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Now, was that civilized? No, clearly not. Fun, but in no sense civilized.

Joe Dante 

All of Joe Dante’s big screen outings appear here (barring the couple of scenes he contributed to Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), but only a limited selection of his TV work. You have to draw the line somewhere. Absent then, are his contributions to Amazing Stories, the ‘80s Twilight Zone, Eerie, Indiana, Police Squad!, Picture Windows, Night Visions, Hawaii Five-O, Legends of Tomorrow, Salem, Witches of East End, Splatter, CSI: NY and The Greatest Show Ever. I haven’t included TV movie remake Runaway Daughters or pilot The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy either, mainly because I haven’t been able to track them down. If that changes, I’ll add them to the ranking.

Dante’s movie career might have been very different if any of the many and varied projects he’d been attached to over the past 40 years had gone ahead. If he’d directed Batman before Burton got his patchouli-scented fingerless gloves on it. Or The Philadelphia Experiment. Or The Phantom. Or The Mummy. Or Jaws 3 People 0. Or Jurassic Park! At least several of those might have made him a more mainstream prospect. Then again, who knows? You wouldn’t necessarily have expected the success consistently attained by Tim Burton.

Dante occupies a niche, one that miraculously led to a huge and unlikely hit in Gremlins, and as a direct consequence we were granted more big budgeted pictures than he would otherwise have warranted. It’s a shame, though, that the last two decades have seen only three cinematic outings. One might have hoped some of today’s younger filmmakers with clout were more invested in seeing the legends who inspired them continue to work. Maybe Dante will yet get Termite Terrace or The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes off the ground. It certainly wouldn’t do to have Burying the Ex as his not-so-grand final wave to the silver screen.

20. Trapped Ashes

The less said about this, probably the better. Dante directed the wraparound, which is also the best part of a resoundingly cheap and resoundingly weakly written anthology movie. Henry Gibson is good fun as the not-as-he-seems tour guide, and Dick Miller pops up to confirm his director was most definitely involved, but there isn’t really a chance for Dante to inject his own skewed view into this scenario, a shame since the movie-movie world of a disused Hollywood studio is just his cup of tea. Designed as an homage to the Amicus portmanteau horrors of the ‘60s and ‘70s, all it shows up is how much more fun, atmospheric, unsettling and just straight up cleverer they were.

19. R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse

A 22 minute, “4D” short, Haunted Lighthouse was shown at Busch Gardens theme parks and, unlike Dante’s later 3D The Hole, it very much emphasises its interactive effects at the expense of content. Effects which, on the 4th D side, mostly appear to involve water squirting at the audience. The slender plot finds a couple of juveniles tempted to the lighthouse by another couple of juveniles, except that the latter are of the spectral variety. And then, before they get a chance to make “friends” (read: knock the living kids off, not that there was ever any danger of this being other than wholesomely clunky), their ghostly parents arrive on a ghostly ship and all are cosily reunited.

Still, Christopher Lloyd’s Cap’n Jack is agreeably broad, and there are cameos from his Back to the Future co-star Lea Thompson, Michael McKean and… Weird Al Yankovich. There isn’t much in the way of wit to savour, although McKean’s response raises a smile, after Thompson notes how no one ever helped their children before, because they were different; “Aye, and a little homicidal”. I’ll be charitable and say you probably have to experience it in full 4D to truly appreciate it (it can be viewed on YouTube, with a dirty great watermark across the frame).

18. Hollywood Boulevard

Dante’s ramshackle, co-directed debut (with Allen Arkush) is a victim of bloating a budget of peanuts to feature length, and guilty of fully embracing the exploitation excesses of Roger Corman’s oeuvre (including rape played for laughs and wet t-shirt hosing downs). The self-reflexivity that would soon become the director’s trademark can only compensate for this sort of thing so much, and as good value as Dick Miller (as a terrible agent) and Paul Bartel (as a terribly pretentious director of trash movies) are, they can’t disguise that Hollywood Boulevard determinedly drags its heels over its 80-odd minute running time.

The found footage that inspired the picture (including clips from Death Race 2000) isn’t actually that prevalent, but neither is there enough of the Dante who would come to be in its stead (one of the most emblematic gags occurs at the outset, as a skydiver leaves a skydiver-shaped hole in the ground when her chute fails to open).

