Film Review: Explorers (1985)

Release Date: July 12th, 1985
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Eric Luke
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson, Amanda Peterson, James Cromwell, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Meshach Taylor

Paramount Pictures, 109 Minutes

Review:

“It’s asking for coordinates on x-, y- and z-axes to locate a point in space relative to its terminal. How did you dream this?” – Wolfgang Müller

The Explorers was one of my favorite movies in the mid-’80s. It kind of fit in with all those other kid adventure movies like E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialThe Goonies and Monster Squad. These kid films did really well back then and they all sort of just tapped into something that films didn’t do as good before the decade. I guess that’s why Stranger Things and the modern It movie have built up solid fan bases off of the nostalgia for these sort of films and stories.

This movie is no different and it also came from the imagination of Joe Dante. Ultimately, this feels like a Spielberg film too but he wasn’t even involved but maybe Dante’s experience working with Spielberg on Gremlins, a year earlier, kept that magic mojo going.

The plot follows three boys and their attempt at building a spaceship. Yeah, it is really fantastical and unrealistic but the movie is more about imagination and childhood than the going to space bit. Granted, they do go to space and meet aliens but even then, this is still about youthful imagination, living your dreams no matter how ridiculous they may be and never losing hope in yourself. It’s a metaphor, y’all!

What makes this movie so fantastic is that you do see this through the eyes of children but you also see it through the eyes of an adult, in this case the super talented and underutilized Dick Miller. Miller’s character, an old man that once had dreams and aspirations similar to the kids, discovers what these kids are up to and when he witnesses them succeed, he is living vicariously through them and tapping into something he hasn’t felt in decades. It’s pretty f’n touching and Miller really conveyed the right emotions in playing this part. While Miller’s role in the movie isn’t very big, it’s central to the most pivotal message this film tries to communicate to its audience.

The special effects in this are really good and I loved the sets and the creature effects on the aliens, once these kids journeyed to their spaceship.

Spoiler alert, the aliens are friendly and as the film rolls on, you come to discover that they’re just kids to. So the Earth kids and the alien kids meet and you see that they’re not too dissimilar. The alien kids are also driven to go on adventures and discover the universe with childlike enthusiasm. Plus, Robert Picardo was awesome as the male alien, even if you couldn’t see him under the bulky costume.

I like watching this film as an adult because it keeps me grounded by making me remember the ideals and view of the universe I had when I was a kid. Watching this as an adult is similar to being in the shoes of the Dick Miller character.

This is one of Joe Dante’s best pictures.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: Flight of the NavigatorE.T the Extra-TerrestrialD.A.R.Y.L., The Goonies, Monster Squad.

Documentary Review: That Guy Dick Miller (2014)

Release Date: March 7th, 2014 (SXSW)
Directed by: Elijah Drenner
Music by: Jason Brandt
Cast: Dick Miller, Lainie Miller, Gilbert Adler, Allan Arkush, Julie Corman, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Fred Dekker, William Sadler, Robert Picardo, Ernest R. Dickerson, Corey Feldman, Robert Forster, Zach Galligan, Jonathan Haze, Jack Hill, Leonard Maltin, John Sayles, Mary Woronov

Autumn Rose Productions, End Films, 91 Minutes

Review:

If you don’t know who Dick Miller is or at least recognize his face, you were probably born after the year 2000. Even then, if you’ve ever watched a film before that time, you have most likely seen him at one point or a dozen.

Dick Miller was in everything from the 1950s through the 1990s. No, seriously, he was. Well, at least it seemed like he was in everything. The man has 180 credits to his name according to IMDb. Growing up in the ’80s, I saw him pop up a few times a year in the coolest movies of the time. The one that will always stand out the most for me was his part in Gremlins, which was the first time I remember seeing him. Every time I saw Mr. Miller after that was always a nice treat.

As I got older and went back and watched older films, especially when I found a love for Roger Corman’s pictures, I started to experience a younger and hip Dick Miller. He started his career in a lot of those early Roger Corman pictures and that association would serve him well, as all the young directors who rose to prominence, who were influenced by Corman, started hiring Miller for their films.

This documentary goes back and shows Miller’s early life, how he made the connection with Corman and how his career blossomed in unseen ways because of it. I love that it goes through his long history in films and interviews a lot of the people who were there alongside him. It also talks to the directors who hired him and have a love for his work.

Dick Miller is a guy that deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the films he was a part of. He was a mainstay in Hollywood for decades and if he was in a movie it sort of legitimized it as cool. It didn’t matter when he got older either, as he took over the screen in his cameos in a lot of Joe Dante’s pictures.

That Guy Dick Miller is a pretty awesome documentary for fans who grew up watching this guy work. Even if you aren’t familiar with him, this is probably still enjoyable and will give you a solid appreciation for the man and the films he was a part of.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other showbiz documentaries: Corman’s World and Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction.

