Matinee Monsters and Media Mayhem: The Films of Joe Dante
By Collin Souter
Posted 10/20/02 02:40:05
Filmmaker Joe Dante made his first film in 1968. It ran seven hours long. Some would say he continues to build on it today. He titled the film “The Once In A Lifetime Atomic Movie Orgy,” and it basically consisted of B-movies, 16mm films, commercials, and trailers that Dante edited together while still in college. Dante utilized footage of Americana’s past and displayed it for all its absurdity, from patriotic Quaker Oats commercials to clips of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to old serials from the ‘40s, all in a seamless and effortless flow of nostalgia, sincerity and satire. “That was a pastiche of a lot of absurd things,” Dante says. “Which is probably how a lot of my films can be described.”
Dante has been widely regarded as a rare filmmaker who knows how to perfectly balance comedy with science fiction and/or horror. Part of that comes from his background with B-movie master Roger Corman, who hired Dante to edit trailers back in the ‘70s. The Roger Corman school of filmmaking had a rule which Dante has only broken a couple times throughout his career: Every movie, no matter how ridiculous, must have some form of social commentary or satire (usually left-wing).
Dante has taken this rule and worked it into just about every one of his films, with television, media and corporations as some of the targets. “I’m a media child,” Dante says. “I grew up in the ‘50s. It’s inescapable. If I made westerns, people would be reading dime novels. There’s something about the culture that has creeped into the edges of every single film I’ve done. There’s a TV screen or a movie screen in every single one of them.”
Dante also has respect for the older generation of actors, especially those he worked with when making Roger Coman movies. It is impossible to image a Joe Dante movie without his usual line-up of supporting actors, such as Robert Picardo, Kevin MacCarthy and Dick Miller.
That Dante has managed to work this way within the Hollywood studio system makes him something of an anomaly (although it doesn’t hurt to have Spielberg on your side once in a while). When asked if he would consider himself a subversive filmmaker, he replied, “I have been told that. By studios! I can only assume ‘yes’ based on some of the people I’ve worked with who are constantly tying to ‘save me from myself’…It’s a constant effort to stay true to me…I look for things that haven’t been done before. It’s difficult because there’s a mindset to not try things that are different, but to repeat past successes”
The Corman/Independent years
HOLLYWOOD BLVD. A plot-less, pointless 80 minute diversion made on a bet. Producer Jon Davidson bet Roger Corman that he could make a movie for only $90,000. Corman took him up on it. Dante and Alan Arkush would direct it. Corman allowed them free use of any footage in New Line’s (Corman’s company) catalog. The result is a mish-mash nonsensical movie where much of the footage comes from other movies (Filipino people falling out of trees, skydiving, car crashes, etc.) The budget went mostly to all the dialogue scenes.
As a nod to Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.,” “Hollywood Blvd.” is a satire on low-budget filmmaking, but an actual “story” doesn’t kick in until about 45 minutes into the movie where a string of murders on a movie set have been taking place.
Signs of Dante’s vision can be seen throughout the movie, most notably at the drive-in scene where a young starlet’s first movie premiers (3rd billing, of course). We spend about 10 minutes watching three characters sit in a drive-in theater watching old, scratchy and faded drive-in movie commercials and commenting on them. It’s a time-killer, absolutely, but at that point, if you’re still watching, you probably won’t mind.
The epitome of “Hollywood Blvd” can be found in one scene: Towards the end, a guy in a Godzilla outfit sits reading a script. The camera pulls back and we see that he has been sitting on a toilet. He gets off the toilet, throws the script into it, and flushes it down. Dante quips, in the DVD’s audio commentary track: “That pretty much says it all right there.”
ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL Dante served as co-writer of this cheerful ode to rock n’ roll fandom. Dante and his partner, Alan Arkush, had been wanting to write a rock musical for quite some time. Corman assigned them to write a musical, which would cash in on the disco craze of the late seventies. The movie would be called “Disco High.” Dante and Arkush quickly persuaded Corman—never the hippest cat in the joint—to reconsider by calling it “Rock and Roll High School.” Disco had already been fading out at this time (1979) and punk rock would have a better chance at getting the teenagers’ attention. Plus, as Arkush put it, “You can’t blow up a high school to disco music.” The Ramones starred in “Rock and Roll High School,” which would end up being one of Corman’s most popular and beloved films.
PIRANHA “Piranha” would be Dante’s first real film as a director, unable to use stock footage. As a parody of “Jaws,” the movie oddly enough came out a little late, but did manage to come out at the same time as “Jaws 2.” With a screenplay by John Sayles, “Piranha” had a good balance of stupid human characters, funny killer piranha and (of course) left-wing social commentary, with the government being responsible by spraying all those toxic chemicals in Vietnam.
