Joe Dante has referred to Matinee as “a paean to the days when it was fun to go to the movies, and I miss those days”. It’s probably his most personal film, set during the period when he was a teenager (1962) and filled with references and homages to the 1950s monster movies that were his bread-and-butter. It’s a warm, utterly amiable picture, but it’s also very slight. The distant rumble of nuclear standoff (in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis) represents the only real conflict. While it is stuffed with expected in-jokes and movie-love, the sheer nostalgia for “his” era ends up neutering Matinee. There’s no edge to it, leaving the viewer begging for more of movie-within-a-movie MANT!, rather than the wispy main feature.
Or maybe it’s just me; immune to the sweet-natured lure of high school remembrances and first dates. I keep finding myself hoping that Dante will break into something more scabrous (this wasn’t long after Michael Lehmann rewrote the book on high school movies with Heathers), but he drifts through the movie moon-eyed, rose-tinted spectacles firmly in place. Only the occasional background noise (a nerdy boy, prevented from sitting at a table with other boys, plonks himself down at a table full of girls who promptly rise as one and move elsewhere) suggests his more mischievous nature.
Howard: That’s it! The bombs are falling!
No doubt the attitude of the boys to the nuclear threat was, as Dante recalls, that the bomb going off presented the opportunity for sex with the girls; their last act on earth (as is alluded to in the bomb shelter scene and a conversation between Stan and Sherry). But the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis are never felt; the closest we get is the scene where the kids crouch in the corridors as Sandra (Lisa Jakub) protests that it won’t do a bit of good (“That girl’s a communist”, objects one of the boys). The whimsical approach to an atomic apocalypse is confirmed by Howard the theatre manager’s paranoid dread that the end of the world is nigh. Good as Robert Picardo always is, the comedy doesn’t quite play; his mistaking rumblerama for the bomb blast is so obvious it needs to Dante to really up the crazy for it to pay off. Instead the same breezy tone prevails. Everyone means well, no one’s in any real danger, everything turns out fine.
Sandra: It’s our responsibility to carry on.
Matinee was conceived by Jericho Stone (whose sole other credit is the feeble My Stepmother Is an Alien). He saw it as a fantasy-tinged piece in which kids at an old movie theatre (attending MANT!) imagine the staff taking on fantasy/horror identities (vampires and the like). It was clearly always a period piece as the epilogue saw them reunite in the present, where the theatre had become a video store. Ed Naha worked on the script before Charles S. Haas (who wrote Dante’s previous movie, Gremlins 2) took over. It was at this point that the Cuban Missile Crisis setting was incorporated and Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), the film producer, was added (Naha had contributed a film actor to the mix, which eventually morphed into Woolsey).
Mom: Where did he get that from?
Gene: The U.N.
Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) and his brother Dennis (Jess Soffer) are recent arrivals at a military base in Key West, Florida. With a father in the Navy their school life is disrupted by constant relocations, and they find escape at the movies. The missile crisis sees other kids paying more attention to Gene, because of his dad’s status (he is a crewman one of the submarines). Meanwhile, B-movie producer Lawrence Woolsey decides to release his bring his new film MANT! to the town, seeing the missile crisis as an ideal backdrop for a movie that milks fears of all things atomic.
Dante touches on the fears that the crisis inspires in the townsfolk (notably panic buying at the local supermarket, as a storekeeper separates two fighting customers with, “One of you will have to go to the atomic destruction with no damn shredded wheat”) but the threat is never a palpable one. One might have expected a touch of the hysteria and mayhem of Gremlins, or the oppressive tension of Thirteen Days. But the pace is languid and the tone rarely touches on the disturbing aspects of this pocket of history. Dante keeps things sunny. Yes, Sandra acknowledges the futility of safeguards against a detonation (“They don’t tell the truth”) but she is couched as a proto-hippy peacenik (“They put Ghandi away for a year!”) with well-meaning but flaky parents (“Is the boy in the military?” her father worries at one point, concerned by Gene’s relationship with his daughter). Sandra’s father will be recognisable to any fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing, in which he played stoner and UFO-devotee Palmer.
Gene: Everybody’s scared. Everybody in the world.
The most affecting scenes occur early on, as Gene’s mum (Lucinda Jenney) is unable to hide her concern for her husband and asks Gene not to let on to his younger brother. And, while Gene is initially shown feeding Dennis’ movie-fed fears, when the crisis hits the news he instantly switches to brotherly love.
Woolsey: Wait a minute, have you seen the movie?
Herb: No, I haven’t. I haven’t been down to take a tour of the sewer either, but I know what’s down there.
