One filmmaker who was a staple in my childhood was Joe Dante, I grew up with his work (such as GREMLINS, GREMLINS 2, THE HOWLING, THE ‘BURBS, EERIE INDIANA) and I am not sure what type of person I’d have become without them. His films manage to blend horror/comedy perfectly; whether they are aimed at teenagers/adults or children/family they all just seem to work. He’s a man for all seasons, no matter what you’re in the mood for he’ll have the right recipe for it. The man has dipped into feet into so much: films, television and even the fantastic TRAILERS OF HELL website, he knows no boundaries. So ladies and gentlemen, without further ado I present to you Joe Dante!
In my mind there is no doubt as to what his best work is, and probably always will be. GREMLINS is a classic, it defined the 80’s and it lives on now a good twenty-seven years later. So what made this such a popular and memorable film? There isn’t just one thing that made this film, all the different elements came together and what we got was a damn fine and entertaining film.
GREMLINS is a film that I can remember watching from a young age, it was a family film of sorts but it had a horror/fantasy vibe that as a kid was just so cool to experience. The film for the most part still holds up today, it does feel like an 80’s film, however it is almost sad to think we don’t get ones like this anymore. The story (written by Chris Columbus) is about a teenage boy who gets given a new pet known as a Mogwai. He names it Gizmo, and he must follow three simple rules in order to avoid trouble. Of course accidents happen and the rules are broken, what follows is a night filled with mischief and mayhem with creatures dubbed as Gremlins.
The film firstly (and wisely) sets up how the family comes to possess Mogwai, develops the characters and makes us keep repeating “Awwww he’s soo adorable” every time Gizmo is on screen. In turn we actually care about the characters and Gizmo, so when the Gremlins show up we’re so invested. We don’t want to see bad things happen, the Gremlins are such little terrors they, yet are almost fun to watch. The film is an awesome ride; enjoyable characters, well-directed, great script and the practical effects are so well done especially when you consider this came out in 1984. In my eyes this film is a masterpiece of that era, it proves you can do a family friendly genre film, something that Dante has done time and again.
From one family friendly genre film to another, Dante’s latest THE HOLE is an epic mess. While he has been successful at doing these types of films in the past, he really dropped the ball here. I was kind of excited to catch this film, it boasts a cool premise and it looked like a good time. Unfortunately this film fails on every level, with all the things that Dante has been able to pull off in the past it falls to pieces here. The plot isn’t anything complicated, two brothers move to a new town with their mother. They discover a mysterious hole in their basement, which seems to be able to tap into their deepest fears.
Dante usually has a great eye for casting, especially with child and teenage actors. I don’t know if he went into casting sessions blindfolded and with earplugs but the actors here are dreadful. I am not sure what it was; miscommunications maybe but Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble made a very unconvincing pair of brothers. They both came off as unlikable and whiney little brats, and this was established very early on and I was not able to actually get behind them. 30 minutes in and I wanted them to just fall down the hole so I wouldn’t have to put up with them anymore. This is a huge failure, a film like this I need to be able to like the characters and I really didn’t.
The great atmosphere that Dante can create was also gone here, the film had build-up sure but it was lackluster and there was no sense of dread and my care factor was zero. The film perhaps would have worked better if it was made in the 80’s or early 90’s, but everything here just felt wrong. It is strange to me that Dante managed to create something so bland, when his Masters Of Horror entries are so fun and engaging. THE HOLE is a film that you probably should skip; go back to his earlier work if you want something good.
I have already touched on some of Dante’s trademarks, and I think it is these things that make him so memorable. First and foremost the man has a knack for making genre films for kids and adults alike. This is not easy to do, and he manages to pull it off so well. GREMLINS especially was not an easy task to pull off in that respect yet he did, the film paved the way for PG horror (if only they could all be as good as that).
The films of Joe Dante aren’t serious ones for the most part; they have an element of fun and adventure in them. Some films borderline on parody (PIRANHA), while others have many in-jokes and break down the fourth wall (GREMLINS 2). He isn’t ashamed to have fun with what he does, and this makes his work so endearing. Dante’s stuff is always littered with little references; his home state of New Jersey is mentioned in some shape or form in everything he does. He often works with the same actors, you can always expect Robert Picardo to show up, or a Dick Miller cameo to make you giggle.
An aspect I love about his work is his use of colour and lighting, everything is so vibrant and you can really get a sense of it all. The films reflect the times that they are based in; it is really immersive and stunning. His use of practical FX is pretty awesome, especially in GREMLINS 2; it feels flawless even all these years later. The man is a film and genre fan and he has done the rest of us proud.
I say this without a doubt in my mind, MATINEE is a criminally under seen film. I in fact had not seen this one until recently and it blew me away. Why hadn’t I seen this film before? I really wish I had seen this at 10 years old; it probably would have made its way to the top of my list of favourite films. Again this is a family made genre-esque piece. It pays homage to the days of the 50’s and 60’s theater of creature features. John Goodman plays Lawrence Woolsey a horror filmmaker who has a new film called ‘MANT’ he wants to test it out on an audience. He goes to a small town in order to preview the film, and give them a full experience. The small town is home to an Army base, as well as a group of young boys who while going through their own dilemmas cross paths with Woolsey. The film is set to the backdrop of the early 60’s Cuban Missile Crisis, and paranoia runs high.
William Castle inspired the character of Woolsey, with the film inside the film ‘MANT’ feels like a genuine creature film from the 50’s. MATINEE is a fun ride; it reminded me of why I love film and like the kids in the film how much fun the theater experience used to be. There is so much going on within the film, the characters are developed superbly, and we actually care about them and their storylines. We get enough time to experience everything that sets up the final third of the film. The pacing is astonishingly perfect; the film never has a dull moment and it knows when it hit the different notes. The cast is fantastic, a career highlight performance from Goodman as well as Cathy Moriarty. Simon Fenton and Omri Katz are the stand out actors out of the boys, both doing a noble job. I can’t stress this point enough, if you haven’t seen this you need to seek it out as soon as possible.
Aside from his Producer and TRAILERS FROM HELL duties, Joe Dante is looking to once again direct a film. MONSTER LOVE is currently in pre-production, it will follow suit with his previous films and be something for the teenage audience. It sounds like a good time to me, and I have faith Dante can pull it off.
The synopsis – Pete is the leader in his pack of friends running wild in Paris, but after getting dumped by his girlfriend, is convinced by his pals to run naked through the city park during the full moon. Pete and his friends have fun laughing, howling, and transforming into wolves. Maggie, a vampire tom girl dressed in black boots and a leather jacket also happens to be in the park, and is distraught and contemplating suicide when she's surprised to see an enormous wolf. When they see each other Maggie bares her vampire fangs and the wolf grins and barks at her wanting to play. Both of them embark in a wild chase through the park that ends with both Maggie and the wolf falling asleep. At dawn Maggie awakens and finds herself in the arms of a naked young Pete. They both fall in love, but Pete's werewolf pals and Maggie's upper-crust vampire clan aren't so happy with their new relationship. After mangled bodies are discovered in the woods, Pete and Maggie find themselves in a fight for their lives while coming to terms with what it means to be a monster in love.
Joe Dante is amongst my all time favourite directors; his films have helped shaped who I am as a person as well as a fan of cinema. He began his film career by cutting trailers for Roger Corman until branching out into features. He’s been surrounded by talented people, and taken on–board so much from them to give us these films we all know and love. I can’t imagine what cinema would be like today without his input, he has influenced so much and will continue to do so. He continues to work on different projects, and aims for all generations to be exposed to the genre, whether they are old classics or modern masterpieces.