Matinee (1993) directed by Joe Dante and starring John Goodman
What’s it about?
Simon Fenton plays Gene, an adolescent boy living on an army base in Key West, Florida in 1962 who loves going to the cinema to watch scary B-movies with his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer). At their latest matinee, they see an exciting trailer for a creature feature called Mant, about an exposure from radiation forming a mutant man/ant hybrid. It is introduced by the cigar-chomping onscreen presence of schlock producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman).
When the two brothers come home they learn from their mom that dad has been called away for a special mission. A few minutes later they watch a special bulletin from the President himself, JFK, announcing a Russian build-up of ballistic missile launchers with nuclear strike capabilities on the island of Cuba. While the town, along with everyone else in the world, goes into a state of hysteria over impending nuclear armageddon Woolsey, with his cynical actress girlfriend Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty) in tow, decides to make an opportunity out of the climate by trekking to Key West for a special gimmick-loaded screening of Mant.
While wavering between fear of impending doom and anticipation of the screening, Gene falls for a nonconformist classmate named Sandra (Lisa Jakub). Meanwhile, his best buddy Stan (Omri Katz) starts dating Sherry (Kellie Martin) - a fact that attracts the attention of an ex-boyfriend named Harvey (James Villemaire) who embraces poetry and criminality with equal enthusiasm.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
A mixture of “historical flashpoint” drama, coming-of-age story and affectionate homage to old monster movies, Matinee was acclaimed by many critics during its release and is now regarded as one of Joe Dante’s best films (some even consider it to be his best film full-stop). However, it failed to attract the audience it deserved during its release and has remained a relatively overlooked entry in the director’s back catalogue ever since. The probable reason for this is that its story doesn’t hang on such easily saleable concepts as other Dante-directed classics do, e.g. The Howling (werewolves), Gremlins (little monsters that mess with machinery), Innerspace (man gets miniaturised to microscopic size and ends up inside another man’s body) or The Burbs (creepy neighbours in suburbia).
Its disappointing lack of commercial success meant that, from that point on, Dante spent more time working on television than in movies - although he did occasionally resurface with more blatantly commercial big-screen projects like 1998’s Small Soldiers (a sort of mixture of Gremlins and Pixar’s Toy Story) and 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
How does it hold up?
Matinee bites off an awful lot in a 99-minute running time and doesn’t chew all of it successfully, but it is still a lot of fun. It’s probably the most effective of Dante’s mixtures of innocent-eyed white-bread Americana with a sense of darkness peering around the edges. It’s set in a time when there was a certain naïveté about American life and the country’s place in the wider world. This was an America where kids were recommended a “healthy” diet involving three portions of red meat per day, and crouching in a school corridor while covering your head was considered adequate preparation in the event of a nuclear blast (something rapidly and graphically debunked by Sandra during that particular scene).
At the same time, there’s a colourful magic in the recreation of the period and the milieu of movie matinee culture. The POV shot that describes the anticipation on entering a movie theatre to see a premiere, with John Goodman’s Woolsey narrating over it, is as much an example of the film’s playful nostalgia as the dayglo wallpaper is. The spoof B-movie is as awash with arch overacting, talk-heavy exposition, rubbery makeup and melodramatic music as the real thing. The gimmicks such as electric shock dispensers hidden in seats, an actor dressed up as Mant to menace the cinema in real life, and a fake “decency group” set up to give the film publicity by notoriety are nods to genuine techniques used by movie schlockmeisters ranging from William Castle to Michael and Roberta Findlay.
The main qualities that really hold Matinee together are John Goodman’s performance along with the genuinely funny sense of humour running throughout. Goodman manages a great mixture of brash cynicism and a genuine sense of big-hearted generosity as he both exploits his punters and gives something back. His philosophy for making scary movies goes something like this:
“A zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, Bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great.”
While Goodman is definitely the star here, the younger cast members do well enough to make their characters engaging. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot the likes of Dick Miller, John Sayles, Kevin McCarthy and even a pre-fame Naomi Watts popping up here.
If there are any weaknesses about the film it’s that there are some potentially interesting peripheral characters who aren’t well developed - in particular James Villemaire’s antagonist Harvey, with his undoubtedly heartfelt but frankly hilariously awful poetry, could have been fleshed out a bit more. There’s also a spot of pretty bad (though brief) CGI during a dream sequence. Oh, and the mayhem-filled finale does get a bit too silly at times.
Nonetheless, Matinee is the kind of film that Spielberg’s 1941 should have been.
Runtime: 99 mins
Dir: Joe Dante
Script: Jerico, Charles S. Haas
Starring: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee Soffer, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, John Sayles, Naomi Watts, Kevin McCarthy