For children of the ’80s, Joe Dante is a king among men. The cult director got his start on films like “The Howling,” “Piranha” and “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (alongside Spielberg, Landis and George Miller) before breaking out with the classic “Gremlins.” From there, he went on to helm an eclectic mix of sci-fi, fantasy and comedy, ranging from “Innerspace” to “The ‘burbs” to “Matinee.” And this weekend he’s back with the family-friendly horror film “The Hole.” The 3D film, which hits limited release on Friday September 28 before arriving on DVD on October 2, tells the story of two young brothers who discover a mysterious bottomless pit in their new house. As they try to uncover the mystery of the hole, they are confronted with living, breathing representations of their worst nightmares (If you’re afraid of clowns, you might not be able to handle this movie).
Moviefone spoke with Dante about why his new movie is perfect for children of the ’80s, offered new details on his involvement in the upcoming horror anthology “Paris, I’ll Kill You” and revealed what it would take to get him on-board for a “Gremlins 3.”
I really enjoyed “The Hole”; as a horror junkie, it felt like a real breath of fresh air from every other generic horror film out there. I don’t get to see this kind of movie as much as I’d like to.
That’s because they don’t make them.
Why is working with that kind of tone, a mix of comedy, subtlety and old-school creepiness, fun for you?
I grew up liking these movies too. This is sort of a retro ’80s kind of movie, when you could take your kids to see a horror picture and they wouldn’t be scarred for life. Then things got a lot raunchier, a lot grimmer, and a lot gorier. The horror movie genre started to look like it would be difficult to perpetuate because it was always the same stuff. Repetitiveness is one of the things that’s most difficult to get away from in genre pictures, because people come specifically to see certain kinds of things but get disappointed if they’re presented in the same way. So to try to find a new way to show old stuff is always the challenge. I think a movie like “Cabin in the Woods” certainly managed to find a way around. In our small way, we were trying to do the same thing.
As far as the ’80s goes, the work you did then has really impacted my generation of viewers who have grown up and consider them classics. Even if a project of yours didn’t grab a certain zeitgeist when it hit theaters, I think cable and video cemented a lot of your films.
You’re absolutely right. That’s been the boon of many a filmmaker. I don’t believe that you can judge the worth of a movie in the atmosphere in which it comes out the first time. There’s just so many reasons why some pictures don’t catch on. “The Wizard of Oz” was not a hit. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not a hit. “Touch of Evil” was not a hit. Movies that we revere now were pretty much taken for granted. It’s only with hindsight that you can look back and have an idea of what really was going on. Because you can see it in context, which you don’t do when you don’t know what is coming around the corner tomorrow.
A lot of filmmakers from my generation were lucky enough to have their work more or less perpetuated by people who saw them originally on TV and on HBO and certainly on home video. This is where pictures like “Innerspace,” which didn’t do anything at the box office theatrically, is now a very popular movie because people started to watch it on VHS then DVD and now Blu-Rays. And that era, the 80s, is as the 50s was to us when we were making those movies in the 80s.
Is there a project that you were worried would never find the audience it deserved?
There’s the ones that I never got to make, which didn’t find their audience. “Explorers” was a movie that was released even before it was finished. That was a movie where it was like Wait a minute, it’s not done. How could you put it out there? And crickets chirped but nonetheless, people did see it and now it’s very popular in retrospect, which is great. I can’t watch it because all I can think of is I know what goes here and I know what we took out of here and we didn’t get to shoot this. But as far as the movies themselves are concerned, I’m fairly satisfied with most of what I’ve been able to do. And I think the fact that through a trick of time, a lot of these movies have outlasted pictures that were much more popular at the time they were released.
One of the things I loved about “The Hole” was that it had a certain kind of timelessness to it.
You get too specific about the period that you’re working in and that definitely dates your movie. But when you do a movie that is set in the suburbs or a place that hasn’t changed in thirty years, you can get away with that. Which you can’t do when you’re watching a spy movie and he takes out his cell phone and it’s the size of a shoe box. Obviously that takes you out of the picture. But if you can avoid that kind of thing, you can have movies that people can’t tell when quite exactly when they were made.
What’s the status of your work in the the “Paris, I’ll Kill You” horror anthology?
Well, it was semi-moribund for a while. The producers have been trying to put this thing together for several years now and they finally got it to a point where they are moving forward. I’m supposed to shoot something in January along with seven other filmmakers who are mostly European. It’s set in Paris, but we’re shooting it in London.
It’s definitely an eclectic bunch.
It’s a very eclectic bunch, which I think is good. The script is actually designed like the “Twilight Zone” movie was supposed to be, which is that the stories rather than being separate are actually interwoven so people in one story will appear in another story and the stories will overlap. That was the original plan for “The Twilight Zone” but for obvious reasons that couldn’t happen, but in this case they really seem to have worked it out quite well.
How far did you get developing the interconnected idea for the “Twilight Zone” movie?
I remember shooting an ending where Kathleen Quinlan is picked up by Dan Aykroyd. But because of what happened [Note: Star Vic Morrow along with two child actors were killed during a stunt scene gone wrong], that ended up getting thrown out and people ended up doing different stories than they were supposed to do. And so it became an anthology.
I’d be remiss to not ask about “Gremlins.” I think it’s brilliant that “Gremlins 2″ is basically a satire of the first “Gremlins.” I love that when Warner Brothers gave you creative control, that’s the direction you took it in. If Warner Brothers was going to go ahead with a “Gremlins 3″ and gave you creative control again, what kind of direction would you take it in?
I think it would be difficult to make it crazier than the last one. I actually do have an idea on how to do that if they decide to ask. I have a lot of ideas, but the “Gremlins” movies were defined by the technology we we used and now that technology is obsolete. You’d really have to do some major thinking about how you wanted to go into this with CGI because it’s just a different world.