Over the years, a certain filmmaker has become synonymous with funny, edgy, often quite cute creature features, and for good reason. A director, actor, producer and editor, he cut his teeth under the tutelage of fellow Icon and B-movie aficionado Roger Corman. For the most part, though, most of us think of him as the man who gave us Gizmo – but there’s so much more to him than Gremlins. The universally well-liked Joe Dante is this month’s Horror Icon.
Kids’ horror is a subgenre that many would argue doesn’t really exist. After all, horror is for adults, not children – one needs to be brave to deal with it, and to build oneself up to it after years of service. These days, it’s only really being exploited in animation, with clever little films like Paranorman, or Tim Burton’s monochrome nightmare Frankenweenie, both of which enjoyed significant box office success, given their dark subject matter.
The popularity of these films showcases what some people are afraid to admit – the fact that kids, much like adults, love to be both scared and thrilled on trips to the cinema. However, this is something that certain people have known for a long time, one of whom is this month’s Horror Icon, a man who has arguably done more for this neglected non-subgenre than the majority of other filmmakers.
The man born Joseph, but more commonly known as Joe, Dante was one of the earliest pioneers of comedy-horror, along with genre pieces specifically aimed at children, including probably the most famous film of its kind, Gremlins. Noting that it’s a difficult balance to get right, Dante has commented, throughout his impressive career in genre filmmaking, that kids’ horror is very problematic. These films run the risk of being too scary for parents to show their kids, or too tame for teenagers to bother with – it’s hard to know where to position the narrative, but Dante seems to understand the formula better than most.
A lifelong film buff and defender of horror, Dante was born in Morristown, New Jersey and originally dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. However, upon turning up at college, he was advised to pursue a different career and settled, instead, on filmmaking. He began his career working for the legendary Roger Corman, a fellow Horror Icon, who Dante has cited as a major influence, and who would go on to produce his first feature film, the infamous creature feature Piranha. However, his first outing as director was on The Movie Orgy, a found footage film of sorts that is still a cult favourite even though Dante claims he’d never let it get to DVD, followed by Hollywood Boulevard, for which he shared the credit with Allan Arkush – up until this point, he had worked mainly in editing, on films such as Grand Theft Auto.
Although it wasn’t technically his debut, Piranha marked the first time Dante made a dent in the world of genre filmmaking. Released in 1978, the film was written by his good friend John Sayles, who went on to rewrite the script for Dante’s werewolf flick The Howling. Well-known in the industry for being fiercely protective of his screenwriters, Dante often casts them in small roles in his films so he can keep the writer on set at all times, because otherwise the studio won’t pay for their time. He rarely writes anything himself, noting that almost anyone else can do a better job of it, but Dante is remarkably honest about the importance of a good script, noting on several occasions that the script is the movie.
Piranha was marketed to Universal as a parody of the classic, Stephen Spielberg creature feature Jaws. The story goes that Universal were sketchy about releasing Piranha in the same year as Jaws 2 but Spielberg, who was already a fan of Dante, convinced them the film was meant as a tongue-in-cheek rip-off – Dante credits Spielberg with getting the film released, noting that it probably wouldn’t have come out otherwise.
It remains one of the coolest, funniest creature features to this day, and it set Dante apart as a master of mixing the often opposed genres of comedy and horror. As for the already-infamous remake – which utilised possibly even more fake boobs than fake blood – Dante remarked in a 2008 interview with Den Of Geek that he couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to reboot it, other than to “re-use the title”.Following the moderate success of Piranha, Dante followed up with another creature feature in 1981. The Howling is widely considered to be one of the best werewolf films of all-time, along with John Landis’s incredible An American Werewolf In London. It exhibited some of the coolest, and newest, SFX work around at the time, something about which Dante is very passionate and which is still impressive given its comparatively low budget.
His work, as a whole, is notable for its use of special effects, and he credits a childhood spent obsessing over monsters – in particular, catching Saturday matinees in the local cinema and extensively reading Monster Magazine – with his love affair with creature features in particular, and horror movies in general. Dante’s films are noted for embodying the spirit of 1950s B-movies, something which is presumably intentional on Dante’s part and The Howling, Piranha and, of course, Gremlins are emblematic of this. Naturally, the studio at the time were concerned about whether The Howling was a horror movie or a comedy, but Dante considers it both, much like most of his output.
Following Piranha, Spielberg was so impressed with Dante that he invited him to direct a segment for the anthology movie Twilight Zone: The Movie, entitled “It’s A Good Life”, which utilised impressive, cartoon-style SFX. Dante would later contribute an episode to the TV show, entitled “The Shadow Man”. Finding he was quite at home in the world of television – although he has made it clear that nothing compares to watching a feature film, in the cinema, with an audience for the first time – another foray came in 1991/1992 when Dante was creative consultant on the short-lived, but well-liked fantasy series Eerie, Indiana. He even cameoed himself in the series finale, and also directed five episodes. In 2005, Dante directed two segments for Masters Of Horror, entitled “Homecoming” and “The Screwfly Solution”. The TV series came to light after creator Mick Garris had several dinners with certain, key horror stalwarts in Hollywood, including Dante.
Garris intended to give each contributor free rein, and as a result, both of Dante’s segments were considered highly politically-motivated – something which is noteworthy about many of his features. He has since noted that often horror films in particular have coded political messages, and suggests that perhaps this is why it has outlasted other genres.