The movie opened during a newspaper strike on the east coast, so they didn’t have much to advertise it and many critics didn’t see it (and probably didn’t care). Still, as most Corman pictures go, it made money. It only cost $750,000 to make and it earned $6 million in rentals. Eventually, it would go on to become a video cult hit.
THE HOWLING Dante’s work with Corman taught him the fundamentals of directing under a tight budget. “The Howling”—a modern day horror tale of a newscaster who goes to a retreat to recover from a traumatizing incident involving a stalker, only to find the inhabitants of the retreat moonlight as bloodthirsty werewolves—broke Dante into the mainstream and, when watching it today, shows many signs of the director to come.
It opens with static interference and television blips all trying to come together. The media would later be reflected upon and satirized in almost all of Dante’s forthcoming films. “The Howling,” in some ways, satirized investigative reporting, while paying homage to the 1950’s classic “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Even Dee Wallace, towards the end of the film, tells her friend, “We have to tell them. We have to make them believe.” In the next scene, Wallace transforms into a vicious, yet oddly cute, werewolf on national television, much to the American public’s amusement.
But “The Howling” broke ground for the horror genre as well. Dante’s team, led by Rob Bottin, used state-of-the-art make-up effects for the intense transformation scenes, which even today look better than any morphing effects done by a computer. These effects, along with the biting humor laced throughout, helped “The Howling” become a hit. It re-ignited the werewolf sub-genre of horror, spawning such films as “Wolfen” and “An American Werewolf In London.” From a screenplay co-written by John Sayles, “The Howling” also encompasses another Dante trademark: Countless movie references. Almost every character is named after a director of a werewolf movie.
The Hollywood Blockbuster years
TWILIGHT ZONE – THE MOVIE The success of “The Howling’ brought Dante into this anthology film, based on the popular Rod Serling TV series. Steven Spielberg produced the film, which could prove wrong the old adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” During the filming of John Landis’ segment, actor Vic Morrow and two children fell victim to a helicopter crash, which killed them. To this day, Landis still has to deal with the consequences, not to mention the fact that his story turned out to be pretty weak.
Dante’s segment, “It’s A Good Life,” on the other hand, got the most praise. It told the story of a boy, Anthony (Jeremy Licht), who meets a woman in a diner and brings her home to meet his family. It’s Anthony’s birthday and it seems that Anthony gets whatever he wants. He only has to wish for it. His seemingly perfect and loving family have been trapped at his will and actually look at one another in terror whenever Anthony asks for something.
Again, Dante uses television as a device for satire. At one point, Anthony learns that his sister, Ethel, has been calling him a monster. As her punishment, he wishes her into cartoon-land. Ethel vanishes and we next see her on television running for her life from a giant animated crocodile. The crocodile eats her, to which Anthony says in frightening Warner Brothers fashion, “Th-th-th-that’s all, Ethel.”
Dante’s outlandish, cartoonish vision in this half-hour segment pre-dates Tim Burton by a few years, but more importantly, it makes a startling statement on childhood wishes and what would happen if children controlled the fate of the world without being taught the ramifications of violence and murder, seeing as how cartoons and video games never make the matter clear (Not that they should, really). The most chilling moment comes when Anthony turns to the camera with a vacant expression as we hear video games and television anarchy filling the room. At one point, the woman asks why he watches so many cartoons. Anthony answers, “Nothing else is as good. Anything can happen in cartoons.” Funny, terrifying and a feast for the eyes, just like Anthony’s psyche.
GREMLINS In 1983, Steven Spielberg wanted to make a scary monster movie. Impressed with Dante’s “Twilight Zone” segment, as well as “The Howling,” Spielberg hired him to work off a screenplay by Chris Columbus. “Gremlins” started out as being much nastier and grislier than what it ended up being. (One scene had the Gremlins ripping a person’s head off and bouncing it down the stairs) Once the little monster Gremlins came to fruition, they looked funnier and more interesting when dressed as humans or trying to do human things rather then just being horrifying. Thus, “Gremlins” went from being a horror movie to a horror/comedy, a genre combination, which at that time, hadn’t been too successful.
Cheerfully nasty and loaded with movie references, Dante’s “Gremlins” pays homage and satires everything from “E.T.” to “The Wizard of Oz,” from “It’s A Wonderful Life” to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Spielberg had been known to write and direct movies about white, suburban middle-America. Dante took that idealization, turned it on its ear and sent it running away, screaming.
