In a most unsurprising development, MATINEE was a box office flop upon its 1993 theatrical release. The fact is that unless you grew up during the sixties, as Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas did, you just won’t get a whole lot out of this movie.
William Castle, for those who don’t know, was the foremost movie showman of the 1950s and 60s, known for producing and/or directing magnificently schlocky horror flicks like the one presented in MATINEE, and creating elaborate gimmicks (buzzing theater seats, smoke bombs, etc.) like those seen herein.
In 1962 the young Gene and his friend Stan are living in Key West, Florida. It’s the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Gene’s serviceman father has been shipped off to Cuba, possibly never to return. Equally important to Gene and Stan is the fact that the rotund cigar-chomping film producer Lawrence Woolsey is set to make an appearance at their local movie theater. Woolsey’s aim is to promote his latest film MANT!, a cheesy horror movie filmed in “Atomo-Vision” about a man transformed into an ant creature by atomic radiation. The film’s irresistible tagline: “Half Man! Half Ant! All Terror!”
Woolsey, as is his custom, wires the movie theater with vibrating machinery to buzz the audience, has a guy dress up as the Mant and outfits his girlfriend as a “Nurse” who makes patrons sign fake legal releases (ostensibly to be retained by theater owners in case their customers are “scared to death” by the movie). Woolsey is also picketed by a couple of dorks representing an organization called Citizens for Decent Entertainment, who portend bad things…
During the screening of the movie all of Woolsey’s tricks go off as planned. Gene and Stan both attend, and over the course of the screening they enter a bomb shelter beneath the theater, disarm the knife-wielding nut wearing the Mant costume, and rescue a bunch of kids from a collapsing balcony.
Joe Dante fans will recognize MATINEE’S nostalgic overlay, as well as the many former Dante cast members who appear in the film, including Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy, Belinda Balasky and PIRANHA/THE HOWLING screenwriter John Sayles. As for Dante himself, he was in an uncharacteristically restrained mode.
Absent here are the bravura visuals of THE HOWLING and THE BURBS, the comedic horror of PIRANHA and GREMLINS, and the manic invention of INNERSPACE and GREMLINS 2. In their place Dante offers a cinematically unadventurous portrayal of the early 1960s, complete with a goopy Jerry Goldsmith score. That holds true of the early scenes, despite their pointed portrait of the widespread fear and paranoia engendered by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the later ones set in the movie theater, which is disconcertingly well lit and features a couple ill-fitting elements—the psycho costume-wearer and the collapsing balcony—that appear to have been included at the behest of studio executives wanting to pack in more thrills.
John Goodman’s portrayal of Lawrence Woolsey, at least, is stellar. Woolsey was closely patterned after William Castle, and his black-and-white schlockfest MANT! perfectly captures the William Castle vibe; Cathy Moriarty in particular shines as the endearingly histrionic star of the film-within-the-film (and also Woolsey’s fed-up girlfriend in the film without). MANT! is so much fun, in fact, that it deserves a better wrap-around than that of MATINEE.
Director: Joe Dante
Producer: Michael Finnell
Screenplay: Charlie Haas
Cinematography: John Hora
Editing: Marshall Harvey
Cast: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee Soffer, Lucinda Jenney. James Villemaire, Robert Picardo, Jesse White, Dick Miller, John Sayles, David Clennon, Belinda Balasky, Naomi Watts