|by Matthew Bartley
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.
This months inductee - Joe Dante
You can't move these days for directors endlessly referencing their favourite films or favourite directors. Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, Edgar Wright...the list is endless. Yet what none of these are doing are recapturing the buzz of going to the cinema, and the joy of discovering something new. In this age of YouTube, websites awash with spoilers, endlessly available trailers it's actually harder to go to a film and be utterly surprised by what you're about to see than not. It's this feeling that is so hard to capture, the feeling of not wanting to just slavishly rehash what has been done before, but of wanting to recreate the thrill of experiencing a film for the first time as a child that Joe Dante deals in. As well as making great films obviously. This is a point that our David Cornelius agrees on: "I'll disagree on the Tarantinotivity of Dante's work. QT makes movies about references and such. Dante makes movies about the feel of older flicks. There are references, yes, but the references are added treats, not the main point in and of themselves. ". And it's not just him, as Scott Weinberg is in agreement as well: "You'll find a wonderful sense of love for "the movies" in all of Dante's films. God I love Innerspace."
Innerspace is awash with love for Irwin Allen flicks and while the plot is heavily reminiscent of Fantastic Voyage, it isn't just a repeat of it. Dante just has tremendous fun with the concept, throwing in evil corporations with their own killer machines, shrunken bad guys and terrific comedy with Martin Short (Dante needs to be applauded alone just for making Short funny). And that's why Dante is so beloved for film fans - he makes his films just so much fun, all the while referencing his influences whilst never making it overbearing, and managing to package it up in a neat two hour bundle. Dante doesn't overburden his films or feel the need to make them three hour epics just to entertain - a lesson the likes of Peter Jackson and Gore Verbinski could learn from.
Another example of how much Dante loves films can be found in The 'burbs and how Tom Hanks and Rick Ducommon's first approach to the Klopek house is scored just like Morricone's harmonica theme from Once Upon a Time in the West whilst Dante shoots the other characters reactions in extreme Sergio Leone close-up.
But Gremlins is perhaps the purest example of Dante's love for the movies. It's no coincidence that the small town he sets it in looks exactly like Bedford Falls (or the fact that a character is later watching It's A Wonderful Life) and it's no coincidence that the gremlins later gather in a cinema to sit transfixed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves - the power of cinema is everything and transfixing here, even on murderous little goblins.
It's for this reason that Matinee is Dante's most personal and heartfelt film. Sure, there's a plot about teenage love under the threat of nuclear war in there, but Dante's heart is really with John Goodman's William Castle-esque filmmaker and the thrill he brings to town. In other hands, Goodman's character would be a sly con man. But with Dante, he's a magician, and an enchanter. And for all the recent hype about Grindhouse, it's got nothing on the film-within-a-film here, the brilliantly titled Mant!. Not only is it a pitch perfect recreation of the 1950s creature feature that Dante was undoubtedly brought up on, it's the next film you really, really want to see when you've finished Matinee. It's a film that rivals E.T. The Extra-Terrestial for the unabashed want to be a child again. It's a film that has a great fan in David Cornelius too, "But if you want to talk Tarantino, you have to talk of Matinee, because Mant! could very well be the purest homage/parody/duplication fake movie ever made. And he doesn't just do goofy 50s sci-fi, but dopey Disney live action comedies, too. (The Shook-Up Shopping Cart - that's genius.)
And if you take all of those fake movie clips out of Matinee, you still end up with a great film - it's funniest moments are the movie parodies, but its best moments are within the gentle coming-of-age story itself".
But let's not kid ourselves that Dante is a sentimental man. Because underneath his films there beats a dark, twisted heart. As David Cornelius notes, "I love how he works nostalgia and innocence with darker themes, finding a blacker side to suburban childhood, yet still capturing the wonder of youth".
