Making horror is challenging; making comedy is difficult. Making horror-comedy is an unenviable task. So many things can go wrong, because the balance is so delicate that the entire filmic house of cards can collapse in on itself with the slightest misstep. Occasionally, filmmakers will make one or possibly two decent entries into the sub-genre; however, only one filmmaker has made an entire career out of the precarious high-wire act, and that filmmaker is Joe Dante.
After attending film school, Dante entered into a real-life film school by working for Roger Corman, cutting trailers and editing movies. He was given the chance to direct his first film, the action-comedy “Hollywood Boulevard” (notoriously shot in less than ten days). This led to his first well-known project, “Piranha,” a film which was scripted by frequent collaborator John Sayles. Dante’s sensibility of finding the humor in any scene (often necessary when working on the meager budgets that were provided be producer Corman) eventually led to big directing opportunities on projects like “Twilight Zone: the Movie” and “Gremlins.”
Hot off his success on “Gremlins,” Dante experimented in science-fiction and comedy with “Explorers” and “Innerspace” before venturing back to the “Gremlins” franchise for a second and final time. Often employing similar concepts to explore Hollywood satire and cultural and political commentary, Dante directed “Small Soldiers” and episodes of “Masters of Horror” which commented on American military policy.
A versatile and talented filmmaker whose career spans the exploitation era (“Rock ‘ Roll High School”) to children’s entertainment (“Looney Tunes: Back in Action” and “The Hole”), Dante has always refused to be put into an easy mold. The films covered in today’s column explore his interest in reworking the classic horror and suspense tropes for great character comedy.
Most people remember this film as the OTHER werewolf movie that came out the same year as “An American Werewolf In London.” Aside from the unfair second place position (especially for Rob Bottin’s fantastic werewolf effects and an equally impressive transformation sequence), audiences also forgot the humor and satire in this film, apparently thinking this was a serious movie. Great in-jokes throughout the whole film (including characters named after historically significant werewolf film directors), Hollywood satire (the reveal of the news anchor’s real accent is inspired), and cheeseball laugh lines in the midst of high gore (Picardo’s delivery of “I want to give you a piece of my mind” is the best straight-faced joke of the film). Worth seeing not only as an impressive early work in Dante’s career (and Bottin’s), but also as a fun, subversive horror-comedy.
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Criminally underseen in recent years, this film would have an enormous cult status if more people had easier access to it. Clearly modeled on B-movie shyster William Castle, the movie follows John Goodman as a gimmick-movie peddler in Key West, Florida, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, turning all that Cold War paranoia into profitability. A great cast of young actors, cameos from everyone Dante has ever known (including Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, and writer John Sayles), and a loving homage to a more innocent time in the history of film, “Matinee” should be sought out by anyone who loves movies, history, comedy, and mutated bug people.
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Little can still be said about Dante’s “The Burbs” that has not already been stated in the strongest hyperbole. Hilarious, bizarre, and totally original, the movie has a cult following on par with the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski,” and for good reason. A great central performance from Tom Hanks (before his “serious” dramatic career began) anchors a hilarious supporting cast and inspired wild cinematography tells the story of a small suburban neighborhood whose residents think the new family on the block might just be cannibalistic weirdos. Particularly good in the unusual cast is Henry Gibson as the maybe good/maybe mad doctor next door. Playing on every Hitchcockian cliché and overbaked suspense film of the 1980’s, Dante effectively paints a hilarious portrait of American life.
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