The ‘Burbs (1989)

The 'Burbs (1989) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 08/20/2016

In 1989 when The ‘Burbs was released, director Joe Dante was enjoying a hitting streak.  Leading up to it, he’d made Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), and Innerspace (1987) and his darkly comic style was jelling in mainstream Hollywood.  I think back in ’89, I had liked but not loved most of Dante’s films, and The ‘Burbs fell into that criteria as well.

These days, I’m a lot more fond of Dante and his films.  He’s a great presence in interviews about movies, the characters he’s known and worked with, his own childhood love of films (which is nigh encyclopedic), just about everything.  And I’ve come back around to his films, appreciating them more than I did on the first round.

The ‘Burbs meets my new Dante criteria.  I liked it more than I remembered.

The satire about the weird neighbors in an otherwise totally WASPy neighborhood stars the still young Tom Hanks and an almost criminally underused Carrie Fisher as the average nuclear family next door.  Throw in chummy Rick Ducommun and a gung-ho Bruce Dern and the suspicions of the newcomers turn the would-be middle American street into paranoiacs on parade.

The use of the single neighborhood as a setting is a clever device, and Dante’s knack for subversive humor in mainstream fare hits a number of solid notes.  It’s not a runaway success, but it’s funny.  Henry Gibson and Brother Theodore are aces.

I always liked the poster for the film.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979) movie poster

director Allan Arkush
viewed: 12/12/2014

It was only earlier this year that I finally saw Rock ‘n’ Roll High School for the first time.  But since Roku and Netflix Streaming, which features this film available for watching at any given moment, I’ve been tempted to watch it with the kids.  So, now I did.  At least, with Felix.

My son is 13 and has started getting into music.  One of the first ventures was to borrow my Ramones CD’s to burn.

I don’t have a lot to add to the things I wrote about the film back in March.  I mean, it’s not “squeaky clean”.  But it’s almost squeaky clean.

Felix liked it.  He thought it was “weird”, which isn’t too uncommon a comment from him on things.  But he laughed a lot.  He liked Paul Bartel.

The Hole (2009)

The Hole (2009) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 11/16/2014

Joe Dante, the man behind Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).

I’ve always appreciated Joe Dante, but I think, especially having seen him pop up in a multitude of documentaries on Exploitation cinema, Roger Corman, Edgar G. Ulmer, so many things, I’ve come to like him all the more in recent times, appreciate him even more.

Now Dante’s career is probably defined by Gremlins more than any other movie.  It’s his most successful film and led to other PG or PG-13 rated kids science fiction/thriller fare like Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), and Small Soldiers (1998).  But it’s been a long while since a Joe Dante film commanded much attention.  So when his film The Hole came and went, I noted the concept (kids find a hole in their basement that seems to lead to hell) and noted the poor reviews and obscurity and added it to my Netflix queue as a possible movie with the kids.

I think I may have overdone my emphasis on scary movies this year because Felix has gone from actively not liking scary movies to wanting to see all the scariest movies.  So when the kids asked to watch something “scary”, I figured we’d give The Hole a shot.

The story is about a teenage boy and his younger brother who move with their mom to some suburban town from the city, right next door to a hot teen sweetheart and then discover the titular hole in their basement.  It’s a bolted trap door, leading endlessly nowhere, but once you’ve looked in it knows your worst nightmares and starts to creep you out.

I’m reminded of other teen movie fare from The Goonies (1985) to Zathura (2005) to any number of things.  It’s hard maybe to make a good movie in this age range because it comes down to not just having a good story in the hands of a capable director, but having a good cast.  And maybe the levels of difficulty wind up making this just more challenging than your average film.  I don’t know.

The thing is that The Hole is pretty decent in most parts.  It’s actually quite creepy between the evil harlequin doll and the girl with one shoe who bleeds from one eye.  Those images could make for a pretty scary film.  But this movie is about conquering your fears and when the final fear, the abusive father contorted into a huge beast plays out on a Beetlejuice (1987)-style set, it’s squandered whatever genuine value its acquired and peters out without profundity.