Let's return again to Gremlins. Sure, the town nag is a pain but look at the glee with which Dante has her shot out of her upstairs window on her stairlife to a messy death. Or look at how the gremlins savagely rip into a man dressed as Santa Claus. Or how Billy's mother is practically raped by the gremlin hiding in the christmas tree. Strong and powerful stuff for kids thinking that they're going to see a funny film about little monsters, and let's not forget that Gremlins is toned down from the original script which saw Billy's mothers head bouncing down the staits after the gremlins set upon her. And who can forget Phoebe Cates utterly horrifying monologue as to why she doesn't celebrate Christmas? Marc Kandel certainly doesn't: "As a little kid, I was terrified at Gremlins before they started flashdancing and watching Snow White- when Billy first gets a good look at one as it looms out of the cupboard... there's a right good jump. As silly as Gremlins is remembered, Dante still manged some good scares and certainly a palpable dread as Billy fails to stop Stripe from leaping into the swimming pool- we know exactly what's coming and Billy flees wild eyed into the night, the soft white snow and twinkling christmas lights providing no comfort (and how about the Blob homage as the sherrif and his deputy laugh off Billy the silly teenager's tale)?
But who can forget Kate's chilling "Why I hate Christmas" monologue wildly carreens along the fence between chilling and outright hilarious as the protagonists stop everything to listen to this sweet, demure girl recount this horrific trauma in her life as to why she's so nonplussed that little sprites are ravaging the community- its not because of midnight feedings or water, its because of CHRISTMAS!".
It should also be remembered that while Dante may be a man capable of kid friendly fare like Looney Tunes: Back in Action (and why did that film flop? Probably because Dante didn't stuff it full of ironic pop culture references. No, in typical Dante fashion here was a film that was an honest-to-God tribute to the Looney Tunes in full chaotic glory) and Explorers (again, another Dante film just in love with the experience of being a child and the prospect of building your own spaceship and journeying into outer space. as our critic Collin Souter says, "Explorers works surprisingly well, considering the conditions in which it was made. The only thing I really don't like is the very, very end with them flying. Doesn't work. The aliens watching television? Awesome!"), he also makes the nasty, gory, scary and decidely adult The Howling. Yeah, there's references to the Universal horrors in there and the majority of the characters are named after famous werewolf directors (a trick Final Destination would steal), but this is not an affectionate homage; this is horror at its purest. Marc Kandel has a huge admiration for The Howling:
"And The Howling... I fucking love The Howling. Its such a mixed bag of tricks- much of the film has this overcheesed old-time Universal movie score complete with organ that just seems out of place, even in the woods where we might be more accepting given the gothic surroundings, particularly the fog-strewn woodlands where he's going for tradition, but notice that its the truly frightening moments where the music either stops or suddenly works perfectly- when Terry Fisher is cornered and has to hack at the claw reaching for her, later when she learns Eddie Quist's awful secret, Dante seems to lull us with the promise of silliness and camp, but then turns around and bites you- hard.
Terry Fisher's death is horrible. When I first saw the film it disturbed me immensely- its like the death of the detective in Psycho- she's not slasher fodder- she's taking action where Karen is tentative and meek, she's by far the more capable of the two, almost escaping Eddie, certainly hurting him terribly, yet her end is prolonged and terrible- Its almost sexual, the wolf coming in so slowly, savoring her flailing body and the kill is far less violent than one expects almost tender- yes, the man knows his Hitchcock- kill like you love and love like you kill- yet when Karen finds her later we are given a corpse more appropriate for a werewolf attack- something we didn't see coming as we watched her sneakers kicking furiously, and then suddenly go limp.
I've seen bloodier onscreen kills, I've seen crueler ones- but this one was imprinted in my mind- the animal controls the situation so carefully and deliberately- its not the rending and tearing you'd expect and it makes the scene all the more terrifying- Eddie is playing with her, savoring her horror, enjoying her fear. Dante makes sure you are aware that these wolves retain a very wicked, human intelligence- that they are not at the mercy of the beast, they are happy with their lot and totally in control of their actions- by far more frightening in concept than simple animal impulse ".