Film Review: Sleepwalkers (1992)

Also known as: Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers
Release Date: April 10th, 1992
Directed by: Mick Garris
Written by: Stephen King
Music by: Nicholas Pike
Cast: Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick, Alice Krige, Ron Perlman, Glenn Shadix, Stephen King, John Landis, Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, Mark Hamill

Columbia Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Stop looking at me! Stop looking at me you fucking cat!” – Charles Brady

I didn’t like this film when it came out way back in 1992. I was in middle school, at the time, and all the kids were obsessed with Stephen King. While I love many of the film adaptations of his work and did enjoy a couple of his stories, Sleepwalkers was not among King’s work that I found worthwhile. I did see it in the theater, after having my arm pulled by several friends and because I was crushing hard on Mädchen Amick back then, thanks to her character on Twin Peaks.

Seeing it all these years later was not a better experience. It didn’t age well, there wasn’t some sort of endearing or charming quality to the film and frankly, it was hard to sit through.

The special effects are pretty crappy. the transformation animations when the werecat characters’ faces shift is quick and fluid but just looks insanely hokey and bizarre. It is on par with something you would see in a music video from the same era. And while I’m aware that this movie had a modest budget, other similar horror films with modest budgets were doing better effects a dozen years earlier. Look at An American Werewolf In London and The Howling, for instance. Hell, look at the amazing effects in Fright Night, which came out in 1985, seven years before this.

The film also suffers from being completely bogged down by awful 1990s cliches. The fashion, the music, the overall style… it all just reeks of the worst things that decade had to offer. Sleepwalkers is teen horror at its worst and the 90s panache really just shovels a few extra pounds of shit into this gaping hole of a movie.

The creature effects, once the monsters appeared in their final form were okay. The werecat vampire monsters looked fairly cool but it wasn’t anything that could save the picture.

At least the film had cameos from several horror directors and also had small roles for Ron Perlman, Mark Hamill and Glenn Shadix.

So does Sleepwalkers deserve to be put through the Cinespiria Shitometer? To quote the legendary professional wrestling manager Paul Bearer, “Ohhhhhhhh, yessssssss!” So the results read, “Type 4 Stool: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft.”

Film Review: The ‘Burbs (1989)

Release Date: February 17th, 1989
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Dana Olsen
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Nicky Katt

Imagine Entertainment, Universal Studios, 101 Minutes

Review:

“[finds a femur] Ray, there’s no doubt anymore. This is real. Your neighbors are murdering people. They’re chopping them up. They’re burying them in their backyard. Ray… this is Walter.” – Art Wiengartner

The ‘Burbs is a rare dark comedy that hits all the right notes. Joe Dante was the perfect person to direct the script and the film was also perfectly cast.

While Tom Hanks was already building a name for himself and was a really good comedic performer that could handle more serious or dramatic material, it was this picture that really cemented his status, at least for me.

Hanks wowed people with a dramatic turn in Nothing In Common and even though The ‘Burbs doesn’t get as serious as that film, Hanks could flip the switch from comedy to serious on a dime, which he did here flawlessly. This and Big, which came out just a year prior, are the two films that made me a Tom Hanks fan. Following this up with the underappreciated Joe Versus the Volcano was also a great move by Hanks.

The cast is rounded out by Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman and Canadian comedian Rick Ducommun – a guy that probably should have had more prominent roles like this. The Klopek family, who were the focal point of suburban curiosity, were played by Henry Gibson – who is always fun, Brother Theodore – who was tailor made for this film, as well as Courtney Gains, who creeped out audiences a few years prior in Children of the Corn. You also get to see a young Nicky Katt, before he would become more recognized in his work with director Richard Linklater. Joe Dante also dips into the well of his regulars and gives us cameos by the great Dick Miller and the awesome Robert Picardo.

Mundane suburban life is at the center of the movie, as it follows three very bored suburban men and their wariness over the strange new neighbors who moved onto their street: the Klopeks. As the story progresses, they suspect the Klopeks are murderers. The plot escalates to the point that they can’t resist the temptation of digging up the Klopek’s yard and breaking into their house when they leave one day.

The film is highly comedic but is also a mystery and a thriller with a touch of horror added in. It is a pretty awesome mix and Dante worked his magic to great results.

It is also a highly stylized picture but in a subtle way. It was filmed on the Universal backlot and utilized some of the houses seen in famous sitcoms and other films. In fact, the house that Hanks lives in was used a few years earlier in another Hanks film, Dragnet. The generic suburban look makes it so that this neighborhood could be any neighborhood but it also has a sort of fantasy feel to it. It’s grounded in reality but it skews reality.

