Want to become an instant expert in our filmmaker of the month without committing yourself to an entire filmography? Then you need the Hell Is For Hyphenates Cheat Sheet: we program you a double feature that will not only make for a great evening’s viewing, but will bring you suitably up-to-speed before our next episode lands…
THE ’BURBS (1989) and GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990)
Don’t let the fact that The ’Burbs is incredibly silly and funny distract you from the fact that it is also an incredibly clever satire on the veneer of the American Dream. At the tail end of the Reagan era and the Cold War, Joe Dante made a film about white America’s fear of foreigners, set in an idealised neighbourhood whose pristineness belies a rotten, ugly heart. Tom Hanks stars as the quintessential middle-class husband and father who has a growing suspicion of his unusual neighbours, and, egged on by the mob mentality of other members of the suburban cul-de-sac, ignites chaos and destruction. It’s possibly Dante’s cleverest work, and a potential insight into his worldview. Your evening continues with a viewing of Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The original Gremlins is widely considered the superior film, but we’re going to make a case for the sequel. The point of the Cheat Sheet is to give you everything you need to know about the director in the space of two films, and Dante’s predilection for Looney Tunes-inspired wackiness and meta-textual gags that trample uncaringly over the remains of the fourth wall make Gremlins 2 the irresistible choice. Film critic Leonard Maltin appears at one point in the film, trashing the original Gremlins on screen before he himself is attacked by Gremlins, who then stop the actual film we’re watching as we’re watching it, taking over the cinema we are presumably in! The first Gremlins felt like Dante meeting the audience halfway; the sequel feels like Dante Unleashed. Watching these two films back-to-back should tell you everything you need to know about what makes Joe Dante tick.
Substitutions: If you can’t get or have already seen The ’Burbs, track down Innerspace (1987). It’s not exactly the suburbam satire that The ’Burbs is, but it’s the perfect mix of action and comedy, and one of the most eminently rewatchable films Dante has made. Who doesn’t want to see Dennis Quaid shrunk to microscopic proportions and injected into Martin Short’s arse? Crazy people, that’s who. If you can’t get or have already seen Gremlins 2: The New Batch, get yourself a copy of Looney Tunes: Back In Action. After years of emulating the Bugs Bunny aesthetic on screen – and collaborating more than once with the great Chuck Jones – Dante fulfilled what was surely a prophecy from the mists of time, directing the 2003 live action Looney Tunes film. Though it doesn’t quite reach the peak of the original cartoon (but what since 1964 has?), it’s still far more in the spirit of the classic series than every hipster’s favourite ironic go-to reference Space Jam. You know it’s true.
The Hidden Gem: Want to see something off the beaten path, a lesser-known work from Joe Dante’s filmography? We recommend you take a look at 1993’s Matinee. Dante’s love letter to William Castle features John Goodman as a schlocky film producer promoting his horror film Mant! in southern Florida as a group of movie-loving kids try to cope with the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’ll likely never see a movie-length dramatisation of Joe Dante’s childhood, so Matinee is probably the next best thing.
The next episode of Hell Is For Hyphenates, featuring Neil Marshall talking Joe Dante, will be released on 31 May 2017.