A lot of really fabulous filmmakers came out of the Roger Corman school of low-budgetry, people like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Allan Arkush, and many, many more. But for my money the one who doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves for being as innovative and exciting as he is is Joe Dante. With over 30 film and television projects under his director’s belt, Dante strikes a tone that is at once scary and welcoming, dramatic and funny, and always with a nod to the great films and filmmakers Dante grew up idolizing. Hey, he did found Trailers from Hell after all.
I like a great many of Dante’s films, and so narrowing it down to seven is a bit tough. I’d like to mention specially his segment of The Twilight Zone movie, which to me is the zany-creepy standout. Without further ado, let’s dive in!
7) The ‘Burbs (1989)
This is a movie that I haven’t seen in probably close to 15 years, but it lands on the list because of how it affected me when I was a kid and how much of it I still very vividly remember. It was one of the first times I remember finding horror things funny, or finding a comedy scary; I don’t really know which is the case. The story of suburbia gone very awry, Tom Hanks plays a perpetually stressed family man (perpetually stressed just used to be his stock and trade, huh?) and Bruce Dern plays his paranoid retired military neighbor who believes the new family in the cul-de-sac (Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courtney Gaines, et al) is really a cannibal cult. Incredibly clear in my memory is a moment when Rick Ducommun picks up a bone from the garbage and proclaims, “This is Walter!” It’s a very funny movie, and all shot in the Universal lot which is fun.
6) Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Many people would say that this sequel is superior to the original, and some days I might agree, but what this sequel DOES have in spades is a tongue in its cheek and a twinkle or 90 in its eye. The fact that Dante was allowed to follow up the gargantuan success of Gremlins with a movie that essentially made fun of both the first movie and the idea of sequels in general is beyond amazing. Not to mention that he used the movie as an excuse to play with the conventions of filmmaking and television production, skewer consumerism and tycoons, and bring in Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes characters (which Dante would later get control of in Back in Action). What’s best– Christopher Lee as a scary genetic scientist, Phoebe Cates’ story about the OTHER holiday she hates, or Tony Randall as a sophisticated gremlin? It’s hard to decide, but it I know it’s a big slab of cartoonish gold.
5) Explorers (1985)
Clearly, if you’re paying attention to the years all these movies so far have come out, Dante’s films had a big impact on my first few years of movie-watching, and Explorers may have done so more than any of them at the time, because this is a movie about kids being smart, building a scientific thing, and going to explore the universe together, meeting aliens and having adventures along the way. Who WOULDN’T want that to happen when you’re a tiny sci-fi-loving person? While most people say The Goonies was that film for them, for me it was this movie right here, a movie I still adore.
4) Piranha (1978)
Now we start coming to the movies I discovered as an adult who loves horror and sci-fi movies of a different kind. Dante’s second narrative feature has Roger Corman’s MO all over it: a lower-budget take on a big, huge blockbuster, in this case Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. But what’s great about it is that it’s done with a wry wink and a lot of ’50s B-movie charm, a nice mash-up of the sensibilities of Dante and screenwriter John Sayles. This is personified by the appearance of Kevin McCarthy as the remorseful scientist who created these genetically enhanced monstrous fish. The deaths in the movie are really brutal and the fish attack like an underwater chainsaw. When Belinda Balaski gets it, it’s particularly sad.
3) The Howling (1981)
This is a movie, I’ll freely admit, I didn’t like the first time I saw it. There was something about it that just didn’t gel with me. Maybe it’s because I watched it not long after An American Werewolf in London, but those are two movies that, while similar in tone, could not be further apart. The next time I watched it, a couple of years ago, I immediately said “Wow, what the hell was I thinking?!” There’s some absolutely fantastic scary stuff in this, and also some really silly stuff, like the way it takes Dante staple Robert Picardo a million years to change into a werewolf in front of Dee Wallace after which she simply tosses acid in his face and runs off. But this is, again, a werewolf movie for people who’ve already seen all the werewolf movies. Hell, John Carradine’s in it, for God’s sake. Roger Corman is in it as a guy who sees if loose change is in a pay phone! Some super excellent makeup effects by the always amazing Rob Bottin as well. And this is yet another movie where Belinda Balaski gets killed, and I am consequently sad.
2) Gremlins (1984)
I definitely saw this movie when I was a kid, but it was when I revisited it a couple of years ago that it became such a revelation. What a wholly influential film! It’s partially because of this that the PG-13 rating exists, because it’s not bloody or scary enough to be an R, but it sure as hell isn’t a PG. After this movie, we had things like Critters and Ghoulies and, God save us, Hobgoblins. This movie works as a monster movie as well as a sly satire about suburbia, again a theme of Dante’s. You take a cute little pet and break three very specific rules and it becomes a town-wide nightmare. And, let’s be honest, the one rule about not feeding them after midnight, doesn’t make a lick of sense, which is talked about in the second one, but it doesn’t matter! It makes relative sense and it makes for great and creepy puppetry, which is amazingly impressive, even today. And if you want horrific, just look at the scene with the mom and the kitchen appliances, or the science teacher and the syringes. Luckily, Belinda Balaski gets out alive in this one.
1) Matinee (1993)
I love films and filmmakers that display their point of view and their influences and their whole ethos right there. For Joe Dante, I think, this is it. A love letter to growing up in early days of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was omnipresent, and that fear had manifested in sci-fi movies with giant, mutated creatures. John Goodman plays a William Castle-esque showman film producer who goes to a town near an army base to show his new film, MANT, about a man-ant, and show off his new sensory-overload movie-watching technique. This all happens right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so the town, plus the movie, have people freaking out in delightful and silly ways. The fact that this movie isn’t talked about in the same breath as Ed Wood is a travesty; it’s just as artful and speaks to the exact same kind of filmmaker, who is trying to do something important while having to house it in schlock and sensationalism. Goodman is brilliant and it features B-horror and sci-fi icons like Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert in it as well. Just a wonderful and fun nostalgia trip, and worth checking out right this second.
These are my favorite Joe Dante movies; what are yours? Let me know in the comments below. I leave you know with the maestro himself talking about old B-sci-fi from his website.