At one point, the female love interest (Phoebe Cates) talks about how her father died at Christmas one year when trying to climb down the chimney as Santa Claus. He slipped, broke his deck and died. That’s how she found out there was no Santa Claus. “It’s an absurd story,” Dante says. The studio wanted him to take it out, but Dante refused, saying the whole point of the movie exists in that scene. “Gremlins” tells an absurd story as well, starting off nice and innocent, but turning sinister and humorously tragic. The scene, even against Spielberg’s wishes, stayed.
“Gremlins” turned out to be a huge box office hit, but the movie’s violence—particularly the scene in which a Gremlin blows up in a microwave—made parents angry. They wondered how a movie this gruesome could earn a PG rating. Thus, the MPAA issued an in-between PG and R rating: PG-13. Spielberg re-released “Gremlins” in 1985 before releasing it on video, where the rating remained PG. The success of “Gremlins” spawned countless rip-offs and sequels to rip-offs, such as “Ghoulies,” “Munchies,” and “Troll.” Warner Brothers begged Dante to do a sequel, but Dante—receiving screenplays along the lines of “Gremlins Go To Mars”—refused.
EXPLORERS Dante tried to be very careful about which project he would do next. Warner Brothers offered him “Batman,” which he turned down because he “couldn’t buy into the idea of Bruce Wayne.” “Explorers”—a movie about a group of kids who build a spaceship in their backyard—came to him from Paramount Pictures after Wolfgang Peterson (“The Never-Ending Story”) abandoned it (Paramount wouldn’t let him film it in Bavaria.) The material suited Dante, since he had already proved he could make a good movie about kids, knew his way around special effects and could even do a sort of commentary on the human condition when the kids go into outer space to meet the aliens who know only what they see on earth television. All of this exists in the final cut, but Dante tells a different story:
“It was one of those cases where the script wasn’t finished, so it was literally written as it was being shot,” Dante said at the 2000 Chicago International Film Festival. “We didn’t know what the aliens were going to look like. We didn’t know what the kids were gonna do when they got there. So it was really all cobbled together very quickly. And then, for whatever reason, the people who had hired me left the studio and the new people said, ‘You know what? We need this picture three months early.’ And there was no way this picture was ever gonna be finished in time, but we tried. And, so, it’s a rough cut.”
When watching “Explorers,” it doesn’t show signs of panic the way most films often do under those circumstances. Only the ambiguous ending brings the movie down a notch. Dante considers it a major career mistake, mostly because they made the movie before they finished the script. He said he would like to go back and re-make or re-edit it, which in a way he did for the home video release, which contains a few minutes of footage missing from the theatrical release. The movie didn’t do well, but it has some historical, as well as entertainment, value. “Explorers” features Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix before they grew to full manhood.
INNER-SPACE Perhaps the least Dante-esque movie of Dante’s career, this modest hit (produced by Spielberg) tells the story of an aviator (Dennis Quaid) who gets shrunk down to microscopic size and accidentally gets injected into a lowly grocery store clerk (Martin Short). While the movie borrows a page from “Fantastic Voyage,” on the whole, “Inner-Space” showcases a director taking time off from himself.
Only the usual cameos give the movie Dante’s touch. “InnerSpace” had no outlandish art direction, very few movie references, and felt comfortable in its time period (1987). Unlike “Explorers,” Dante considers it a movie he wouldn’t want to touch up, edit or re-do in any way.
“Sometimes, the ones that always turn out exactly the way you want don’t always turn out to be the best films. Sometimes, they’re the ones where when you look at them again, or have to be confronted with them again, you look at and say, ‘Well, that’s the best I could have done with that one. I couldn’t have done it better…’ [For “Inner-Space”] I had a great time making it and I have a good time watching it.”
Dante released “Inner-Space” on video insisting on a letterboxed presentation, unusual at that time.
THE ‘BURBS With “The ‘burbs,” Dante returned to the kind of material that suited his style. This Tom Hanks vehicle told the story of a bunch of cul-de-sac inhabitants who become suspicious of their new neighbors, the Klopecs. Strange sounds are heard coming from their house, the only man they’ve seen looks as though he stepped off the set of “Deliverance” and, well, Henry Gibson and Brother Theodore play the other two family members. But what are they burying in their back yard in the middle of a stormy night?
“The ‘burbs” attempts to make a point towards the end about how suburban America casts judgments and believe what they want to believe, no matter how dark. But, unfortunately, the movie sells out in the end. “The ‘burbs” might have been more fondly remembered if the credits rolled right after Tom Hanks says, “It’s not them! It’s us! We’re the aliens.” The movie came and went and is hardly ever mentioned on Tom Hanks’ resume, but it’s still more entertaining and more interesting than most other movies about suburbia. It also contains one of the most often-copied opening shots in movie history. The camera zooms in on the planet earth from the Universal logo and keeps going further and further into the planet, further into America and further into California until it comes down to a nice crane shot of the cul-de-sac.
GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH Imagine yourself as one of the top dog executives at Warner Brothers. You’ve been begging Joe Dante to do a sequel to the 1984 hit “Gremlins” for years now and, finally, he has agreed to make one (under his conditions, of course). The film is finally in the can and you’re feeling pretty good about the prospects of having a gigantic summer hit. Then one day you actually see it.
Not only does it not resemble the original, not only does it completely abandon the concept of “horror” altogether, not only does it make fun of sequels, television executives and corporate America…but it’s making fun of you, too! You only have yourself to blame. Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
For “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” Dante teamed up with screenwriter Charlie Haas to make a movie that would not only expose the absurdity of the original, but also expose the absurdity of sequels in general. Some critics dismissed it as a retread, but smarter, more astute viewers caught on to what Dante was up to. “Gremlins 2” didn’t have any more of a story than the original, and that was precisely the point.
No sequel (unless the original ends with a cliffhanger) has ever been necessary, except for the studios to make money. In “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” the human characters (Zach Gallaghan and Phoebe Cates) move to New York and, basically, the same movie happens. But with Columbus gone as screenwriter, “Gremlins 2” has the feeling of a movie that has finally found its true self. The idea of Horror has been abandoned altogether in favor of an insane 102-minute ode to Warner Brothers cartoons, Tex Avery, monster movies, self-reference and New York. It also satirized (without finger-pointing) Donald Trump, cable television and genetic engineering.
The movie plays as a grab-bag of movie references, including “Phantom of the Opera,” “Marathon Man,” “Rambo,” “Batman” and Busby Berkely. Tony Randall offers a hilariously over-the-top vocal performance as the voice of the Brain Gremlin, a pompous intellectual monster who wants to be “civilized.” Even Leonard Maltin shows up for a cameo only to be strangled while doing a video review of “Gremlins 1” (which he didn’t like).
Dante describes it as “a free-form satirical outburst.” Warner Brothers didn’t know what to do with it. One scene Dante had to fight for occurs in the middle when it appears that “Gremlins 2” just crashed and melted in the projection booth. The screen is all white. Suddenly, silhouettes of the Gremlins come on making little hand puppets. The next shot shows a woman with her seven-year-old kid complaining to the usher (Paul Bartel) saying, “This is worse than the first one!” With this scene, Dante broke the fourth wall between the movie and audience, bringing them in on the joke, a phenomena that would be examined in his next film.
The War Trilogy The next three films have been described by fans as Dante’s War Trilogy. “By coincidence, I happened to make three movies in a row, all of them pertaining to war. It’s been called my War Trilogy, which I embrace. Why not?”
MATINEE If ever there existed a Quintessential Joe Dante movie, “Matinee” would be it. Even though the movie somewhat abandons satire, “Matinee” nevertheless captures Dante at his peak. Working from a top-notch screenplay by “Gremlins 2” writer Charlie Hass, Dante conveys the essential purpose of fright films and why we need to be scared, while also telling a nice first-love story and paying tribute to fright showman William Castle, all set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis in Key West Florida.
The movie’s main source of magic comes from its star, John Goodman, who plays charming filmmaker Laurence Woolsey, a man who doesn’t just want to make fright films, he wants to make the audience a part of the experience. Using techniques such as Rumble-Rama and Atomo-Vision, Woolsey’s new movie, “MANT!” (Half man, half ant, all terror!) just happens to open at the height of the nation’s fears during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What better time to try and scare the hell out of people?
Woolsey, with his relentless imagination as a showman and a kitchy provocateur, could very well be regarded as Dante’s mouthpiece, especially after his “Gremlins 2” stunt with the film breaking down. The best scene in “Matinee,” and maybe the most beautiful of Dante’s career, comes when Woolsey explains the origins of horror movies going back as far as the caveman paintings. The camera then pans all around a movie theater as Woolsey conveys the enchantment and wonder of buying a ticket and buying the popcorn with the giddy expectation of something spectacular.
Dante tops himself by putting us in suspense later on with a cliffhanger scene towards the end involving a little boy on a toppling balcony. “Matinee” manages to be everything a Joe Dante movie should be: A wonderful coming-of-age story, a loving tribute to the old school of B-movie horror and a perfect re-capturing of the essence of its chosen time period. It is also a hilarious depiction of the apocalypse as directed by P.T. Barnum. Some satire does exist, but you’ll have to work hard to find the wink.
