Time has most certainly been kind to filmmaker Joe Dante, best known for his “Gremlins” films (the first of which celebrated its 28th anniversary in June), as the filmmaker’s work from his early days with gonzo producer Roger Corman to later fare like the 1998 action blockbuster “Small Soldiers" continue to be watched and beloved years after the fact. While he’s remained busy working on acclaimed episodes of genre favorite “Masters of Horrors,” or dipping his feet into network fare with CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0,” it’s his first feature since 2003’s “Looney Tunes: Back In Action” that has folks talking about Dante and the movies once again.
“The Hole,” Dante’s latest film, is an adolescent spook fest originally envisioned for 3D that harkens back to the time when “Gremlins” and “Explorers” roamed free – and the “E.T.”-influenced logo for regular collaborator Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment was stamped upon many of the helmer's best films. The story follows three kids as they face their darkest fears that find a way to materialize from the hole in the basement of their new home. We caught up with Dante this week to talk about the movie, and he put his impressive knowledge of cinema to great use when he shaerd with us the four biggest influences on the film. "The Hole" opens in limited release this weekend, and hits DVD and Blu-ray on October 2nd.
Wrapped in 2008, the particulars of distribution have kept “The Hole” from stateside theaters until now, but it’s the fact that the film won’t be seen in the originally envisioned 3D format as Dante intended that may come as a disappointment for some. Even with no 3D format, Dante still holds true to the fact that Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller “Dial M For Murder” influenced the way he shot the film, explaining that it has “the best use of 3D on film, certainly in the ‘50s, and it’s a movie I consciously modeled a lot of the 3D approach I took on this film on.”
Dante, like fellow filmmakers such as James Cameron, believes the 3D format allows for great immersion of a filmgoer, saying, “I’d seen ['Dial M For Murder'] for years in its 2D form, because it played almost nowhere in 3D when it first came out -- it was right at the tail end of that whole 3D phase. When I finally did see it in 3D, they had a 3D festival here in Los Angeles a couple years ago, I was amazed to see that it was a completely different movie.” While Hitchock’s film certainly delivers in the 2D format, Dante contends, “The way in which the action is staged, it looks one way in 2D – so you don’t think about it – but when you see it in 3D, and you see the spatial relationships between the characters and then the furniture, I mean it was just a remarkable experience considering what we’re basically watching is a stage play. It’s one of the talkiest movies Hitchcock has made, and I felt like I was on stage with the actors.” In relation to the “The Hole,” Dante insists, “The idea was trying to bring the audience into the basement, and down into the hole, and make them feel like this is all happening to them – as opposed to just throwing things at them.”
With the exception of Dante’s classic “The Howling,” most of his films only have hints or moments of truly sinister behavior, rather than sustaining any devious urges throughout. Dante cites the work of famed Italian horror filmmaker Mario Bava, truly a devout follower of all things sinister, as a large influence on “The Hole,” particularly in the sensibilties displayed in 1966’s “Kill Baby, Kill.” That film chronicles a European village in the 18th century that is haunted by the ghost of a murderous little girl, and Dante explains that, “it revolved around this ghostly child, who is very, very creepy, and partly creepy because she was played by a boy. Apparently for Fellini that was creepy enough to borrow the entire idea – because I guess he was a friend of Bavas’ – and put it into ‘Toby Damme,’ his episode of ‘Spirits of the Dead.’ He again, hired a boy to play a devil as a girl, and it looks very creepy and strange.”
This is certainly reflected in a subplot of “The Hole,” which follows a ghostly girl wandering about in search of an answer to being stuck in her current form, with Dante saying, “I managed to find a kid in Canada who looked somewhat like both of these figures, and there’s a character in the movie who’s like a creepy ghost girl, and we modeled almost the entire thing on ‘Kill Baby, Kill.’ ” Dante has always been a director who, like one of his favorite filmmakers “Frankenstein” helmer James Whale, always likes to humanize his monsters. While that certainly happens for both the spirit in Bava’s film and the one in “The Hole,” Dante insists that, “I think it’s kind of a monster film in general thing. Facing our fears is a big part of why people watch horror films to begin with. We go out and we confront our fears, then we leave, and we laugh about how silly it all seemed.”
A classic by almost any standard, director Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is an expressionist silent horror film that has more than stood the test of time with its tale of Dr. Caligari’s murderous somnambulist Cesare (silent legend Conrad Veidt), who falls for a beauty named Jane. The film has certainly transcended many decades, inspiring filmmakers with both its story and impressive visuals, which Dante says, “in the expressionistic days, they would paint the sets directly on the walls. If there was going to be shadows, or strange specters, they would simply paint them on the walls. As a result, it’s supposed to be taking place in the mind of a madman, and it’s an extremely disorienting movie to watch even now.”
This influence can certainly be felt in the end of Dante’s “The Hole,” which presents a topsy-turvy world that’s both muddled and disorienting, to which Dante says, “There’s a part of the movie in which we literally have to go inside the mind of one of the characters, and relive something traumatic that happened to him in his world as a kid – as he remembers it now. We used a lot of ‘Caligari’ stuff, partly because we didn’t have enough money for CGI, but we did do a lot of that. I’ve stolen from ‘Caligari’ before, I did it on my ‘Twilight Zone’ movie episode, and it’s always been a source of inspiration for people, for what? Like one hundred years.” There are certainly call backs to Dante’s equal parts frightening and heartbreaking “It’s A Good Life” from that omnibus film, which follows an abandoned, angry little boy looking for a family, only with the oddball twist that is distinctly Dante. “I didn’t think I should put my own movie as something that influenced ‘The Hole,’ ” he joked.
A truly satisfying moment of terror arrives in “The Hole” when a jester doll in clown attire arrives to startle a young boy, so it should come as no surprise that Dante was influenced by the very similar work of puppetry wizards known as The Chiodo Brothers in the 1988 cult favorite “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.” With the Chiodo Brothers work on 'Killer Klowns,' Dante says that, “They’ve taken the general view of what a clown is, and how clowns have morphed from being funny to scary over the years, and just turned it on its head and made them outright repulsive, grotesque, and horrible. We have a clown character in our movie -- there’s a kid who has ‘Bozophobia’ as we call it, he’s afraid of clowns – and in planning what we wanted to do, we didn’t want to go as far as they did, but did want to get that same feel. So there’s a lot of ‘Killer Klowns’ in that section of the movie.” Ruminating on what makes the face paint, red nose, and big shoes of clowns so terrifying, Dante says, “I don’t know what it is about clowns, and this has happened in my lifetime, because I think when I was a kid people did look at clowns as funny. You see them at the circus, and they were far away, but then when TV came along and suddenly they where in your face, people started to study them and they became creepy. You know Lon Chaney had a famous phrase, where he said ‘A clown is funny in the circus ring, but he’s not funny on your doorstep at midnight.’”