The kids were into if for a while, but, like me, lost interest as the film played out.

Dante, though, is interesting and a few of his other films are available on demand at the moment too, so maybe we’ll revisit a few more before too long.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979) movie poster

director Allan Arkush
viewed: 03/17/2014

Rock, rock, rock, rock, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School!

The Roger Corman/Allan Arkush/Joe Dante teenage rebellion movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has definitely been filed in my chagrined category of movies I had never, *ahem*, seen.  When you talk about foreign cinema or avant-garde or something, perhaps it’s a little more understanding if you’ve never seen a Alain Resnais film or a particular Godard film.  But some films, especially films of the midnight movie ilk or cult status, especially one that features the great rock’n’roll punk band, the Ramones, it’s almost downright shame-facing.

How? How? How? How could I have never seen it?  Why? Why? Why? Why had I never seen it.  No good explanation exists.

It’s frickin’ brilliant.  For a late-1970’s teen rebellion film, it’s almost squeaky clean.  And cute.  Charming.  And features the Ramones in their heyday, capturing lightning in a bottle, or at least on celluloid and audio.

It’s so cute.  Really.  That’s the main word that came to mind.

P.J. Soles (who I think I remember fondly from Stripes (1981)) is as cute as cute can be as the Ramones number one fan Riff Randell.  Mary Woronov is pretty iconic as the evil school principal whose cutting down hard on anything remotely fun.  And Paul Bartel is gloriously funny as the hip unhip music teacher.

It’s an amazing.  It’s kind of like the anti-Grease (1978), with it’s all retro 1950’s rock’n’roll filtered vaguely through disco.  The Ramones exemplify a particular aspect of punk that is unrepentantly tied in a key way to the sounds of the 1950’s and early 1960’s but is entirely of itself, of a new and at the time contemporary era.  It was an amazing act of genius to land the Ramones, such a unique, bizarre thing.

It also ties back to films like High School Confidential (1958), the whole teenage movie genre, particularly with a contemporary soundtrack.  It also brought to mind the much less successful Rude Boy (1980) which was more of a film dedicated to the Clash with a story stuffed into it, but it’s probably closer in production to the Jack Arnold flick.

The Ramones were such a gloriously unlikely band.  Brilliant misfits turned punk rock gods.  Any glimpse is a worthwhile glimpse.

The whole thing is great and frickin’ cute.

The Howling (1981)

The Howling (1981) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 07/13/2013

Back in 1981, the werewolf movie underwent radical transformation.  Transformation being one of the key qualities of a werewolf movie, dating back no doubt to Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), perhaps arguably back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (not a werewolf movie but it does feature an excellent transformation).  Back in those days and for many years onward, transformation effects were generally created via a series of fade-in shots, blurring the images together to show growth of hair, fangs, and claws.

But by 1981 (and perhaps earlier — please let me know), a breaking point was achieved in werewolf movies that transformed the genre.  It was the special effects, make-up and prosthetics, analog constructions that evolved right in front of the camera.  The series of these latex and what-have-you enhanced sequences tapped into new levels of gross-out cinema that would come to be the standard borne by horror films throughout the 1980’s all up until the digital age.

Nowhere were these effects more prominent than in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Rick Baker worked on both films, though he left The Howling to Rob Bottin and moved over  to the Landis’s production.  The Howling came out a few months prior, and while fans and aesthetes can argue which is better, they both individually and together utterly redefined and re-enlivened the werewolf film.  Bottin would go on to do the effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a much more free-form gross-out transformation design.

The rest of The Howling is a reasonably entertaining werewolf movie, peppered with Dante’s Hollywood references and loony humor, especially with the aid of the script by John Sayles, who had worked with him on Piranha (1978).  It features Dee Wallace as a news anchor trailing a serial killer to a porn shop in LA.  After a freaky meeting, in which the killer is killed, she suffers psychological trauma and is sent to “The Colony”, a retreat on the California coast that turns out to be inhabited by a coven of werewolves.

