I can't quite remember when I first became aware of Joe Dante's presence upon the scene--probably about the same time I was discovering that there was a scene. Likely, it was sometime between catching his name in the credits of "Rock and Roll High School" (which he briefly took over when credited director Allan Arkush became ill) and reading about the then-revolutionary new werewolf film "The Howling" in the pages of Fangoria, back when it came with a poster in the middle and stuff you read about in Terror Teletype actually got made. Oh yeah, and then there was my favorite TV show--"Police Squad", unfairly canceled after six episodes, but not before Dante got to helm two.
After months of watching the lobby of Pembroke's nicotine-marinated Centre Theatre for the one-sheet and lobby cards to announce its impending arrival, I eventually caught "The Howling" on a memorable double-bill with Frank LaLoggia's "Fear No Evil" immediately after a shift at my lousy after-school job (that night, I was in charge of clearing the mini-mall parking lot to make room for the Carlsberg Beer show horses--too long a story for right now…). Of course, "The Howling" was nothing like I'd expected and yet everything I hoped it would be at the same time. Movies were like that when you were a teenage film freak in an age before double-dip DVDs, Bit Torrent, and downloadable screenplay PDFs: you went in with the one you've made in your head, you left with the one they gave you. "Good enough" was often...good enough ("could I reproduce this scene in Super 8?" was my barometer of quality). But this was a revelation: a giddy romp through horror movie absurdity that was neither mocking of its founding fathers nor condescending to its audience, chock full of gore and nudity and yet sensitive towards its heroine Dee Wallace Stone's deeply-felt violation, and able to devote screen time ala Altman to even the most minor characters (who can forget John Carradine's tragic Earl, whose mere minutes onscreen tells you everything you need to know about the lonely existence of the lycanthrope? Hell, even director Jonathon Kaplan gets one of the film's funniest lines while pumping gas in a seconds-long cameo).
Of course, its selling point was a dandy: nothing less than the flat-out funkiest monster effects since Ridley Scott's "Alien", courtesy of an all-of-19 Rob Bottin working with some fake fur, some condoms, some hosing, and John Hora's lighting. Above all, it was post-modern before I even knew what the term meant, before I'd briefly lost my way in the Room 101 of Humanities 101 and surrendered my Ackermonster-jhoned alliterations to the heady wangdoodle of Susan Sontag, Mast & Cohen, John Berger, and Northrop Frye (and if I'm not careful, I'll subject you to a relapse here). If only Slim Pickens had read their audiobooks...
Starting with Gary Bradner's largely forgettable paperback, Dante (with writers Terence H. Winkless and a certain John Sayles) tossed the back cover blurb into the Quisinart and concocted up a pop-culture puree that made you feel like you were the only person in the theatre who got it (what would later be termed a meta-film before the advent of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, whose collaboration "From Dusk Til Dawn" owes several life debts to Dante's early work). It was the first film I was aware of that took place in a movie universe (I hadn't seen "Hollywood Boulevard" or "Piranha" yet), the emulsion grain of its foreground and background crawling with more in-jokes than a Mad Magazine margin, with characters sporting Hammer director namesakes, the smallest walk-on a loaded homage (Dick Miller's supernatural shop owner, Kenneth Tobey's New York flatfoot, Roger Corman looking for change in the phone booth--too much!), a prescient media-indicting coda...le whew...all this plus witty cartoon quotes and enough loup-y puns (of this quality, and far better) to hold up to countless repeat viewings. And believe me, it does--I've owned this thing in every home video format known to man and will likely upgrade to the victor of some as-yet-unforeseen-format war.
BTW: hands-down, the original Image laserdisc ('ported to the DVD--buy it!) offers the most fun audio commentary track recorded ever.
That same year, John Landis' "An American Werewolf In London" would be greeted as an instant horror masterpiece, a revolution in visual effects, and an audacious mix of humour and horror the likes of which hadn't been seen in the mainstream. A fine enough film, sure, but Dante was there first. It's just that his clap-for-the-wolfman didn't get a write-up in Life Magazine, thanks to a major studio distributor, and wore its disreputable heritage like a badge of pride.
An art school major and aspiring cartoonist, Joseph Dante Jr. began his career as a reviewer for the legendary "Castle Of Frankenstein" fan magazine (many of which were later reprinted as "Fleapit Flashbacks" for Tim Lucas' essential "Video Watchdog") and Film Bulletin before editing trailers for Roger Corman's legendary New World Pictures (oh, how I wanted to work there!) and parlaying his enthusiasm and resourcefulness (not to mention willingness to work for next to no money) into a directing career. His official debut (with Allan Arkush) was the hilarious backstage spoof "Hollywood Boulevard", was sold as a softcore skin flick but was in fact both a love letter to the magic of movies and an atomic wedgie to its phony veneer of glamour, seamlessly constructed around stock footage in Corman's library.
He followed it up solo with "Piranha", an intended "Jaws" rip-off that so impressed Spielberg he became Dante's defacto, and far less meddlesome mentor (just ask Tobe Hooper). Amazingly, whereas far more lauded filmmakers like Francis Coppola blame the system for their having to make swill like "Jack", Dante never lost his soul to Hollywood--if anything, his films arguably got weirder once the budgets went up, and consequently seemed weirder because they were made in Hollywood (got that?). His defining segment of the otherwise ill-fated "Twilight Zone: The Movie" was a baroque mindf*ck in the tail end of the summer movie season, ditto his anti-Amblin' "Gremlins" with its celebration of snot and slime and mayhem, and its totally bonkers sequel "Gremlins 2", which still ranks as the loopiest studio-produced mashup since Feldman's "Casino Royale" .
"Explorers", "Innerspace", a segment for "Amazon Women On The Moon", "The Burbs" (Brother Theodore in a mainstream movie!), "Small Soldiers" (any Mego collector can relate), "Looney Tunes: Back In Action" (c'mon, how cool is "Area 52"?)--not all of them home-runs necessarily, but there's not one amongst the bunch that fails to offer at least a twinge of subversion or bad-boy revelry. Like 'em or not, they're his and his alone, stamped not so much with a distinctive visual palette or editing style but with a sensibility--the same way you can tell a Jones from a Freleng or a McKimson from a Clampbett. I would say that Dante's very much like their leading man Bugs Bunny (whom I suspect he would regard as an idol--after all, they share a Jersey accent)--he suffers a lot of fools, is content to take the long way around, stands up to the biggest bully, and always always wins.
He proved that last year with "Homecoming", last year's "Masters Of Horror" installment that pulled no punches in its outrage over the Iraq War (but let's not forget it was brilliantly written by Sam Hamm). Although he'd directed "The Second Civil War" and indulged in more character-driven material with the "Matinee", Dante was suddenly welcomed at the grown-up table--but he'd probably say all he was doing was following in the noble tradition of Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, James Whale, and what-took-ya-so-long? Until now, Dante has never received a serious critical overview, probably because his films have long defied easy categorization (but semiotics majors would have a ball). But rather than follow many of his New World alumni into the bland, middlebrow fare that often passes for "serious", he's back with another "MOH" episode, "The Screwfly Solution", set to air early next year.
Can Joe Dante really be turning 60 years of age this week? Well there's living proof that--to quote esteemed philosopher George Burns--doing what you love keeps you young (hell, just watching his films has done wonders for me). These "tributes" can come off sounding like eulogies, and there are few other filmmakers who have embodied what is so joyous, intoxicating, and life-affirming about the committment to obsessive movie fandom as he. Happy birthday, Joe!
(and make sure you check out the Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon, hosted by Tim Lucas' Video Watchblog, here).