6.2 Hollywood Boulevard (1976)
5.8 Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979)
6.4 Piranha (1978)
7.0 The Howling (1981)
7.0 Gremlins (1984)
6.5 Explorers (1985)
6.7 Innerspace (1987)
6.5 The Burbs (1989)
6.5 Gremlins 2 (1990)
6.0 Matinee (1993)
6.7 Small Soldiers (1998)
4.0 Burying the Ex (2014)
6.6 Looney Tunes - Back in Action (2003)
6.5 The Hole (2009)
Joe Dante (USA, 1946)
debuted with the cheap thriller Hollywood Boulevard (1976),
co-directed with Allan Arkush and
produced by Roger Corman.
The satirical monster movie
produced by Roger Corman and scripted by John Sayles,
was basically a horror spoof of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1977),
and it mostly looks like a parody not a horror movie at all.
Dante completed the musical Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979), which features the Ramones, when director Allan Arkush fell ill.
The Howling (1981), again scripted by Sayles, is a classic of werewolf movies.
He directed an episode titled It's a Good Life in The Twilight Zone - The Movie (1983), the adaptation of a popular TV series.
Gremlins (1984), scripted by Chris Columbus, is an implausible fairy tale with some gruesome scenes but mostly more closely related to comedic semi-scifi films like Back to the Future and to Bob Clampett's anarchic cartoons Looney Tunes. A hilarious scene shows the alien creatures laughing out loud while watching Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The nasty creatures stage a frontal attack against the world of cartoons, where the protagonists are usually meant to teach moral values to watchers. Dante seems to react against the Charles Dickens, Walt Disneys, Frank Capras and Steven Spielbergs of the world, to their idyllic mythologies of Christmas spirit and to their naive creations of children's universes. Dante seems to positively hate Christmas. Along the way he sets in motion an orgy of special effects and of self-referential cinematic jokes that riff on classics of cinema.
One evening Billy shows Gizmo to a younger friend who accidentally spills water on it. Gizmo goes into a sort of coma and ejects five balls of flesh that quickly grow up as mogwais. Mesmerized, Billy brings one of the cubs to the science teacher of the local high school, who proceeds to examine it. When Billy leaves, the teacher uses a syringe to extract blood from a paw in order to conduct a blood test.
The other four cubs in Billy's room are lovely and mischievious while Gizmo is recovering in Billy's bed. Billy wakes up in the middle of the night hearing his dog whining and finds it hanging outside from Christmas lights. Another night, when the clock shows that it's not yet midnight, they demand food. The following morning Billy finds four disgusting cocoons on the floor instead of the four cubs, and realizes that the mischievious cubs had cut the power chord of his clock: they tricked him into feeding them after midnight.
At the same time the cub caged in the high school manages to get hold of the remnants of a sandwhich left by the teacher on a counter, and this cub too eats after midnight, and this cub too turns into a cocoon. The teacher is excited by the discovery and proceeds to examine the cocoon. During a class, the cocoon comes alive. Luckily the students are just about to leave for the Christmas vacation when the cocoon hatches. The creature that is born devours the teacher. We don't see it yet.
Billy finds the teacher dead and is attacked in turn by the creature, which now we see as a small evil monster, a "gremlin". Billy realizes that his mother is in danger. In fact, the four cocoons at home have turned into similar gremlins and are attacking his mother, but his mother outsmarts three of them killing them in gruesome manners (one in the blender, one in the oven and one simply stabbed to death). The fourth one is about to kill her when Billy arrives to save her. Billy sets out to find the surviving gremlin, following the pawtracks on the snowy streets, and finds him inside the local YMCA. During the fight, the gremlin falls into a swimming pool, which has a lot of water and spawns a lot of gremlins. The gremlins scatter all over town. Billy rushes to the police station and tries in vain to convince the sheriff that gremlins are loose in the streets. The sheriff, however, is called when a couple gets mysteriously killed by a snowplow. And on his way to the home of this couple he sees the rich woman ejected from a window of her house. And we see that both incidents have been caused by evil gremlins, who seem to quickly learn how to misuse machines. Then the sheriff sees explosion all over town and flees.
