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Matinee

by Glenn Erickson Jan 02, 2018

 

A scary monster movie comes to Key West just as a nuclear crisis breaks out! Joe Dante’s incomparable paean to monster kid culture has finally arrived on Region A Blu-ray, with the great extras we expect from every Dante-involved home video offering. The picture only gets more charming and funny with time, from its great cast of teens to the perfect pitch of John Goodman and Cathy Moriarty’s bigger-than-life characters.


Matinee
Blu-ray
Shout Select
1993 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 99 min. / Street Date January 16, 2018 / 34.93
Starring John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, Robert Picardo, Jesse White, Dick Miller, John Sayles, David Clennon, Belinda Balaski, Naomi Watts, Robert Cornthwaite, Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert.
Cinematography
John Hora
Film Editor Marshall Harvey
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Charles S. Haas, story by Haas & Jerico.
Produced by Michael Finnell
Directed by Joe Dante

 

George Lucas’s American Graffiti asked, ‘Where were you in ’62?’, but we monster kids of that year weren’t cruising in hot rods or cutting a rug At the Hop. Nope, we were memorizing the bad puns in Forry Ackerman’s fan Bible Famous Monsters magazine. Astronauts have The Right Stuff to commemorate their glory, and combat medics might turn to M*A*S*H to make their duty feel more adventurous. But it takes a cultural genius to realize that relief from the anxieties of a scary world could be found in exploitation pictures down at the Bijou!

Funny, clever and wholly original, Matinee should have been a big hit. It’s an affectionate concoction of pure nostalgia for popcorn & soda pop Saturday afternoons spent watching movies hyped with advertising that could only scare small children. It’s also a backhanded tribute to barnstorming exploitation showmen, the kind that relied on wild gimmicks to pull in the crowds. Matinee features a cast of adorable middle-class kids growing up just prior to the Kennedy assassination, just before the country lost its complacent sense of security. 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 (gasp) girls. Stan is cornered by Sherry (Kellie Martin), a self-styled controlling princess type, while Gene is attracted to Sandra (Lisa Jakub), a nonconformist labeled a Commie for refusing to participate in meaningless Duck & Cover civil defense drills. Already a huge fan of ‘weird-o’ science fiction and horror movies, Stan 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 looks for a young punk to wear a rubber monster costume and leap into the theater aisles during the premiere. 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 rockets are on their way, the matinee premiere of Mant! becomes a chaotic preview of World War III.

Matinee takes place in the same year as American Graffiti but concerns younger teens that just beginning to stray from adult supervision. The Counterculture has yet to arrive. 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’s fantasies about the make-out opportunities offered by a darkened movie theater evaporate when the adolescent man-trap Sherry uses her seductive smile to enlist him as her trophy date for lame girl-oriented after-school activities. 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. The unstable 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 movie for ‘undiscriminating audiences’ is a spot-on recreation of late-’50s monster mania, the kind of opus in which goofy mutants are created 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. He generates local interest in his movie by exploiting conservative outrage with a fake ‘campaign for decency.’ He wires the theater seats with electric buzzers, rattles bones with giant Rumble-Rama speakers and uses an elaborate multi-projector gimmick to convince his audience that a real A-Bomb has been dropped on the theater. Woolsey takes an instant liking to Gene. His little bits of advice about life aren’t bad: “Grown-ups are making it up as they go along, just like you.”

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 lame Disney-fied idea of children’s entertainment called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart. The wickedly accurate parody stars none other than Naomi Watts, as a sweet girl whose uncle has been transformed into a comical shopping cart adept at solving crimes.

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 man-become monster. Like the alien globs in Dante’s Explorers, the glorious ant-man performs a terrific stand-up mime routine, waving his expressive antennae to punctuate the parody’s painful puns.

Every element in the parody is lifted from pictures like Beginning of the End and The Amazing Colossal Man; ‘fifties stalwarts Robert Cornthwaite (The Thing from Another World), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and William Shallert (darn near everything else) portray screenwriter Charlie Haas’ exposition-spouting scientists and generals.

Don’t expect heavy moralizing, but Matinee does have something to say about life in the year the Cold War almost went nuclear. Young Sandra’s liberal parents (David Clennon & Lucy Butler) search in vain for redeeming social value in Woolsey’s silly monster romp. Despite being a comedy, Matinee emphasizes the tension created when itchy fingers hovered over the nuclear button. Gene’s mother Anne (Lucinda Jenney), a military spouse, has no one to share her fears with. The kids witness the military build-up in Key West — air defense batteries are installed on the beach — yet the matinee premiere proceeds unhindered. Woolsey’s frightening audience participation gimmicks stampedes the screaming audience into the street, ready to witness Armageddon. Locked inside the theater’s bomb shelter, Gene and Sandra are given a great opportunity for a passionate first kiss — and suddenly realize that it’s their responsibility to repopulate the Earth! The sweet scene is a far cry from the stomach-turning conclusion to 1963’s Ladybug Ladybug, a true story of a similar nuclear false alarm.

