(1993) Directed by Joe Dante; Written by Charles S. Haas; Story by Jerico Stone and Charles S. Haas; Starring: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Dick Miller and Robert Picardo; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
"Atomo Vision, Rumble Rama… It takes a lot more to scare people these days. Too much competition… Now they’ve got bombs that’ll kill half a million people, nobody’s had a good night’s sleep in years, so you gotta have a gimmick, you know? Something a little extra.” – Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman)
A huge thanks (or should I say, “Scream Out”?) to Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews for inviting me to join the Wilhelm Scream Blogathon, looking at one of the most ubiquitous sounds from Hollywood movies. Today’s offering, Matinee, qualifies for the blogathon and this month’s theme (Body Horror), thanks to the marvelous film-within-a-film, Mant (more on this in a moment).
Matinee is Joe Dante’s love letter to the genre movies he grew up with, and the unique theater experience from his adolescence. Dante originally envisioned Matinee as a fantasy (with a vampire projectionist and monster theater manager), but eventually eschewed these elements when he couldn’t find a studio that was interested in the concept. The final product, however, reflects his affection for B-movie cinema, told amidst the backdrop of real-life events, circa 1962 (i.e., the Cuban Missile Crisis). The relatively low-budget production was originally slated to be funded overseas, with Universal to distribute, but when the money fell through, Universal took over the bill. Filming took place on location in Key West, Florida, where the story takes place.
Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is a typical all-American kid who lives on a military base with his mother Anne (Lucinda Jenney) and younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer). As if adjusting to a new town and a new high school aren’t enough to cause anxiety, he’s faced with the uncertainty surrounding his father’s latest post, on one of the Navy vessels engaged in the U.S. blockade around Cuban waters. Gene’s only common thread, hopping from base to base, is his love of sci-fi and horror movies.* His new friend Stan (played by Omri Katz. best known for the beloved but short-lived series, Eerie Indiana) introduces him to another pastime – girls. While Stan pursues Sherry (Kellie Martin), Gene sets his sight on non-conformist proto-hippie Sandra (Lisa Jakub). But things are about to get more complicated when tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union come to a head, just as B-movie showman extraordinaire Lawrence Woolsey rolls into town to promote his new movie, Mant.
* Fun Fact #1: Gene’s room is decorated with various memorabilia, which came from Dante’s personal collection.
John Goodman (whom Dante envisioned for the role) impresses as cigar-chomping filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey, an amalgamation of a special breed of mid-century self-promoting genre filmmakers,* with an obvious nod to William Castle. Woolsey, who’s part con-man, all showman, knows a mark when he sees one. He delights in pushing an audience’s buttons, inside and outside the theater, promoting his latest gimmicks, “Atomo Vision” and “Rumble Rama.” If there isn’t controversy about his movies, he creates it. One of his ploys involves a staged protest outside the theater where Mant is set to premiere. His shills, Herb and Bob (Dick Miller and John Sayles) stir up outrage for his movie, under the auspices of phony organization “Citizens for Decent Entertainment.” Inside, he wires theater seats to zap the posteriors of select patrons (in a direct nod to Castle’s The Tingler), sets up an elaborate sound and light display, and hires juvenile delinquent Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) to terrorize the audience in a giant ant suit. He’s a big kid at heart, much to the chagrin of his sarcastic, long-suffering girlfriend Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty). She’s at the end of her rope; never a bride, always a bridesmaid to Woolsey’s cockamamie schemes.
* Fun Fact#2: In addition to Castle, Dante cited Bert I. Gordon and Jack Arnold as influences for the character.
Among Matinee’s many highlights are excerpts from Mant (tagline: “Half man. Half ant. All terror.”), a spot-on parody of ’50s monster movies (particularly The Fly and Them), presented in glorious black and white. The cautionary tale, in which Bill (Mark McCracken), an ordinary man, transforms into a deadly human/ant hybrid, features genre staples William Schallert and Kevin McCarthy. Mant captures the style and tone (including over-the-top performances) of the films from that era, including an expert who dumbs down his explanations for Bill’s beleaguered wife Carole (played by Cathy Moriarty as Ruth Corday). The Wilhelm Scream is right at home with the monster-related mayhem when a giant ant tears through the city. Another clever parody* pokes fun at a special brand of Disney pablum from the 1960s (frequently starring Dean Jones or Fred MacMurray), in which a sentient shopping cart foils some would-be burglars.
* Fun Fact #3: Matinee marks Naomi Watts’ first American performance, appearing in “The Shook Up Shopping Cart.”
Matinee provides sober reminder that real life is infinitely more frightening than anything that could be depicted on the silver screen. Life in 1962 was anything but carefree, when the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed, with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The bomb shelter maintained by the jittery theater manager (Robert Picardo) and routine “duck and cover” drills at school, at once reflect the public’s hypervigilance at the height of the Cold War, and the futility of surviving a nuclear blast. Dante’s film illustrates how humanity could be brought to the brink of extinction, yet somehow carried on with their daily lives. Woolsey offered an escape from the horrors of reality, providing thrills without consequences. His monologue at the end of the film encapsulates the public’s raison d'être for movie-going, and specifically why many of us enjoy horror so much.
Matinee failed to connect with audiences and critics at the time, possibly as a result of Universal’s uncertainty about how to market the film. It’s unfortunate, because many missed out on a deceptively intelligent movie, with excellent ensemble work by a combination of new faces and old veterans (including a who’s who of Dante regulars and B-movie actors). Filled with an abundance of humor and heart, Matinee re-creates an experience from a bygone era when it actually looked fun to go to the movies. Dante manages to strike the perfect balance between comedy and drama, without seeming saccharine or heavy handed. His inclusion of autobiographical elements makes this his most personal film, and (to date) his best one.