Joe Dante: Monster Kid

by Donato Totaro Volume 23 Issue 5 / May 2019 11 minutes (2697 words)

As part of the screening of the new omnibus horror film Nightmare Cinema Fantasia presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to director Joe Dante. Dante is one of five directors to have helmed one of the stories in Nightmare Cinema, along with Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués (whose fantastic zombie comedy Juan of the Dead played at Fantasia in 2012), Ryuhei Kitamura (no stranger to Fantasia) and David Slade. Fantasia also honored Dante with special screenings of some of Dante’s finest works, including 35mm screenings of The Howling (1981) and adigital screening of one of his most beloved films, Gremlins (1984). Joe Dante is part of the ‘monster kid’ generation of North Americans who were born between post-world war 2 and the 1960s and who grew up as a kid in the 1950s to 1970s watching classic horror and science-fiction films, while collecting the plentiful movie memorabilia that spawned from the films, including monster magazines, fanzines, records, models, super 8 film, toys, posters, etc. Many of these Monster Kids would go on to become filmmakers, like George Lucas, Joe Dante, John Landis, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo Del Toro, but the work and artistic sphere of monster kids is broader than just filmmaking. For example, artists, painters, musicians, comic book writers, sculptors, make-up and special effects artists, programmers, book and magazine publishers, fanzine publishers, critics, collectors, cultural theorists and academics. Dante himself began as a film critic, writing short, concise and sometimes irreverent film reviews for Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein. Perhaps the film that draws most from Dante’s past as a monster kid is his 1993 pseudo biography of a 1950/60s B Movie director, Lawrence Woolsey —loosely based on William Castle— played by John Goodman. Set during the hysteria of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis the film reflects Dante’s ability to draw out the political subtext behind the perceived innocence of the post-World War 2 era. Mr. Dante took time out of his busy schedule to sit down and chat with me in the Concordia Hall Building on July 13, 2018.

Offscreen: I would like two focus this interview as much as possible on the impact of the monster kid generation, which is usually identified as people born between post-world war 2 and the 1960s. The impact they have made not only as filmmakers but collectors, comic book writers, fanzine writers, archivists and collectors. Do you identify yourself as a ‘monster kid’?

JD: It doesn’t really matter how I define myself but I am defined by it. I am the right generation. You know there would be no Comicon without the monster kids. There was a Comicon which sold comic books but now it has turned into a gigantic corporate event, which rivals the Cannes Film Festival. And not all, but most of the material they deal with there is a genre material. The whole concept of genre was really not in use at all when I was a kid. It really picked up sometime in the 1960s.

Offscreen: Is there a defining moment for you?

Gremlins

JD: The defining moment I think is the appearance of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine [in 1958, ed]. There were a lot of kids that liked a certain kind of film that were being made in the fifties, science fiction films. But they often felt alone. They did not have a lot of friends at school who liked the same things they did. It is similar to being a closeted gay, in that there were things about you that other people just did not understand. When you discovered this magazine on the shelves of the supermarkets, which is where it all started, we all thought, wow there are other people like me. Or else they would not make a magazine about these films. Plus the magazine was filled with pictures of scenes from the movies, films that we had not seen since the matinee days. You have to remember in those days there was a huge gap between when a film came out in the cinema and when it would appear on television. Most of the things on television were these old British films that were sold in big packages to fill time basically. While the horror and SF films that were shown regularly on television were films that went bust at the theater, like the Robot Monster. These were immediately sold to television. So when Famous Monsters of Filmland came out it was a validation of our tastes, but there was a second important issue to consider. From the second issue on appeared the letters section, and then the need was to get your name in the magazine along with all these other people you did not know existed. This was not ignored by other publishers. There was a slew of imitations that came out after FM, which all happened to coincide with a big boom in the production of horror films and science fiction films between the years 1956 and 1959. There wasn’t a weekend where there wasn’t a new double bill released of something with tree monsters or crab monsters or just monsters, so it was a great time to be a kid. Plus that is when the British Hammer films started to come out and were successful and Roger Corman started to make the Poe films and all a sudden this little corner of filmdom had its own branch and there were a whole bunch of movies that were appealing to this audience. And these were kids from all walks of life. Kids who wanted to be engineers or artists or recording artists. Whatever profession, they all gravitated towards this material so they earned themselves this term of monster kid, which was then exasperated by the Shock Package that was sold to television of horror films from the thirties and forties which were completely unknown to my generation and were discovered week by week in local stations all over the country. And then a year or two later they started to add horror hosts to these shows so that they now had a whole personality who would gently lampoon while introducing these pictures. It started to balloon into something. Famous Monsters started to gain notoriety. For example, the magazine title lettering have become iconic. The lettering of the word “monster” has been used by bands, it has appeared on t-shirts; it has become a part of the culture. None of this is conceivable in the late forties. There was also social upheaval and this movement was a unifying force for a diverse group of people.

