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I'm watching all the Joe Dante movies


Plastic Vampire
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?


Plastic Vampire
Yes. His greatest hits included Joe Gremlins, Joe Gremlins 2, and The Howling Joe.

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.


Plastic Vampire
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.


Let's 90s gaming
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.


Plastic Vampire
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.


Plastic Vampire
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).


Plastic Vampire
I'm getting back to this!

Joe Dante's fourth film was The Howling (1981).

The picture follows TV news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace). After a terrifying encounter with a serial murder named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), her therapist sends her and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) to a therapeutic rehabilitation camp known as the Colony. Though Quist was thought to be shot dead after White's encounter with him, it turns out he wasn't - he is invulnerable to bullets, because Quist is a werewolf. And he's not the only one. The Colony turns out to be no ordinary resort. Everyone who lives there is a werewolf!

The Howling is among several notable 70s and 80s pictures which were in the business of revitalizing the classic movie monsters of the 30s and 40s. Stuff like Salem's Lot (1979), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Fright Night (1985), and Lost Boys (1987) all helped restore these monsters to their original terrifying glory.

It's been over a year since I watched The Howling and failed to update this thread, but I did watch it twice (once with commentary), so some details are still fresh in my mind. Some of Dante's idiosyncrasies as a director are on full display here. He brings back many of his favorite actors and establishes some future recasts (Belinda Belaski and Kevin McCarthy from Pirahna; Robert Picardo who will feature in many future Dante films). He hires older actors known for their work in genre pictures (most notably John Carradine here). He hides little references to cinema and genre history all over the place - in this one for example we see a cameo from Dante's old boss, Roger Corman.

His work isn't just referential, though. Dante pushes the boundaries of the medium. In The Howling we see one of the most incredible on-screen werewolf transformations in cinematic history as Eddie Quist's face bubbles and elongates and his limbs stretch and distort.

Its only match is the similar scene in An American Werewolf in London. And the two movies, both released in the same year, share a connection - Rick Baker, the effects artist responsible for the scene in London, was originally attached to Howling. Baker would also work for Dante later for Gremlins 2.

The Howling as a film is a bit uneven. It feels like it's trying to straddle the line between horror and comedy, but succeeds a little bit less well than Piranha in that regard. It has some not-quite fully formed thoughts about the nature of media consumption. It's certainly overshadowed by American Werewolf in terms of being the defining werewolf movie of the 1980s. But I recommend it for a few reasons - I think the characters are very strong, particularly Dee Wallace's Karen White and her friend, Belinda Belaski's Terri Fisher. Eddie Quist is a horrifying and effective villain as are many of the other werewolf characters. The campground atmosphere is wonderfully spooky. The ending is unforgettable as the bitten White reveals herself to be a werewolf on live TV, prompting a variety of responses from viewers around the world. And of course the effects are among the best in 1980s horror.

The movie also spawned a parade of sequels. Apparently there are at least eight (8) pictures in the Howling series, none of which were touched by Joe Dante (in the commentary he expresses some polite confusion over the series' trajectory through the first and second sequels). This would also be the last straightforward horror film directed by Dante. His next movie would cement him as the effects-heavy family film director that most know him for.

That Guy Dick Miller Report

Dick Miller plays the proprietor of an occult bookstore. When our characters realize they have to fight a band of werewolves, they visit Miller's shop to buy some silver bullets.


Plastic Vampire
I better keep striking while the iron is hot!

Following The Howling, Dante directed one segment of the 1983 The Twilight Zone film, which I skipped for my viewing. Joe Dante's fifth film was Gremlins (1984).

Gremlins follows young small-town artist Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) whose father, two-bit inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), comes home from a business trip with a special gift. It's a tiny, furry creature called a "mogwai" which he purchased from an old merchant in a Chinatown antique store. They name the cute critter Gizmo. But Gizmo comes with special rules: he hates bright light; he must not get wet; and he must not be fed after midnight.

