Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Matinee, Joe Dante’s Masterful Ode to Atomic Age Horror

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s theme is a little meta: movies about people making horror movies. First up was Berberian Sound Studio. Now, Matinee.

Joe Dante lives and breathes movies. When he was a kid, he loved nothing more than going to A.C. Lyles-produced westerns. In college, he went to see Mario Bava’s What! in a seedy theater and when a fight broke out in the crowd he wasn’t concerned for his safety – he was terrified the theater would stop the movie and he wouldn’t get to see the ending. The show went on, of course, and he got his wish.

The same is true of his career – all he ever wanted to do was make movies for a living, and he got his wish. Today he’s known for the two Gremlins movies, The Burbs, The Howling, and Innerspace. Somewhat overlooked in his filmography, however, is 1993’s Matinee, his ode to the lost art of the atomic age B-movie, the men who made them, and a time when parents could let kids go to the movie theater for hours and not have to worry. When watched today, Matinee calls to mind Frank Darabont’s The Majestic – get ready for speeches romanticizing the communal moviegoing exerpeince – and both the period and coming of age aspects of Stand By Me. It’s the type of movie which is impossible for any cinephile to truly hate. In fact, I kind of love it.

Gene and Dennis. Gene is essentialy a stand-in for Joe Dante’s younger self.

The plot: It’s 1962 in a small Florida town in the Keys. As the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out in the background, Army brats Gene (Simon Fenton) and Dennis Loomis (Jesse Lee) and their friends (most notably Lisa Jakub and Kellie Martin in early roles) happily distract themselves by attending the exclusive premiere of a new B-movie. It shamelessly claims to be presented in Atom-o-vision, putting everyone at ground zero as man and ant combine to become Mant! (Love interest: “He’s not a monster, he’s a shoe salesman.” Military Guy: “Would you let *that* fit you in a pump?”). Young love flourishes in the audience as Lawrence Woosley (a perfectly cast John Goodman), the old school, Wiliam Castle-esque showman responsible for the film, beams with pride from the back of the theater. That is until complications arise and he has to put out several fires, at least one of them literal.

Mant!, the movie-within-a-movie, is viewable in its entirety on the Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray

To put it another way: if you’re expecting something exactly like Ed Wood, look elsewhere. Tim Burton’s classic biopic came out a year later and celebrated the odd, outsider appeal of the Plan 9 filmmaker. Matinee is a bit more divided in its approach. This isn’t a straight William Castle biopic. Yes, Goodman’s B-movie huckster is clearly based on Castle, whose career started a decade before Wood’s and grew to be defined not by cinematic incompetence but instead shameless, in-theater gimmickry. Putting buzzers underneath seats, posting nurses in the lobby, unleashing men in cheap costumes into the audience at just the right time – all things the real Castle did, and the fictional Castle of Matinee is seen to do.

As Jeffrey Schwartz, who directed the William Castle documentary Spine Tingler, told Reel Terror, whenever a new Castle picture opened “it was the most exciting thing to happen in that town forever.” That’s because Castle traveled the country to both host and market his movies, and while Matinee fondly depicts this traveling salesman act it aims its real dramatic arrow at the small town kids.

The supporting cast is stacked with B-Movie veterans. Standing next to Goodman is John Sayles, Dante’s old screenwriter from Piranha.

Woosley only features as much as he does because he briefly takes Gene under his wing after the young horrorhound calls bullshit on a marketing stunt involving religious protestors outside the theater (pictured above). Impressed, Woosley lets Gene in on some of his secrets and offers his explanation for the eternal appeal of horror:

But Gene also has to worry about: his dad, who is part of the military deployment hoping to avert nuclear war, frustrated mother, perpetually scared younger brother, and learning how to talk to that cool girl at school. This lends Matinee a dual track of honoring atomic age B-movies as well as the time-honored tradition of being a kid taking your first date to a horror movie.

The problem with this approach is, as Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “it becomes much too cluttered, with an oversupply of minor characters and a labored bomb-and-horror-film parallel.” (I haven’t even mentioned Gene’s best friend and his boy crazy new girlfriend.) Indeed, at least one subplot could have been subtracted, but did you not see the part where they watch a movie about a possessed shopping cart or the absolute zaniness of a shotgung-toting, poem-spouting greaser in an ant costume turning into the antagonist in the final act?

It’s been several hours now since I finished the movie and I can’t stop smiling. I just want to hug it.

Also, for the record: I would totally watch Gali-gator, Woosley’s likely follow-up to Mant!

FAVORITE LINES

“This crowd is turning into a mob. Congratulations!”

Mant throws down ant farm: “Go my brothers and sisters, you’re free. Free! Behold the great emancipator!”

Woosley looking at a kitschy alligator doll at a rest stop while a gas station worker cleans his car: “Man-i-gator. Ali-man. Hey, boy. Make sure to get the bugs off that windshield. I hate bugs. She-gator, Gator-gal, Gali-gator!”

Exasperated shop manager responding to unruly customers raiding his store in Cuban Missile Crisis-induced paranoia: “There’s no more Shredded Wheat in the back. There’s no more Shredded Wheat in the whole Keys. And one of you will have to go through the atomic destruction with no damn Shredded Wheat. What do you think about that?”

Kid not realizing the nurse in the lobby is actually the same actress from Mant!: “Nurse, I cut my elbow.” / “That looks terrible. Next!”

Woosley: “But I want all of you to look at the faces out here during this picture. There’s going to be room in their heads for only one thought, ‘Please don’t let it get me.’ They know we can’t’ hurt ‘em, but they’re still gonna be scared half to death. And all of you, when you thread the projector, when you tear the tickets, when you sell the jujubes, you’re all a part of it. Just when it gets the worst, when they’re sitting there and their hearts are going like little trapped animals out here in the dark, we save them. And they say, ‘Hey, it’s all right. Thank God! Hey, can I see that again?’ P.S., No, they can’t. We clear between shows.”

About That Other Time Dante Made a Movie About Movies

In 1976, Dante was toiling away in the trailers department at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, his first job in Hollywood after spending years as a film critic. Around him at New World, the likes of Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard were launching their directing careers. Partnering with fellow editor Allan Arkush, Dante finally got to direct one of his own with Hollywood Boulevard, an exploitation picture about a deranged maniac killing the makers of exploitation pictures. Corman only let them do it if they could make it the cheapest film in New World history, and they pulled it off by building around pre-existing footage from other New World movies. The results were mixed, at best. Matinee is Dante’s second crack at the movie-about-movies game. This time, he got it right.

Matinee is not currently available to stream on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon. I rented it on Vudu for two dollars. Well worth the money.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: The Original Night Michael Came Home

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3 comments

    1. It had been on my watchlist for so long and given all the good things I’ve heard about it I was expecting it to be good, not great, classic over-hyped kind of thing.

      Nope.

      Totally wrong

      Just the right amount of hype.

      It’s simply a lovely, lovely movie.

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