Today, the legendary director Joe Dante turns 72! I recently had a chance to speak with Mr. Dante and needless to say, that short chat alone was a master class in film studies. To call me a Joe Dante fan is an under statement. His collected works of the 1980s and 1990s were composed of fear, paranoia and the fantastic helping to shape the film imagination of myself, and an entire generation of moviegoers.
The films of Joe Dante are heightened by a nuanced approach to horror, dark comedy and satire. With a distinct signature that can’t be overlooked, Joe Dante’s contribution to the zeitgeist of 80s and 90s popular cinema is unmistakable. From Piranha (1978), to The Howling (1981), from The Burbs’ (1989) to The Hole (2009) Dante’s signature is distinct. Odd creatures, eccentric characters, domestic fear and angst define his films. He’s a master of horror who can leverage the tropes of the genre to either heighten or subvert expectations.
“…The more observed the gremlins were, the funnier they were and the more they seemed to be saturating aspects of humanity”
As Gremlins turns 35 this summer, the impact of Joe Dante’s first studio film and Amblin’s official first production cannot be understated. Like the films and trailers he currently celebrates on the Trailers from Hell podcast, the horror lives in the every day. This is the wonder of not only Gremlins but also Dante’s lasting legacy. His ability to highlight the dark within the light is both haunting and accessible to mainstream audiences.
Everything about Gremlins is in complete contrast to the 1980s Reagan era it critiques. The film explores the American small-town dreamscape with a pulse of anxiety. It’s a story about corporate greed, broken homes, unfulfilled ambition, and the realization that the promises of Christmas are not immune to the darkness of humanity. In speaking with Joe Dante earlier this month, he shared his insight into the evolution of Gremlins from script to screen. From the original nature of Gizmo (who transformed fully into Stripe in the original script) to the exploration of traditional American values.
Mr. Dante reflected that “because Steven Spielberg had seen The Howling and he had seen Piranha, two of my previous pictures, one being a rip off of his. He thought he was starting a low budget film company at the time and wanted to make a low budget horror film.”
Recognizing that films will evolve from script to screen, he also spoke on how the film transformed from a gore-fest to a horror tale with a sense of humanity. It’s this humanity that resonates not only in Gremlins but throughout his collective body of work.
“What struck me about the original script was that it was really dark, gruesome and the gremlins did awful things. They killed the mother and cut her head off and bounced it down the stairs. It seemed to me that there was more to make from the premise than that. Once we saw how the creatures were designed and worked, the premise did evolve. The more observed the gremlins were, the funnier they were and the more they seemed to be saturating aspects of humanity. So the tone from the script to the screen changed.”
“The director of a movie imposes their own personality or politics into a story so that it can be presented in some different type of way…”
Although the tone had changed from page to screen, the results where still terrifying. I still remember the stark fear like it was yesterday. January 1989 – Gremlins invaded network television. If you’re a product of the 80s home video generation then you can appreciate the anticipation of a major film either premiering on network television or home video. This anticipation helped shape fandom. True fans would brave asking their parents to stay up late on a school night…or quietly sneak out of bed.
Watching Gremlins had an incredible impact on me. As an eight year old kid who had been exposed to screen monsters through the cinema of the fantastic and the pages of Fangoria (albeit in secret), Gremlins was revolutionary. The fear created by the liveliness of green little critters was cerebral. The menacing of Stripe and his crew seemed so real – full of intention and emotion and a heightened sense that home had been invaded. Sleeping in my bed, my arms draped over the edge of my bed, I still remember the feeling of gnawing and the sound of flesh being torn from me. Suddenly Stripe rises from under my bed to attack! I awoke to my older brother patiently asserting that it was only a movie. I know now that it’s never only a movie.
Recognizing that genre filmmaking rises from the political and our shared sense of self, its important to recognize that film studies is a social science grounded in not only narrative but who the director is. As Joe Dante asserted, “The director of a movie imposes their own personality or politics into a story so that it can be presented in some different type of way. I think you’ll see in my movies if you watch a bunch of them, you’ll notice where my sensibilities are”.
“Since horror movies are usually a manifestation of whatever is going on at a particular time, from horror movies of World War 1 to Vietnam and so forth, the genre has evolved into probably the most lucrative genre and has outlasted the Western, which is something no one would ever imagine. In regards to my own personal attraction, with films like Gremlins and The Burbs‘, there just seems to be so much to talk about in small town movies. These places are nice but there is a dark side. There’s no mistake the mother in Gremlins is watching It’s a Wonderful Life in the kitchen. Its a happy holiday classic but is also a very serious movie that goes to really dark places.”
“There’s no mistake the mother in Gremlins is watching It’s a Wonderful Life in the kitchen. Its a happy holiday classic but is also a very serious movie that goes to really dark places.”
Its the dark places of where we live and who we are that has become a staple of Dante’s cinematic voice. The odd, the unspoken and unsolicited. This speaks to Dante’s acute understanding that horror speaks to a deepened cultural awareness. From a childhood filled with memories of Saturday afternoon B-Movie matinees to his early work with Roger Corman, Dante knows horror and has an critical appreciation of all things Americana. The notion of humanity and the everyday resonates through Dante’s work. The Burbs, for example, deconstructs the tranquility of the American suburb, placing danger and uncertainty within the home.
As the film opens with an visual journey to everyday America from space, the audience is immediately introduced to Ray (Tom Hanks), who leaves the comforts of his home to journey out into the depths of the property line he shares with his new neighbor. Leveraging atmospheric and visual tropes of the horror genre along with an incredible Jerry Goldsmith score, the social divide and paranoia of suburbia is etched into the narrative. Inspired by the voyeuristic gaze of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), The Burbs is a film that drops it’s characters into the unseen horrors hidden in plain sight.
Reflecting on his career and life obsessed with movies and pop culture, Dante’s passion project, Trailers from Hell, really speaks to the core of who he is as a filmmaker. As a young boy obsessed with all things pop culture, Mr. Dante is a film buff with a deep love and appreciation of how movies are made and what they can say. As he explains, “I’m a big fan of 1950s and 1960s trailers – mood, big font and things like that. So, I had this trailer collection and I thought of what I was going to do with it. How could I show these to people? So, I thought I would do it online. This was around 2007 or 2008 and I thought to make it exciting to watch, I would do a commentary track for trailers of a couple of pictures I liked. From there, it sort of grew into a group of filmmakers talking about or explaining movies they like or think people should see. The idea is to introduce people to genres or pictures they may not of heard of or even seen.”
It was a fanboys dream come true to share in such a conversation and I extend my warm thanks to Mr. Dante for the free education. His most recent directorial effort can be seen in the Mich Garris produced horror anthology Nightmare Cinema. The celebrated filmmaker has had a very storied and diverse career, but what is your favourite Joe Dante film? Let us know on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook.
And of course, Happy Birthday Joe Dante!