Nestled between Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Small Soldiers (1998) is Matinee, director Joe Dante’s surprisingly reverent tribute to B-movie showmanship, and that other master of suspense, director William Castle.
Castle’s forte wasn’t directing but creating escapism built on a hook, and giving thrills through gimmicks, be they ‘ghosts’ gliding over audiences (House on Haunted Hill), a 3D ‘ghost viewer’ (13 Ghosts), or delivering electric shocks to audience fannies when the titular creature of The Tingler – a spine-hungry slug - escapes from the confines of the movie, and starts attacking real audience members.
Charlie Haas’ screenplay is a riff on an itinerant, Castle-like showman named Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) who builds interest in his latest film “Mant” (‘Half Man! Half Ant! All Terror!’) by setting up a sneak preview at a theatre in the suburbs of Key West, Florida.
As theatre seats are wired to deliver shocks to audiences (dubbed ‘Atomo-Vision’) and Sensurround-like speakers are setup to create massive bass waves (called ‘Rumble-Rama’), suburb inhabitants are affected by the suddenness of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kids are doing duck-and-cover routines in school, adults fear a nuclear assault, and the nearby military base has started to setup tanks, missiles, and air assault teams at the local beach in case of a strike from Cuba.
Matinee is more of a period drama and nostalgia trip than horror comedy, since Haas’ script focuses so much on Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) and his struggle to make new friends after his family moved to another city. An army brat with a young brother, Gene manages to befriend a big talker named Stan (Omri Katz) and pretty rebel Sandra (Lisa Jakub), a girl who’s adopted her parents’ own world weariness and anti-nuclear rhetoric.
Once the kids attend the preview screening of “Mant,” a whole series of secondary threads kick in, causing the kids to become involved in separate dramas, which include getting locked in a basement bomb shelter, a riff between Stan and the class’ hot chock Sherry (Kelli Martin), and Sherry’s ex-beau Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), a ‘primeval’ poet of abstract verse who nearly brings the theatre down by over-cranking the Rumble-Rama system.
The finale takes on typical Dante antics where everything collides and collapses during mounting chaos, much in the way masses of gremlins in Gremlins 2 ran amok amongst trapped workers in a large office tower, or masses of toys duked it out at the end of Small Soldiers.
For Dante fans, though, Matinee is a much lighter work that’s largely free from the broad slapstick which dominated his mid-career films, and the steeped nostalgia is evident in the set décor (be it old radios, posters, magazines, or clothes), and Jerry Goldsmith’s surprisingly gentle (and largely orchestral) score.
The fake trailers and “Mant” clips, however, are tracked with extracts from the famous 1959 Dick Jacobs monster music album, Themes from Horror Movies, which featured music from some of Universal’s most popular bug-eyed monster movies. Dante’s penchant for nostalgic satire ensures “Man” looks and sounds like a vintage monster movie (the title sequence and font is a variation of Them! and the Woolsey International logo bears the same font and similar logo music as used by American International Pictures.)
The movie theatre is decorated with many posters of early sixties shockers, and the cinema marquee also announces a few fake films, including “The Shook Up Shopping Cart”, Dante’s amusing poke at the painfully banal live action kiddie fodder cranked out by Disney. (One of the actresses is a young Naomi Watts.)
As Woolsey, Goodman plays the character as a benevolent carny showman always on the prowl for another outlandish concept. There’s a great little scene where the sight of an alligator figurine at a gas station has him spouting catchy names like “Malligator,” and on occasion he provides some simple sage advice to Gene, like the origins of showmanship in caveman times, and grownups being equally confused as kids, and making things up as they go along through adulthood.
The Joe Dante Stock Company also makes quick appearances in Matinee as well as the fake movies. Robert Picardo (The Howling) plays the weasel theatre manager, and Dick Miller plays a grafter hired by Woolsey to stir up some local upset against his ‘immoral’ monster movie. (Miller is also joined by John Sayles, who write Dante’s 1978 shocker, Piranha.) Both Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert appear in “Mant,” and Matinee screenwriter Charlie Haas has a cameo as a teacher who orders his class to ‘duck and cover’ during an air raid drill.
Although released in Dolby Surround, the sound mix on the laserdisc (the source for this review) features very aggressive bass, which comes through loudly when there’s footage of nuclear bomb blasts, and when the Rumble-Rama sound is maxed out in the finale. John Hora’s cinematographer emphasizes amber during the title sequence, and maintains a balance of warm tungsten lighting without affecting the richness of primary reds, blues, and greens.
Haas’ other scripts for Dante include Gremlins 2 and the 1994 TV movie Runaway Daughters. Co-star Omri Katz also starred in Dante’s short-lived TV series Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992) before stepping away from acting in 2002.
Note: Matinee was released in full screen and widescreen transfers on laserdisc and DVD, but thus far only the widescreen laserdisc contained a featurette on “Mant,” which may be included in the studio’s May 2010 DVD release.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan