I’ve always liked director Joe Dante. And after spending a week watching his films, I love him.
The other day I posted on the films of Wes Craven that I watched through the second week of my 31 Days of Horror. I promised I would have a second post on the other director I chose to focus on and here, finally, it is.
I honestly chose the two directors at random, I like them both and wanted to take a deeper look at their films. It was interesting then to find their films more similar than I had realized they would be. While Craven has a tendency to focus more on the nature of reality, dreams and the such, both filmmakers have an eye for satire, playing with pop cultural and horror genre conventions. Their films are always aware of not just themselves but of the society they’re a part of.
For my look at Joe Dante I watched Gremlins, Piranha, The Screwfly Solution (part of the Masters of Horror series), and The Hole. I had really wanted to include The Howling but apparently that’s a really hard movie to find right now? I don’t know.
While I had seen some of Joe Dante’s films before college, I have to admit it wasn’t until after Small Soldiers and a seminar with Jonathan Rosenbaum that I really had an awareness for who he was as a director. Before it was that guy who made Gremlins, after it was Joe Dante, that guy who is awesome.
If you’re not familiar with Joe Dante, the A.V. Club has a great primer up on him. He got his start in the 70’s and, as they mention, is a contemporary of filmmakers like Spielberg and De Palma. Dante got his first big break with 1978’s Jaws ripoff Piranha but really got notice after his segment in the Twilight Zone movie (one of my favorites). Ever since he’s been making smart, kinda trashy b-movies that have everything from biting humor, pop culture references galore, a cartoonish aesthetic born from his love of Tex Avery, and, yes, even social commentary.
It’s easy to watch Piranha as just another Jaws ripoff, or really THE Jaws ripoff, since that’s all it was intended to be. But with a script by John Sayles and an early shot of a kid playing a Jaws video game at the arcade, it’s hard to maintain that a ripoff is all this movie is. It has all of the elements of a Roger Corman flick: it’s trashy, it’s gratuitous, and it’s solidly b-movie. It’s also more than that though. Right before a girl flashes a guard she’s trying to distract she asks, what if he’s gay? In the climatic scenes of slaughter, an assistant calmly walks up to his boss and tells him that the piranhas are “eating the guests, sir.” Later, a reporter stands over a field of bloody corpses more reminiscent of the aftermath of a war zone than a summer vacation resort. “Terror, horror, death. At eleven.”
And while it’s the piranhas that are causing the mayhem, it’s the military that are the true villains here. It was a military experiment that created the monsters, military neglect that allowed them to be released, and a military cover up that allowed the carnage to continue. While Jaws is a great movie, one of my favorites, and it has plenty to say, Piranha has its social commentary coming at a whole different level. Like The Crazies, it’s impossible to ignore Piranha’s disdain for the military complex, a theme Dante revisits more than once in his career (Small Soldiers, The Screwfly Solution).
While not nearly as cartoonish in set design as his later films, there’s still that element to be found here. The stop motion animation and weird creature design, the sound effects for the piranhas as they swim and attack, the violence itself is over the top and hard to take completely seriously.
If you haven’t seen Piranha, I do recommend it. It’s obviously a b-movie Corman flick but it’s also a lot of fun and a smart little movie with plenty to say.
After Piranha came The Howling which I still haven’t seen (boo) and his segment in The Twilight Zone Movie. I didn’t rewatch that one for this but his segment has always been one of my favorites. His is the one where the kid can mold the world into whatever he wants and the shape he’s chosen for it to take is that of a twisted, demented cartoon. If anyone ever doubted Dante’s influences, they are on full display here. It’s a really great piece in that movie, one of the best in my opinion, and it’s worth revisiting for sure.
The next movie I did manage to watch was Gremlins. I think this is where Dante takes the turn to more family friendly horror. We all know Gremlins, right? Gizmo? The Mogwai? While there are some truly horrific moments to be found here, for the most part Gremlins takes a more comedic tone. It’s like the bastard cousin of Spielberg’s E.T. (notice how their careers kind of track? Spielberg was involved in the Twilight Zone movie too). Gremlins also marks Dante’s move to suburbia. It’s an interesting theme also found throughout his movies, the horrors we find in our everyday, mundane lives. People moved to the suburbs for safety but that safety is all just an illusion.
