Joe Dante: Famous Monster Kid

By David Weiner

When I first became editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in 2015, I sat down with legendary filmmaker and cinema/pop-culture historian Joe Dante to talk about the impact our classic magazine had on him with it first debuted back in 1958. Always a friend of FM and a strong proponent of keeping the conversation of genre film alive, Joe has since graciously appeared in both of my genre documentaries about ’80s horror and Sci-Fi, IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS and IN SEARCH OF TOMORROW, to talk about his films and to share his knowledge and perspective.

The following is an extended version of our discussion featured in Famous Monsters of Filmland #285.

Some people never really grow up, they just grow older, and Joe Dante is the perfect example. 

A Jersey boy and true Monster Kid who witnessed firsthand the Monster Mania explosion of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Dante’s career choices over the decades have long reflected his childlike wonder and love for monster and Sci-Fi movies. 

Almost every project of his manages to integrate a sense of pop-culture savvy and a nostalgia for a more innocent and enthusiastic time, from PIRANHA and THE HOWLING to GREMLINS, EXPLORERS, INNERSPACE, THE ‘BURBS, SMALL SOLDIERS and MATINEE (his homage to the movie matinee madness of his youth) — all the way up to 2014’s BURYING THE EX and his anthology segments in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, NIGHTMARE CINEMA, MASTERS OF HORROR and AMAZING STORIES.

“Before I read Famous Monsters, I was interested in movies to the point where I was making lists and I was going through the Motion Picture Herald magazines and writing down all the pictures with flying saucers in them,” says Dante. “But there really wasn’t much written about these kind of movies. I mean, if you read The Liveliest Art by Arthur Knight or you read Lewis Jacobs’ books, they talked about movies very seriously but they never talked about genre movies. They never talked about noir, they never talked about science fiction, they never talked about horror films, unless it was maybe something that Murnau might have done. But for the most part, nobody took these seriously. And so I think that with the appearance of FM, a lot of people became interested in something in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have been interested in without that.”

When Famous Monsters was introduced to the world in 1958, it truly rocked the 12-year-old Dante’s world once it landed between his tween fingers. “I’m very grateful for it,” he says. “I was one of the many kids who, to their eternal joy, found on the local news rack the first issue of Famous Monsters. And I must’ve bought, over the years, ten of that first issue. I took ’em to summer camp where they were confiscated. I cut them out. I made my own scrapbooks. For all we knew, there was only going to be that one. Back in those days, movies were not that easy to see, particularly older movies. The great thing about it was that not only did it have pictures from movies you that sort of half remembered that you had seen, but it made you realize there were other people out there like you, because they wouldn’t make a magazine like this if they didn’t think people were going to read it.”

By the second issue of Famous Monsters, which came out almost a year later, a “Letters” column in the magazine really cemented the fan community feel. “Well, that was when the floodgates broke open, because that was like, ‘Oh, my God, we can talk to each other.’”

Legendary Famous Monsters editor Forrest J Ackerman differentiated himself from most magazine editors of the time by tapping into his inner fandom love of genre film and the craftsmen who forged frights and fun — and Dante observes that his passion showed in his publication.

“Forry loved the idea of introducing kids to this stuff, doing a sort of a primer on movie history, and get them interested in silent movies and that kind of thing,” says Dante, who ultimately got to befriend Ackerman. “He always did it with puns and he always did it very lightly, and partly I think to assuage the criticism coming from parents, because there was a lot of organized resistance that these movies were trash, and, ‘My kids shouldn’t see them and they’re gory and disgusting.’ This is 1958. They really weren’t very gory. But the magazine took the making of movies seriously. Forry taught you what a director did. He taught you what a writer did. He was plugging (PSYCHO author) Robert Bloch, because these were friends of his. And so there was a feeling when you read the magazine that you were getting let in on something, that you were getting into a world that you weren’t going to have any access to if you didn’t read this magazine. And with the increased sophistication of age, it led you to other magazines and other places where you could find interesting things written about movies.”

By the early ‘60s, Monster Mania became a “movement,” and the success of Famous Monsters helped to fuel a phenomenon. Within a short period of time, multiple periodicals were also trying to cash in on the trend, from Monster Parade and World Famous Creatures to the slightly more sophisticated The Journal of Frankenstein. “The ink always came off on your hands; that’s how you always knew that it was a monster magazine,” quips Dante.No slick paper.”

All of those periodicals had monsters, but none of them arguably could quite capture that particular Uncle Forry magic. “Forry’s personality was imbued in the pages of the magazine, and he had sort of turned himself into a sort of a celebrity,” says Dante. “He became a sort of father-figure type. But I think he may not have really realized how important a figure he was to a lot of kids. I think even he underestimated how important the appearance of that magazine was, and the uniting of so many people who thought that they were all alone in their enjoyment of this particular kind of fantasy.”

Dante recalls another memorable FM bonus was the Captain Co ads in the back of the magazine, which he used to scour for 8mm movies. Mind you, this was way before VCRs, DVRs, YouTube, and streaming services. 

“The concept was, ‘Imagine seeing a movie in your own home!’ Of course they were cut-downs, they had no sound, they were on 8mm. But they were pretty magical for us! And if you worked it right, you could tape the same movie off television with your tape recorder and you could turn it on and off and try to approximate the soundtrack. We were all little exhibitors.”

He continues, “The first 8mm I probably bought was ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and it was the Complete Edition, which was eight minutes; the Headline Edition was three minutes, some of which was taken up with title cards, which we always were annoyed at. What they would do is they literally had a professional editor come in and make a cutdown of the movie, and it was usually the climax and maybe a little introductory thing. And some movies got more than one version. Like some of the FRANKENSTEIN movies were done with different titles in different sections. There was one for THIS ISLAND EARTH called WAR OF THE PLANETS, and not only was it in black and white, which was a bummer, they cut the monster out, which was like, you just don’t do that with kids, you know? You don’t cut the monster out! I mean, come on! Anyway, that was all very exciting.”

These days when not working on his various TV and film projects, Dante shares his love for classic Monster Kid cinema and genre cult classics on The Movies That Made Me podcast and TrailersFromHell.com.

“With Trailers from Hell, I’ve basically gotten people that are filmmakers and are fairly contemporary talking about movies that people probably wouldn’t know about if they didn’t see them talked about on this site. Once they’re reading about the new STAR WARS movie, then they can read about STAR CRASH. … It’s something that’s similar but older that they might like, or at least has a precedent or an antecedent. It’s an opportunity, I think, to educate people.”

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(Joe Dante B&W photograph courtesy Laura Burke Photography)

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