The greatest Joe Dante movies
From Roger Corman's assistant to the director of a string of ludicrously entertaining cult classics, Joe Dante helped usher in a whole new genre the horror comedy while scary us silly with some of the greatest genre offerings of the 1980s.
And he didn't stop there. With people lining up to work with him Tom Hanks, John Goodman, Meg Ryan he excelled at poking fun at the American dream. He twisted sweet suburbia into a place of quiet horror and painted big cities as breeding grounds for the perverse. He was the anti-Spielberg, despite teaming up with The Beard on Gremlins, forging films that looked family friend on the outside while containing a palpitating heart of darkness.
I'm going over the fence, and I'm not coming back until I find a dead body, Hanks said in The 'Burbs. You can almost image Dante uttering those words himself. And with his new film, Burying The Ex out later this year (the trailer landed this week), here are 10 of the director's greatest movie hits...
The Film: Rivers at a busy summer resort become a swimming hazard when genetically mutated piranhas are unleashed into them. Who's on the menu? Why, the guests of course.
Why It's Great: Unlike Jaws (the film it unashamedly rips off), Piranha isn't afraid to get its fins dirty. That means there's proper carnage even the kiddies aren't safe in Dante's post-Vietnam monster movie.
And though Alexandre Aja's 2010 remake gets points for being even more insane, Dante's original favours less in-yer-face humour and horror, making for a far more unsetPiranha off the screen. Luckily, Steven Spielberg saw the movie and talked them out of it. He told them, 'Its a spoof; its not like our picture.'
The Howling (1981)
The Film: After a close encounter with a serial killer, news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) escapes to an idyllic retreat, but has she really left her demons behind?
Why It's Great: Though it's an adaptation of a book by Gary Brandner, Dante takes huge liberties with the author's text, much to his film's benefit. The Howling doesn't skimp on the terror, but it's also nudge-wink witty, with numerous characters named after horror directors.
It even beat An American Werewolf In London to cinemas by four months, and features its own hideous-but-transfixing transformation scene as Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) becomes a wolf before our very eyes.
In Dante's Words: I like The Howling. The studio was very concerned with the dailies at first. 'Is this a horror picture or a comedy?!' But they left me alone and I got to do it as best I could considering the time and budget.
John Sayles was a tremendous asset. He was also writing Alligator at the time. I'm still convinced one of our dream sequences ended up in their film and vice versa.
The Film: An inventor brings home a strange creature as a Christmas present for his son Billy (Zach Galligan), but when Billy fails to stick to the rules while looking after his new pet, all hell breaks loose.
Why It's Great: Despite its anti-Christmas vibe, Dante's film has become our go-to movie during the festive season. With its black humour, iconic little devils, anarchic spirit and impressive effects, it's the definition of a modern classic.
Also: how cute is Gizmo?
In Dante's Words: I intended Gremlins to be kind of timeless. Going out on city streets was originally the plan, but it struck me that shooting the movie in a realistic fashion would never work, especially when I saw the gremlin designs...
Luckily the back lots of Warner Bros. and Universal were very quaint and went back to the '40s and even earlier. So we were able to make an idealised small-town environment for our admittedly slightly corny movie.
The Film: Off the back of Gremlins' success, Dante was brought in to replace director Wolfgang Petersen on this Spielbergian sci-fi. River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke and Bobby Fite play buddies who decide to build a spaceship.
Why It's Great: Plagued by behind-the-scenes problems it may have been (Dante never got to finish editing as he was ordered to down tools when Paramount brought the release date crashing forward), but Explorers is still full of charm, mostly thanks to its young leads.
And it still feels like a Dante film, replete with its eccentric segues and there are in-jokes aplenty, including a character called Starkiller (Luke Skywalker's original name) and a school named after Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones.
In Dante's Words: The studio changed hands in the middle of production, and they decided they needed the movie much quicker than we thought. So we shot the picture under very hurried auspices. The paint on the sets was literally wet and when the kids stepped into the spaceship they sunk into cement because it wasn't dry.
The Film: Batshit sci-fi inspired by 1966's Fantastic Voyage. Martin Short is the hypochondriac shopworker who is accidentally injected with a miniaturised scientist (Dennis Quaid) and must take down a lab-looting gang.
Why It's Great: Short was born for roles like this his special brand of goofy physical comedy is cranked up to the nth degree in Dante's film, which gives him so much material to work with, it's almost a crime against his co-stars.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Boam's script packs in zaniness at every turn (including a surreal moment in which Short undergoes a startling transformation) so that you're never, ever bored.
In Dante's Words: People dont really talk to me much about Innerspace! it was a hit on video. It was one of the first big videos, and it was discovered on video, basically. Although audiences liked it in theatres - when I went, they were in stitches - the ad campaign was so terrible for that movie. It was just a giant thumb with a little tiny pod on it. You couldnt tell that it was a comedy - you couldnt tell anything - and it had a terrible title, because we could never figure out a better one.
