Tone in the Films of Joe Dante: Attack of the Multi-Layers!

Joe Dante Movies - Gremlins 2: The New Batch Film Essay

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom that film editors automatically make great movie directors, and that certainly may be true in terms of pure craft. The reality is that great filmmakers can come from any discipline or walk of life, but one advantage that director-editor’s have is the ability to hold two (or more) thoughts in their head at one time, a quality that typically is exhibited in their productions. One director who demonstrates this ability throughout his career is Joe Dante, whose films are so multi-layered that they’re oftentimes difficult to classify. A large portion of Dante’s filmography is celebrated by genre fans and cinephiles while simultaneously being relatively unknown to the public at large. Even movies that are more well known alternately delight and baffle each new audience that discovers them over the years. Not quite comedies, not entirely horror movies and not normal family films, Dante’s work continues to impress with the layers each work reveals over time, a key factor in their lasting power. 

Dante’s career started in large part thanks to his considerable skills as an editor, as well as his deep love of cinema and related ephemera. While an undergraduate at the Philadelphia College of Art, Dante “directed” 1968’s The Movie Orgy, a seven-and-a-half-hour collection of movie clips, advertisements and other bits and pieces assembled into a bizarre half-day experience. That, along with producer and friend Jon Davison’s connections, got Dante a gig cutting trailers for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. After several years of this, Dante, fellow New World editor/aspiring director Allan Arkush and Davison came up with a plan to make their own movie which Corman would have to agree to finance based on its extremely cheap price tag. The resulting film, Hollywood Boulevard (1976), is a drive-in soaked mashup of a behind the scenes tale, a romantic comedy, a murder-mystery horror and an outlandish spoof, with large sequences built around re-used New World footage. Right away, Dante’s films show a predilection toward anarchy, turning on a dime from genre to genre, tone to tone. Yet, despite these early works’ goofy and playful spirit, there’s still a cohesion underneath the madness, a satiric jab at the morally dubious artifice of Hollywood and cinema itself. 

Joe Dante Movies - Hollywood Boulevard Film Essay

Given the Corman connection and Dante’s love of genre, it makes sense that his breakout films would be horror movies, yet the two most easily classified works in his career still harbored subversive material. With Piranha (1978), Dante satisfied Corman’s interest to capitalize on the success of 1975’s Jaws with a suspenseful film about a community attempting to stop a deadly aquatic menace. It’s also, however, an anti-war film, with Kevin McCarthy’s scientist character detailing how the deadly piranha were created as part of a covert military operation to win Vietnam, and an anti-capitalist film, with Dick Miller’s water park owner deliberately ignoring any danger to his patrons in favor of cashing in. In 1981’s The Howling, a community of people being treated for mental illness all turn out to have the same affliction: they are werewolves. Dante uses the plot that’s literally been ripped from a tawdry horror novel to comment on several topical issues, from trendy mental health groups to sexuality to the sensationalism of TV news and its desensitizing effect. Both films oscillate between moments of horror and cheeky, satiric comedy, making for a unique blend that allows for each element to cut more deeply than they perhaps would alone.

In the early 80s, Dante’s success caught the eye of producer/director Steven Spielberg, who took the emerging filmmaker under his wing and helped pivot his career toward a wider audience. Dante’s niche became family films and comedies that always had a twisted approach, his work almost like a cousin to the similarly unique Tim Burton. Explorers (1985) was lightly disowned by Dante, yet it’s still subversively wacky, Innerspace (1987) is a “weird science” riff on a Martin & Lewis comedy, The ‘Burbs (1989) and the TV series Eerie, Indiana (for which Dante directed five episodes) found 50s-era horror lurking within 90s suburbia, most pointedly coming from the suburbanites themselves, and Small Soldiers (1998) revisited some of the themes of Piranha, targeting the money-hungry children’s toy industry, the military-industrial complex and even racism. Dante’s most personal film, Matinee (1993), sees a group of teen friends in Florida enjoy a new schlocky monster movie while 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis happens just outside the theater. It’s a movie that is both a nostalgic look back at Dante’s youth while acknowledging the tense, harrowing mood of the era, poking fun at the government hoodwinking the American public with “duck and cover” drills just as much as John Goodman’s huckster filmmaker playfully tricks his customers. Again, the blend of tones and elements saw the film pass away at the box office, but conversely allowed it to grow into a sizable cult hit over time. 

Joe Dante Movies - Matinee Film Essay

The most well known movies Dante made are the best examples of how well his blending of elements can work, allowing the films to appeal for a variety of reasons. 1984’s Gremlins is a wild blend of family-friendly adventure, holiday movie, creature feature horror and Mad Magazine-style comedy. It’s a blend that was certainly off-putting to some — infamously, at the time of its release, Gremlins was one of a few PG-rated films that pushed the boundary of the rating, eventually resulting in the birth of the PG-13, and audiences who attended based on producer Spielberg’s name on the poster next to the big eyes of the adorable Gizmo (the combination evoking the enormous success of Spielberg’s friendlier E.T. just a few years prior) were left shell-shocked. Yet Dante’s commitment to the film’s blend of mean-spirited humor (that Santa Claus monologue) and adorable lead creature has made the movie a timeless classic, as its messages of Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Machine still resonate. What are the Mogwai but a device with rules that people carelessly ignore or break?

Joe Dante Films Essay - Gremlins

Even more impressive is 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a sequel so gleefully anarchic that its insanity was the subject for a Key & Peele sketch that’s one of their most popular. The film’s satiric targets range from late-80s billionaire personalities Donald Trump and Ted Turner to an over-reliance on technology (the fully automated Clamp building is as much a problem as the Gremlins) to elitist intellectualism to the first film itself. It’s also a celebration of genre cinema and practical creature effects, as well as an ode to New York City’s vibrant, melting-pot energy. More than any of Dante’s other films, Gremlins 2: The New Batch best encapsulates his body of work — stuffed to the brim with imagination, completely unexpected, bizarrely compelling and utterly charming. Essentially, Joe Dante took Hollywood and turned it into his own personal Movie Orgy, and cinema would be poorer if he hadn’t.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.