A guide to the fantastical work of Joe Dante 

A guide to the fantastical work of Joe Dante 

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Joe Dante.

Joe Dante 101
When “film-school brats” Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese charged out of New York and Los Angeles in the ’70s, some critics complained that all these New Hollywood directors were doing was taking material that was once rightfully the stuff of trashy B-movies, and passing it off as art. That charge was never leveled at Joe Dante, because Dante never put on those kinds of airs—his entire career has been a celebration of American cheese. Though hardly devoid of social comment, thematic depth, or personal feeling, Dante’s films are notable mainly for their boisterousness and their sly acknowledgment that fantasy and reality are rarely as separate as we try to make them. Dante has worked to create an onscreen world where pie-plate flying saucers, rubber-suited monsters, and drive-in movie stars all dwell among us.

That’s why Dante found such a comfortable home at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the ’70s, where he helped define the look and feel of the indie company’s output by working on its splashy, trashy trailers. In 1978, Dante was given the opportunity to take full charge of one of Corman’s “let’s rip off a recent blockbuster” projects: the Jaws cash-in Piranha. Working with a reasonably clever John Sayles script and an ingenious effects team that included Rick Baker protégé Rob Bottin and Star Wars animator Phil Tippett, Dante turned out a deadpan Jaws parody, featuring plenty of shocks and gore as well as an embrace of the inherent silliness of the “killer mutated animal” genre. Piranha is full of little in-jokes (like a shot of a Jaws videogame early in the story) and classic Hollywood character actors (including Kevin McCarthy and Keenan Wynn), but the real stars of the show are the effects and the editing, the latter supervised by future Oscar nominee Mark Goldblatt. With no money for Jaws-like robots, Dante’s team relied on puppetry, pools of fake blood, and quick cutting to create the impression of aquatic mayhem. What makes it all work is that Dante doesn’t seem to care whether the seams show. On the Piranha commentary track, during the appearance of one goofy-looking stop-motion mini-monster, Dante says he liked how the animation signaled to the audience, “This is the kind of movie this is. It’s one of these movies.”

Dante graduated from the Corman stable with 1981’s The Howling, another Sayles-scripted horror film, and one that dials back the comedy (relatively speaking) and cranks up the werewolf-fueled nightmare. On The Howling’s commentary, Dante calls it “a good ol’ scary movie for a modern audience,” taking place in a world where the characters are hip enough not to need some old ethnic crank to explain werewolves to them. Instead, Dante gives his own heroes clues to what’s going on throughout the film, populating the sets with Thomas Wolfe books, cans of Wolf Chili, and TVs tuned to Tex Avery wolf cartoons. (He also surrounds the stars with trash-cinema veterans like John Carradine and Slim Pickens, which is another indicator that this one of those movies.) The Howling does take a while to actually become a werewolf picture; it instead begins as a Brian De Palma-esque serial-killer thriller, with Dee Wallace as a TV reporter who survives the predatory Robert Picardo, then convalesces at a commune/resort run by Picardo’s werewolf cult. The scene where Picardo returns and transforms in front of Wallace’s eyes is one of Dante’s best, showing the process in excruciating detail, and running so long that even Wallace ceases to be terrified and becomes fascinated. The Howling also has one of Dante’s best endings, as yet another werewolf transformation is broadcast on television to an audience that seems to think it’s all just a cool gag. 

Dante enjoyed his first substantial hit with Piranha, but it wasn’t the last time he offered a shadow version of a Steven Spielberg movie. The next carried Spielberg’s own stamp of approval, however. The first of several films made under Spielberg’s auspices as a producer, Gremlins isn’t a direct answer to E.T., but it often plays like a darkly satirical remix of the same themes. A cuddly creature called a Mogwai lands in the hands of goodhearted small-town folks, but in place of E.T.’s cosmic transcendentalism, Dante offers mayhem and destruction. A slow-burning horror film that eventually morphs into a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon—shades of things to come—Gremlins lets the grotesque offspring of the original Mogwai spread chaos through a Norman Rockwell-esque American town. And though Dante depicts the town and its residents with affection, it’s never fully clear whether his sympathies lie with the heroes or the monsters, who always seem to be having a lot more fun than the stuffy humans. 

