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I'm watching all the Joe Dante movies


Video Nasty
This year I had an idle thought: who is my favorite director? I know what some of my favorite films are (Fright Night, Silence of the Lambs, Death Proof, that one movie where Orson Welles plays a planet), but I wasn't sure which creator aligned with my soul so well that I'd see anything they worked on. In the past I've had flings with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Ishiro Honda...but nothing that lasted.

Then this month it occurred to me: it might be Joe Dante. Dante is what I'd call a troperrific director. He pulls his influences from all over the place and wears them proudly on his sleeve. He came from the Corman school but he never really left it behind - even when he hit big studio success his films still featured weird creatures and aliens and B-movie themes. And Dick Miller. Lots of Dick Miller.

I already knew I loved most every Dante film I'd seen - Small Soldiers in particular sent me back to the theater again and again. And it seemed like I kept learning about more and more material he'd made, stuff I'd either seen and forgotten about or hadn't ever watched. And the other thing about Dante is he's got lots of interesting stuff to say - if you've ever tuned into Trailers From Hell or listened to a commentary of his, you know what I mean.

So I decided to put my little personal revelation to the test and watch all of Joe Dante's films in chronological order, starting with 1976's Hollywood Boulevard.

⚠ This trailer is definitely NSFW!! ⚠

In the 70s, Dante and his friend and fellow future director Allan Arkush worked for Roger Corman. If you somehow haven't heard of Corman, in the 60s through the 80s he was the king of the B-movie. His whole concept was to produce lots of broadly appealing movies as cheaply as possible. Whenever there was a new sensation in Hollywood, Corman ripped it off, and sometimes rip off his own movie if he could get away with it. If this sounds bad, well, in some ways, it was. It depends on how much you like B-movies. Corman produced lots of schlock, and he knew it.

But more importantly for us, lots of great Hollywood creators had their start at New World. James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, and lots more. And of course Joe Dante.

Which brings us back to Hollywood Boulevard. Dante and Arkush approached Corman one day and made a bet with him. They said "Corman, we bet we can produce the cheapest film New World has ever seen." Corman took them up on it. And they did it! They did it by raiding Corman's garage for as much stock footage as possible, then making a movie around the footage they had. This meant incongruent car chases from films like Big Bad Mama, random sky diving, Vietnam war film footage shot in the Philippines, random alien sex monsters built by Francis Ford Coppola, commercials, and more car chases from Death Race 2000.

So how'd they fit all this junk together? Well, fittingly, they made a movie about movies. The film follows a young lady named Candy (played by Candice Rialson) trying to make it in Hollywood. At her wit's end, her agent (Dick Miller, of course) signs her up to work for Miracle Pictures ("Where they make a picture a week, and if it's a good picture, it's a miracle!"). Miracle was of course a thinly veiled parody of New World itself. Candy bounces from film set to film set, and actors pretend they're interacting with scenes from other films. There's a non-sequitur music video. After 35 minutes of rambling like this, the film's plot finally kicks in, with Candy's actor friends mysteriously dying during shoots. Then there's about 60 more minutes of whodunit interspersed with more stock footage, goofy humor, and T&A.

In the commentary, Dante admits, "there's basically no reason for this film to exist." He and Arkush never expected to have a chance to direct again, so they loaded the film with in-jokes. They paid out of their own paychecks for a Robby the Robot cameo. ("You been working much lately?" Miller asks the robot. "Not really," he replies. "I don't do nude scenes.") If there's any reason to watch this movie, it's just to see how creative the directors got on splicing in their stock footage, and for the raw scenes of 1970s Los Angeles that they shot without permits. Candy spends a lot of time hanging under the big Hollywood letters, which in the 70s were decrepit and covered in graffiti. There's a scene where they go to watch Candy's first film at a drive-in, but first they watch The Terror, a 1960s film which also stars Dick Miller, who sees himself on screen and tells his friends that he "used to be an actor."

It's fun and pointless trash, and a neat place for Dante's career to start. But don't watch it unless you already have some vested interest in B-films, Corman, or Dante.


A most radical pontiff
I was mentally putting a list together of what to expect here and my brain kept trying to shove Joe vs the Volcano in there. All movies with "Joe" in the title were directed by Joe Dante, right?

Octopus Prime

Mysterious Contraption
I was mentally putting a list together of what to expect here and my brain kept trying to shove Joe vs the Volcano in there. All movies with "Joe" in the title were directed by Joe Dante, right?

Thank goodness it wasn't just me. Also; Joes Apartment.

Also I keep conflating Joe Dante with Chris Columbus.


