(The following post is a belated entry in Tim Lucas's Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon, in celebration of the director's 60th birthday, which was yesterday, November 28, 2006.)
In the world of Joe Dante, I started in 1981 with The Howling (1981) and worked backwards. Fortunately, for me, there were only two other Joe Dante movies to catch up with at the time, Hollywood Boulevard (1976) and Piranha (1978), and consequently so many more than two to enjoy in the subsequent 25 years. But catch up with those two rogue Dantes I did in the next year, an assignment lasting precisely 174 minutes in toto, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I first became aware of Joe Dante about a week or so before I first saw The Howling, on a double feature with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that played at a now-defunct drive-in on the north end of Eugene, Oregon. The drive-in was lined all around with big pine trees, which gave the lot a distinct impression of being nestled much further away from the outskirts of town than it actually was, its secluded forestry fostering an illusion of isolation that was perfect for heightening the fear factor of both movies. Just a few days before the movie opened here, I happened to catch Dante and make-up wizard Rob Bottin on a segment of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow program, and I was tickled by the cheek of these upstarts, who had managed to get the jump on John Landis’ more highly touted An American Werewolf in London, which would bow later that summer. They were delighting in Bottin’s revolutionary real-time werewolf transformation effects, which, for my money, far outstrip Rick Baker’s work for Landis in terms of shock and awe value, as well as in homegrown, low-budget grue-tinged surrealism. (For all its over-the-top gore, there’s nothing in American Werewolf quite as shocking as the moment when Robert Picardo picks a slug out of his skull cap just before undergoing Bottin’s presto-change-o, or the Big Bad Wolf silhouetted against those backlit blinds as he prepares to do in Dante regular Belinda Belaski.) And while they were digging getting Snyder to dig on their version of the oft-told werewolf tale, you could tell that, even though they weren’t actively putting down Landis’s film, they thought they’d done more interesting work too, and they couldn’t believe their good fortune in being able to promote it to the public ahead of time.
Both being graduates of the Roger Corman Film Finishing School, this was probably the first time either one had ever had such an opportunity. Hell, it was practically the first time either of them even had anything like a budget to work with. And despite Dante and actors Dee Wallace Stone and Picardo pointing out the movie’s deficiencies, budgetary or otherwise, on The Howling’s terrific DVD, it’s a movie that feels like a step away from its low-budget roots, and also a delirious reveling in them and what the director learned from his experiences. Amazingly, though he’s been involved in 12 features and many TV segments since then, this quality of youthful exuberance, as Tim Lucas rightly describes it, is a hallmark of Dante’s work. Of course, Dante also fills his frames with terrific jokes, perverse, often subversive subtexts, and off-kilter compositions-- there’s a certain Mad magazine/EC Comics influence at work here too, as well as an aesthetic allegiance to the work of the Warner Brothers cartoon stable, which juices his movies with energy and inspiration. Yet despite his being taken under the Amblin’ Entertainment umbrella, where he was ostensibly being groomed in the image of Steven Spielberg, he’s really had only one major hit in his 30-year career as a director—Amblin’s Gremlins, which many took as a none-too-subtle deconstruction of Spielberg’s Close Encounters-E.T. sensibility.
One of the best things about Gremlins (certainly my least favorite of his movies) is the simple fact that it kept Dante working throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. He kicked the ‘90s off, however, with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which would stand for 13 years as the most delirious and inspired live-action approximation of the Warner Brothers universe yet realized (until a certain other movie came along in 2003). Unfortunately, the movie was a flop at the box office, and consequently Dante would see only two more features released theatrically in the decade. (There were two TV movies and three excursions into episodic TV as well.)