A different kind of crisis throws a community into chaos in Matinee, an often-overlooked Dante effort from 1993 set in Key West against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. British child actor Simon Fenton plays a kid who distracts himself from the possibility of nuclear annihilation—and the absence of his military father—by obsessing over horror movies and the arrival of director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), who’s rolled into town to promote his latest creature film, Mant! (“Half man, half ant, all terror!”) Paying homage to the huckster genius producer William Castle, Goodman plays his part with larger-than-life gusto. But Dante’s direction and Charlie Haas’ script balances the fun with a real sense of tension and an interest in the way even the most tossed-off pop culture can reflect its era’s anxieties, and the film brings it all to a head in a memorable climax in which the lines between fact and fantasy get blurred past the point of recognition.

Just as Gremlins took the stuffing out of cuddly, merchandise-ready creatures like E.T., Dante’s subversive 1998 action-comedy Small Soldiers was like a malevolent twist on Toy Story, which was released three years earlier. Both films play with the premise of toys coming to life, but Dante twists this whimsical idea into a sinister corporate plot borne of merging GloboTech, a defense manufacturing giant, with Heartland toy company to form Heartland Play Systems. Given a directive to make action figures that can “play back” with children, an engineer uses high-tech military technology to create the Commando Elite, a line of steroidal G.I. Joe thugs, and the Gorgonites, their goofy alien enemies. (No prize for guessing which camp gets Dante’s sympathies.) Beyond the ensuing mayhem, Dante makes a strong argument for how children’s toys help normalize the concepts of violence and war, and pave the way for play-fighting to become real fighting. But the film’s execution often falls short of its conceptual genius: Bits like an army of Barbie dolls reanimated like butch brides of Frankenstein are classic Dante, but the young hero is a Middle American blandling, and the jokes don’t have the kinetic pop of a film like Gremlins 2. It does, however, offer the small grace of making Phil Hartman’s last screen appearance a good one. 

Intermediate work
After having his biggest hit with Gremlins, Dante stayed in the realm of family-friendly fantasy with 1985’s Explorers, starring Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix (in their first feature film) as teen inventors who construct their own spacecraft and meet a pair of TV-obsessed aliens. Coming amid a wave of kid-adventurer movies, Explorers got a little lost, and bombed at the box office. Truth be told, the material is pretty thin; it’s the kind of story better suited to an Amazing Stories or Twilight Zone episode than to a nearly two-hour feature. And the cutesy, intentionally phony-looking design of the alien creatures likely turned off a moviegoing audience that was becoming used to more realistic costumes and effects. But the movie is more Dante-fied than any feature he’d made up that point, from its frequent references to old science-fiction movies to its comparisons between the children who grow up in broken homes and the children from sprawling, loving families. (Hawke and Phoenix’s confident, natural performances help a great deal with the more down-to-earth elements.) Plus, Explorers contains one of the most on-point, offbeat scenes in Dante’s filmography: the introduction of the aliens, who speak exclusively in lines and with voices they’ve heard on TV. Like the big transformation in The Howling, the Explorers alien dialogue goes on and on, until it crosses the line from bizarre to anthropological.

Dante took another swing at a mainstream blockbuster (and returned to the Spielberg fold) with 1987’s Innerspace, starring Dennis Quaid as a maverick military flyboy who allows himself to be miniaturized as part of a top-secret science experiment. When spies try to steal the technology, a scientist injects Quaid into hypochondriacal supermarket clerk Martin Short, and the two team up to beat the bad guys. Unlike Explorers, Innerspace crams in so much story that there’s barely any time for the usual quirky Dante touches (though Dante does work in a cameo by animator Chuck Jones, and he casts his beloved weirdo Robert Picardo as one of the heavies). It’s left to Short to shoulder the “wacky” load, which he does gamely. But Dante’s films are at their best when the inherent oddness of movies alights onto a familiar, believable world, which means that Innerspace’s strength rests more with Quaid, reacting with real wonder as he says, “I’m in a strange man, surrounded by strangers, in a strange room.” Short is fine—and the movie is entertaining, especially when Short takes on Picardo’s appearance for one freaky sequence—but it tends to grind ahead from scene to scene, never finding a consistent tone. One moment it’s Hitchcockian, the next, it’s Fantastic Voyage redux. Then it’s a Jerry Lewis movie.