THE SECOND CIVIL WAR If the opening of this 1996 movie doesn’t give you a bit of a chill, you’ve probably been trapped inside the body of a grocery store clerk unaware of current events. It seems as though India has just nuked Pakistan and hundreds of orphan children have nowhere to go. So, the president decides Idaho would be a good choice. Governor Farley of Idaho (Beau Bridges), as a protest against the President of the United States (Phil Hartman in a great performance), secedes from the Union, thus starting the Second Civil War.
At this point, Dante wanted to do a movie that didn’t have an element of fantasy. A 250-page screenplay came to him entitled “The Second Civil War,” which Barry Levinson had been developing for HBO, now going through its “serious” phase. “The Second Civil War” certainly takes Dante away from himself, but not in the same way “Inner-Space” did. This is Satire with a capitol S, scrutinizing everything from media (of course), to politicians, to war Generals to daytime soap operas. In the movie, The President gives Governor Farley 67 ½ hours to end the secession, or else face the consequences. This time period is chosen so that it will not pre-empt “All My Children,” now at the height of its popularity. The last time, they postponed it, they lost a good majority of the women’s vote.
The movie took the docu-drama and turned it into a docu-comedy, much in the same way “Wag The Dog” would one year later, but it also harkened back to political comedies of the ‘60s, such as “The President’s Analyst.” The movie works beautifully for the first 90 minutes, but loses sight of itself in the last 15 minutes with its shift in tone. However, this shift in tone, when watching it today, almost has the feeling of a prophecy. War has finally broken out all over the country that even the Statue of Liberty lays in ruins.
“I had a lot of fights with HBO about the editing,” Dante said. “So I don’t think it’s quite the movie that it could have been, but it’s still one of the most interesting films on my clip-reel.”
SMALL SOLDIERS For “Small Soldiers,” Dante had two corporations to which he had to answer: DreamWorks and Burger King. The movie, which tells the story of a new brand toy G.I. Joe soldiers that come to life to wage war on another brand of toy, The mutant-looking Gorgonites, had been slated on DreamWorks roster as a summer action movie. Dante had to deal with a catch-22 request from the studio: Keep it light, so Burger King can do a tie-in by selling “Small Soldiers” toys with value meals, but keep it edgy for the teenagers.
The movie, in pure Dante fashion, ended up being a satire (what else?) ridiculing corporations, which coldly and systematically sell and market war toys to children, which flew in the face of the deal between Burger King and DreamWorks. Word got out ahead of time that Burger King did not find the movie to be satisfactory because of the level of violence that took place within it. In his book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum spends an entire chapter on how critics rated this movie entirely wrong.
“The essential auteur of Small Soldiers was perceived by many American spectators to be Burger King, a not un-reasonable assumption given the film’s promotional tie-in deals, not to mention the fact that, as I found out from Dante himself, Burger King had final cut.
“If Burger King indeed qualifies as the film’s auteur and Dante is merely its struggling metteur en scene, Small Soldiers can indeed be read as hypocritical; if the movie exists mainly to sell war toys and Dante can only work on the margins of this project by ridiculing selling war toys-and selling, buying and consuming wars—then the whole enterprise has to be regarded as a machine turned against itself. So the question of how adept some critics were in screening out the ridicule has to be joined with the question of how defenders such as myself managed to screen out Burger King’s ad copy.”
In October of 2000, Dante received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chicago International Film Festival. The festival screened four Dante movies, each chosen to play at an appropriate time slot: “The Howling” as a midnight show, “Matinee” and “Gremlins 2” on Saturday afternoon and “The Second Civil War” the following Sunday, where Dante showed up with Jonathan Rosenbaum for a Q&A session. People asked about Dick Miller, the origins of Dante’s satire and creative freedom within the studio system.
The Corman idealism of staying true to yourself and keeping a constant eye on the issues of the world that trouble you is what has kept Dante one step ahead of many other filmmakers. Dante’s vision of the apocalypse may be too cartoonish for film scholars and too subversive for mainstream filmgoers (he hasn’t had a big hit since "Gremlins"), but one thing remains certain: You almost always now when you’re watching a Dante film, because nobody else quite knows how to make them.
(Dante’s next film will be “Looney Tunes: The Movie." Some of the quotes come from The Onion’s A.V. Club interview with Joe Dante, which can be found at: http://www.theonionavclub.com/avclub3643/avfeature_3643.html.
Many of the other quotes come from the Q&A session at the 2000 Chicago International Film Festival.)