Aided by the colorful cinematography of John Hora, Matinee finishes with an elegant scene of Gene and Sandra playing on the sands of Key West. 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 rotor noise grows 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. The reference to the coming war is more subtle than the postscripts tacked onto the end of American Graffiti.

John Goodman has a field day as the imposing schlockmeister Lawrence Woolsey, the kind of pompous showman always putting up a good front. His antics remind us of a story told about William Castle, who when riding around Hollywood as a passenger in his writers Volkswagen, would talk on a telephone receiver to make people in other cars think he was a big shot with a radio phone. But Woolsey is too sweet to give offense, even when his gimmicks shake a movie house to bits.

Why didn’t this film take off? Matinee was sold as a comedy, but the ads didn’t convey its multi-layered charm and it died 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 and is just beginning to attain the wider awareness it deserves. American Cinematheque showings have been extremely popular. I firmly believe that it will eventually be recognized as one of the smartest comedies of the 1990s.


Shout Select’s Blu-ray of Matinee is the Hi-Def rendering that fans of this charmer have been pining for. A Region B-only French Blu with an excellent transfer came out about eight years ago, and this disc looks just as good. John Hora’s interesting color effects and the South Florida pastel art direction really pop, making the old DVD seem pale in comparison. The strong soundtrack also makes a bigger impact with the lossless audio. Jerry Goldsmith’s music score switches between themes of pleasant nostalgia and martial menace, and we also recognize key cues from the Universal monster movies that are a partial inspiration for Mant!

Other Joe Dante movies on disc have wonderful extras, and commentaries so interesting and funny that they merit repeat listenings: The Howling, Innerspace, Gremlins. Shout’s Matinee lacks a talk track but has just about everything else one could think of — new interview featurettes, older items and a selection of those goodies Joe Dante hinted at seven years ago.

The new interviews range from ten to twenty-five minutes apiece. Joe Dante gets his say, and we also hear from actresses Cathy Moriarty (still tickled by the one-of-a-kind comedy) and Lisa Jacub, who was only 13 during the filming and had her first-ever kiss on camera. Monster designer Jim McPherson and the talented actor Mark McCracken share a long interview discussing the monster effects and performance. Ditto Steven Legler (production designer), Marshall Harvey (editor) and DP John Hora, who explains that the film-within-a-film ‘Mant!’ was shot on real B&W film stock, not printed down from color.

From the extras on the French special edition (pictured left ) come another Joe Dante interview, and his introduction to the uninterrupted Mant! footage which I believe has not been seen on a U.S. video release since the 1993 laserdisc . . . I kept my old laser machine working just so I could play it. The uncut Mant! is a marvelous take-off on our favorite monster pix, with the requisite hammy dialogue, awkward stage waits and actors that stare off screen when not saying their lines. Capturing the essence of the originals it admires, it’s much more than a skit.

Some of the other extras likely come straight from Joe Dante’s closet, or storage garage. The odds ‘n’ ends include several minutes of behind-the-scenes video footage, a few work print deleted scenes and Universal’s original 1993 featurette. In one of his interviews Joe Dante recalls a Universal executive loving the show, but having no clue as to how to promote it.

I hope Shout! cleans up with this disc . . . we need a groundswell of interest to justify a ‘Matinee 2’, where a sixty-ish Lawrence Woolsey has an epiphany, and with a cadre of eccentric fans, sets out to revolutionize cinema. My own interview with Joe Dante from several years back is still readable through the old DVD Savant page: Joe Dante on Matinee.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Matinee
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New featurettes: Master of the Matinee – interview with director Joe Dante; The Leading Lady – an interview with Cathy Moriarty; MANTastic! The Making of a Mant with designer Jim McPherson and Mant performer Mark McCracken; Out of the Bunker – an interview with actress Lisa Jakub; Making a Monster Theatre – an interview with production designer Steven Legler; The Monster Mix – an interview with editor Marshall Harvey; Lights! Camera! Reunion! – an interview with director of photography John Hora. From the French special edition: Paranoia in Ant Vision – Joe Dante discusses the making of the film; MANT! – the full length version of the film-within-the-film, introduced by Joe Dante; Vintage Making of Featurette; Behind the Scenes footage courtesy of Joe Dante; Deleted and extended scenes sourced from Joe Dante’s Workprint; Still Galleries, Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 31, 2017

And here is Illeana Douglas on the Dante classic.

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.