Well, that took longer than I expected. I can't say that I have an excuse. But here, a solid fourteen months later, we stand at the end, and we at last have the answer to the question we asked at the beginning, "Whatever happened to old Joe Dante?"
What's struck me as we've wound down our director's career (and forgive me if I repeat myself a little here) is the symmetry of his work: in broad strokes, you can say that Dante came from nothing, and went back to nothing, but in between, man, did we have a good time.
I'll admit, this is perhaps overly pessimistic: it's not over yet. For one thing, the man's teamed up again with that erstwhile self-styled "master of horror" Mick Garris, which worked out so well previously (when the show was actually called Masters of Horror) that I wondered why I was even bothering with any of Dante's TV crap at all. But you never know—their new anthology film, due next year and called Nightmare Cinema, may well be the Twilight Zone: The Movie of its time. Who can say before we see it? That might put Dante's eternal return a little out of order, but that would be okay by me. Of course, that's not all Dante still has up his sleeves: there is, in "pre-production," his biopic of Roger Corman, The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes, and something called Labirintus, about a bunch of guys getting lost in a maze underneath a former Soviet research facility and if it were just about anybody else attached to the project, I'd have lost consciousness already. But Dante's made a movie about toy army men that was pretty damn good—Dante's a man who made a sequel to freaking Space Jam that was actually pretty great, and a movie about a hole, called The Hole, that was even better—so, if it ever does see the light of day, I promise, I'll be there.
And yet in the reality we live in now, we've seen our beloved filmmaker fall pretty hard. I was talking about symmetry—Dante started his career as a near-nobody, editing together a montage of nonsense called Movie Orgy, and, at this point in his regression, I'm half-surprised Dante hasn't started putting together clip shows again. What's that? Trailers From Hell, you say? Oh—right.
But that's not our concern here; our concern is with Dante's feature output. Dante made his bones, you know, with a little picture called Gremlins, which he built on the back of his friendship with Steven Spielberg; and, from there, we can say his golden age began. It's a lot harder to say when it ended: was it with his very next film, Explorers, Dante's fuck-you to transcendent sci-fi, a film of both surprising, subtle power and sincerity, and one of only two Dante joints I'd even consider calling a masterpiece—albeit also something of a mild box office bomb? (Turned out the kids didn't like it when you made E.T. again, but this time shrill and weird and satirical.) Or was the end Innerspace, whereupon Dante's dumb jokey predilections got him into trouble and saw him go to war with the sensawunda that formed the basis of the material? Or was it The 'Burbs, one of the Reagan Era's sterling satires, with an ending altogether too-hard-to-parse? Or was it Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Dante's fuck-you to sequels—and, honestly, Dante's fuck-you to Gremlins itself—that he apparently made just to see how gloriously Dante a movie could get, without his backers pulling his funding in light of the obvious fact that it was never, ever going to provide a return on their investment?
This has all been a rhetorical exercise: as far as our man's commercial golden age goes, that pretty much ended the very day Gremlins itself left theaters. But Gremlins—while I don't have nearly the time for it that most folks of my generation do—was the kind of oddball megahit you can base a whole idiosyncratic career on, and between that and the occasional modest moneymaker, Dante kept his steam into the 21st century. Dante's golden age never really ended, even after the studios finally kicked him to the curb in the wake of the too-huge-to-ignore bellyflop of Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Indeed, unlike a whole host of other filmmakers to rise out of the cesspool of the 70s (Carpenter, De Palma, Coppola, Zemeckis—some say even Spielberg himself), this director just kept making his little classics and semi-classics, right up until almost the present day, even when his budgets diminished in the face of an audience that had diminished in turn and it started to take herculean efforts to get any movie out at all.