The 'burbs is one film that is criticised for backing out of its potential darkness, by having the ending turn out to be that Tom Hanks. Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommon were right all along - the Klopek's ARE killing people! It's clearly a studio enforced decision, as the original ending of Hanks and company, spying on their European neighbours and blowing their house up is a typical dark and bitter Dante twist. Yet, let's not dismiss that ending out of hand. Look at how much fun Dante has with it. Look at how right at the end he has Corey Feldman's character break the fourth wall and address the camera and the audience "God, I love this street!". It may be an ending forced upon Dante, but he'll be darned if he's not going to make it as subversive as possible "Yeah, you know this ending is a little too convenient, and I know it too, so why don't I just take the piss out of it?" he seems to be saying. Yes, Corey Feldman loves this street - the street where everyone spies on each other, and the Klopek's are mistrusted initially simply becaue they're different. There are more barbs in The 'burbs than it's given credit for, and let's not forget the Klopek's are only found out because everyone else is so insanely paranoid.
But The 'burbs is another film that demonstrates the nostalgic longing for a second childhood in Dante's films. It's a film that absolutely loves its characters, loves hanging out with them, and loves the idea that your neighbours are up to no good and YOU'VE got to sort it out - a concept that all kids experience at some point in their life.
With it's satiric take on cheery 1980s suburbia being instantly distrustful of anyone foreign, we should remind ourselves that Dante can be as subversive and political as anyone else. Gremlins 2 is not as scary as the first, but instead takes potshots at rampant capitalism, bad television and nutty alternative lifestyles all the same. As Marc Kandel points out, "Gremlins 2which just went balls out in terms of parody and satire, but of course, that was the point, was it not?)". This is a theme in Dante's work also picked up on by our own Rob Gonsalves: "I like that Dante is branching out into political satire of late. For years my main beef with the guy, amiable as his films were, was that he was a proto-Tarantino — he basically only made movies about how much he loved movies. Somewhere around Small Soldiers and The Second Civil War that seemed to change, though. Maybe after he made Matinee it got a lot of the movie-nerdiness out of his system, since that seemed to be his last word on the subject". It is also a point that Peter Sobcynzski agress upon "as far back as Piranha, Dante has always had a political streak to his work--the kind that existed in a lot of the low-budget films of the day that came out of New World. In recent years, though, he has made it more noticeable, perhaps in response to the increasingly apolitical nature of most popular entertainment".
One thing underappreciated about Dante however, is just how damn skillfull he is. Look at the opening of The 'burbs. The Universal logo starts up, but then Dante's camera zooms straight into it, right through the atmosphere, through the clouds, down to America, right into the streets and right up the front of the Klopek's house just in time for a thunderstorm to open up. It's a brilliant, fluid opening. Or think of the creepy opening credits for The Howling that play soundbites and clips from the rest of the film over it - before they happen. Or the scene where Dee Wallace is in the porn booth with the changing werewolf behind her - a masterpiece of lighting, sound and camera work suggesting more than you ever see.
And then remind yourself of Gremlins and how briskly and easily Dante changes tone. How scary is the scene where Billy's mother finds the cocoons? Not as scary as the scene where the gremlins stalk her around the house, with Dante's brilliant use of sound and shadow making it a hugely effective set-pice. And it is of course topped off with Dante's grisly black humour at the fore, with her dispatching the gremlins with any handy kitchen appliances that she can find (and how telling is it that Dante is a brilliant director of puppets? It's Harryhausen through and through and taken to the extreme in Gremlins 2).
Dante is a director that is currently in need of a change of fortune, yet that has not diminished the love and affection that he inspires, and his films are grand, fun, scary, witty, heartfelt pieces of entertainment that easily stand comparison with the best blockbusters offered today. Elsewhere on this site, Collin Souter offers his praise for him http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=628 and it is absolutely indicative of how much we hold him in regard. He strikes that difficult balance - he makes films for film fans, that have a broad appeal too.
Joe Dante, for a career of quality flicks, for sharing your obsessive love with us and for reminding us of how much fun it was to be a kid - we salute you.
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originally posted: 06/29/07 05:53:18
last updated: 07/17/07 09:23:18