Dante saves most of his gags for MANT! He’s not really intent on satirising the Key West inhabitants. Even Picardo’s crotchety theatre manager is benignly mistaken, while the approach to Goodman’s producer is entirely affectionate; his capitalist ethic is wholesome and essentially honest, with the emphasis on his enthusiasm rather than cynicism over his manipulation of audiences. He employs William Castle-seque shock tactics, such as “Rumblerama”, causing the audience’s seats to shake at key moments during the screening. He also stages protests against the screening as a publicity gimmick (the mild Bible-basher rhetoric is resonant of the sort of thing John Waters went to town with in Hairspray; “There’s no first amendment in the Ten Commandments”). There’s a vague implication that all the teachers of the day are idiots (the science master instructs his class that they should ingest three servings of red meat each day, and is later seen fighting over the aforementioned Shredded Wheat).
Rebelliousness among the youngsters is no stronger than surreptitiously listening to Lenny Bruce recordings. Omri Katz, fresh from Dante’s TV show Eerie, Indiana, plays Stan. Initially he looks like a troublemaker, but we soon discover he’s wearing a mask of over-confidence as he melts for Sherry (Kellie Martin, who would memorably play poor Lucy in E.R.) As with Explorers, Dante takes his kids and their feelings seriously, even throwing in a split screen homage to the kind of conversations Doris Day would have on the telephone when Stan calls Sherry for a date. He’s most at home showing the packed movie theatre, acutely observing the various stages of screening from the point of view of the young audience (Sandra touching Gene’s arm during a scary moment; the pre-movie bedlam as the kids act like a load of unruly Gremlins, yelling and hurling food about).
Dante and Haas were probably conscious of the lack of conflict in the movie, hence the character Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) A dim ex-con who has taken up poetry, Harvey is also Sherry’s former beau and so is consumed with jealousy towards Stan. They also manoeuvre him into Woolsey’s employ as the “live” Mant, another ploy to put the willies up the audience (walking up and down the aisle in the creature costume). Harvey never amounts to more than the stock greaser you’ve seen many times before, and Villemaire is unable to make the character other than tiresome.
Woolsey: The atomic bomb is terrible, but more terrible are the effects of atomic mutation. Hello, I’m Lawrence Woolsey… I feel I should warn you. The story of MANT! is based on scientific fact. On theories that have appeared in national magazines.
Goodman is clearly enjoying himself as Woolsey as much as Dante is putting William Castle in all but name on screen (although our first sight of the producer is in a Hitchcock-style silhouette). As with the all the characters, however, there’s no edge to Woolsey. His roguishness is oh-so tame, and his intentions are always honourable. He may have a few problems with financing, but he has the guileless glee of a big kid with regard to the entertainments he is delivering. When he describes “the first monster movie” (a painting on a cave wall), his magic making is infectious. And, like a kid, he doesn’t really understand the silly politicking of the adult world. Bob (John Sayles) was put on the “stupid blacklist”, while the increasing difficulty in getting audiences stirred up “could be the stupid bomb business”.
Gene: You know, it’s kind of hard to believe you’re a grown up.
Ruth: No kidding.
Woolsey: It’s a hustle, kid. Grown-ups are making it up as they go along, just like you do.
He’s dismissive of the destruction inflicted on Howard’s theatre, but is heroically engaged in ensuring that no one comes to harm. To prove his cuddliness, he even makes overtures of marriage towards long suffering Ruth (Cathy Moriarty) come the final scene.
Kid: Nurse, I cut my elbow.
Ruth: That looks terrible. Next.
Moriarty is note-perfect in her dual roles; it’s a shame she doesn’t get more parts that show off her talents. Whether she’s dutifully playing nurse in the theatre foyer, requesting that the kids sign release forms in case of suffering heart attacks, or showing weary resignation at Woolsey’s latest idea (“Gal-igator!”), Ruth may be the best realised character in Matinee. And then we’re also treated to her as Claire in MANT! (“Bill, put that down!” she calls to a giant ant chewing on a car).
Claire: Oh, Bill, if only you could just listen to the man in you, and put the insect aside.
Bill: Insecticide? Where?
The homage to ‘50s creature features unfolds at the centre of Matinee. MANT! is the focus for the movie’s kids and it’s also the highlight for actual audience. I may have over-used the word “affectionate” in describing Dante’s approach to Matinee, but it’s doubly true of his fake movie. Dante has said that he didn’t want to make fun of what were often quite respectable monster effects for the period, or to make the kids look dumb for being scared by them. This shines through, as the Mant costume is quite superb; there’s an exaggeration to the design that you’d expect from the director, but that’s part and parcel of the element of parody. And it’s an aspect that is chiefly unspooled in the dialogue. This is a film “So terrifying, only screams can describe it!”
General Ankrum: Come down of that building, we’ve got sugar.
Dante assembles a number of actors who had starred in these B-movies, some of whom are among his regular troupe. It’s also worth noting that many of the names across both the main feature and MANT! reference actors, characters and even well-known items (a brand of pipe) of the era. This is nothing new with Dante’s movies of course.
Kevin McCarthy plays General Ankrum, best known for the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but seen in a variety of the director’s pictures including Piranha, Innerspace and The Howling.
Dr. Grabow: You’re lucky to be alive, Bill.
Bill: I wish I was dead.
Carole: How could such a thing happen, doctor?