17. Burying the Ex

If The Hole is a positive reminder of what Dante can do when delivering a script with relatively little tailoring to his own sensibilities, Burying the Ex tends to the negative of the same. Whatever else it has been, his career has very rarely been puerile, and unfortunately this romzomcom, in which Anton Yelchin’s ex-girlfriend Ashley Greene won’t stay dead, is frequently that.

Its shoestring budget is often very obvious, and seeing Dick Miller roped into something that’s essentially a bit beneath his filmmaker friend is a touch saddening. It isn’t until Oliver Cooper, playing Yelchin’s half brother, takes an active involvement in the proceedings that Dante discovers something of his mojo, just about managing to overcome the limitations of Alan Trezza’s screenplay.

16. Masters of Horror: Homecoming

Celebrated as one of Dante’s great works, even though it didn’t arrive via cinema screens, Homecoming is the political equivalent of a one-joke movie that continually beats its audience over the head with the same bloody stump of a gag. Politically-motivated zombie veterans return from Iraq intent on voting against the President who sent them to war…. And that’s it, pretty much.

In this first season episode from anthology series Masters of Horror, the zombie subtext becomes text, which for a director with a flair for sly parody and satire is rather disappointing. Robert Picardo collects points as a twisted political consultant, and the retro, noir-flavoured narration offers a distinctive framing for the story, but this is merely adequate, rather than the masterpiece its reputation suggests.

15. Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution

Dante reunited with Homecoming writer Sam Hamm on the second season of Masters of Horror, adapting a ‘70s short story by James Tiptree Jr (Alice Bradley Sheldon) about men turning into religiously-transfixed murderers of women, owing to a pernicious virus. The reception of Homecoming apparently encouraged the producers to instil more of a political flavour in the follow-up run, and Dante’s episode is every bit as unsubtle as its predecessor. It’s a significantly more satisfying piece of storytelling, though, even if it feels rather rushed, and has the dubious distinction of being by far the goriest thing the director’s done.

14. Twilight Zone: The Movie - It’s a Good Life

The third segment of this one-off movie anthology is sure-footed but little more, so contrasting with the highs of George Miller’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the lows of Steven Spielberg’s Kick the Can, and the headlining-making of John Landis’ Time Out. It’s a Good Life comes from the dependable pen of Richard Matheson, revealing itself as a cautionary tale of what actually happens when your wishes come true, rather undermined by Dante’s penchant for irreverence. A teacher (Kathleen Quinlan) discovers that Anthony (Jeremy Licht) has extraordinary powers, keeping his “family” hostage while consuming nothing but TV and junk food.

By Dante standards, It’s a Good Life lacks drive, its twists failing to pack much wallop. Added to which, the movie-referencing is minor league compared to the abandon with which Explorers would later take up the baton. Nevertheless, highlights include the Dante repertory company (Dick Miller, William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy with a bowl haircut), a cartoonish horror rabbit made flesh, and Anthony’s sister watching television, mute and mouthless, just the way he prefers.

13. Amazon Women on the Moon

Others had first dibs on this, meaning some of Dante’s preferences, such as Son of the Invisible Man, were unavailable. Nevertheless, he directed Amazon Women on the Moon’s standout sequence, Bullshit or Not? (*****) which guarantees a *** for his share of a very patchy **1/2 movie. In it, Henry Silva, presenter of the titular show investigating unsolved mysteries, ponders whether Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster. Cue a re-enactment in which a rather dapper lake monster approaches a lady of the night (Is this the way it happened? Was Jack the Ripper in fact a 60-foot sea serpent from Scotland?)

In Hairlooming (*) Joey Pants replaces bald spots with carpet. Critic’s Corner (**) finds Siskel & Ebert types reviewing the lives of a real family but never really makes hay from its premise. Roast Your Loved One (***) features Robert Picardo as the host of the roast of Critic’s Corner’s now late husband, with lounge act comedians lining up to take the rip out of him. Reckless Youth (***1/2) spoofs ‘50s public service infomercials as Carrie Fisher contracts a social disease and is remonstrated by Paul Bartel’s doctor. Left on the cutting room floor was The French Ventriloquist’s Dummy (***), in which Dick Miller picks up the wrong vents doll from airport baggage, ending up with a French model who refuses to lower himself to cheap vaudeville jokes.