It’s all pretty weird, really.

The star of the film is the effects largely, but it’s an entertaining, oddball, goof-fest featuring cameos from the likes of Roger Corman, Forrest Ackerman, John Sayles, and Dick Miller.  It even features a meatier cameo by John Carradine.  It’s all part of Dante’s collective homage to the genre plus as many silly gags as he can pack in.

It’s been eons since I’ve seen An American Werewolf in London, but I’m guessing that I ought to queue that up right soon for sharper contrast.  1981 also featured another notable killer wolf film, Wolfen, which isn’t actually a werewolf movie, though you kind of have to work your way through it to find that out.  I always actually considered it the best of the three.  Though oddly enough, no werewolves mean no transformation scenes.

Today, digital effects make the “anything” possible.  I think that werewolves, in movies in which the transformation is still the key element of the narrative, still take their direction from these 1981 films.  Though more and more digitized werewolves seem to forgo the gory detail of transformation, instead morphing in split seconds in the no-nonsense immediacy of “Zap! Now I’m a werewolf!”  Where’s the fun in that?

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) movie poster

directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller
viewed: 06/08/2013

The Twilight Zone was one of my formative favorite television shows.  I caught it on PBS on Saturdays as a kid and developed a number of favorite episodes.  I’ve come to think that it has led to my penchant for outdated science fiction.  Not to say that the show didn’t have its relevance in the 1980’s, just that it was a great image of its time and its creator Rod Serling.

When Twilight Zone: the Movie came out in 1983, I was well-aware of the tragedy that happened on-set with the crash of the helicopter and the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two young children.  That sad fact still haunts the film.  And worse yet, it haunts the film’s worst segment, and is in a sense what pulls the film down from any potential greatness.  I felt it at the time when I first saw it, and I’d say that it’s still true now, three decades later.

The anthology film has moments as a type of film, perhaps, but is almost inevitably challenged by the variance in quality of its segments.  Directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller each imparted something to the film, but it has to play as a whole, or at least it was meant to play as a whole, with far less narration opening and closing each sequence.  The film’s heart is in the right place, trying for the spirit of the show, but somehow only Dante and Miller deliver on it and Miller delivers the only sequence of greatness.  It’s arguable that Spielberg’s segment is among the worst of his career.

Focusing on the positive, Joe Dante’s redo of “It’s a Good Life” channels Serling and Richard Matheson via Looney Tunes.  After watching his Gremlins 2 (1988) recently, his taste for the anarchic antics of early animation seems deeply embedded if not beautifully realized.  It’s about a creepy boy with the power to make anything happen and the people who absolutely fear him.  Billy Mumy played the boy in the original and it’s one of the true classics of the show.  It’s pretty good here, too.

But Miller’s version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, also originally from Richard Matheson actually maybe improves upon the classic episode that starred a young William Shatner.  It’s a acrophobic guy on the plane who is losing his mind, thinking the engines are being sabotaged by a gremlin.  The Shatner version is pretty great, though the gremlin left a bit to be desired.  The Miller version has an amazing John Lithgow in the Shatner role, a much creepier, cooler gremlin, and a perfectly paced and executed paranoia thrill ride of a run.  It’s the film’s most redeeming sequence.  The highlight without a doubt.  It’s been speculated that Spielberg realized the quality of the episodes and put them in order to improve.

It still doesn’t rescue the film.

The kids weren’t too into it.  The opening sequence with Vic Morrow as a racist facing being in Nazi Germany as a Jew, the deep South as an African American, in Vietnam as a VC, who knows what it would have been had nothing happened. It’s weak and a bit of a cluster.

They liked the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” part.  But they weren’t overly impressed.  Oddly enough, of the 3 episodes of the show that they’d seen,”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was one of them.  This was the biggest flop I’ve played for them in a long while.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 05/10/2013

Clara and I did a Gremlins (1984) double feature, starting with the original and right after with the much later Gremlins 2: The New Batch which I am pretty sure that I never saw before.