Innerspace, which was released in 1987 and has since become a cult favourite among genre fans, was described by Dante as the most fun film he’s made to date, citing a perfect script and cast. The film charts the misfortunes of a store clerk who, somewhat bizarrely, must foil criminals to save the life of the man who, miniaturized in a secret experiment, was accidentally injected into him. The studio itself didn’t find it funny, but a well-received preview screening laid their fears to rest. Unfortunately, it didn’t do so well at the box office, but rather refreshingly, Dante has admitted in subsequent interviews that he is generally happy with his films and any fault with them is entirely his.
Dante’s next foray into the often unfairly-derided comedy/horror genre came with another classic creature feature and one of the first, most important, entrants into the kids’ horror pantheon, the inimitable Gremlins. Still his biggest hit to date, the film that would kick-start the world’s love affair with Gizmo hit cinemas in 1984. Dante describes the flick as the most difficult he’s ever had to make, because he and his SFX team were inventing the technology as they went along.
He didn’t expect it to be big – nobody did, even Warner Bros. didn’t understand the concept until they watched the preview – and originally it was going to be a darker, more violent film, much like The Howling, but somehow it fit more as a kids’ movie and, when it dropped into cinemas, the resulting buzz was felt all over the world. Dante was subsequently dubbed “Spielberg jr.” and, in an effort to shed the title, he set out to make the anti-ET with his next film, the sci-fi opus Explorers.
By the time Dante came around to doing a sequel, six years after Gizmo was first introduced to the world, technology had advanced so much that Gremlins 2: The New Batch was an entirely different beast to make. Although he was hesitant to do a follow-up at first, Dante was swayed by the studio giving him total creative freedom this time around – so much so that he now refers to the film as his id.
Many view the flick as a satirical, anarchic take on the Hollywood landscape at the time, interpreting the gremlins running riot as a metaphor for Dante taking the studios’ money and laying waste to the blockbuster rulebook. Although it’s beloved by genre fanatics, The New Batch was a considerable flop, something which Dante notes doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things because of the second life his films have enjoyed on the home viewing market. Unlike certain, other filmmakers, Dante is thrilled at the idea of his movies being readily available on TV screens, in living rooms all over the world.
Set in the 1960s, the other film which is often viewed as Dante’s autobiography is Matinee, which is described as a film for film-lovers. A sweet, at times hilarious, ode to the wonders of B-movies, and the people who created them, the film was released in 1993. Although Universal produced it, and it received a wide release after many years sitting on the shelf, it didn’t have much of an impact except for, as Dante quipped at the time, the dads who dragged their kids to see it just to explain to them what a matinee was like back in the day.
In 1998, Dante returned to the dangerous world of kids horror with the delightful action/comedy/horror Small Soldiers, which utilised Tommy Lee Jones as the leader of an army of evil toys, hell-bent on destruction in a quiet, suburban neighbourhood. Originally, Dante set out to make an edgy movie aimed squarely at teenagers, but naturally the studio bigwigs quickly changed their minds when reminded of the lucrative merchandising deals that would tie in better with a kids’ film. Even so, Small Soldiers is edgy, wonderfully brave and hilariously meta, with Dante concluding upon its release that he ended up with elements of both types of film in there in the end, in spite of being forced to cut out a tonne of explosions.
Most recently, Dante directed the popular film The Hole 3D, which collected the Premio Persol award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, due to its impressive work with its chosen format. The film was shot in 3D, before the current wave of enthusiasm for the genre began, but it had a tough time getting a theatrical release in the US. Another kids horror film, described by Dante as 1980s-style family horror, he explained that he chose the often problematic format to add depth and dimension to what he felt was a small, insular story. To his credit, it’s one of the best examples of the format and, refreshingly, Dante isn’t a proponent of 3D, either.
Although he’s often offered a lot of straight horror films, Dante finds that, for the most part, the characters do not engage enough for him to get on board. He’s often connected to films that don’t come to fruition, or are struggling to be funded for years, including a thriller called Air Disturbance starring Horror Icon, Robert Englund, which is currently set for a 2015 release under a different director.
His latest project is said to be a horror comedy called Burying The Ex. Elsewhere, Dante launched the popular web series Trailers From Hell in 2007. The site provides commentary by various directors, producers and screenwriters on classic and cult trailers, and is intended to bring certain films to the attention of a new audience. Considering Dante got his big break, so to speak, cutting trailers in the department of New World Pictures for Roger Corman, it seems only fitting that he dedicates so much of his time to them nowadays. He also somehow found time to direct the Corman-produced Netflix web-series Splatter, which stars Corey Feldman in the lead role – Dante described working on the series and with Corman again, as like being transported back to 1978.
Universally well-liked and lauded, by his fans and contemporaries alike, Joe Dante is a filmmaker whom those who grew up in the eighties, in particular, hold very dear to their hearts. A master of kids horror, a creature feature aficionado and a staunch defender of horror, and film in general, Dante doesn’t let the ever-changing Hollywood landscape – he recently described working there as the equivalent of working in a bank – affect his passion, or enthusiasm for making the films he wants to make.
He truly marches to his own beat, rarely following a strict formula, saying what he thinks without fear of reproach, championing others, and incorporating a number of different styles and influences in his output, all of which he manages to make his own.
A master of the genre, a brilliant filmmaker and a genuinely nice guy, Joe Dante studied under a true Horror Icon, before ultimately becoming one in his own right.
5 Essential Dante Flicks
4. The Hole 3D
5. Gremlins 2: The News Batch
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