As these things go, the rules are soon broken. Gizmo accidentally gets wet, and the result is multiplication: one mogwai becomes many. The new mogwai are naughty and rowdy compared to the gentle Gizmo. They trick Billy into feeding them after midnight. Breaking this rule transforms the mogwai from wide-eyed Furbies to green-scaled, sharp-toothed reptilian creatures with a mean streak. Soon the band of transformed gremlins have taken over the town of Kingston Falls, and only Billy and his girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) can stop them.

Dante's first studio picture had plenty of wind in its sails. The plot came from a Chris Columbus script and the instant-gold name of Steven Spielberg was attached to the picture. SFX guru Chris Walas worked on the Gremlins themselves. Nearly everything was shot on Warner Bros. backlots (the town square, for example, is the same one from Back to the Future) to allow for the effects artists to hid under the floors for the massive amounts of puppetry required in the movie.

Dante faced more executive meddling than ever before in Gremlins, with pushback on things like violence, tone, and even the amount of Gremlins in the movie ("Do you want us to change the movie's name to Humans?" Dante asked them). Even nearly up to the release of the movie, WB execs were pulling for the removal of the infamous scene where Kate talks about her father, dressed as Santa, dying in a chimney.

But even despite all of the meddling, Dante got to keep his identity for this movie. Belinda Balaski returns as Ms. Harris, an impoverished young mother. There's movie reference everywhere, including on posters in Billy's bedroom walls and the names of the streets in Kingston Falls. Robby the Robot shows up in another cameo (he previously showed up in Hollywood Boulevard, though hopefully Dante didn't have to pay for his appearance out of pocket this time).

There are always movies within movies in Dante films: Kevin McCarthy shows up, but this time in archival footage of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The gremlins all crowd into a movie theater to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

The movie was originally envisioned as more of a horror than a comedy, with many gruesome scenes filmed but later cut to keep the movie family friendly. Probably the smartest decision made here involved Gizmo - the original script called for him to transform into an evil gremlin along with the other mogwai. Given how much of a pop culture icon Gizmo became, it's interesting to consider a movie that featured him far less than the final cut. The effects artists would have been a lot happier, for sure - most versions of Gizmo were far smaller than the other mogwai, meaning it was tremendously difficult to fit all of the necessary tech inside the puppets and props.

And good thing they made this change. Thanks in no small part to Gizmo, Gremlins quickly cemented itself as one of the revered pillars of 80s pop culture cinema, standing among pictures like E.T., Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Ghostbusters.

I don't think I need to tell you that Gremlins is deserving of its reputation. It strikes a near-perfect balancing act of comedy and horror. Kingston Falls feels like a real, vibrant place full of real people (possibly that Spielberg element at play, though Dante has always had a knack for making people feel real, and will continue to do so throughout his career). The gremlins themselves are always a joy to watch on screen. There's so much clever effects work at play. Stripe's final destruction in the Montgomery Ward garden section stuck with me the most among my repeat views of this movie in childhood.

And it was a massive success both for the studio and for Dante. This was his golden period, going on to direct several successful genre pictures through the 80s and 90s. Gremlins was such a smash hit that WB basically gave him carte blanche for the sequel, which I'm not only very excited to rewatch and talk about but is probably the most concentrated Joe Dante thing of all the things Joe Dante ever did.

That Guy Dick Miller Report

Dick Miller appears as Mr. Futterman, Billy's xenophobic and possibly alcoholic neighbor. Futterman grumbles about foreign sabotage in all of his technology and appliances. He also knows about gremlins, and delivers a few lines about how gremlins came to become part of World War II folklore (and as an aside, one thing that played a role in the popularization of gremlins in folklore was the famous episode of Looney Tunes featuring the critters sabotaging an airplane. In homage to this cartoon, Chuck Jones also makes a cameo in the film.).

Futterman seems to meet a grisly demise against the business end of his snowplow, but we discover in Gremlins 2 that he survived the incident, albeit with some mental scarring.

When did you first see Gremlins? What do you think about it?
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Octopus Prime

Mysterious Contraption
I first saw Gremlins when I was 6, and was absolutely terrified, insisted I was not actually scared, and then bravely soldiered on, gradually seeing the movie in bits and pieces over the course of a week.