I did have a friend who considered Gremlins 2 one of his favorite all-time movies.  He had a goofy, perverse sense of humor that, now that I have seen it, seems quite well attuned to director Joe Dante’s manic, chaotic meta sequel.  Where the original Gremlins felt a bit at odds with itself over its personality and identity, Gremlins 2 seems much the more pure Dante product, raging around pop culture like an incessant demon, beyond self-referential, just further and further into comic permutations.

Clara told me afterwards that she agreed with my friend and thought that the second film was funnier and slightly better because of it.

Me, I think it’s a hot mess of sorts, but one that seems to have strove for such a state of affairs.  It certainly takes that tack from the very outset, featuring a Warner Bros. logo with Bugs Bunny atop that breaks the narrative of movie language much like Chuck Jones’ great Duck Amuck (1953).  And this is just the opening sequence with characters who aren’t even in the movie the rest of the way.  Dante breaks the “fourth wall” again, if you will, when the gremlins take over the movie projection and the film dissolves onscreen.  They then start making shadow puppets and are finally yelled down by Hulk Hogan himself getting the movie back on track.

Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are back on board, in New York now, in the employ of a Donald Trump type in a “smart” building.  Gizmo gets picked up by a genetic engineer for the company, but of course all the rules get broken again and the gremlins come out and multiply, evolve, do a little of this, a little of that, a little of anything they can think of.  It seems that the puppeteers and creative crew had a blast going off on every little thing they could.

It’s even more of a mess of a movie, but it’s chock full of film and cultural references, many right back to Gremlins itself.  It’s a chaotic ride and a sort of ridiculous one too.  It is kind of funny and pretty amusing.  It’s even got a rather comic performance from Christopher Lee.

I’d say that the end result is about as good as the original film.  It’s a more pure expression of the comic Id of Joe Dante, channeling his Tex Avery and Looney Tunes aesthetics ripping and riffing hardcore on the pop culture of the time.

Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins (1984) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 05/10/2013

For Friday night, we settled down for a Gremlins double feature, starting with the 1984 original to be followed by the 1990 Gremlins 2: The New Batch.  Felix was out on a sleep-over, so it was just Clara and I who decided to get nice and cozy with Gizmo and the Mogwai.

Weirdly enough, I think Gremlins, back in 1984, was my first “date.”  My mom took us there, her mom picked us up.  I think it was a one-off date, which I remembered for losing my wallet in her mother’s car and for not being overly enamored with the film.

Gremlins was part of the 1980’s when Spielberg seemed to be franchising himself with various productions much in his own vein and certainly produced by him, but with other directors taking helm of the films to varying degrees of success and failure.  Movies like Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins, Back to the Future (1985), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), The Goonies (1985) and many more far beyond that all could have been Spielberg movies, maybe some bear his mark more than others.  But Gremlins turns out to be much more a Joe Dante movie, trying to be a Steven Spielberg movie.

Chris Columbus, who would go on to direct Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Home Alone (1990), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and the first two Harry Potter films, was screenwriter for Young Sherlock HolmesThe Goonies  and here for Gremlins as well.  It’s set in the small town of Kingston Falls, an Everytown, USA, home to the Peltzer family, Hoyt Axton as dad, the failed inventor, Frances Lee McCain as good-natured mom and Zach Galligan as Billy, who receives the Mogwai Gizmo as a Christmas gift from his roving father.  It’s Christmastime.  And the film heavily references many films, including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as if you didn’t get what they were going for.

It seems that all this cross-referencing, movie-citing, and parodying is pure Joe Dante.  By the time he gets around to Gremlins 2, small town America is history and the whole film is a meta-reel of gags, asides, and cultural references.  He was way ahead of Mr. Tarantino on that front.

But Dante’s Gremlins is also quite a bit dark.  These gremlins kill.  They don’t just wreak comic havoc.  The produce a body count.  And it’s doubtless this is why this film was partially influential in bringing about the PG-13 rating to the MPAA.  But it’s also one of the film’s weirdnesses and potential shortcomings.  Parts of it are supposed to be cute, parts of it sort of scary, but its darkness outweighs its lightness, though the film manically swerves back and forth between comedy, mayhem, and traditional American idealism.

