cult movies.

As two of Joe Dante’s classic movies are hitting their 30-year anniversaries, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on a varied, manic, fourth wall-breaking, genre-defining career – where would modern horror be without The Howling or Gremlins? While some of his movies are still patiently waiting on the full credit they deserve, there is much to celebrate in the work of Joe Dante, and let’s hope he can continue to garner enough free reign to carry on doing what he does best – making movies for those of us who love movies.