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Funny, clever and wholly original, Matinee should have been a big hit. It's affectionate nostalgia for popcorn and soda pop Saturday afternoons spent watching movies hyped with scary advertising. It's also a backhanded tribute to barnstorming exploitation showmen, the kind that relied on wild gimmicks to bring in the crowds. Matinee features a cast of adorable middle-class kids growing up between the Eisenhower years and the Kennedy assassination, just before the country lost its sense of complacency. What's the most pressing issue at hand for our fourteen year-old hero: getting a girlfriend, worrying about the looming Cuban Missile Crisis, or securing a good seat for Mant!, Lawrence Woolsey's new science fiction chiller?
It's 1962, and things are heating up in Key West, Florida. Clean-cut junior high schooler Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) and his new friend Stan (Omri Katz) are just awakening to the possibilities of going steady with girls. Stan is pegged by Sherry (Kellie Martin), a controlling princess type, while Gene is attracted to Sandra (Lisa Jakub), a nonconformist labeled a Commie for refusing to participate in meaningless 'duck and cover' civil defense drills. Gene is a huge fan of "weird-o" science fiction and horror movies, and is thrilled to discover that fast-buck producer-director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) is coming to town to premiere his latest outrageous monster opus. Gene's dreams come true when he meets Woolsey and witnesses firsthand the showman's unorthodox publicity gimmicks, mysterious gags called Atomo Vision and Rumble-Rama. In addition to posting his paramour and leading lady Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty) in the theater lobby as a fake attending nurse, Wallace hires a juvenile delinquent to leap into the aisles wearing a rubber Mant! costume. Woolsey even enlists a pair of thugs (Dick Miller and John Sayles) to picket the movie in hopes of nabbing additional publicity.
Meanwhile, the Cuban Missile Crisis begins, throwing the town into a panic. Key West is only ninety miles from Havana and Gene's father is a sailor on one of Kennedy's blockade vessels. When the paranoid theater manager (Robert Picardo) becomes convinced that Russian missiles have been launched and activates his sub-theater bomb shelter, the matinee premiere of Mant! becomes a chaotic preview of World War 3.
Matinee takes place in the same year as American Graffiti but concerns younger teens that don't drive and are just beginning to stray from adult supervision. The Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Counterculture have yet to appear. The scary pictures Gene loves are actually very tame, and Gene and Stan's biggest sin is covertly listening to his parents' Lenny Bruce records. Girls are unexplored territory. Gene doesn't know what he wants, although he develops an instant soft spot for the serious, sweet Sandra, a conscientious peacenik. Stan fantasizes about the make-out opportunities offered by a darkened movie theater, but the adolescent man trap Sherry has her own agenda. She turns Stan to jelly with her seductive smile and ropes him into serving as her trophy date for lame girl-oriented after-school activities. 1 Little does Stan know that Sherry's previous boyfriend is the psychotically jealous Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), a beat-poet JD fresh from reform school. Starkweather lands the job assisting Lawrence Woolsey with his matinee gimmicks, including wearing the "Mant!" mask.
Lawrence Woolsey promotes the hell out of Mant! with personal appearances and trailers, hyping himself as a Master of the Macabre and the show as a masterpiece of terror. His monster movie is for "undiscriminating audiences". Its spot-on recreation of late-50s monster mania is hilariously accurate, with goofy mutants caused by combining men with bugs and lizards. Woolsey is a gloss on the creative showman William Castle, and his company parallels the antics of American-International Pictures, filmmakers that left no teen trend unexploited. Woolsey puts electric buzzers in the theater seats, rattles bones with giant Rumble-Rama speakers and uses a multi-projector 3D- like gimmick to convince his audience that a real A-Bomb has been dropped on the theater. Woolsey understands his audience. He takes an instant liking to Gene and tries to give him a little advice about life: "Grown-ups are making it up as they go along, just like you."
