The brilliant Joe Dante has made a career from making family films with an adult edge and classics like Gremlins 1 and 2, Inner Space and Small Solders contain as much satirical social comment and moments of horror as his more mature movies like The Howling to The ‘Burbs.
1993’s Matinee is a perfect example of Dante at his best, a love letter not only to cinema but a specific time in horror set in 1962 showcasing not only the very real paranoia and panic of the period but the cinemas ability to capatalise on this to turn terror into ticket sales.
Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) has just moved to the naval base in Key West with his kid brother, mother and father who is instantly dispatched to take part in the barricades growing around Cuba. Finding it hard to make friends he seeks solace in his monster movie magazines and love of horror flicks which he drags his little brother along to at the local cinema.
While the whole town, increasingly aware of the Cuban missile crisis and the possible end of the world brought about by atomic bombs, moves from worry to all out alarm schlock horror producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) and his leading lady Ruth Corday (Ragging Bulls Cathy Moriarty) arrive to launch their latest picture Mant! about a man mutated into an ant due to radiation.
Realising the amazing marketing potential Woolsey plays up not only the horrors of his film but the real life implications whipping up the residents into a fury of excitement and fear perfect for his screening which is full of gimmicks such as shaking the building, fireworks and more all to increase their enjoyment. However things soon slip out of control and it appears the loud mouthed producer may have caused a real catastrophe without even knowing it.
Dante’s direction is spot on not only in Matinee but also in the two films within the film, Disney comedy parody The Shook-Up Shopping Cart (featuring the then-unknown Naomi Watt’s) and Mant! a hilarious send up of the low-budget science-fiction horror films of the 1950s such as Them!, The Amazing Colossal Man and The Fly from 1954, 1957 and 1958 respectively.
Featuring the same ridiculous plot line, scream queen and pseudo-science all played tongue in cheek and full of cheesy one-liners you will wish Mant! was a full length feature in the same way you would have loved to experience all Woolsey’s remarkable tricks such as seat buzzers and a real Ant man in the audience all unbelievable now but actually employed by producers in the past in the fight against TV taking audiences away.
Featuring a wonderful cast of characters from Cathy Moriarty’s cynical star to Star Trek’s Robert Picardo’s put upon cinema manager to Eerie, Indiana’s Omri Katz as Gene’s friend and James Villemaire as greaser bad boy and poet Harvey at the center of Matinee stands Simon Fenton and John Goodman both excellent as the unlikely friends who bond over a love of monster movies.
In the character of Gene Dante and longtime scriptwriters Jerico and Charles S. Haas explore not only teenage romance and adolescent sexual discovery but the upsetting journey from child to man and the realisiation that the world is a dangerous and scary place.
On the other side of the story is Goodman’s terrific turn as Lawrence Woolsey combining Hitchcock with William Castle as a cinematic showman prepared to use every trick in the book to make a buck uncaring of the effect he has on the general public. Making a number of brilliant speeches throughout the movie on the power of cinema and the origins of horror Woolsey is a lovable rouge and in many ways he is right as the escapism he and the real life films of the 50’s and 60’s offered up gave a release to the variety of dangers from nuclear Armageddon to Communist invasion assaulting the American populace at the time.
Rich in nostalgia and coming in an extras packed Arrow release package Matinee is one of Joe Dante’s finest films working not only as a fun filled family adventure but as a complex character driven exploration of childhood, a tense time capsule detailing 60’s social dread and a marvelous demonstration of movie marketing all wrapped up together.