Gremlins 2 came out that same year and I devoured every previous frame of that celluloid

Johnny Unusual

I remember "experiencing" the movie quite young but I don't know if I watched it stem to stern. More than that, I remember Gremlins merch everywhere. Our old cottage, before it was torn down, had Gremlins trading cards hidden in the floor boards. I remember having this in my house, listening to it in my house.

Just that one. Gremlins were everywhere and while I never wanted to watch scare movies until I was much older, Gremlins didn't count to me. I know it was scary but I loved Gizmo and the gremlins are... they are the most fun monsters. Joe Dante clearly loves monsters and loves the Gremlins more than the heroes Because they are fun. And delicious.

Frankly, I get why Dante wasn't interested in Gizmo, in that he's not a guy who likes the cutesy or pandering stuff, even when he's working with Spielberg, who could dovetail that stuff perfectly. But I really can't imagine the movie without him. It adds a fun fantasy to it and though he didn't like it, I feel like it made monsters appealing to a generation of kids who didn't think they were ready for them.

BTW, on the Howling, I'm with you, it's an OK movie but I feel like it's not perfect. That said, I feel like it is an interesting exploration of toxic masculinity before that was a common phrase. Also, I'm watching In Search of Darkness on Shudder and the marketing is interesting, in that he wanted the poster to hide is was a werewolf movie and making people think it's another slasher because that's what people wanted.

I cannot wait until you watch Matinee. It's so friggin' good. It might be his most personal movie (and probably a good double bill with Ed Wood),


Plastic Vampire
Frankly, I get why Dante wasn't interested in Gizmo, in that he's not a guy who likes the cutesy or pandering stuff, even when he's working with Spielberg, who could dovetail that stuff perfectly. But I really can't imagine the movie without him. It adds a fun fantasy to it and though he didn't like it, I feel like it made monsters appealing to a generation of kids who didn't think they were ready for them.

I don't think it was that Dante didn't like Gizmo, just that the idea of having him be the film's hero didn't originally occur to him. In the commentary he admits how good of an idea this was, and they even went back to reshoot some scenes that gave Gizmo more to do during the last scenes of the movie (such as when he helps Billy figure out how to destroy Stripe by opening the windows). Dante has a tendency to undersell himself, but the sense I got from the other two voices on the commentary was that he was the one always pushing to make every scene do just a little bit more. Sometimes this can result in a toxic environment (see Kubrick, Landis, Tarantino, etc.) but I don't think that's what it was like to work on Dante's films.

BTW, on the Howling, I'm with you, it's an OK movie but I feel like it's not perfect. That said, I feel like it is an interesting exploration of toxic masculinity before that was a common phrase. Also, I'm watching In Search of Darkness on Shudder and the marketing is interesting, in that he wanted the poster to hide is was a werewolf movie and making people think it's another slasher because that's what people wanted.

I forgot about that marketing tidbit! You're right about the idea of toxic masculinity, and it's something I've thought about while watching the movie as well. And I hope you enjoy In Search of Darkness, I quite liked my time with that one. There were a few movies on there that I hadn't seen or hadn't heard of that I've gone on to watch.

I cannot wait until you watch Matinee. It's so friggin' good. It might be his most personal movie (and probably a good double bill with Ed Wood),

I'm really damn excited about Matinee! The next two movies are also ones I either haven't seen before or haven't seen in an extremely long time.


Plastic Vampire
Joe Dante's sixth film was Explorers (1985).

Explorers follows three children: the gentle daydreamer Ben (Ethan Hawke in his film debut), the scientific genius Wolfgang (River Phoenix), and the street-smart Darren (Jason Presson). Following a series of strange dreams, Ben helps Wolfgang realize a computer-generated, airtight, autonomous flying bubble. After experimentation with the bubble, the kids design a craft (which they name the Thunder Road after the Springsteen song) which takes them on a high-flying adventure that starts in their backyard and ends in outer space.

Explorers is in a sub-genre of movies that I like to call "interesting failures." Its production was tortured, it was released disastrously on the same summer weekend as the Live-Aid concert, and critics tore what was left of it to shreds. It later found a somewhat revitalized life in the rental shops, which was where I discovered it as a kid.