OFFSCREEN: I have this idea about the kind of films that the monster kids loved. The monsters were actually sympathetic, they were victims. So you had these kids growing up identifying with these victims, these monsters that were all actually the good guys or the underdogs. I sometimes speculate if this did not lead or potentially lead to more of a left leaning sensibility in the sixties? I think we see this more liberal sensibility in a lot of these monster kids. Your films are very political as well as some of these other filmmakers and not even just filmmakers.

JD: I think part of that is due to the fact some of these movies were very leery toward atomic power and authority figures, particularly in the form of generals or people with guns. You can say as a fact that yes the classic monsters were all victims who did not want to do what they did.

Dante receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award

OFFSCREEN: Except for Count Dracula who was an aristocrat!

JD: Yes he is old world. He is not an American. Socially I don’t know how many of these people were Democrat or Republican. I had a lot of friends who became Republicans and still love these old movies. The thirties and forties were essentially nonpolitical. The films were not a about politics per say. They had some social politics or personal politics. Most of them were Anti-Nazi and World War 2 was just used as a backdrop. In the Frankenstein series which has made all throughout the war the films took place in Europe, a Europe where there are no Nazis and no war. A lot of gypsies.

OFFSCREEN: And a lot of Germanic Jews in there as well making the films.

J.D.: Yes behind the scenes making the films. It is not a proven phenomenon that a lot of monster kids ended up being left wingers,

OFFSCREEN: It’s my theory!

JD: It’s probably a provable theory. I don’t know how you would go about it though.

OFFSCREEN: Are you a collector of movie artifacts. I have almost a complete run of Famous Monsters.

JD: Oh yes. I bought everything that popped out, even the imitations, such as World Famous Creatures, Monster Parade.

OFFSCREEN: I have a lot of them. Do you still have them?

JD: Some of them. The thing about Famous Monsters is that you had to buy more than one copy because they would end getting ripped up by teachers and camp counselors. This stuff was considered junk and deleterious, much like horror comics were, to the point where if your grandmother found a copy of Famous Monsters with the monster faces, they would think it’s a bad thing and that you were or could become, a juvenile delinquent, because that was the thought back then. I think it just toughened us up and we learned how to sneak around our parents and get things that we wanted. Which corresponds with the introduction of Mad Magazine which was another major force in anti-authoritarianism. It satirize everything and some of it was fairly brutal especially for s comic book. With all those guys who worked at Mad, I don’t think there was a republican in the lot. A healthy distrust of power, a healthy distrust of atomic energy. I remember the day I saw the China Syndrome at the Hollywood theater I left and the walked out of the theater and there were all these news people around. What’s going on we wondered? And we find out Three Mile Island had just happened. That is what the movie was about. It was like a vindication because it was on everybody’s mind. What we’re talking about is that these were simpler times this monster kid era, even extending it into the early seventies it was still a simpler time than it is now. The times we are living in now is so drastically different not just culturally in terms of the kind of material we look at now and how it is delivered. In political terms in the last two years the upheaval has been outstanding. We are now on the brink of what could be a new world order wiping away the old post War World and creating something that scares the shit out of me. But perhaps it is inevitable because of the fact that the same forces that created our appallingly stupid president has now surfaced all over the world. The new Italian guy wants to put people on the trains to Auschwitz again. This movie has already happened, we have already seen this movie before, but it wasn’t supposed to happen in a world of Teslas. It should have happened a long time ago, something we dealt with before.

