What the Hell Happened to Joe Dante?
Joe Dante worked his way from cartoonist, to production assistant, to editor, all the way to director in his own right. His fondness for the old-school and homages to bygone eras of filmmaking inform most of his work, of which there is quite alot. Over his career, he has shifted gears without a hitch from adult-oriented work to become a name synonymous with clever family fun. Those flowers have wilted however, as he now finds himself increasingly involved in TV direction and non-theatrical films.
What the hell happened?
Joe Dante was born in the historic New Jersey town of Morristown, but grew up in nearby Livingston (same home town as Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame). His father was a professional golfer, but young Dante’s interest did not lie on the links, but rather in linking together drawings in rapid sequence: cartoons.
His love of cartoons, and their Golden Era has seeped into his films, and even served as the basis for a few of them.
Dante’s career began to shift into high gear when he became a trusted assistant of the B-movie icon Roger Corman, the man behind pulpy, campy films typically chock-full of gore and violence. His string of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations preserve all the descriptive terror of the horror master’s writings.
The “Corman Film School”, much like the “Frat Pack”, is a semi-mythical collective of directors and actors that got their start under Corman’s wing. Directors in the Corman stable include Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Curtis Hanson, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, and our man Dante.
Dante’s first work behind the camera was a seven-hour long film school (real film school) mashup of his commercials, short films, and trailers shot while a student. It actually toured across America, screening at college campuses under the sponsorship of Schlitz beer, something I assume you had to chug down a few times to make it through what was called The Movie Orgy.
The Movie Orgy only technically counts. What really was Dante’s directorial debut was an ultra low-budget film co-directed by Allan Arkush.
The exploitative crime thriller was made as a result of a bet between Corman and soon-to-be frequent Paul Verhoeven collaborator Jon Davison to make the lowest-ever budgeted film for New World pictures. The budget: $54,000.
Not as impressive as Robert Rodriguez’s $7,000 El Mariachi, but certainly a feat in its own right. As was also the case with El Mariachi and Paranormal Activity, the cost to distribute the film was many, many times the budget. With that noted, the movie was a minor success. The LA Times found it “hilarious”, though not for someone searching for something “elegant or high tone”. Fair ’nuff.
Next up for Dante, in his first sole directorial credit, was the famous, recently-remade horror satire, Piranha.
Set at an idyllic forested river resort, the film sees the resort-goers menaced by mutant piranhas, relics of an abandoned Cold War experiment. The fish are known as razorteeth, and my do they live up to this moniker. The film is certainly more than just Corman-style blood-n-bone though, as it explores horror tropes with surprising deftness, even joshing the myriad movies of Corman himself. Critics responded well, the movie performed very well relative to its low-budget stature at the box office, and Steven Spielberg even called it “the best of the Jaws” ripoffs. So far, so good for Dante.
Next up for him was another co-credit with Allan Arkush, the teen musical comedy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
The movie involves the band The Ramones, playing themselves, inspiring a group of high school students to push back against their strict and callous principal. Standard teen movie stuff. Originally, Cheap Trick was to be the movie’s band, but, due to scheduling, they said I Can’t Take It to the role offered.
With Dante and Arkush again splitting duty, the movie was received tepidly both critically and commercially.