Graduating alongside Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard from Roger Corman’s school for filmmakers with more creativity than cash, Joe Dante was always the director whose 1980s blockbusters felt like they maintained the most ties to the low-budget genre fare on which he cut his teeth. The Howling, Gremlins (and of course its gonzo sequel), Explorers, and Innerspace all leveraged old-school formulas (werewolves, creepy critters, etc.) in fun new ways, each earning classic status through a combination of tireless imagination and mischievous self-awareness.
Before transitioning to directing, Dante’s stint as an editor for Corman culminated in The Movie Orgy, a seven-plus hour compilation of film clips, trailers, commercials, and more that not only sharpened his skills but cultivated a curatorial spirit. While that project remains a curio that he can only screen occasionally at repertory houses (although, as he explained, that may soon change), both that and his current role as host of the podcast Trailers From Hell, which explores films through their promotional material, made him the perfect person for Joe Dante’s Film Inferno, a series of genre standards that will be broadcast September 3 on home video distributor Shout Factory’s streaming service.
Featuring movies like William Castle’s House On Haunted Hill, and The Sadist, which was shot by acclaimed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters Of the Third Kind), Joe Dante’s Film Inferno premieres September 3 at 12:00 pm PT/ 3:00 pm ET. Dante recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his picks, their links to his magnum opus The Movie Orgy, and the lessons learned over 50 years as an editor, director, and curator of pop culture that constantly seeks new works that are both new and familiar at the same time.
The A.V. Club: I got a chance to see The Movie Orgy at the New Beverly Cinema 10 or 15 years ago. How much does programming like this give you an opportunity to showcase films that were included in that, or to revisit that experience?
Joe Dante: Well, it’s a longstanding experience. It started in 1968 or something like that. You’ll be interested to know that the American Genre Film Archive is in the process of restoring The Movie Orgy, such as it can be restored, with the idea of running it at the Museum of Modern Art or some place like that after they get it done. When I ran it at the New Beverly, I took it out of mothballs. I had no idea whether or not anybody would respond to this material since it was so old. But it brought down the house, and it’s sort of built up its cult reputation to a point where people really want to see it. But I’ve always resisted releasing it on video, because it has to be a shared experience. It doesn’t work unless you’re with an audience, because that’s the essential component to enjoying it, that you have to be with a whole bunch of people. It’s not the same if you just watch it by yourself. So hopefully it will be resurfacing in some manner or other in the future.
AVC: Can you talk about why you chose the films that you did for your Inferno?
JD: Well, largely because I was given a list of things that Shout owned and said, “choose from these.” And they do have a lot of really good stuff, much of which has been restored lately. And I just picked some of the ones I was most familiar with. It’s an opportunity to share with the fans. I mean, I’ve got my website, Trailers From Hell, I’ve got my podcast, and we do it that way too. But the Shout people have been really good and they’ve put out a whole bunch of my movies in pretty pristine conditions. They’re the first ones who ever revisited Explorers after I tried to get Paramount to let me make the movie we always had in mind. And of course they said, “go away.” But I found some stuff in my garage and they did a pretty nice documentary that goes with it. So I’m beholden to them.
AVC: How To Make A Monster is very metatextual for the time in which it was released. How much is Inferno emblematic of things that were inspirational when you started making films yourself?
JD: Well, I’ve been influenced by just about every movie I’ve ever seen [Laughs]. As you can see by looking at my work, I’m a borrower. I borrow frequently from previous films, sometimes unconsciously. And the movies on this list, which include things like Attack Of The Crab Monsters and House On Haunted Hill, are touchstones for me when I was a kid and growing up, when this was more or less state of the art. Some of the movies from that era have aged very badly, and some of them are very creaky. But the pictures I chose, I think all move pretty quickly, and they still resonate.
AVC: Is there one you feel is the most important that people should see, or one that could be made right now that people would really respond to as much as they did back in the day?
JD: I would say The Sadist. It’s shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, and it’s a pretty remarkable movie, considering the time and place, and considering the fact that the movies around it, made by the same company, were basically not really any good. But this one is the one that worked. And it’s quite a taut and suspenseful experience. And it’s very cleverly done. And I think certainly could you could remake it shot for shot today. One of the great things about that picture is that it takes place in the time it takes to watch it. And it’s all in one location with a very small cast, which makes it very doable as a movie.
AVC: Do you still have the same voracious kind of pop culture appetite that you used to? Do you find things now that excite you in the same way these films did back then?
JD: Well, in a way, but pop culture ain’t what it used to be, as you may have noticed. I think about today’s kids and how bifurcated their interests are and how movies are only a pretty small sliver of all the things that are available to them and get them excited. When I was a kid, basically we had radio, television and movies—and sports, that was about it. And I do meet a lot of young people who are still interested in what’s come before. But you have to face the fact that time does pass, and things that were relevant to us at certain times in our lives are not relevant to people who are the age we were then, and have their own touchstones and their own things.
AVC: I recently spoke to Roger Corman, who you worked for and with for a long time. How much were the films you made in the ’70s and ’80s ones you would have made with him had you not gotten the opportunity to do them with the studios?
JD: Well, I think if you look at the work of a lot of people who went through that Corman school, you’ll see that they were heavily influenced by the things they saw when they were younger. If you look at Spielberg, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is really Daredevils Of The Red Circle, which is a serial that was made before he was born. All these things are based on the world as we understood it when it was happening to us, and that always includes the things that we watched and our need to reinterpret them seems to travel with all of us.