OFFSCREEN: In Canada we are not quite there yet.

JD: No you’re not and that’s why I think immigration wise you are going to have to brace yourself against the amount of people who are going to want to come here. They are going to be fleeing America in droves after the next election.

OFFSCREEN: Like the Vietnam draft dodgers all over again, just times.

OFFSCREEN: In terms of dates historians look at 1971 or 1972 as the waning of the monster kid generation.

Author with Joe Dante (left)

JD: You can also date it to the waning of magazines. They started to do reprints in the late 60s and the loyal readers who had stayed through the whole thing were incensed that they were buying copies of things that were already in print. And so they starting to abandon the magazine. There was a new generation who discovered the magazine later, they did not mind the reprints but they had other things to do, other distractions that were not there in the late 1950s. Now the situation is that there is nothing but distraction. That people even take the time to go to the movies is surprising, maybe it is just because kids want to get away from their parents. You have big screen TVs and good sound systems so they can stay at home. They can stream new movies into their homes just, like being in the theatres but there is no communal experience and that is a huge loss. But as far as they are concerned they don’t have to park their car, watch other patrons, and their cell phones. There are many reasons why people don’t go to the movies, but I miss it. The reason that I am a film fanatic is because I saw these movies as a kid with an audience and I got into that mind melt of enjoying seeing a movie with an audience. Seeing the same movie on the computer screen it is a souvenir of a movie you could have seen.

OFFSCREEN: Yes I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Bava’s Blood and Black Lace but I will be at the theatre to see the new 4K digital restoration.

JD: Yes you should, it is pretty remarkable. You know speaking of communal, the Marx Brothers used to take their movies out on the road, they would do the sketches in front of audiences to figure out where the laughs were and they would go back to the sound stage to shoot the scenes and they would leave in spaces for the laughs. So when you see the movies with an audience, they are hilarious, but when you see them on television there are these dead spots and seem to drag because they were never meant to be seen without an audience.

OFFSCREEN: In terms of monster kid generation because there is still passion, you are still passionate about movies. Do you have children?

JD: No.

OFFSCREEN: I have one child and I am passing my love on to him, I’m watching these old films with him, and he is enjoying it, so I imagine it will live on in some form. Someone like Del Toro is interesting because he is a monster kid but a bit younger than us.

JD: Yes he is. He is a big monster kid! He has a whole extra house full of monster kid stuff!

OFFSCREEN: Part of what made it special, is the bootlegging, the stuff that was taboo to buy or you could not get, and that is completely different now with the internet. There still is a fan culture connected to the internet, to file sharing, so how do you see the monster kid generation changing?

JD: Well, they are greying, they are getting older. I was a big 16mm film collector. I have hundreds of 16mm prints which I thought were going to get me through my old age but they are worthless because that’s not the technology we use anymore. They don’t even make 16mm projectors anymore, the bulbs, the exciter lamps. It is a dead art. It is over.

Dante Introducing Before Nightmare Cinema Screening (Mick Garris to his right)

OFFSCREEN: There are enough of them projectors around.

JD: Yes but you have to cannibalize parts from existing ones. No one is making them. What is your kid going to be when he grows up? A projectionist! I don’t think so. Everything is changed and the monster kid generation, which is so part and parcel of that generation, the film generation, so that as film goes so will they. There are a lot of good iterations of these old movies on home video, on blu ray, blu ray collections, its great but getting people of a certain age to watch them is a lot more difficult.

Joe Dante: Monster Kid

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 23 Issue 5 / May 2019 Festival Reports, Interviews fantasia international film festivalhorrorjoe dantemonster kidsscience fict