The ‘Burbs is solid, through and through. While it has gotten more popular over time, it wasn’t a critical success in 1989. When I first saw it, most of the kids I talked to hadn’t seen it. As I got older and time rolled on, I found more and more people that loved the film after discovering it on video or cable. Still, it surprisingly only has a 49 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

While not explicitly horror, this is a film I have to pop on almost annually around Halloween.

Film Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Release Date: August 24th, 1979
Directed by: Allan Arkush
Written by: Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante
Music by: The Ramones
Cast: P.J. Soles, Dey Young, Vince Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Don Steele, The Ramones

New World Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Those Ramones are peculiar.” – Miss Togar

Roger Corman always liked to capitalize on whatever pop culture trends came along. Initially, he wanted to make a film called Disco High School. However, with the end of the film being capped off by the high school exploding behind dancing students, one of his collaborators said that the ending would fit much better with rock and roll. Corman agreed and after being pointed in the direction of punk rock legends The Ramones by Paul Bartel, a regular Corman collaborator, the rest is history.

Rock & Roll High School isn’t a good film but it is a ridiculous and fun motion picture that features the great tunes of The Ramones and the insane and infectious enthusiasm of its star, P.J. Soles.

The film also stars the always great Mary Woronov as the villainous principal and Paul Bartel as a music teacher that converts to a fan of The Ramones after getting doped up at a concert. We also get a good cameo by Dick Miller and get to enjoy a few scenes with the enigmatic and entertaining Don Steele. A young Clint Howard is also in this.

This movie is mostly a high school teen sex comedy with a heavy emphasis on The Ramones music. It isn’t quite a musical but it plays like one at times. The Ramones have a lengthy concert segment within the film but outside of that, we see P.J. Soles lead a group of girls singing in gym class, as well as the big finale which sees the students and The Ramones march through the school halls as they trash the place to the horror of the administration, their parents and the police outside.

Rock & Roll High School is highly entertaining but probably only for those who love the actors involved or who have a love for The Ramones. I’m not sure how it would resonate for others. It’s definitely a movie that is still well regarded by many because of its ties to punk music, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles and because it has a massive nostalgia factor.

Ranking the Films of Joe Dante

joe-dante-howlingAfter Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Joe Dante also had a body of work that I was pretty captivated by as a kid. From Gremlins to The ‘Burbs to Explorers to The Howling to the original Piranha, dude could make great imaginative pictures. Here are his films ranked:

1. Gremlins
2. The ‘Burbs
3. Matinee
4. Explorers
5. Innerspace
6. The Howling
7. Twilight Zone: The Movie (“It’s a Good Life” segment)
8. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
9. Piranha
10. Hollywood Boulevard
11. The Hole
12. Small Soldiers
13. Looney Tunes: Back In Action

Film Review: Piranha (1978)

Release Date: August 3rd, 1978 (USA)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: John Sayles, Richard Robinson
Music by: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, Paul Bartel

New World Pictures, United Artists, 95 Minutes

piranha1978Review:

Some people might not realize this but Piranha was made to be somewhat of a parody to Jaws and its clones, such as Orca. It was also the first film that Joe Dante directed alone. He would go on to direct some of the most memorable films of the 1980s and a few decent ones from the 1990s.

It is hard to just consider this film as horror. It has comedy elements to it, especially where Dick Miller’s water park mogul Buck Gardner is concerned.

The film sees two teenagers go skinny dipping in a pool on what they believe to be an abandoned military installation. The pool is full of genetically engineered piranha that eat the teenagers alive. This brings in Maggie, an insurance investigator. She is a bit aloof and careless and while snooping around, releases the piranha into the local river system. As the film progresses, the killer piranha eat their way through the locals. Eventually, they attack a summer camp and finally, a newly opened water park.

Piranha isn’t just a parody, though. It is also a political commentary on the bastardization of science by the government. With this film being released a few years after the Vietnam War, a lot of the military’s questionable tactics were still fresh in people’s minds.

Most of the actors in this picture are completely forgettable. The only notable characters are those that have just a bit more time than a cameo. Dick Miller is always great and would go on to work with Joe Dante for years. Plus, Piranha was produced by Roger Corman, who also utilized Miller a lot. The film also features horror legend Barbara Steele as a sinister government scientist, trying to keep a lid on the tragedy. Then there is Paul Bartel, who plays the hilarious yet very heroic camp counselor. Bartel is one of the greatest character actors of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Being that this is a Corman produced movie, you can expect it to cut a lot of corners. The effects aren’t particularly good but they are effective. My only real complaint about the piranha, is the strange sound effects used for the moments where they feast on human flesh.

Piranha is not a great film but it is the best of the Jaws ripoffs. Sure, Steven Spielberg said that first, but I share his sentiment.