And of course Dante’s play with pop culture and cartoons continue. The climax of the film starts out in a movie theater screening Snow White and moves into a department store selling toys. So there’s that. It also acknowledges its own silliness, both in this movie and it’s equally entertaining sequel (another movie I didn’t watch here but still really enjoy). The rules of keeping Gizmo safe and happy are pretty ridiculous. What if you’re traveling and change time zones? A problem Dante gleefully acknowledges and plays with.
Ironically, after the all of chaos and mayhem, how many people walk out of the theater and say “I want a mogwai! They’re so cute!” I’ve personally known more than a few. Hell, if someone offered I don’t think I’d turn away a Gizmo. And that’s totally the point.
After watching Gremlins, I skipped ahead a lot. Part of it was because a lot of his movies, while similar thematically and stylistically, aren’t horror. The Explorers, that Looney Toons movie, Small Soldiers. Great movies for another day but here we’re focusing on the scary. (Also, Eerie Indiana is in there as well but yeah, TV).
In 2005 The Masters of Horror series was started and it has seen many of the great directors create short(ish) horror films. Dante has directed two segments for the series and I chose to watch his second, the higher rated Screwfly Solution.
The Screwfly Solution is based on the short scifi story by James Tiptree Jr. Or Alice Sheldon, as was her actual name. The plot of the movie follows the plot of the story pretty closely but I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t go too far into details. Just know that the ending takes a pretty weird turn I didn’t see coming and I’m not entirely sure I’m sold on. But since it is true to the ending of the short story, I’ll give Dante a pass on this one.
I will say about the ending though, the special effects are once again very Spielberg-esque. Coincidence? I’m guessing not.
The premise here is that a mysterious disease is causing men to violently, homicidally, attack any woman they encounter. It’s tied to attraction, the more a man is a aroused the more violent he becomes. Of course, the more violent he becomes the more he gets aroused. You can see where this is going? Bloody, violent, horrifying death and mayhem. The story focuses on a woman and her husband who is one of the scientists working to stem the outbreak.
Once again we go back to the theme of military incompetence and distrust. While they’re not responsible for the outbreak, they completely fail to contain it. Not just fail, they refuse to take the necessary steps. Since the necessary step is kind of chemical castration, I guess I can get the hesitation, but the point ends up being that these men would rather keep their manhood than they would see to the survival of the human race. Kind of a harsh criticism of the gender, right?
What I found most interesting here though was not how Dante has stayed the same since his earlier films, it’s in how he’s changed. Of all of the movies of his I’ve watched, this is probably the first I would count as straight horror. There are the elements of sci fi but most of the humor is gone. There’s a bleakness here bordering on cynicism. While I think the Screwfly Solution was still really good (some bad low budgetness aside), it’s somehow less fun than Dante’s earlier movies. The darker turn works here but it also carries through to his next film, the less positively received The Hole.
In 2009’s The Hole we once again return to suburbia, the kids who live there, and the nightmarish problems they face. I’ll say upfront that I actually like this movie. I know a lot of people don’t and I can definitely see why. It’s still familiar as a Dante film – a pop culture homage to films like The Gate, the cartoonish Tex Avery set design, the suburban setting. The thing that’s changed though is the underlying humor and, as in the Screwfly Solution, a sense of bleakness and cynicism.
Without giving much away, I think the easiest way to see what I’m talking about is to compare the ending of The Hole to the ending of Gremlins. At the end of Gremlins, everyone has learned their lesson. The wise old Chinese man comes for Gizmo, Gizmo says goodbye, and the message is that you’re not ready yet, but someday you will be. It’s happy and sweet after a fashion. And there’s hope. The Hole is different. The kids face off against their fears and yes, they conquer them. There’s a good laugh with their mom, the adventure is over, and then we cut back to the basement to see the door to the Hole fly open once again. There is always more to fear, evil can never truly be vanquished. There is always more horror.
And that’s my Joe Dante watching!
If you haven’t seen his films (have people not seen Gremlins?), I pretty much recommend all of them. Even The Hole, which isn’t super popular, has some good stuff going for it.
Wrapping up my week two now, I really enjoyed taking a deeper look at both Wes Craven and Joe Dante. I think there’s something to be said for looking at a body of work rather than just a film here or there. Interesting patterns emerge, themes evolve. If it’s a director you like, chances are it’ll be a lot of fun.
Tonight I watch another female directed horror then tomorrow I’ll hopefully get to the Australians. My schedule’s been busy but Netflix has also not been super helpful with the DVD turn around. And broken discs. So there’s that.
Join us on Sunday for another Google+ Hangout and more horror talk. It’ll be fun. I promise.