Crucible of fame

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am

If Steven Spielberg had a mischievous twin, it would be Joe Dante. From his 1978 Jaws rip-off Piranha to his critters-with-attitude hit Gremlins (1984), Dante's films explored the darker side of what Spielberg so expertly turned into blockbuster gold. Not that there's ever been any rivalry: after Dante made his much-admired 1981 horror The Howling, he was hired by Spielberg as one of the directors on the anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie, before they reunited for Gremlins.

'It was a very lucky break for me,' Dante reflects. 'I could've made exactly the same movie for another company and it would never have got the attention that it did because of Steven.'

While their films have frequently shared an interest in family in suburban America, Dante has never quite enjoyed the success Spielberg does. His last film, 2003's Loony Tunes: Back in Action, a crazy blend of live-action and animation, failed even to make back its US$80 million budget. So, like many directors, Dante switched to television, making an episode of Masters of Horror called Homecoming about zombie soldiers coming back to life after Iraq. 'It was the first time anybody ... had made anything critical of the war, and it got a tremendous amount of attention.'

If that suggests Dante is ready to enter a new phase of his career, his return to the big screen this month with The Hole in 3D feels more like a trip down memory lane to a time when he was at the height of his powers. A nod to the family horror films of the 1980s, it's set in the sleepy (and fictional) suburb of Bensonville - think the idyllic town in Gremlins without the snow - as two brothers (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) discover a trapdoor in the basement of their new home. When they open it, all hell breaks loose - literally. 'It's Gremlins without the Gremlins!' Dante says with a glee that belies his 63 years. 'It involves your worst fears.'

As his foray into television hinted, Dante remains a master of horror, building suspense in The Hole with craftsman-like care as the brothers are forced to face physical manifestations of their deepest nightmares. But what impresses about the film is its use of 3D, which employs the technique in a very different way to recent examples such as Avatar or Alice in Wonderland. 'It's a small film for 3D,' Dante admits. 'It doesn't have a lot of spectacle. It has a cast of six. It's not really a giant movie. It's quite intimate - though that was one of the reasons I wanted to do it in 3D. I wanted to get some scope into it.'

Noting how much 3D technology has improved since its last wave in the 80s, Dante says he finds the notion intriguing. 'I'm not of the mind that every movie should be in 3D but when you have a subject that lends itself to it, it does enhance it. But you have to be able to make a film that works in 2D as well. My example of a really well done 3D movie is Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, which has been seen in 3D in very few places and has been essentially constructed around the spatial relationships of the characters for dramatic purposes. Anybody making a 3D movie should study this,' he says.

Born in New Jersey, Dante was in time for the first wave of 3D movies, such as Andre De Toth's House of Wax (1953) and Jack Arnold's Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) although he was more interested in drawing cartoons and comic strips. 'I did movies too. I would tape [cartoon strips] together on a roll, and pull them through a shoebox as if they were on a screen, and it was a lot of fun. But I never entertained the idea of being a filmmaker until I went to art school, and they told me I couldn't be a cartoonist because cartooning wasn't an art.'

Switching to study film - because he thought storyboards resembled cartoons - was the perfect complement to his hobby, writing criticism for horror fanzine Castle of Frankenstein. Yet even when he joined B-movie maestro Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the early 1970s, initially to edit trailers, he never thought he would wind up making films. 'It wasn't like I was born with a burning ambition.' It was only when Corman challenged him to make a movie for US$50,000 - the result is 1976's in-joke about low-budget filmmaking, Hollywood Boulevard - that he truly found his vocation.

Dante cut his teeth directing a year after Spielberg's Jaws hit cinemas and while he concedes that film 'changed the taste of the public', he doesn't blame his old friend and mentor for the evolution of the summer blockbuster. 'Now the public has been taught to expect huge doses of CGI, multiple climaxes, and huge visual pyrotechnics - any one of which would be enough for a movie 20 years ago,' he sighs. 'Now there has to be several in each picture and they have to all top each other. The studios are now discovering that it's very expensive to make these pictures and yet the audience is jaded enough that they expect that every time they go to the movies.'

Even Dante may have to concede that he too has been sucked into this Hollywood abyss, what with the final third of The Hole suffering from an over-reliance on special effects, but then he's all too aware of how commerce frequently rules film. Having seen his own films remade - with a new 3D version of Piranha, by Alexandre Aja, due for release in Hong Kong a week after The Hole - he's even guilty of producing a sequel himself: 1990's Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

So what about making the oft-talked about Gremlins 3 - perhaps a CGI version in 3D? Not for him, he says. 'They've tried over the years to figure out a hook to build it on. They haven't found it yet - but I'm sure they will eventually. It's too hot a title for them not to exploit.'

The Hole in 3D is screening now; Piranha 3D opens on Thursday