If anyone could lend a little old-fashioned showmanship to the new-fangled 3-D craze, it’s Joe Dante, who has enough of a sense of 3-D’s past to make it resonate in the present. Favoring the “gotcha” effects of old over digital 3-D’s claims to subtler, more immersive worlds, Dante’s little-seen 2010 picture The Hole tries to be a horror movie for the entire family, something light that nonetheless raises a few goosebumps. By that modest standard, he more or less succeeds, as he follows two brothers who discover a hole in their basement floor that brings their darkest fears to light. The Hole gets some laughs out of the fact that this terrifying hell-pit at least gives these bored small-town kids something to do, like a scene where they poke at the abyss by lowering various items (including an Eric Cartman doll) into it. Once the film turns into out-and-out horror, that wit is replaced by a cheap, disappointedly generic thriller that doesn’t exploit the format to particularly inventive ends. 

Advanced studies
As legend has it, Joe Dante’s debut feature, Hollywood Boulevard, co-directed by Allan Arkush (Rock ’N’ Roll High School), started as a bet between producer Jon Davison and Roger Corman that it would be the cheapest film ever produced by Corman’s New World Pictures. Shot over 10 days for less than $60,000, Dante and Arkush’s drive-in homage/parody plays like an elaborate practical joke at Corman’s expense, using footage from other New World productions to mock the artlessness of no-budget exploitation. (The movies-within-the-movie are from Miracle Pictures: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle.”) Candice Rialson plays a fresh-off-the-bus type from Indiana who’s so gullible that her first Hollywood role is as the getaway driver on an actual armed robbery. (“Where are the cameras?” she wonders.) Her unwitting stunt work lands her a real part on a Miracle Pictures production—the last stuntwoman was killed in a parachuting accident—and she gets whisked to the jungles of the Philippines to make Machete Maidens Of Mora Tau, a sexy action movie where some of the bullets are real. Dante and Arkush go deep into the hall of mirrors, plugging in footage from Corman’s women-in-cages movies to lay bare every cheapo trick in the book, commenting on exploitation conventions while satisfying them all the same. It’s a ragged little movie, but a special treat for the cineastes and drive-in-movie aficionados who can pick up on all the inside jokes.

With 1989’s The ’Burbs, Dante was given an entire suburb to destroy, and in Tom Hanks, a likeable everyman to gape at the destruction. It’s a good setup looking for direction. As Hanks and his neighbors start to worry about the activities of a creepy-seeming, new-to-the-neighborhood family (headed by Henry Gibson), they end up becoming a greater threat to neighborhood safety than the apparent bad guys. Still, though far from Dante’s most successful film, it provides another chance for him to point out the chaos just beneath the placid surface of everyday American life, and to illustrate how our concern with what the neighbors might be up to behind closed doors probably says more about us than about them.

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After Gremlins’ commercial success, Dante was given the keys to the kingdom for 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and he took advantage via one of the strangest, darkest, funniest, most anarchic comedies ever made. Working in the tradition of other pop-culture wiseacres like Frank Tashlin and Tex Avery, Dante needs only a wisp of a plot—just enough to set his creatures loose in a corporate office building in New York—to unspool a barrage of slapstick and absurdist gags. Those gags reference the first movie (on the flimsy rules of Mogwai care: “What if they’re eating on an airplane and they cross into a different time zone?”), countless other movies, and the very notion of being a movie, as in the gag where the film itself appears to break down, only to reveal gremlins screwing around in the projection booth. It also doubles as a Mon Oncle-like comment on mechanized modernity, turning the office building into an ultra-sleek contraption of runaway revolving doors and other misfiring gadgets. If it wasn’t clear enough in the first Gremlins, Dante’s true affinity lies with the monsters, and all the anarchy and fun their troublemaking brings to an otherwise-soulless environment. 

