Joe Dante

I’m a fan. I’m not sure any of Dante’s movies completely, totally crystallize — they’re almost all burdened with strange mismatches of tone and the constraints of either too small a budget or too much studio interference . . . and yet I think his films are glorious, the kinds of things that managed to tiptoe along the line between the sincerely low-budget exploitational and the smartly self-referentially genre-invigorating. The Howling veers from its first twenty minutes’ feel of tawdry sex-drenched horror, turning a serial killer flick into a werewolf movie, but then it heads into the woods and becomes homage, parody, recreation of classic horror films in a cheesy 1970s world, complete with John Carradine, Slim Pickens, a terrifying transformation scene, and stray jokes about Thomas Wolfe. (John Sayles, who wrote this script and Dante’s prior estimable Jaws rip-off Piranha, plays a morgue attendant.)

But I won’t blather too much about his films, except to steer you toward the two aforementioned horror flicks and the unfairly forgotten Gremlins 2 (which is the closest thing we’ve gotten to a Chuck Jones comedy since Jones stopped kicking out cartoons every month, way better even than Dante’s later attempt to capture that magic in his Looney Tunes movie) and the great slice-of-life Matinee, about, appropriately enough, a maker of B-movies in love with the pleasures of cheesy cinema. Dante manages to keep his tongue in his cheek and his heart on his sleeve; he loves the stuff of horror from the golden days between RKO classics and Roger Corman’s glorious glut of low-budget flicks. (Dante started working for Corman.)

But I mainly bring this up now because of JD’s involvement with Showtime’s not-particularly-masterful Masters of Horror series. The idea is that great horror directors would get a chance, in hour-long episodes, to do quick and dirty versions of the kinds of real, guts-on-the-floor horror they haven’t been able to do in studios for some time. (Dante’s career is a textbook example of how to neglect or disable an idiosyncratic talent that almost can’t survive without drive-in theaters.) Most of the episodes have been atrocious; Stuart Gordon (of Re-animator fame) made a mediocre Lovecraftian offshoot, Larry Cohen and Don Coscarelli did reasonably entertaining little numbers that really were the same film (involving one person being chased through British Columbia by horrible forces) and nothing innovative; John Carpenter’s first episode had a modicum of ambition (it was about a long-lost cult film that drove its viewers crazy) and had Udo Kier, but lacked any and all wit, and his second film tried to be a horror parody of abortion debates and was just laughably sub-par.

But Dante has taken the constraints of the one-hour time frame, the limited budget, the restrictions on hiring talent (they must hire all but 2 actors from the local Vancouver scene), and the boundaries on shooting locations … and has just said, fuck it, I’ll try something ambitious anyway. In the first year, his episode “Homecoming” used zombies to tell a hammer-handed satire about the Iraq war; it was fun to watch if never particularly scary nor, to be honest, wholly successful. But, damn, to see someone say hey, B-movies do this kind of thing very, very well….

And this year he did an adaptation of a seemingly-unfilmable sci-fi apocalyptic story called “The Screwfly Solution,” penned by James Tiptree Jr. (a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, who pioneered along with Samuel Delany and maybe Le Guin a vein of sci-fi as mechanism for pushing on our ideas about sexuality and gender). The film is bleak, and — again — not entirely convincing or cohesive as a film. But as an ambitious and aggressive b-movie with politics, it is unparalleled. The plot: a strange mutation or illness has led to a confusion in men between aggression and sexual desire. Horror ensues, and the film can be brutal. It is also a really challenging little piece of film, and reminds me why I love this guy and this genre.

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