12. The Second Civil War


An HBO TV movie, originally intended as a Barry Levinson vehicle before he decided it was too similar to Wag the Dog, The Second Civil War in part brandishes the satirical Network veneer Dante previously flirted with in The Howling. It also takes on matters of individual and state freedom, and the hot button of immigration, as Ohio refuses to accept any more refugees and ends up in a face-off with the White House.

The end result is sporadically effective, but hampered by HBO messing with it in the edit and Dante not really being the right man for the job. The Second Civil War needed a more dynamic, roving eye to stir up the proceedings as they dart from newsroom to frontline conflict to conference room debate; what we have feels unusually laboured for the director.

There are still memorable moments, of course; anything from James Coburn is gold dust, as is Joanna Cassidy’s anchorwoman bashing her co-anchor’s head against his desk, trying to make him see the severity of the situation. When the violence breaks out, the picture takes a more severe turn, but the proceedings’ general lack of visual weight ensure it fails to rise to the challenge. Not bad then, and its issues certainly haven’t gone away in the two decades since, but far from vintage Dante.

11. Piranha 

Dante’s first solo effort, a cheap Roger Corman Jaws rip-off (albeit expensive for Roger Corman) that sufficiently charmed Spielberg to stay Universal from suing and eventually led to Dante’s ‘80s flirtations with the big time. It was also his first collaboration with John Sayles, whose script features piranhas genetically bred to destroy the North Vietnamese’s river systems.

As you’d expect from Corman, there are significant helpings of breasts and blood splashing about, but also some small degree of Sayles’ wit. Dick Miller’s resort owner is upset to be told of the carnivorous fish “They’re eating the guests, sir” while Paul Bartel’s summer camp Nazi instructs his junior “People eat fish… fish don’t eat people” before one leaps from the water and bites him on the nose. Piranha lacks the stylistic flourish of his next feature The Howling, and its pace is somewhat slack, but you can clearly see the through line that connects them, and the sense of humour.

10. Matinee

The director’s nostalgic paean to (ironically) the threat of nuclear Armageddon and the cinema of William Castle is rated by many as his greatest work. Like a number of lauded pieces by fine directors (see the Coen Brothers’ Fargo), I’m left a touch unpersuaded, though. When Matinee shines, it really shines, and John Goodman is a blast as Lawrence Woolsey, the Castle-esque movie producer intent on scaring his audience by any means available.

The movie-within-a-movie MANT! is one of the funniest things Dante has ever delivered, a Fly-spoof in which the gags come thick and fast (approaching her mutated, half-man, half-ant husband, Claire pleads Oh, Bill, if only you could just listen to the man in you, and put the insect aside”, to which he responds “Insecticide? Where?”). But the sweet-natured high school adventures of Simon Fenton’s Gene Loomis are a little too undiluted for my tastes, and the nuclear threat never looms as potently as it might. Dante’s young performers are as well-picked as is customary, and Matinee is extremely amiable, but it needed some bite.

9. The Hole 

This return, after a half decade in the cinematic wilderness, during which Dante dabbled in TV, is a much straighter affair than we’ve been used to, comprising a very standard horror premise (there’s a hole in the basement, and once it’s opened dark forces are unleashed). But Dante tells his tale with supreme technical confidence (the 3D won an award at the Venice Film Festival) and his young cast evidence that sure eye for naturalistic performances.

Promoted as a family horror movie (where it was actually released; it didn’t scrape onto screens in the US until 2012), Dante creates an effective atmosphere during the first half, as characters are menaced by devil dolls and creepy children. Also thrown in is an effective cameo from Bruce Dern as a previous – and current – experiencer of the house’s properties. The narrative footing is less certain when it comes to our young hero’s confrontation with his own unique affliction, however. Overall, though, The Hole amounts to a timely reminder that Dante has lost none of his touch.

8. Looney Tunes: Back in Action

A miserable movie-making experience for Dante, with a Warner Bros that clearly didn’t understand their cartoon legacy; they ended up dumping a picture from which they had already demanded changes to the beginning, middle and end. Looney Tunes is the director’s last studio picture to date, and one, for all his inability to see the good side, that has lots to offer. Besides not being Space Jam, that is.

For a start, while it’s true it has a frenetic pace that is very un-Dante and that, at its worst, does exactly what he doesn’t like (full throttles us through the dry patches, knowing something else will come along shortly), Back in Action emerges with much of the flavour of those original shorts, and more than that retains a sense of Dante bruised but unbowed.

