Three of Joe Dante’s Best Films – By Philip Smolen

With the release of “Piranha 3D” back in 2010, New Jersey’s own Joe Dante found himself in rarefied film territory. He’s one of the few directors who have been around long enough to see one of his own low budget movies remade in 3D by a new director. Born in Morristown, New Jersey, Dante grew up in the 1950s and fell in love with the sci-fi and horror movie explosion of the decade (on some DVDs you can hear him wax poetic about some of the theaters he watched movies at). During the 1960s he wrote for popular monster movie magazines like Calvin T. Beck’s “Castle of Frankenstein” and Forrest J. Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” By the early 1970s he and fellow New Jerseyan Alan Arkush (director of “Rock and Roll High School” [1979]) found their way to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and began cutting trailers for the legendary low budget director. While making trailers for exploitation films such as “Black Mama, White Mama” (1973) and “Tidal Wave” (1973), Dante and Arkush were convinced that they could make better movies. They approached Corman and told him that if he let them direct, they would make sure that it would be the least expensive film New World ever produced. Corman agreed and the result was “Hollywood Boulevard” (1976) a funny, snappy and slick look at the making of a low budget movie that both mocked itself as well as the bloated Hollywood film making system. True to their word, it was the cheapest movie New World ever made, and of course, it made a tidy profit. And with that, Dante was on his way. So here’s a quick look at three of Joe Dante’s best films.

The Howling (Avco Embassy, 1981) – 1981 was an unusual year in horror films in that three major werewolf movies were released. Joe Dante’s “The Howling” was the first and it still remains one of the best werewolf movies ever made. Ambitious reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone) agrees to go to a mountain retreat run by famous therapist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) after a traumatic incident with serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). What she finds is a family of werewolves who want to indoctrinate Karen into their way of life. With a witty and bright script by Gary Brander, Terrance Winkless and future filmmaker John Sayles, “The Howling” is a great reboot of the werewolf movie. Incorporating effective makeup effects by a young Rob Bottin, “The Howling” was one of the first films to ignore the traditional time lapse photography route for its monster transformations. Dante keeps his tongue firmly in cheek balancing terror and humor and winds up reinvigorating a venerable horror genre. After more than 30 years, “The Howling” has lost none of its bite.

InnerSpace (Universal, 1987) – What would make more sense to Joe Dante, then to send up one his beloved seminal sci-fi flicks from the 1960s? In this hilarious spoof of “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), tough guy pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quid) and his state of the art one man sub are ready to undergo miniaturization and be injected into an experimental animal. The process goes wrong, however, and the miniaturized Tuck is instead injected into the body of hypochondriac Jack Putter (a wonderful Martin Short) who is now convinced that he’s hearing voices. It’s up to Tuck to save Jack from evil spies while it’s up to Jack to teach Tuck how to share his feelings with girlfriend Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan). “Innerspace” is a total treat, from its spoof of sci-fi and spy films, to its wicked take on the "I’m OK, you’re OK" psycho babble of the 80s. Dante includes many affectionate nods to classic sci-fi in this charming film and gleefully takes the audience on a trip that mixes summer blockbuster spectacle with genuine belly laughs.

Matinee (Universal, 1993) – Leave it to Joe Dante to come up with a nostalgic and funny take at growing up during one of most stressful times in American history. In October 1962 Florida teenager Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) takes his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Souffer) to the local theater to experience producer Lawrence Woolsey’s (a boisterous John Goodman) new sci-fi sensation “Mant.” However, it seems that the Cuban Missile Crisis is also on everyone’s mind. Can Gene grow up, find true love with pretty Sandra (Lisa Jakub), meet Mr. Woolsey and save his little brother all at the same time? “Matinee” is a pure nostalgic delight. It’s a sweet and likable look at the end of innocence in America. Dante spoofs the showmanship of legendary horror producer William Castle while paying homage to him at the same time. And “Mant,” the film within a film, is a treasure for all lovers of 1950s sci-fi. “Matinee” remains a triumph for Joe Dante and one of his most heartfelt movies.

Though his film output has slowed down quite a bit from his heyday in the 1980s, Joe Dante continues to direct smart and fun movies. And let’s not forget that he’s launched one the greatest websites ever – “Trailers from Hell.” For that feat alone, Joe Dante walks on hallowed ground.