Dr. Grabow: X-rays, Carole. A form of radiation. An ant must have bitten Bill when he was having his teeth X-rayed. I’ve been meaning to have the office fumigated, but I’ve just been too busy. Anyway, the ant’s saliva must have got into Bill’s bloodstream and gone straight to his brain just as the radiation, which is measured in units called remkins, was released.
William Schallert assumes the role of another doctor (as per Innerspace and The Incredible Shrinking Man), delivering the most preposterous “science” on the effects of radiation with the casual authority of a learned physician. Robert Cornthwaite hadn’t worked with Dante before, but his credits include The Thing from Another World and The War of the Worlds; Dr. Flankon works for The Office of Unforeseen Atomic Events in Washington and has the need to define any vaguely scientific sounding word (or any word of more than three syllables).
Bill: Go my brothers and sisters. You’re free, free! Behold, the great emancipator! And now, to go down town!
Then there’s Mark McCracken as Bill, ascending the register from weary despair to mania with masterful comic timing.
Claire: But you don’t understand. He’s not a monster; he’s a shoesalesman,
General Ankrum: Would you let that thing fit you in a pump?
Kid (watching movie): A real general wouldn’t say that.
Dante has a lot of fun playing off the reactions of the audience, and even incorporates a further play on Gremlins 2’s projector breakdown as the screen shows an audience in a theatre reacting to the on-the-loose Mant. It culminates in an atomic explosion and the screen apparently catching fire, but this is revealed to be yet another one of Woolsey’s tricks of the trade.
Niece: Of course, he wasn’t always a shopping cart. You see, he had a spell put on him.
Dante also offers another snippet of parody with The Shook Up Shopping Cart; he was never very keen on the “leaden whimsy” of this kind of kids’ comedy (he name checks The Love Bug, a movie I adored as a kid, but I can see where he’s coming from). It’s only a brief couple of scenes, but I wish there was more of this; we see the shopping cart foiling burglars and showing his affection for another Dante regular, Archie Hahn. And yes, that’s Naomi Watts as the cart’s niece.
Bill: So I’ll always be this thing.
Claire: Don’t say that, darling. You’re still Bill. You’re still my Bill.
Dante regulars are back on the production side of things too; Marshall Harvey (who first teamed with the director for Amazon Women on the Moon) edits while John Hora lenses. Jerry Goldsmith provides the score, which unfortunately serves to underline the inconsequential tone of the picture. It dawdles along in what Dante describes as a “brilliant riff on ambivalent whimsy”; it may be exactly that, but such cleverness falls apart if the effect is one of making a movie already short on urgency seem positively listless.
General Ankrum: What in creation do you call that thing?
Gremlins 2 was likely the beginning of the end for Dante as a commercially viable director. He wilfully scotched the golden egg and delivered a movie that didn’t even make a third of the original’s gross. And then he followed it up with a featre set up with independent financing and distribution from Universal (which also produced The ‘burbs). When it became clear that the money wasn’t there, the studio stepped in and provided the backing. Dante observed that it was advertised as a standard Universal comedy, but I’m dubious that there was ever a significant audience for the picture even if it had been sold appropriately. It finished up making even less money than Explorers, and Dante would find himself absent from the big screen for another five years.
Dr. Grabow: By the way, I er did get your x-rays back, Bill. I don’t suppose it makes much difference to you now, but you didn’t have a single cavity.
It might not have been so if his take on The Phantom had got off the ground. By the sound of it, the movie would have been released in 1995, if all had gone according to plan. Instead, it was cancelled and Simon Wincer’s version appeared to general indifference in 1996 (it and The Shadow desperately needed directors with the flair of Dante or Raimi to distinguish them).
I developed the script with the late Jeff Boam, who wrote InnerSpace, as a kind of a spoof. We were a few weeks away from shooting in Australia when the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax. A year or so later it was put back into production – sans demon – only nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was – disastrously – played straight. Many unintentionally funny moments were cut after a raucous test screening and I foolishly refused money to take my name off the picture, so I’m credited as one of a zillion producers.
I want to like Matinee more. It’s curious that another good-natured movie about movie making, this time making no bones about who it is based on, is creatively much more successful. Not in financial terms; audiences greeted Ed Wood with even greater indifference than Matinee. While Matinee was well regarded by critics, Ed Wood was clutched to their bosoms. It won both the Oscars it was nominated for, and is generally regarded as Tim Burton’s best movie. This from a director who started out as idiosyncratically as Dante but quickly found a (yes) whimsical groove that also proved both commercially viable and artistically moribund. Perhaps if Matinee had been completely about movie making, rather than filtered through Dante’s love of movie going, it would have been a more satisfying affair. The Artist took Best Picture Oscar for presenting an entire movie as homage. And Martin Scorsese made a flashier, less amusing variant of Matinee with the recent heartstring-pulling Hugo. Still; if Matinee isn’t all together successful, MANT! should be recognised as a work of genius.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.