It was somewhat of a passion project for screenwriter Eric Luke, who wrote it based on the kids' adventure stories he enjoyed in his own childhood. Luke even cameos in the movie as a teacher. Dante was brought in to direct thanks in no small part to the huge success of Gremlins, as well as his known talent for directing effects-heavy genre pictures like this. This seemed like an assured win: the script was hot, the director was hot, the cast was great, and they had Jerry Goldsmith to fix whatever wasn't working.

But there were two problems.

First, the script didn't have a firm conclusion. Luke's ending had the kids end up on Mars, where they met members of a dying civilization who revealed that they had called them there.

Second was the dreaded executive meddling. In a turn of events horrifying to everyone involved, a regime change at Paramount resulted in Dante receiving word that the movie had to be completed a month earlier than scheduled.

At this time, Dante wrote a resignation letter. But he didn't turn it in, because he felt that would be a terrible thing to do in general and a terrible thing to do to the kids in particular.

So the movie ended up, essentially, being released unfinished. Quite a lot of content, particularly plot elements involving the movie's female lead, Lori (Amanda Peterson), was left out. As a result it's a very uneven film, with characters who don't feel fully fleshed out and plot elements that don't feel like they ever get resolved.

And more controversial than this was the film's last third. This is when the movie goes full Joe Dante. The dream signals lead the kids to a spaceship where they meet a couple of aliens. Ben expects to learn the secrets of the universe, the but the aliens turn out to be more interested in rattling off pop culture schticks.

You've absolutely got to see these aliens in motion to believe it. That's Robert Picardo in the costume, and the only part of his body visible is his mouth. But the eyes move, the antennas move, everything...it's some absolute masterwork in effects. Picardo previously worked with Dante on The Howling, where he was the main werewolf baddie, and SFX artist Rob Bottin, who also worked on The Howling, designed the alien stuff. I love the 1950s/1960s aesthetic of these weirdos.

This was the part of the movie that stuck with me since childhood. The film's twist ending is you learn the two aliens aboard the ship are just kids who stole their dad's car, and Ben goes back home a bit disappointed that he didn't learn more from the experience. I loved it, and I loved all of the crazy sets and strange moments aboard the alien ship.

But this was also the bit that didn't stick well with audiences. Kids liked it okay, but adults - and critics especially - hated the tonal shift. They said the first half of the movie was Spielbergian, but the second half of it was too Dante.

Being a fan of both Spielberg and Dante, I like both sides of the coin, but I understand where the disappointment comes from. In my eyes the movie is more disappointing for its unfinished nature than the tone shift. I think the space scenes work fantastically well, and the only reason they don't work better is because the movie wasn't given the time it needed to drive home its emotional plot.

But despite all its problems, this is a rough gem of a movie that I think is absolutely worth a watch. All of the kids are great actors, there's tons of incredible effects on display, and Goldsmith's score is probably one of his best. And there's plenty of fun little moments that speak to the creators having a lot of fun it. Take for example this scene:

The kids fly over a drive-in theater where a movie called "Starkiller" is playing. It's a fake movie featuring authentic 1960s/1970s aesthetic right down to the cheap-looking ship props and a bad dub. Robert Picardo, outside of his elaborate makeup, plays the film's lead. A movie within a movie is classic Dante (hell, his first film featured the characters watching other stuff at a drive-in) and it's one of the reasons I love his work so much.

If you like great SFX and the kids-on-bikes genre, and you haven't seen this one, check it out sometime maybe.

That Guy Dick Miller Report

Dick Miller plays a helicopter pilot who encounters the kids during their first flight and eventually discovers their ship in the woods. True to this movie's unfinished nature, Miller's role was also unfinished: the original plan was for him to portray a character who experienced similar dreams as a kid, but was never able to act on them. A little bit of this comes through in the finished film, but there was supposed to be a little more to it with him returning to talk to Ben during the closing dream sequence.


Summon for hire
I'm kind of surprised I never saw this movie as a kid (or even heard of it, ever, before just now) as it seems right up the alley of the other stuff I was watching at the time - Short Circuit, Flight of the Navigator, Last Starfighter, etc etc. I guess maybe my local movie rental place never picked it up after it bombed in theaters!