This past summer should have belonged to Joe Dante. Matinee, his 1993 masterpiece and his most seemingly personal film, finally made its way to DVD in the spring. Piranha, his shoestring 1978 debut, was then released on DVD on August 3, mere weeks before Miramax released a $20 million nominal remake, Piranha 3D, that did surprisingly good business. And all the while, Dante was sitting on a finished 3D feature of his own, The Hole, which had been positively received at the Venice Film Festival.
But anyone who’s followed Dante’s career could have seen the inevitable disappointments coming. Universal released the Matinee DVD almost silently, with not even a commentary track among its spare special features; Piranha 3D gave no credit to the earlier film’s director, despite his clear creative imprint; and as of this writing, The Hole still languishes without an American distributor. The sole unblemished success of the bunch was the Piranha DVD, which came out as part of Shout! Factory’s lovingly packaged “Corman Classics” series.
Having long considered Dante to be the most severely underrated American director alive, I felt the time was ripe for an outraged profile on his behalf. So I spent a few weeks reacquainting myself with his older films—the Reagan-era moneymakers (The Howling, The ’Burbs, Innerspace, Explorers, Gremlins and its batshit sequel) as well as his wonderful, unofficial “War Trilogy” (Matinee, The Second Civil War, and Small Soldiers)—and tracking him down for an interview. He graciously offered a half hour over the phone, and I prepared my list of questions with the intention of painting him as the undervalued artiste, a genius in perennial conflict with brainless studio marketing honchos who couldn’t abide his cutting satire and personal vision.
I envisioned a title like “Joe Dante: Invisible Man,” and a lede that might position him as late-period Nicholas Ray rather than the guy whose last feature was Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Imagine war drums beating in the background:
He directed some of the most commercially successful films of the 1980s. In the 1990s, he directed three of the most devastating political satires since Vietnam. His work exhibits a cinematic vocabulary and sense of film history to rival those of his contemporaries like Scorsese or Coppola. And he hasn’t had a satisfactory cut of a movie in American theaters for 17 years.
Imagine my disappointment when Dante turned out to be a mensch, and one without a single grudge or regret to speak of. The whole time, as I essentially asked him “Aren’t you pissed about getting fucked by The Man again and again?” a dozen different ways, Dante gave jocular explanations like, “The business has changed, that’s all. Movies are made for different audiences, by different people, then when I started out. They have their agendas, and I may or may not agree with it, but you can only go where the interesting projects are.”
It was the worst interview I’ve ever done, and I scrapped the article for fear of doing a puff-piece like “Joe Dante: Swell Guy. You Should Really Watch More of His Movies.” I wanted a Dante who shared my hair-pulling disbelief that his career is so taken for granted. What I got was a man who simply loves movies, whether he’s making them or watching them. He’s had some good breaks, some bad breaks, some overbearing studio interference as well as one Hollywood experience with total creative freedom (the must-see, previously alluded-to Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which is more like a multi-million dollar sketch comedy puppet-show Hellzapoppin’ than a narrative feature). He’s smuggled some genuine personality into massive corporate products, and worked with some of his boyhood heroes. He makes pictures for a living—fun, unpretentious pictures like the kind he grew up watching. What kind of asshole would he have to be to complain?
This is the quality that makes Piranha, like all of Dante’s best movies, so wonderful, and the quality that must have endeared him to Steven Spielberg even though the film is a blatant, self-aware rip-off of Jaws (its first shot is of a kid playing a Jaws arcade game). There’s a deeper conversation happening between these two movies than simple parody or dumbing-down, and it’s a conversation that would continue between the two filmmakers throughout the 1980s. Spielberg cast Dee Wallace as the adult lead in E.T. after seeing her in Dante’s Piranha follow-up, The Howling. He then produced Gremlins and Innerspace, Dante’s two highest-grossing films. Their collaboration, one assumes, was based on certain shared preoccupations (flying machines, boys’ adventure stories, Saturday matinees, a belief in the movies as a place to make audiences gasp and swoon in unison), only Dante never bothers to get bogged down with nitty-gritty details like meaningful human characters, moral predicaments, or ethnic identification. Dante makes films that Spielberg’s id might make, movies that double down on pop cultural know-how and riotous thrills without pausing for anything so unentertaining as an earnest assessment of humanity. For the many Spielberg-haters out there, this is preferable to his perceived Hollywood sentimentality, though I’ve found the two filmmakers’ work to be symbiotic, and I appreciate both more having come to understand them as such.
Dante’s stylistic hallmark is the supposedly schlocky genre film, made with equal parts adolescent glee and knowing admiration for film history. Dante makes movies that mock consumerism despite having toy characters, ostensible kids films that poke fun at kids for watching television, and films that abound with film-historical in-jokes while setting new special-effects standards. Spielberg too made his name as a technically dazzling action director with a flair for effects, but as early as Jaws, he was clearly more interested in his humans than his creatures. To his increasing, unfair critical detriment, Spielberg has always been most fascinated by the men and women who yearn for the paranormal and transcendent; Dante, to his increasing, unfair popular dismissal, has always been more interested in the monsters themselves.
So, Piranha. Dante and screenwriter John Sayles unleash a school of genetically modified fish into a Texas stream that runs past a kids’ summer camp and a new water park. There’s a smorgasbord of underwater attacks, where Dante displays his early talents for low-budget effects and viscerally effective editing—remnants of his first job for Roger Corman, cutting trailers. But Piranha is also, to be fair, where he first displays his largely negligible approach to human characters. Well-versed as he is in the mechanics of filmmaking, and despite the fact that all his films convey an impressive degree of social observation for being so candy-shelled, Dante has never seemed very invested in human motivations. His most upstanding, passionate protagonists tend to be earnest young men like Ethan Hawke’s pubescent astronaut in Explorers or Simon Fenton’s impressionable sci-fi acolyte in Matinee—dream-filled boys who love comic books and yearn for girlfriends, but who are forever overshadowed by Dante’s more colorful villains and swindlers.
Naturally, then, Piranha’s handsome hero, played by Bradford Dillman, is upstaged by the mad scientist and dastardly developer played respectively by future Dante regulars (and B-movie legends) Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller. Piranha doesn’t have Jaws’s incredible tension or compelling human narrative, but it outdoes it for sheer gore and chutzpah; Dante, for the first and only time in his career, lets children die for the sake of thrills. This would of course be unthinkable in a Spielberg film, and is, in fact, in direct opposition to the entire Spielberg ethos. So why did Spielberg then take Dante under his wing (even if he did insist on a kinder, gentler cut of Gremlins)? I’ll exercise a little unearned chutzpah myself, and imagine Spielberg watching those kids flail and bleed in the water, a cruel smirk on his face like the rest of us, thinking, “I can’t believe he did that.” And though Spielberg might not bring himself to be so callous in his own films, my guess is he likes a cheap thrill every now and again, too, and couldn’t resist the urge to pay a kindred spirit to do his dirty work.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.