Matinee has more to say about life in 1962, the year the Cold War almost went nuclear. Young Sandra's liberal parents look in vain for redeeming social value in Woolsey's silly monster romp. Woolsey cleverly generates more interest in his movie by exploiting conservative outrage with a fake "campaign for decency". The kids don't know how to react to the military build-up -- air defense batteries are installed on the beach but nobody cancels the matinee premiere, so everybody goes. The farcical hysteria builds until Rumble-Rama starts to shake the theater apart and everyone thinks that war has broken out. Reality is transformed into a 50s nuke movie as kids run screaming into the street. Gene and Sandra are accidentally locked inside the theater's bomb shelter ... and wonder if it's their responsibility to repopulate the Earth. Like, now. What a great opportunity for a passionate first kiss! 2
Matinee was sold as a John Goodman comedy and the actor has a field day playing the imposing schlockmeister Lawrence Woolsey. But the ads didn't convey the film's multi-layered comedy. The laughs jump to another level with director Joe Dante's parodies of screen fare in the monsterrific era. We see trailers for non-existent but perfectly credible hokum like The Eyes of Doctor Diablo. Gene and his younger brother Dennis (Jessie Lee) squirm in disapproval at a hopelessly corny Disney-fied idea of children's entertainment called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart. They want more Vincent Price chillers. 3
We see at least a reel of Lawrence Woolsey's magnum opus Mant!, a deliciously affectionate parody of Big Bug movies. Cathy Moriarty's Ruth Corday plays Carole, the long-suffering wife of Bill (Mark McCracken), the pitiful victim of a mishap with dental X-rays. Every dialogue line and situation in the parody is taken from pictures like Beginning of the End and The Amazing Colossal Man. Dante recruits 50s stalwarts Robert Cornthwaite (The Thing from Another World), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and William Shallert (darn near everything else) to give the roles of scientists and generals the correct spin. "Mant!" features a glorious ant-man doing a terrific stand-up mime routine, waving his expressive antennae to punctuate the parody's painful puns.
Dante, Haas and company finish up with an elegant scene of Gene and Sandra playing on the beach. This ambivalent "On the Beach" moment looks forward to an uncertain future never referenced in movies about giant monsters or Edgar Allan Poe. While The Tokens' The Lion Sleeps Tonight plays on the soundtrack, the kids watch a Navy helicopter returning from the blockade. The 'copter's rotors grow louder and the image becomes grainy like combat news film, hinting at the war to come in Vietnam. Being a Navy dependent, Gene Loomis is the type of earnest young American who might be first to enlist. None of this is delivered as an overt message. It's a much more subtle look forward to perils in the post- Dallas world than the postscripts attached to the end of American Graffiti.
Why didn't this film take off? The verdict seems to be that Universal let it die a publicity-challenged slow death. I was in Los Angeles in 1993 and heard nothing about it. The debut of the laserdisc at Dave's The Laser Place was bigger than anything fronted for the theatrical release. Matinee now has a confirmed following but lacks the wide awareness it deserves. I firmly believe that it will eventually be recognized as one of the best comedies of the 1990s.
Universal's DVD of Matinee is the expected good enhanced transfer, which in this case is not enough. From The Howling to Innerspace and Gremlins, director Joe Dante's DVD releases are well known for their generous extras and hilarious audio commentaries. An earlier laserdisc for Matinee contained the Mant! movie-within-a-movie uncut and full-length, throwing in the bogus "Lawrence Woolsey" trailer as well. At a minimum the DVD should have retained that essential extra. I understand that deleted scenes would have been available as well. Most of all, it would have been great to hear Joe Dante and his writers and actors talking on a commentary, as Matinee may be the director's most personal film. I realize that DVD discs are not selling like they used to, but purposely alienating one's customers is a sure way to kill off what's left of the home video market.
I've asked Joe Dante for a new interview on this film favorite. It can be read here at DVD Savant: Joe Dante on Matinee.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Matinee Blu-ray rates:
1. Talented teen actress Kellie Martin made use of her arresting smile in a sickly-sweet inspirational TV series about a character with the unsubtle name Christy, a Pollyanna type who does God's work in a backwoods setting. Anybody who's seen Matinee is likely to interpret that impressive smile as a calculated weapon.
2. Matinee is just serious enough to serve as a thoughtful meditation on the years when itchy fingers hovered over the nuclear button. Gene and Sandra's comic Adam & Eve situation in the bomb shelter has to be the cutest scene ever in the Atom Threat subgenre. It's a far cry from the stomach-turning conclusion to 1963's Ladybug Ladybug, a true story of a similar nuclear false alarm. The grim story ends with a panicked young girl seeking shelter from attack in the worst possible place. Matinee came out just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which lessened the likelihood of an all-out nuclear exchange.
3. The wickedly accurate The Shook-Up Shopping Cart parody stars none other than Naomi Watts. She's a sweet girl whose uncle has been transformed into a comical shopping cart adept at catching Beagle Boy- like thieves.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.