It was only with Dante's penultimate film, Burying the Ex, recapitulating in some ways his very first, Hollywood Boulevard—representing, then, his return to the sexist claptrap of a bygone age, but made in 2014, so it feels patently offensive and not even close to accidental—that the director truly stumbled back into the garbage pile of his origins, the blighted Cormanica of Boulevard and Piranha. (I fear I will never understand people's fondness for Piranha. It's crap, guys.) Then again, perhaps this cycle repeats: Twilight Zone led to Gremlins, Gremlins led to greater things; can Nightmare Cinema lead Dante's way again? I guess we'll see, although, as with all 70s filmmakers, we have to be realistic. So let's admit it: Dante won't be around forever. I've never liked memorials. Let's give the great their proper due, while they're still here to enjoy it. And three cheers for Dick Miller while we're at it. That's guy's a treasure.
Dante did find his footing eventually with Corman on his last try; while the evidence of Boulevard and Ex suggests that it's been absolutely for the best that almost all of his movies have not been about women, Dante, with his then-partner Alan Arkush, did find one woman worth telling a great story about. And Rock 'n' Roll High School is a sweet, wonderful affair, chock full of bitchin' Ramones tunes and the most completely-adorable punk attitude you'll find in any film of its era, maybe any era. It proved what wasn't obvious from Boulevard, but would become obvious as the decades rolled over: Dante's thing was comedy. Sometimes—often—that comedy was dark and spiky, and tinged with horror. Sometimes it was just one pie in the face after another. But he was good at both. He was good at the kid's adventure, too: I'm sure it'll always be me alone saying it, but Explorers is the grandest of that lot, a perfect adventure combined with a perfect takedown of what the word "adventure" even means. It doesn't get better than that. Even so, nostalgia for childhood would return again and again to Dante's filmography, as would the nostalgia for the sci-fi schlock that Dante himself loved as a kid, and both would serve him well: Matinee is not Dante's most critically-beloved film for no reason. Meanwhile, The Hole is, in its small but essential way, maybe the most approachable movie about domestic violence ever made, about and for kids, but never once condescending to them. Well, before we get too into the weeds—too late, I know—let's just say one more thing: Gremlins 2 is funny as hell, ain't it? Often hilarious, sometimes mean, always cynical, and never, ever grim, Joe Dante may not make anybody's list of the all-time masters. But I don't think he'd want to be on your snobby, stupid list, anyway. He is, and he shall always be, a filmmaker worth celebrating. He won't be forgotten as long as the art endures.
So let's take a gander at a list we can sink our teeth into—and I really can't tell you just how happy it makes my blackened contrarian heart to have made a Joe Dante retrospective wherein Gremlins only scarcely makes it into the top ten. You fucking nerds.
14. HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD* (2/10)
13. BURYING THE EX (2/10)
12a. HOMECOMING*** (4/10)
12. PIRANHA (5/10)
11a. AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON** (6/10)
11. THE HOWLING (7/10)
10. GREMLINS (7/10)
9. INNERSPACE (7/10)
8. SMALL SOLDIERS (7/10)
7. MATINEE (8/10)
6. LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (8/10)
5a: TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE** (8/10)
5. THE HOLE (8/10)
4. THE 'BURBS (9/10)
3. ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL* (9/10)
2. GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (9/10)
1. EXPLORERS (10/10)
I am well aware that this list does not capture any of Dante's three TV movies—Runaway Daughters, The Second Civil War, and Warlord: Battle For the Galaxy—or his marginal participation as the director of the "Wraparound" segment in the Trapped Ashes anthology. But here's the thing: they either weren't on YouTube, or I don't care, or both. That said, I am also aware that this retrospective skipped over The Phantom, the final form of which Dante had very little to do with beyond his "executive producer" credit; however, in this case, I actually do feel bad about it, because I've never seen the legendarily silly thing, and Dante and Jeffrey Boam's script was apparently used with precious little alteration without anybody noticing it was supposed to be a comedy. Sadly, I was not able to obtain a copy of The Phantom over the whole year-plus course of this retrospective. Nevertheless I hold onto hope that one day, we'll be able to circle back.
Entries marked with one asterisk (*) indicate the movies that Dante made in his co-directorial relationship with Allan Arkush, including, especially, his uncredited co-directorial effort on Rock 'n' Roll High School.
Entries marked with two asterisks (**) indicate the anthology films which Dante directed one or more segments of.
Entries marked with three asterisks (***) indicate TV episodes Dante directed.