Dante got a chance to make good on his lifelong obsession with Warner Bros. animation in 2003 with Looney Tunes: Back In Action, the studio’s second attempt, after Space Jam, to update its classic characters for modern audiences via a feature-length film. The project gave Dante the freedom to pack a film with even more in-jokes and movie references than usual, and while it wasn’t well received by critics or audiences at the time, Back In Action is much better than its reputation would suggest. As a piece of storytelling, it’s functional at best, but it captures the spirit of the classic cartoons, and its high points are dizzyingly high: for instance, a trip to the Louvre finds Elmer Fudd pursuing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck through paintings by Dali, Edvard Munch, Seurat, and others.

Miscellany I: TV Movies
Between 1993’s Matinee and 1998’s Small Soldiers, Dante directed a pair of feature-length made-for-cable movies in keeping with his style and preoccupations. For Showtime’s “Rebel Highway” series—an attempt to revive the American International Pictures spirit by giving filmmakers a million bucks, two weeks, and a grabby title to riff on—Dante made Runaway Daughters, about a trio of California teens circa 1957 who fake their own kidnapping, steal a car, and go looking for the boy who left one of them pregnant. Dante again worked with Matinee screenwriter Charles Haas, and a cast that mixes Dante stalwarts like Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, and Dee Wallace Stone alongside then-newcomers Julie Bowen, Jenny Lewis, and Paul Rudd. (As an exaggerated version of a juvenile delinquent, Rudd has some of the movie’s best moments, snarling “Don’t crowd me!” at adults and earning the admiration of his peers, who gush, “It’s like whatever they say to him, he always has the answer!”) The movie itself is also a mix: partly tongue-in-cheek and partly an earnest attempt to make a more realistic version of a ’50s B-movie. But it’s hampered significantly by its circumstances; with more time and resources, Dante and Haas might’ve made the ambitious feminist rewrite of ’50s exploitation that Runaway Daughters only occasionally is. In a way, though, this is Dante getting back to his roots, making something out of nothing. And on a scene-to-scene basis, the movie is highly entertaining, whether it’s showing Lewis walking into the wrong suburban house (because they all look the same) or having Bowen react to the indignant victim of their crime spree by saying, “It’s only a car, pal, relax! People are nuts.”

Dante was given much more to work with on the 1997 HBO movie The Second Civil War, a Martyn Burke-penned political satire starring Phil Hartman as a weak-willed American president who follows the polls, and Beau Bridges as an Idaho governor who decides to close the state’s borders rather than accept an influx of orphan refugees from Pakistan. Soon the Army is facing off against the National Guard, with Americans choosing sides based as much on old grudges as actual ideology. The Second Civil War is a vivid portrait of life in the mid-’90s, when the news was full of separatist militias, immigration debates, and politicians using dopey strategic phrases like “play the orphan card.” Dante keeps the pace zippy, but the tone fairly neutral, aiming for something more Dr. Strangelove than It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. More than anything, what’s remarkable about The Second Civil War is how deftly it skewers the culture of cable news, which is so obsessed with ratings and with projecting the right image that producers assign reporters who are ill-equipped to cover a story, and anchors watch “objectively” as Americans shoot other Americans.

Completing Dante’s run of mid-’90s TV movies, he made the double-length pilot for the scrapped UPN science-fiction series The Osiris Chronicles, from an idea by Caleb Carr. UPN aired the pilot in 1998 as The Warlord: Battle For The Galaxy, and it’s gone largely unseen since then, even on the bootleg market.