The plot is as woolly as Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s, but imbued with a strong sense of self-awareness that was integral to the originals, and it gets its characters, most notably principles Bugs and Daffy, just right. There are several inspired sequences, including the ‘50s B-movie cornucopia of Area 52 and a visual tour de force through a series of paintings in the Louvre, in which Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd take on the stylistic attributes of the particular artist.

Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman provide surprisingly strong human support, and Timothy Dalton is far better spoofing Bond than he ever was playing him. There are undoubtedly hiccups – Steve Martin’s human-toon is spectacularly misjudged – but Back in Action has been unfairly maligned.

7. Small Soldiers 

Dante’s Gremlins 3, almost. After the relative box office fizzle of Gremlins 2 (compared to the original), and the generally ignored Matinee (albeit critically well-regarded), it would be six years before he got another big screen gig, and it came courtesy of old mucker Steven Spielberg and his newly established DreamWorks studio. It’s fair to say this represents the dividing line between Dante’s period of Gremlins-fuelled prolific output and his status as an also-ran, finding it increasingly difficult to pin down a job or blend it into a form that reflected his sensibilities.

Small Soldiers is frequently very funny, and very likeable, but it isn’t really breaking any moulds the director hadn’t hitherto cast. Instead of cute pets, you have cute toys going awry and unleashing mayhem on a small town (albeit, none of the designs here are as iconic as those for Gremlins). The corporate spectre that can solve everything with a pay cheque is even parcelled over from the second Gremlins movie.

But this is still Dante at his best when he’s enthused by an idea, and if the juvenile coming-of-age romance aspect is rather weak sauce, he lets fly a salvo of delightfully effective barbs aimed at a smattering of subjects, from all things military (“I think World War II was my favourite war” extols Phil Hartman’s foolish neighbour), to the adulterated toy industry, to the gleefully amoral corporate mind-set.

Indeed, in the same summer that Saving Private Ryan presented a fashionably hellish veneration of “justified” warfare, Dante was eviscerating the very notion through Chip Hazard’s empty, plastic platitudes. As sharp is the Dennis Leary-headed GloboTech (“Introducing advanced battlefield technology into consumer products for the whole family”), which ultimately decides to approach the military with an offer on the abandoned toy line (adding a few zeroes to the price tag), so predicting the coming age of drone warfare.

6. Explorers 

One of the director’s most fraught productions, Explorers cuts the rug from under childhood dreams of untold fantastic realms by delivering aliens who are just kids themselves. Like the protagonists (career debuts from River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke, and the less well known but equally notable Jason Presson), they’re devoted to a diet of TV and disobeying their parents. The movie may end on a tentatively positive note of collective and evolving consciousness (the noosphere), but by then the damage has been done.

Which isn’t to say Explorers isn’t ingenious, frequently very funny (the talking mice, the drive-in Robert Picardo-starring Starkiller movie) and delightfully designed (the cartoons-made-latex aliens, one being Picardo again), but it’s perhaps too ambitious, and fatally undercut by a misunderstanding studio that rushed to release what they erringly assumed would be another Gremlins (Dante refers to the finished picture as unfinished, a rough cut). Well, the last third of the picture is, sort-of, another Gremlins, but it’s Gremlins 2. Which flopped.

5. The Howling 

Suffering from comparison to John Landis’ near-perfect An American Werewolf in London (Dante at least has the vastly superior werewolves), The Howling is an often brilliant, sometimes tonally untidy leap in the direction of the director’s most recognised cinematic shape.

It’s a notably more sumptuous affair than Piranha, thanks to John Hora’s atmospheric cinematography, and richer in subject matter too, with John Sayles’ screenplay taking in Network news and self-help satire. Dante revels in the lyncanthropic lore (to the extent of featuring character names based on directors of werewolf movies). Where The Howling flounders, amid some wry commentary on repressed urges and the beast within, is in its almost Sam Raimi-esque insensitivity to the elements of rape and spousal abuse; Dee Wallace’s character is empathised with or objectified depending on intent of the scene in question, and her dedicated performance is often at odds with her director’s more blasé approach.