Arm Candy
I was mentally putting a list together of what to expect here and my brain kept trying to shove Joe vs the Volcano in there. All movies with "Joe" in the title were directed by Joe Dante, right?

Don't forget Dante's Peak.


Video Nasty
Dante's second film, Piranha (1978), is a ripoff of Jaws that has no business being as good as it is.

(I didn't scope out this whole trailer, but consider it possibly NSFW)

Spielberg's breakout hit was already a bit long in the tooth by 1978. In fact, Piranha made it to drive-ins just in time to coincide with the release of Jaws 2. Dante describes his experience making this movie as "always just one step ahead of the sheriff." Despite it getting some pretty good talent attached, and a healthy budget (for a Corman film), Dante was so sure he'd produced the worst movie of all time that he didn't even attend the wrap party.

The film follows a skiptracer named Maggie (Heather Menzies) who heads to the wilds of Texas in search of a couple of missing teens. With the help of local mountain man Paul (Bradford Dillman), she discovers a government facility in the woods, thought shuttered, where a scientist (Kevin McCarthy) has been breeding a strain of mutant piranha at the behest of the military. Through a series of misadventures, the piranha get released into the local river, and the bloodshed starts. Maggie and Paul race down the river first to a summer camp, where Paul's daughter is in danger, and then to a water park (filmed at the now-defunct San Marcos Aquarena), where even more folks get chomped up. Finally, Paul braves the river waters to open the refuse valves of a submerged smelting plant, polluting the fish and possibly preventing them from reaching the ocean.

There are a few reasons why this movie works as well as it does.

First, the lead characters are wonderful. Maggie has huge Leslie Knope energy. She's got great chemistry with Paul, a reluctant alcoholic with a bit of a ragged past. I love watching these two interact. They play with the stereotypes of the witless city girl and the rugged country boy, neither of them falling completely into the trope, and both of them displaying resourcefulness in situations you wouldn't expect. They have this sort of honest perseverance through the whole thing, a sense that they need to be doing something, even though once the piranhas are out they never seem too sure what it is. So they row down the river on a scrap raft, escape from the military, get thrown in county jail, escape from that, and finally risk their own lives polluting the fish to death, and by that point they've both gone far beyond their own personal duties.

Second, the fear factor is super effective. Everyone who's been in a muddy river can attest to the discomfort of wondering what might rush up and bite your toes off at a moment's notice, and that's the fear this movie plays on. And piranhas are honestly scarier than sharks. Sure, sharks are big and ominous, but they find their human victims by accident, mistaking us for sea turtles or manatee. Piranha are like toothy cyclones. They're evil, and they're evil-looking. And this movie doesn't pull a punch. Nearly everyone gets piranha'd in the film at least a little. Even the kids at summer camp. (Which, fair warning, if you watch this film. It's not as graphic as you might imagine, but it's definitely disturbing.)

Third, the theming has remained relevant in the 42 years since this movie came out. The idea of the military building experimental weapons in the heartland is hardly fiction at all. The military officers in the film are also shown to be colluding with private business to enrich each other, which also feels particularly relevant.

Fourth, the locations are great. Dante went to Texas and filmed on all real locations (partly because they had no budget for sets), and there's lots of neat backwoods locales. Dam sites, the campground, the river scenes, and the aforementioned Aquarena all lend the film a certain vitality that's lost in movies which limit themselves to the same 10 locations around Burbank.

And finally there's the humor. The movie doesn't go totally into self-awareness, but it definitely has that feel of the self-aware genre piece that came to characterize later Dante pictures. There's shots of people watching 50s sci-fi on TV. Lots of little jokes to punctuate the stress of the river scenes. Paul Bartel (who was also in Hollywood Boulevard) plays a haughty camp counselor lecturing the kids about intestinal fortitude. When they're escaping the military, Paul asks Maggie to distract the guard outside. ("But what if he's gay?" Maggie protests. Paul: "Then I'll distract him!") These are the kinds of little touches that distinguish the good B-movies from the great ones.

So, yes, I really do recommend Piranha both as a good horror B-movie and a good Joe Dante movie.

That Guy Dick Miller Report:

In this film, Dick Miller plays Buck Gardner, owner of the Aquarena resort, who's struck a deal with the military (I can't remember exactly why, maybe for publicity). He wears a white cowboy shirt, a 10-gallon hat, and a pink tie. He spends most of his time on screen carrying around a phone, barking orders, and telling people to shut up about piranhas. He manages to avoid death by piranha, but his military contact doesn't, meaning his water park days may be numbered.


TT's Resident Ace of Base Superfan
I refuse to believe Joe Dante has made a better film than the two Gremlins movies, but I guess you can watch his other ones.