Disagreements with the studio and the screenwriter marred Dante’s most recent big release, Looney Tunes: Back In Action. But despite its underwhelming performance with ticket buyers (and Dante’s own disappointment, often expressed in interviews when the subject of the movie comes up), there are those of us who find the movie exhilarating, exhausting and hilarious, a perfect crystallization and expansion of the Warner Brothers universe and its stable of characters. (My daughter, three years old at the time, went with me on opening night, and we saw the movie two more times together before it closed its very short theatrical run. We have, however, stopped counting how times we’ve spun the DVD…)
I love Joe Dante movies far more, I’m afraid, than this entry in Tim Lucas’s Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon, in honor of Dante’s 60th birthday (Tuesday, November 28, 2006), can ever possibly convey. Circumstances and time have conspired to keep me from devoting as much time as might like to the diversity of comic styles or the rich political and cultural subtexts running amuck through his work—for further investigation here, there is no one more erudite on the subject than Jonathan Rosenbaum. And I didn’t end up with enough time to write about the Dante movie freshest in my mind either, his snappy, loose-limbed update of the A.I.P. drive-in classic Runaway Daughters, which the director did for Showtime in 1994.But I do have time for one pretty good Joe Dante story, one which I’ve told before (so please forgive me if one or two of the times were on this blog), one which capsulizes the outside-the-lines appeal and approach that I find so captivating and exciting about Dante’s movies. Somewhere around Halloween 1988, I talked my best friend, Bruce, into accompanying me to a lecture at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. (I didn’t really have to talk too hard.) The speaker, director Joe Dante, would be hosting an informal discussion of horror movies, fielding questions about the genre (and, presumably, his own work within it), and showing lots and lots of clips on the Academy’s spectacular big screen. I don’t really recall much of what went on that night, apart from spotting Leonard Maltin in the audience, but I certainly do recall nervously approaching the microphone to ask Dante a question about Explorers-- he confirmed my suspicions that it was a movie very close to his heart. I remember also that there were a lot of clips, some of them skirting the borders of “horror” and spilling over into suspense, science fiction and even action-adventure, and Dante’s enthusiasm for each and every one of them was palpable, contagious—we left the auditorium that night wanting to go home and rent or see everything he’d talked about, even the stuff we’d already seen a thousand times.
The highlight of the lecture, however, came when Dante completely broke format and began talking at length about Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here was a movie that certainly did not fit into the outline of Dante’s program, yet Bruce and I, and the rest of the audience too, were enjoying immensely watching this director build up a head of steam over a movie that seemed so unlike his own. (Of course, Dante would reference Leone directly in The ‘Burbs and Small Soldiers, movies yet to come, and it shouldn’t have been too surprising that someone with Dante’s encyclopedic knowledge of film and film culture would have an appreciation for the great Italian director.) Finally, Dante admitted, “I know that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t have anything to do with tonight’s stated theme—horror movies—but I just thought that it would be a shame to get the use of this big, beautiful screen and not take full advantage of it. So without further ado, here’s the climactic graveyard scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!” The curtain went up, and we all watched Tuco’s long run around the perimeter of that grand, circular cemetery, accompanied at top volume by Ennio Morricone’s blaring, brilliant score. Talk about a hard act to follow, and Dante admitted as much even as he flung headlong back into the realm of horror movies, giddy that he’d gotten to indulge a personal thrill that, if my reaction, Bruce’s reaction, and those all around us was any indication, was a thrill for a lot more people than just Joe Dante.
And that’s a Dante movie in a nutshell—- skewed, off-center, perverse, weirdly funny, unpredictable, deep-dish fun for fans, willing to tread just about anywhere, and close enough to a mainstream sensibility to pass (if you’re not looking too closely) as part of that mainstream. But Joe Dante at 60 is just as irreverent as he was when he took his first directing credit 30 years ago, along with Allan Arkush, on Hollywood Boulevard, and his movies have remained vital and true to his steady sense of genre intelligence and awareness of the world as well. I wish Looney Tunes would have been a success if only to have facilitated another run like he had post-Gremlins. But with the Masters of Horror series, and the unpredictable projects that will continue to pop up to delight Joe Dante fans, and Joe Dante himself, I feel confident in predicting that he’s got a long way to go. I look forward to taking that journey with him.
Joe Dante’s Movies I Like (in order of my preference):
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003)
Hollywood Boulevard (1976) (click title to read lots more on this one!)
Twilight Zone: The Movie (third segment) (1983)
The Howling (1981)
The ‘Burbs (1989)
Runaway Daughters (1994)
Small Soldiers (1998)
Joe Dante Movies I Don’t Much Like (in descending order):
Gremlins (1984) (though there is plenty to like, and I’m certainly in the mood to give it another chance)
Amazon Women on the Moon (1987; segments only)
(I must admit, here and now, that I have not yet seen The Second Civil War (1997), though I remain on the lookout for it. Here I go to Netflix, in fact…!)
Happy birthday, Joe Dante!