Kate is being harassed at the saloon where dozens of gremlins are getting drunk and having fun. She has to serve them alcohol, terrified. Then she finds a camera and realizes that the flashlight makes them faint and so she manages to escape. She finds Billy outside and together they hide in the bank. Kate tells Billy that she always hated Christmas because her father died on Christmas's Eve trying to impersonate Santa Claus in their home's chimney.
Billy and Kate walk outside and look for the gremlins. They find them all in the movie theater, where they accidentally started the projection of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Billy opens a gas pipe and sets a fire which causes an explosion where all the gremlins are killed... except one who had preferred to indulge in the sweets of a candy store in the local mall. Billy tells Kate to look for the switch to turn on the lights and chases the gremlin through the maze of rooms. All the time Billy has been carrying Gizmo in his backpack, protecting it from the evil gremlins. Gizmo escapes and rides a toy car through the mall, looking for Billy. Finally, Billy and the gremlin face each other in a sort of duel. The gremlin outsmarts Billy and is about to kill him with a chainsaw when Gizmo arrives and opens a sunlight, causing the gremlin to lose control. Meanwhile Billy's father was at a convention of inventors, surrounded by inventors who had much more sophisticated inventions (including a talking robot) and is now driving back home. Billy finds the gremlin by the fountain of the mall. Kate finds the switch to turn on all the lights and the gremlin dies in the fountain before it can create cocoons... or maybe not (the dog sees something bubbling in the water).
The old Chinese man shows up angry, having seen the news on television that the town was devastated by "hysteria" and having guessed the truth. He speaks to Gizmo, who understands his language, and takes it away. Billy's father apologizes, feeling bad for all the trouble that he caused to his town. The Chinese man scolds him for being irresponsible and tells Billy that he may some day be ready to take Gizmo back.
Explorers (1985), written by Eric Luke, is an unusual sci-fi movie in which the protagonists are teenage geeks.
It was followed by the demented sci-fi comedy Innerspace (1987), scripted by Jeffrey Boam (who had just scripted David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone) and produced by Steven Spielberg. The film, whose premise borrows from Richard Fleischer's Fantastic Voyage (the comic adventures of microscopic people inside someone else's body), is mostly about the special effects.
He became more political and his films were increasingly designed as political allegories.
The slapstick black comedy The Burbs (1989), written by Dana Olsen, is a parody of Hitchcock's Rear Window that quotes from Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) while borrowing styles from Loonely Tunes and spaghetti westerns in selected scenes. This time no special effects enhance the romp.
Gremlins 2 (1990), scripted by Charlie Haas, was basically a self-referential parody of the original.
Matinee (1993), scripted again by Charlie Haas, is a nostalgic tribute to sci-fi movies of the 1950s but set in 1962 during the real terror of the Cuban Missile crisis: a filmmaker is filming a sci-fi movie in a small town that is waiting for the nuclear holocaust.
Small Soldiers (1998), produced by Spielberg, is a sci-fi movie in which toy soldiers become sentient beings and start a mini-war. The confused story, that feels improvised, is just a pretext to mix live-action characters and computer-generated ones (credit Star Winston). The sardonic humor and the atmosphere of surrealistic slapstick makes it feel like another bleak parody of Gremlins, and of Hollywoodian war movies in general. There are also the usual parodies of classic films (a memorable one on Barbarella, another one on Bride of Frankenstein).
Dante made famous cartoons interact not only with Hollywood stars but more importantly with Hollywood cliches in Looney Tunes - Back in Action (2003), scripted by Larry Doyle, a farcical mash-up of film cliches (James Bond, Austin Powers, George Lucas' Star Wars, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and so on) that flashes by at the frenetic pace of those cartoons
Homecoming (2005) was a one-hour television episode.
The Hole (2009) was a 3D movie.
Burying the Ex (2014) is a lame zombie comedy.
Dante was one of the great parodists of American cinema. Silly movies like Innerspace, Looney Tunes - Back in Action, Gremlins 2 and Small Soldiers are post-modernist subversive hodgepodges jam-packed with satirical pop-cultural and political gags, of cinema trivia and of sociological detritus.