Miscellany II: Anthologies
Though some critics gave good notices to Piranha and The Howling, and though genre fans certainly had Dante on their collective radar, it was Dante’s contribution to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie that really caught a lot of movie-lovers’ attention, and led to his getting the Gremlins gig a year later. Adapting the “It’s A Good Life” episode from the original series—the one about an all-powerful little boy who terrorizes his family into submission—Dante tapped into his inner 10-year-old, living in a world of desserts for dinner and nonstop cartoons on TV. The segment is energetic, funny, and properly unsettling. Writing about the movie as a whole, Roger Ebert singled out Dante and George Miller for praise over the other contributors, John Landis and Steven Spielberg, saying, “The two superstar directors are thoroughly routed by two less-known directors whose previous credits have been horror and action pictures.”

One unfortunate downside to Dante’s Twilight Zone success is that it may have pegged him as more suited to shorts than features, be it in the rare omnibus film or in one of the many anthology series that returned to television in the mid-’80s. Dante worked on the Spielberg-produced Amazing Stories and the CBS revival of The Twilight Zone, delivering some of the shows’ most memorable installments: in particular, the Dr. Seuss-inspired horror comedy “The Greibble” for the former, and the nerve-jangling “monster under the bed” piece “The Shadow Man” for the latter. Dante also contributed an episode to Showtime’s strange, largely forgotten 1994 series Picture Windows (which attempted to dramatize famous paintings), and a few episodes to the Fox’s 2001 horror anthology Night Visions—the best of which, “The Occupant,” is a haunted-apartment story with a creepy twist.

Dante received some of the most favorable reviews of his career for “Homecoming,” his contribution to the first season of Showtime’s Masters Of Horror series. Based on a short story by Dale Bailey, and with a teleplay by Sam Hamm, “Homecoming” is an overtly political zombie tale, in which soldiers killed in Iraq rise from their graves and head for voting booths. “Homecoming”’s palpable anger distinguishes it, but the episode may have gotten too much credit at the time due to critics’ anger over the war in Iraq; aside from its central premise, there really isn’t enough here to fill an hour. Frankly, Dante’s second-season Masters Of Horror effort “The Screwfly Solution” is a richer episode overall. Based on an Alice Sheldon story—again adapted by Sam Hamm—“The Screwfly Solution” is about a plague that causes sexually aroused men to fly into rages and kill women. There isn’t much humor in the episode; instead, it looks unsympathetically at how a patriarchal society might respond to just such an emergency: by coming up with elaborate, asinine justifications for male misbehavior. 

At the least, 2005’s “Homecoming” and 2006’s “The Screwfly Solution” helped erase the stain of 2004’s Trapped Ashes, a distressingly mediocre anthology film to which Dante contributed the limp framing story. Dante’s piece of the movie should’ve been right up his alley, given that it’s set on a Hollywood tour that takes a supernatural turn. Instead, it’s obvious and bland, and given how little Dante directed in the years leading up to Trapped Ashes, some of his fans took its limpness as a bad sign.

Then again, maybe the problem is that Hollywood will only let Dante work in horror these days, even though he’s demonstrated throughout his career that he can handle other genres very well—especially comedy. One of the most undervalued films on Dante’s résumé is Amazon Women On The Moon, a freewheeling 1987 anthology film Dante worked on alongside directors John Landis, Peter Horton, Carl Gottlieb, and Robert K. Weiss. The quality of the sketches varies wildly—due in large part to the movie lacking a unifying premise, beyond “stuff people might watch on TV”—but Dante’s pieces are terrific, including a deadpan Ripley’s Believe It Or Not parody, a star-studded riff on raunchy celebrity roasts, and a wonderfully silly recreation of an old sex-ed film. This is Dante in his element, reproducing all the showbiz ephemera he’s internalized, but with his own sense of whimsy and some subtle social criticism.

Miscellany III: Other
Though Dante is only credited as director on two New World features in the ’70s—Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha—his fingerprints were all over the products of Corman’s movie factory that decade, whether via the trailers he cut, or as the editor of Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto, or a co-writer (and uncredited co-director, reportedly) of Allan Arkush’s Rock ’N’ Roll High School. There’s a real joie de vivre to a lot of the ’70s New World movies, and a feeling that as long as the salable exploitation elements were in place, the cast and crew were free to play. A lot of young filmmakers worked for Corman as a way of getting their feet wet, on their way to making bigger and more serious Hollywood pictures, but Dante probably could’ve happily spent his entire life in Corman’s world.