The cast includes Adam Sandler’s regular director Dennis Dugan (as the unlikely hero of the piece), the late, great Patrick Macnee as a doctor introducing disgruntled werewolves to a diet of cattle, and Kevin McCarthy as a self-inflated TV news producer. Dick Miller’s cameo is one of his best, as the proprietor of an occult book shop who insists full moons are “A lot of Hollywood baloney” (silver bullets are real, though). Robert Picardo (Eddie the Mangler) appears in an atypically straight role, even given his most famously quirky line.

While Gremlins would have its scares, they were mostly of the shock/laugh variety; it wouldn’t be until Masters of Horror a quarter of a century later that the director would return to full-blooded shocks. The famously ground-breaking transformation scene isn’t a patch on American Werewolf’s, and it goes on far too long, but credit to Dante, and Rob Bottin, for getting there first.

4. Innerspace 

The movie that sorely illustrated Dante was no Spielberg or even Zemeckis in terms of pulling crowds. Equipped with a ‘berg producer credit, and a no-brainer premise (Fantastic Voyage as a comedy), audiences stayed away in droves. I was unaware of this at the time, seeing it as just as significant a movie as the earlier Gremlins, and for the most part it deserves to be considered in the same breath. If elements (the half-pint miniaturisation of the villains in the third act) don’t quite come off, so much of this does, with such unbridled enthusiasm, that it’s easily one of the best things most of the cast have done.

That’s including Dennis Quaid, inhabiting flawed hero Tuck Pendelton (“Zero defects”) with panache, Meg Ryan with the cutest little overbite, and Martin Short on hugely winning form as hypochondriac hero Jack Putter (Lewis to Quaid’s Martin; they have great chemistry, even though they share only one scene). This is an anomaly, on one level, the director’s only real flirtation with an adult love story, so it’s probably fitting that it’s embedded in such unalloyed lunacy.

Eclipsing these bona fide stars, however, is Dante main man Robert Picardo, offering scene-stealing performances as both villain the Cowboy and Jack Putter impersonating the Cowboy. It scarcely matters that the science of Innerspace is nonsensical (Tuck drinking alcohol comprised of presumably larger molecules than he can absorb) when the picture as a whole is so infectiously upbeat. Everyone here, from Kevin McCarthy’s villain Scrimshaw, to Wendy Schaal’s would-be romantic interest for Jack, to Henry Gibson’s strained store manager, to William Schallert’s attentive doctor, is instantly memorable, no matter the size of the role. The effects too are richly Academy Award-deserving (the aforementioned half-sized villains aside).

3. Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Dante repeatedly turned down the chance to make a Gremlins sequel, until a desperate Warner Bros gave him carte blanche to do exactly what he wanted. Which wasn’t terribly wise, not if they expected a hit the size of the original, at any rate. Dante’s solution with where to take the mischievous critters next was typically Dantean; he would deconstruct the entire edifice he had built in the original, mocking everything from their mystifying rules (“What happens if they’re eating on an airplane and cross into a different time zone?”) to Kate’s familial mishap (“It was Lincoln’s birthday”) in the closest he has yet come to realising his movie world as an unfettered live action cartoon.

The whole of The New Batch is as gloriously anarchic as the titular critters were in the original, a compendium of self-referentiality (Leonard Maltin is attacked by Gremlins while giving the original a bad review) and fourth-wall breaking (the projector unspools mid-film, with Hulk Hogan coming on to demand the creatures restart it), only constrained by the setting, Daniel Clamp’s (a winning Jon Glover) Clamp Towers (an amalgam of Donald Trump and Ted Turner, the latter being a proponent of colourising old movies, much to Dante’s disgust; “Casablanca, now in full color, with a happier ending”).

The picture abounds with incidental gags (“I hope you washed your hands” urges a men’s room tannoy) and colourful casting (Christopher Lee’s perfectly named Dr Catheter). Best of all is Tony Randall’s disarmingly loquacious Brain Gremlin, desirous of civilisation for his kind (“The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition... that's what we're reaching toward. Oh, we may stumble along the way, but civilization, yes. The Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag. Everything your society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries, that's what we aspire to; we want to be civilized”).

2. Gremlins 

The movie that built Dante’s commercial reputation, nearly everything subsequently conspiring to prove it a flash in the pan. To be honest, I vacillate over whether I prefer Gremlins or its sequel. They’re very different beasts, each cherishable for different reasons. Gremlins probably edges it, though, through exposing me to a filmmaker unconstrained by standard Hollywood genres and storytelling modes. Gremlins, is, as the poster describes, cute, clever, mischievous, intelligent, dangerous.