My favorite director is Hayao Miyazaki, but everyone and their mothers have expressed opinions on his films so that's not much of a novelty thread.


Little Waves
Staff member
I've only seen Piranha II: The Spawning (1982), which was the directorial debut of aforementioned Jim Cameron. That one is...not as liked.


Video Nasty
Yeah, I was remiss to mention Piranha's legacy in future films. There was the Cameron sequel, then in the 90s there was a Corman-produced remake, which hilariously reused much of the river footage from the 70s original. (Dante mentioned the remake in his commentary, noting mainly that he was asked if he wanted to cameo in it, and that the director chose to leave out the humor/self-referential elements, which he felt resulted in a weaker movie.)

In 2010 there was a quasi-remake known as Piranha 3D, which moved the setting from winding rivers to bustling beaches. This movie felt very much in the spirit of the original, and of Corman B-films in general, featuring all of the sorts of trashy fun elements you'd expect. Then there was a sequel to this movie, called Piranha 3DD, which I haven't seen.

Oh, and I also failed to mention the brief appearance in the original Piranha of a wonderful stop-motion creature. When Maggie and Paul first infiltrate the government facility, this little bipedal piranha mutant is wandering around the lab. The characters never see it, and after this scene it doesn't reappear. Dante wanted to film an ending where a gigantic version of the mutant attacks a bridge in Santa Monica, telling audiences that the mutations were too much even for the river pollution. But they didn't have the budget for it.

At any rate, the creature was created by Phil Tippet. Everyone knows Tippet, even if they don't know his name: He animated the Dejarik board creatures on the Millennium Falcon; Robocop's ED 209, and many of the CG effects for Jurassic Park. It's fun to see his touch in this movie, even if it ultimately doesn't really pay off to anything.


Video Nasty
The third film in Dante's oeuvre is Rock 'n Roll High School (1980).

This film is generally considered to be an Allan Arkush joint, as Dante only came in to direct certain scenes when Arkush landed himself in the hospital from exhaustion. Even though it doesn't seem to have a strong association with Dante otherwise (he helped write it, but he doesn't provide commentary, and features into few of the special features on the DVD) I decided to watch it anyway, as it represents the last Corman-produced film Dante worked on before he went Big Hollywood.

The movie is about two young women named Kate (Dey Young) and Riff (PJ Soles) as they attempt to attract the attention of seminal punk rockers The Ramones. Riff is a Ramones superfan, and she's written a handful of songs which she'd sure the band would love. Kate is bookish and less interested in music, but her friendship with Riff pushes her to help, even as she struggles to attract the attention of Tom (Vince Van Patten).

The movie also features Corman crew like Mary Woronov as evil principal Togar, Paul Bartels as a stuck-up music teacher who slowly becomes a rock 'n roll freak, and Clint Howard as a relationship guru and black marketeer whose secret office is hidden in the boys' bathroom.

The big draw in this movie is, of course, the music. The soundtrack features artists like Paul McCartney, Devo, Brian Eno, the Velvet Underground, Fleetwood Mac, and all of this incidental stuff is before we even get to the Ramones content. I have to imagine this film is absolutely essential for Ramones fans. A good 30 minutes of the film takes place during an actual Ramones concert, and the band members interact with the characters throughout multiple scenes.

Beyond this, the movie is what you'd probably expect from an early 80s teen comedy. There's plenty of raunchy humor, some of which hasn't aged well (Togar's bumbling hall monitors are basically walking rape jokes, for example). But there's also something strangely wholesome about the film -- I think it's because most raunchy teen comedies of the era follow an exclusively male cast, with the women in the film serving mostly as objects and prizes. Because this film focuses on two women who are no less horny than their male counterparts, it does make it feel somehow refreshing against movies like Porky's or Revenge of the Nerds. I'm not sure how I felt about Joey Ramone singing a love song to Riff in her bedroom, though. Riff was clearly into it, but Joey gives me the creeps. The guy had the posture of a lich. Sorry.

Anyway, this one is a neat little time capsule of late-70s rock, and clearly a lot of love went into it. Everyone was having a good time. Take a look, maybe.

That Guy Dick Miller Report

Dick Miller only shows up at the very end of the film, as a police chief doing his best to help Principal Togar retake the high school from the kids and the Ramones. He fails; the kids blow up the school.

Johnny Unusual

From both the genre and the fact that its a Roger Corman movie, it is a movie that, despite its flaws, I ended up enjoying more than I expected, mostly because it made the decision to be more overtly cartoony than Animal House (which I never much cared for).