Arguably, it’s best qualities are its madcap comedy and these darker elements.  But it sort of feels like a Spielbergian film that’s gone off the rails a bit too much.

I don’t know that I’d seen it since the 1980’s.  But I feel that I liked it about as much as I did back then.  It’s okay.  It’s a mess.  It’s pretty fun.  But also disappointing.

The incredibly cute Phoebe Cates and Galligan are so ineffectual as hero/protagonists, it’s possible that Dante made the film far more of a critique of American culture than a paean to it.  He does blow up a classic small town movie theater playing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), or Galligan does for him.  Apparently, the pop culture infused Gremlins are ga-ga about Disney classics as well as the latest things like break-dancing and modern music.  The Gremlins might be humanity at its worst, but at least they are comical.  Galligan and Cates are humanity at its blandest.

Clara enjoyed it fairly well.  She was of course all over Gizmo the cutie.  But I had told her that I had a friend who preferred the sequel because it was funnier.  She was eager to watch it too.

Piranha

Piranha (1978) movie poster

(1978) director Joe Dante
viewed: 11/13/10

Before going to see Alexandre Aja’s recent re-make Piranha 3D (2010), I’d been wanting to watch the original Roger Corman-produced, John Sayles-written, Joe Dante-directed original.  Actually, I not only wanted to watch the original but also its sequel, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981).  But the DVD gods were not cooperating.  Between Netflix (which still doesn’t carry the original) and GreenCine (which had a long back-log for it), there was no Piranha to be had besides the shiny, 3-D new-fangled version.  Until just recently.

Made three years after Jaws (1975), and clearly marketed along those lines (just look at the poster!), the film is often referred to as a comedy or a parody.  While the film has some comic moments, and a few really good lines, it is an earnest effort in its own right.  Not nearly the exploitation orgy of the re-make, the film’s charms are a little deeper.  It has a good cast, including a number of great character actors (featuring Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Barbara Steele), and with Sayles on the script, the film ends up having, if not depth and insight, a lot of character and cleverness, as well as some well-managed low-budget effects.

The story starts off with two young hikers, heading up a mountain in rural Texas, breaking into a fenced-off military testing site, and foolishly going for a swim in a pool that they know little about.  Of course, they don’t make it past the first scene, either one of them.  But when a female detective comes looking for them and drains the pool into the local river, the pool’s residents, genetically altered super-piranha are unleashed on an unsuspecting populace, streaming down toward a summer camp and a lake front park that is about to open.  Oh the humanity!

Actually, the humanity gets a good munching on.  And to a greater extent than in Jaws, kids are not just endangered, but attacked, eaten, and killed.  A long while back, I read an article in Film Threat that discussed Steven Spielberg’s penchant for putting children in danger and it cited Jaws as the one film in which he’d actually followed through on the threat and had any children harmed.  In Piranha, we’ve got scads of summer camp kids in inner tubes in a swimming race getting nibbled, chomped, and de-fleshed by the hungry fishes.   Later, the fish move on to the more adult-themed lake front resort, and while there’s not nearly Aja’s level of tongue-in-cheek T&A, you can see the model for the film that Aja wound up making in the end.

While the story cites military abuses of science, other interesting and timely issues spring to mind.  As the fish are introduced into the river system, one is reminded of the Asian carp (and other invasive species) issues that plague the United States today.  And while it’s not really about eco-horror, it’s amusing that what they use to exterminate the fish at the end of the film is toxic waste.  They “pollute them to death”.  Of course, that had it’s own timely commentary in the 1970’s, but still, it plays with added poignancy today.

In the scientist’s office, there is a strange, stop-motion animated creature who is never explained and who drops out of the story, presumably the further results of experimentations.  Curious but just a little aside more than anything.

Of course, the film paved its way for a sequel, which I’ve queued up for myself.

It’s another quality Roger Corman production.