The 'Burbs (1989)
The Film: When a strange new family move into their neighbourhood, buddies Ray (Tom Hanks), Art (Rick Ducommun) and Mark (Bruce Dern) make it their mission to find out what they're up to behind their shuttered windows.
Why It's Great: It's essentially a distillation of everything that makes a Joe Dante movie great. Having flirted with demonising suburbia in Gremlins, he goes whole hog with The 'Burbs, destroying the myth of safe suburbia from the inside out.
The beauty of the film is that you never know where it's going to go next. And the hilarious flourishes the neighbour whose dog does its business on somebody else's lawn every morning never stop coming. Then, of course, there's Jerry Goldsmith's fantastic, atmospheric score.
In Dante's Words: "When I tell people about the story, a remarkable number say, 'On my grandmother's block, there were people like that. They never mowed their lawn, and they never came out, and they let their mail stack up, and nobody knew who they were'.
And I must confess that in my own neighbourhood there's a house like that, falling to wrack and ruin. I think this is perhaps a more common even than most people are aware of.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
The Film: Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his fiancee Katie (Phoebe Cates) are working in a Manhattan high-rise when they discover Gizmo is being used in twisted experiments by their boss. Yep, its time for round two
Why It's Great: After the runaway success of Gremlins, Warner Bros were desperate for a sequel. What they got, in the end, was this suitably insane follow-up. Totally different to the original but brilliant because of that, it has more gremlins than you can shake a Mogwai at and some beautifully bizarre moments.
The only problem? It was so insane it pretty much buried the franchise, which was sort of Dante's goal, anyway...
In Dante's Words: Obviously there was no real need for another Gremlins movie, so I approached the sequel as irreverently as possible, which got me in a bit of trouble. 'You can't make fun of the merchandising!' Spoofing the arbitrary 'rules' and everything else. I guess I did it right, there's been no Gremlins 3 as yet.. .but sooner or later there will be, even if it's direct-to-video. The title is too well known not to exploit again.
The Film: A lesser-known Dante offering, but still worth checking out. John Goodman plays a movie producer who releases a horror flick (the oddly prescient Mant Half man! Half ant!) during the Cuban Missiles Crisis.
Why It's Great: How do you follow up Gremlins 2? By doing the opposite. This is Dante's first deeply personal film. A movie-lover as a kid, you can see him reflected in the character of Simon Fenton, a teenager who spends most of the film gawking at the big screen in wonder.
Unlike Dante's previous films, the comedy is of a quieter brand. Matinee eschews broad laughs for trickling humour and Goodman delivers a fantastic turn as the William Castle-esque director.
In Dante's Words: I grew up in New Jersey and my father was a golf pro, so I was groomed for sports, but I wasn't very good, so my interests lay elsewhere. [Saturday matinees were] the highlight of the week. And Monster Magazine that was a chance for kids who felt kind of isolated to realise that there were other people out there like them.
Small Soldiers (1998)
The Film: Thanks to a clever new microchip, new action figures the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites come to life and go to war a war that kids Alan (Gregory Smith) and Christy (Kirsten Dunst) get caught in the middle of.
Why It's Great: In the wake of Toy Story, it would've been easy to go for the same heartstring-pluckage. Instead, Dante heads up a proper action epic that just happens to star a load of plastic commandos.
Small soldiers BIG MOVIE ran the tagline, and that's entirely accurate. With flawless special effects and a dash of Dante's dark humour (though not too much; this is a kid's film), Small Soldiers delivers big thrills.
In Dante's Words: We were planning to use a lot of Stan Winston's puppets he had made some very elaborate puppets that could do a lot of things. But in practice, we found it was much simpler and cheaper to let the CGI people do the work after we'd shot the scenes. So, I would say, it's one-third puppetry and the rest CGI in Small Soldiers, even though the original idea was to do mostly puppetry.
The Hole (2009)
The Film: When Dane and Lucas Thompson (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) move with their mother to a new home, they discover a bottomless pit in their basement that could be a gateway to hell.
Why It's Great: This was Dante's first feature film after 2003's Looney Tunes: Back In Action, and it reminded audiences exactly what the director used to do so well.
A perfect blend of scary horror and hearty humour, it tips its hat to a swathe of genre flicks (Child's Play, Poltergeist, The Gate) and has a lot of fun in the process.
In Dante's Words: I get a lot of horror stuff and frankly a lot of them are pretty similar. The thing about this script was that for one thing, they were interested in me doing it, which is always pleasant. But when I read it, even though the situation wasn't exactly brand new and I had seen a similar situation in other pictures, it didn't go where I thought it was going to go.
When I coupled that with the fact that the characters were really well written and talked like real people, I thought this is actually an off-beat way of approaching this kind of material and that's really what I liked about it. I hope that maybe I could do something a little bit different with this.