Dante brought his puckish sensibility to non-anthology television series more than once, most notably in Police Squad! (the short-lived Zucker-Abrams-Zucker cop-show parody for which Dante directed two episodes) and Eerie, Indiana (the self-aware supernatural kid show for which Dante directed a handful of episodes and served as creative consultant). The latter in particular is one of the most Dante-like projects on his entire résumé, with its bright spirit, its integration of Hollywood artificiality into the real world, and its smart-ass series finale “Reality Takes A Holiday,” starring Dante himself as a harried TV director dealing with a character who suddenly realizes he’s only an actor on a show called Eerie, Indiana. Dante has also returned to series television periodically, helming the CSI: NY episode “Boo” in 2007 and the Hawaii Five-0 episode “Ka Iwi Kapu” in 2011. Both make use of Dante’s strengths by having crimes related to horror movies and fakery, but neither is essential.

Dante has also been a television producer, helping shepherd J. Michael Straczynski’s post-apocalyptic Showtime series Jeremiah—though there’s not much of Dante’s personality in the show itself. There’s much more of him in his other major producer credit: the underrated 1996 superhero movie The Phantom, which Dante developed and was going to direct, until Paramount bumped the project. The finished film (directed by Simon Wincer) doesn’t look like a Dante picture, but in the way it respects Lee Falk’s creation while still enjoying its silliness, it lines up with the rest of Dante’s oeuvre.

Continuing Dante’s recent run of offbeat work-for-hire projects, he shot the 2003 “4-D” short Haunted Lighthouse for a Sea World attraction, working from an R.L. Stine story. And in 2009, Dante and Corman created the gory drawing-room mystery Splatter as one of Netflix’s first experiments in streaming video. Originally shot with branching scenes, Choose Your Own Adventure-style, the half-hour Splatter is now only available on Netflix in one configuration, and it isn’t exactly the best work of anyone involved (except maybe Corey Feldman, who hams it up as a zombie rock star). It’d be pretty dire even with the gimmick; without it, Splatter is both boring and pointless.

Really, the best project Dante’s been involved with lately is Trailers From Hell, a web series (also available on DVD) in which Dante and other B-movie buffs/auteurs examine trailers for classic and obscure exploitation films, and talk about the histories of the movies themselves, as well as the art of making a good commercial. The project combines the personal with the archival and shows respect—without lapsing into blind reverence—for the resourceful folks who worked on these movies. In a way, Trailers From Hell takes Dante full circle from the project that first brought him some notoriety: The Movie Orgy, an epic compilation of Dante and Jon Davison’s favorite film clips and ads that the duo schlepped around the college circuit in the late ’60s. Dante still digs The Movie Orgy back out from time to time for special screenings, revisiting the source file for his entire career.

The Essentials

1. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
The quintessential Dante film, Gremlins 2 is pure playtime, taking an already anarchic franchise so far into to the realm of over-the-top gags and self-reference that it leaves the audience completely unmoored.

2. Matinee
Unlike Gremlins 2, Matinee finds Dante working in a more realistic mode, keeping all the science-fiction and horror trappings strictly artificial, as part of a B-movie road show, instead of some supernatural happening—while still revealing their transformative power.

3. The Second Civil War
HBO doesn’t really need The Newsroom when it has in its vaults this still-relevant savaging of the cable-news mentality: all about ratings-obsessed corporate executives who choose to allow hypocrites to exacerbate violence rather than trying to expose the danger they pose.

4. The Howling
The nastiest movie in Dante’s filmography, The Howling doesn’t cut the horror, or the satire, with leavening niceness. It uses murderous lycanthropes to hold a mirror up to the seedier elements of the times that inspired it.

5. Piranha
Since Dante knew he couldn’t beat Spielberg at his own game, his off-brand Jaws doesn’t try to hide its tacky yet surprisingly effective special effects, and it amplifies the humor and the histrionics, casting B-movie specialists in colorful supporting roles.

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