“One of the things I've always tried to do is to inject myself as much as possible into the movie, so I feel like it's mine.” – Joe Dante (excerpt from 2007 Noel Murray A.V. Club interview)
Words like “underrated” and “underappreciated” immediately spring to mind when I think of Joe Dante and his films. For the uninitiated who prefer their genre movies straight without a mix of comedy, Dante’s cartoonish, “anything goes” aesthetic can be a little off-putting. Likewise, his reception from critics and viewers has run the gamut from glowing to indifferent, but that’s just part of his charm. For those that appreciate his off-center approach, his movies are full of treasures waiting to be discovered.
You might notice that there isn’t a five-star rated film in the rankings below. This isn’t intended as an oversight or an affront. Dante doesn’t make perfect films. It’s unlikely that critics will ever refer to Dante as an “auteur,” or if his films will end up on a future Sight and Sound poll, but I think they’re missing the point. He’s someone who understands the value of entertainment for entertainment’s sake, which is no surprise, considering that he started out editing trailers for Roger Corman. True to form, he’s familiar with cramming a lot into a small package. Watching a Joe Dante film can be compared to tapping into the mind of someone who grew up watching Saturday matinees, and decided to make some movies of his own.
So what’s he got that others don’t have? With Joe Dante, it’s all in the little details:
- Social satire. In Gremlins, Dante takes the idyllic Norman Rockwell town and plunges it into complete chaos. Gremlins II takes this formula one step further to turn the tables on corporate greed and the commoditization of society. The Howling skewers the self-help movement of the late 70s/early 80s, by depicting a therapeutic retreat that also happens to be a haven for werewolves.
- Cartoonish sequences. Joe Dante’s appreciation of cartoon gags has never been more apparent than in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, but, arguably, Gremlins II was the best realization of cartoon-like action in a live action setting.
- Champion of the underdog. Joe Dante’s reluctant heroes are customarily atypical, overcoming adversity with intellect instead of brawn. In both Gremlins movies, Billy Peltzer bravely stands up to a threat that’s beyond his control. In Small Soldiers the audience’s sympathies are clearly with the inhuman Gorgonite toys, which are programmed to lose.
- Dick Miller! No Joe Dante movie would be complete without an appearance by character actor Dick Miller. His inclusion has provided a common thread in many of Dante’s films, and it’s always fun to see where he pops up. Sadly, Miller has gone into retirement, but here’s hoping that he’ll decide to make just one more cameo.
Ranking Dante’s Films:
A few notes: I left out Dante’s television work (including his notable contributions to Showtime’s Masters of Horror series), along with his segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie. Unfortunately, Dante’s latest feature, The Hole (2009) is currently unavailable on DVD, so I’m unable to assess where this stands among his other movies.
- Matinee (1993) Dante’s affectionate ode to William Castle is also his most personal film. Set amidst the backdrop of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, he manages to blend his love of ‘B’ movies with the horrors of the Cold War. John Goodman, in one of his best performances, channels Castle as huckster extraordinaire/filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey. Matinee also boasts a spot-on parody of 50s sci-fi with the movie-within-a-movie, Mant. Rating: **** ½
- Gremlins (1984) If Frank Capra made a horror/comedy, it might have looked something like this. No other film demonstrates Dante’s trademark style so effectively, with its blend of humorous and dark thematic elements. The Mogwai, and their mischievous transformations, provide the perfect metaphor for this duality. Rating: ****
- Gremlins II: The New Batch (1990) Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate this frenetic sequel to Gremlins, with its no-holds-barred skewering of corporate culture. John Glover turns in a great comic performance as megalomaniacal billionaire Daniel Clamp, sort of an unholy mixture of Ted Turner and Donald Trump. And Christopher Lee seems to be having a blast playing the mad scientist role of Dr. Catheter. It’s probably the closest anyone’s gotten to successfully creating a live action cartoon. Rating: ****
- Innerspace (1987) Dante’s answer to Fantastic Voyage features one of Martin Short’s best performances as nerdy grocery store clerk Jack Putter. When a miniaturized submersible carrying Dennis Quaid is injected into his bloodstream, it’s up to Putter to become the hero he never imagined himself to be. Innerspace features some impressive special effects and strikes the perfect balance between comedy and action. This should have been a big hit. Rating: ****
- The Howling (1981) Released the same year as John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, Dante’s take on the werewolf genre is a different beast (pun intended). Compared to some of his other works, the comedy is toned down, in favor of thrills. The humor is more subversive, rather than overstated. Rating: ****
- Small Soldiers (1998) This underrated gem is probably best known as Phil Hartman’s last film, but it’s worth watching for other reasons. Once again Dante has corporate America in his sights, with Denis Leary as a cynical toy company CEO. Frank Langella provides quiet dignity (if that term can be ascribed to an action figure) to Archer, the Gorgonite leader. Fun fact: Several of the Gorgonites and Commando Elite are voiced by actors from This is Spinal Tap and The Dirty Dozen, respectively. Rating: *** ½
- Piranha (1978) More than just a cheap Jaws knock-off, Piranha sends up the nature amok genre while embracing it. On a personal note I was tickled to learn that portions of this movie were filmed within spitting distance of where I currently reside. Rating: *** ½
- Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) (co-directed by Alan Arkush) Featuring the music and onscreen presence of the Ramones, Rock ‘n Roll High School isn’t an earth-shattering examination of youth in crisis, just good mindless fun. P.J. Soles is fun to watch as Ramones-obsessed, and study impaired, high schooler Riff Randell. Rating: ***
- Explorers (1985) River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke and Bobby Fite star as three friends who build their own spacecraft. The film starts out strong, but gets lost along the way, proving that getting there is most of the fun. When the friends finally meet the aliens, it all feels a bit anticlimactic. Still, if you dial down your expectations about where it’s headed, it’s a fun little romp. Rating: ***
- The Burbs (1989) The Burbs starts promising, with its themes of domestic paranoia and neighborhood voyeurism, but ultimately goes nowhere. The climax ends up negating the film’s initially intriguing premise, eventually leading to the baffling conclusion that spying on your neighbors and unbridled suspicion is actually a good thing. Rating ** ½
- Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) Hampered by a flimsy story and lackluster performances (Steve Martin is at an all-time low with this one), Looney Tunes: Back in Action comes across as a second-rate Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The gags are hit and (mostly) miss, except for one inspired scene tucked away in the middle of the movie, replete with numerous nods to 50s sci-fi icons, and set in the mysterious Area 52 (not to be confused with Area 51). Rating: ** ½
- Hollywood Boulevard (1976) (co-directed by Alan Arkush) Everyone has to start somewhere. This essentially plotless comedy has its moments. It’s mostly saved by Dick Miller’s spirited performance as the wise-cracking Hollywood agent Walter Paisley (a nod to his character with the same name from Corman’s Bucket of Blood). Rating: ** ½