AVC: Your first film with Allan Arkush was a movie basically made from scenes from other movies that were edited together. How much of that scrappy spirit have you actively retained as you’ve leveled up over your career?
JD: Well, Hollywood Boulevard was made around footage from other movies because it was supposed to be the cheapest picture that Roger had ever made. That was the bet that John Davison, the producer, had made to Roger. And so we solved that problem by writing a story around a whole bunch of footage that we were familiar with from the trailers that we had done. But I think that checkerboarding of new and old continues through almost all of my pictures. I mean, there’s a lot of new stuff in them, but there’s a lot of old stuff in them, too.
AVC: With Explorers, how much of that “make it work” ethos benefited the movie, at least to get in theaters and be remotely cohesive?
JD: Well, all of this was in the effort of having it released on the same weekend as the Live Aid concert, which completely overshadowed it. So in addition to being rushed to release an unfinished movie, I was then blamed for it because it didn’t make any money and it got terrible reviews—because it wasn’t finished. But they didn’t care because it was a new regime and it was the old regime’s picture. And if they did well, it reflected badly on them, and it reflected well on the people who left. So that’s a situation you really don’t want to try to find yourself in very often. And luckily, I haven’t since then.
AVC: The Howling is a great movie, and one of my all-time favorite movie trailers. How involved were you in the marketing of those movies because of your experience as an editor?
JD: I started [my career] making trailers, so I was always as involved as I could be. Of course, the bigger the budget, the less involved you are, because there’s more hands and more responsibility. The Howling was a fairly low-budget picture, so I was able to be around for the way it was sold. And initially the studio wanted to sell it with a poster of a naked woman who was half-wolf and half-person, and it was not exactly what we were trying to sell. So we had to disabuse them of the notion that we had made a cheap piece of shit, and try to get them to do something that was a little bit more interesting. And also, we didn’t want to sell it as a werewolf movie because that was considered generally old fashioned—and so we sold it as a slasher movie. That’s why the trailer is the way it is. It makes it look like there’s this menace stalking the city and all that. In the end, the question with trailers is, how much do you want to give away? I realized when I started cutting trailers for my own movies that it’s often not a good idea to be the guy who cuts the trailer if you’re the guy who made the movie.
AVC: Really? Why do you say that?
JD: There’s a tendency to not want to give things away, which can cripple your trailer. [But] the trailer is the trailer. It’s a separate piece of work. And it has its own identity. And so I found that I was stingy when I was doing trailers on my pictures. I was not using some of the best stuff for the trailer. And then finally, I got to a point where I’d be shooting a movie and I’d say to the DP, “This is the trailer moment,” meaning this shot’s going to be in the trailer.
AVC: You were trying to disguise the fact that The Howling was a werewolf movie at a time when werewolf movies were not in vogue. But your movie came out within a few months of American Werewolf In London, and really precipitated this renaissance of some of the greatest werewolf movies ever made. Are there other films that you made that left an impact that you were especially proud of?
JD: Well, when we were making The Howling we didn’t know there were going to be all these other werewolf movies. In fact, the only reason American Werewolf actually ended up getting made was because John Landis was galvanized by the fact that Rick Baker was going to do the werewolf on our picture, and he’d been trying to get his movie made for a long time. And he finally went, “Well, I can’t like Rick do this other picture. I’ve got to make mine.” And then that somehow, without any cross-fertilization, led to a whole year of other werewolf movies like Wolfen and Full Moon High. It was just suddenly werewolves on the brain. These things do sometimes run in cycles, but it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to be the new zombie craze that’s going to follow George Romero, for years, with Italian rip-offs of all of his movies. But the difficulty is trying to make something that hasn’t already been made, yet the financiers want it to look like something that’s already been made because it’s something the audience already went to see. So it’s challenging.
AVC: What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from starting your career as an editor? Was that something that helped you learn what you’d need to shoot?
JD: I think the best directors are often those who have been editors, because there’s something that you learn about the way that the images cut together in your head, that you use under the pressure of being on the set. And there’s lots of money being spent and you’re under a tremendous time crunch and you’ve got to be able to make a decision about what you need and what you don’t need. So I think becoming an editor, particularly a trailer editor, is a tremendous boon to people who are starting out because you have to take all these scenes and cut them down to their basics. I would recommend to anybody who wants to be a filmmaker to just start cutting stuff, even if it’s not your stuff. Just take some movie that’s on YouTube and cut your own trailer, just to see how the images collide.
AVC: When people want to reboot or re-imagine your films, are there any that you feel like would be particularly well suited to an update? Or are you reluctant to relinquish a degree of ownership of these things that you brought to the screen?
JD: No, you’re not really relinquishing ownership. I mean, the original movie still exists somewhere. But Piranha has already been remade with a lot more money and a lot better special effects than I had, unfortunately—I was very jealous. And in fact, they remade the remake. And I believe there are seven other Howling movies after mine. So you can’t be too protective of these things. I mean, there was even some talk at one point of remaking Explorers, which I thought was a very strange idea because it was such a notorious flop. But obviously, the idea originated with people who saw it when they were kids and said, “I loved that movie. Let’s see if we can remake it.” But luckily, it hasn’t come to anything lately.