I well remember the anticipation I felt for the movie, with its cute puppet, Yuletide setting and Spielberg producer credit. I devoured the novelisation and the bubble-gum cards. And then, when I eventually saw it, the movie itself did not disappoint. Albeit, shielded as I was from Dantean irreverence, some of its aspects were shocking in a manner that, in retrospect, seem sweetly naïve; the Gremlins aren’t just dangerous, they outright kill people, including innocent people. I still find Kate’s recollection of why she doesn’t like Christmas queasy rather than hilarious, though, mostly because we are invested in the character; Dante said he wanted audiences not to know whether to laugh or feel for Kate, so I guess I don’t sit on the fence for that one.

Par for the course in Dante’s oeuvre, but with a confidence now fully developed, Gremlins both embraces and undercuts his favourite playground of small town Americana, letting his scaly creatures lose on a world intentionally referencing It’s A Wonderful Life in footage, names and setting (Kingston Falls instead of Bedford Falls, the seasonal setting).

The Gremlins are devilishly entertaining little devils, and voracious examples of ‘80s consumerism, particularly when they run riot at Dorry’s Tavern. And their leader Spike is suitably insalubrious specimen. The picture’s set piece par excellence, however, finds Lynn Peltzer defending her sacred home with whatever implements come to hand (mixer, steak knife, microwave).

Gizmo is, of course, unutterably cute, aided immeasurably by Howie Mandell’s vocals, and if Steven Spielberg is guilty of some of the worst incidents of sentimentality the big screen has witnessed, he’s to be celebrated for recognising the Mogwai as the hero of the piece, and thus that he needed to appear in the entire picture rather than transform into Stripe. Oh, and a round of applause for Jerry Goldsmith’s rocky synth score, as iconic in it’s own way as Williams’ work for Spielberg on Indy (this was his first full feature collaboration with Dante, one that would span nearly two decades until the composer’s death).

1. The ‘Burbs 

Not the most commercial of Dante’s movies (see Gremlins), or the most critically acclaimed (see Matinee), but possibly the one whose reputation has grown most considerably since its initial release. It’s Dante’s The Big Lebowski, if you will, albeit the director will never be as feted as the Coen Brothers, a movie where every line, every scene, every character, is a contender for the best bit. The ‘Burbs is a black comedy that, even though it embraces his penchant for the fantastic, was Dante’s most grounded to that point, expanding his satirical tendencies regarding all-American values into an entire movie.

Tom Hanks, back when he still did what he did best and flexed his comedy muscles, heads a sterling cast as Ray Peterson, wanting to slob out at home for a week but hampered by his immature neighbours (a career best Bruce Dern – forget about Tarantino comebacks – and Rick Ducommun) who are convinced their new neighbours the Klopeks are up to no good.

Dante was never quite satisfied with the ending, but I don’t think their being right in their suspicions unravels the truth that they are entirely wrong in their behaviours and attitudes (Ducommun’s character’s TV interview essentially confirms his jubilant dim-wittedness; “Do not mess with suburbanites, because frankly we’re just not going to take it any more”). It’s just the sort of thing you expect from Dante anyway, the guy who makes movies where the corporate villains pay everyone off at the end (Small Soldiers) and no one learns anything.

Hanks and Dern are probably the standouts, the former a hive of ever-growing frustration (particularly in respect of Ducommun’s Art “tuna neck” Weingartner), the latter a gleefully xenophobic Nam veteran with a young trophy wife (Wendy Schaal), unapologetic about interrogating the Klopeks (Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore and Courtney Gains, all marvellous) and intruding on their lives in whatever way he sees fit. Carrie Fisher perfectly pitches Ray’s long-suffering wife, the only real adult in the movie.

Dante’s visual gags are boundless, from the Morricone-themed cul-de-sac standoff (close-ups of actors’ faces culminate with one of Walter’s dog, Queenie) to an Art shaped hole in a shed roof, to a “horse” in the basement, and the classic crash zoom discovery of a human femur. The ‘Burbs is an unsung a comic masterpiece. As Corey Feldman says at the end, “God, I love this street”; it’s one that’s endlessly revisable.


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(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …