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You Gotta Keep Your Eyes Open: An Appreciation of Matinee

When Joe Dante’s “Matinee” (1993) was released on Super Bowl weekend, with an ad campaign that did a poor job of explaining anything about it to viewers other than reminding them Dante had directed the hugely popular “Gremlins” (1984), it was perhaps inevitable that it would sink without a trace at the box office. For Dante, this was hardly an unheard-of occurrence, considering that all of the films he had done in the wake of “Gremlins” (which remains the one true blockbuster of his career) had suffered similar commercial fates that left him increasingly disenchanted with a studio filmmaking apparatus that seemed increasingly confused as to how to market his unique blends of fantasy, comedy and social satire. In the case of “Matinee,” however, the failure to find an audience must have cut deeper because this was a film that was as cheekily entertaining as his previous efforts, but which also told a story that was more deeply felt and overtly personal than anything that he had attempted before or since.

And yet, while “Matinee” disappeared from theaters with undue haste, it did not vanish from view entirely. Although he has yet to regain the commercial standing that “Gremlins” once gave him, his films have earned him a dedicated following of critics and film fanatics around the world, and “Matinee” has proven to be a favorite among them, turning up regularly in special screenings and retrospectives of his work. Tomorrow, Shout Select, the specialty label of home video company Shout! Factory dedicated to films with cult appeal, releases a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of “Matinee” that is filled with new and archival materials that tell the story of the making of the movie and help give a little more context to the real-life inspirations for it. For fans of the film, this is the dream release they have been waiting on for years and which they will want to rush out and get immediately. For those unfamiliar with it, this release will give them a chance to see a wildly underrated film that works both as a delightful coming-of-age story and as a love letter both to the wonders that popular culture in general and the movies in particular can inspire in audiences—or at least used to once upon a time.

“Matinee” is set in 1962 and concerns itself with two elements that loomed large over America at the time, though in which order most likely depended on your age at the time. One is the Cuban Missile Crisis, of which I presume needs no further elaboration on my part. The other is a man named William Castle, who probably does require a bit of explanation. Castle was a filmmaker who started out working for Columbia Pictures in the mid-1940s, directing a number of B-movie programmers and even serving as an associate producer on Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948). In 1958, he decided to strike out on his own by producing and directing his own low-budget horror film, a knockoff of the hugely popular French thriller “Diabolique” called “Macabre.” In order to call attention to his movie, Caste hit upon the gimmick of insuring viewers with policies through Lloyds of London that paid off $1,000 in the extremely unlikely case that they died of fright during the film—in addition, “nurses” were stationed in the theater lobbies and hearses were parked outside.

“Macabre” was a huge hit and Castle had found his niche. For the next decade or so, he cranked out a series of cheerfully lurid horror movies that were augmented by equally goofy gimmicks that Castle, who saw himself as a sort of B-grade Alfred Hitchcock, would often introduce through appearances in the trailers and sometimes in the films themselves. “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) featured “Emergo,” which was a skeleton dangling from a wire that flew over the heads of the audience during the climax. “13 Ghosts” (1960) offered viewers the fabled “Illusion-O” process that offered viewers a cardboard viewer with red and blue cellophane—looking through the former allowed viewers to see the titular spirits while the latter hid them from view. “Homicidal” (1961) included a “Fright Break” that paused the action just before the climax to give more cowardly viewers time to flee and get a refund, though not without having to go to the Coward’s Corner and attest to your wimpiness. His most famous gimmick was in the service of “The Tingler” (1959), which told the story of creatures that grew in the base of one’s spine in moments of terror and which could only be subdued by screaming. At one point, one of these creatures got loose in your theater and as the screen went black, star Vincent Price warned viewers to scream for their very lives. The genius move came from Castle purchasing small military surplus vibrating motors and attaching them to certain seats and having them turned on during this bit to simulate the tingling of the monster. These movies were not exactly masterpieces, but they were still good cheeseball fun, and the best of them—“Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler”—work perfectly well today even without the gimmicks.

Although not specifically about Castle himself, “Matinee” is concerned with a Castle-like filmmaker/shown named Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a garrulous schlock movie producer who, as the film opens, is heading down to Key West. He’s traveling with his long-suffering girlfriend/star, Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarity), to present a preview of his latest effort, “Mant!,” a suitably loopy knockoff of “The Fly” in which a man is transformed into a radioactive half-man/half-ant mutation after being bitten by an ant while getting a dental X-ray. (On the bright side, the sheepish dentist points out, no cavities.) However, Woolsey’s arrival in town happens to coincide with the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that has the town especially on edge since most of the men at the local naval base have been shipped to take part in the naval blockade occurring frighteningly close to their own back yards. Some suggest to Woolsey that it might be a good idea for him to postpone the preview, out of good taste if nothing else. Woolsey refuses to do so, stating that horror movies tend to do well in tense times, and sets about promoting “Mant!” around town by any means necessary—including hiring a couple of guys (John Sayles and B-movie icon Dick Miller) to stage a phony protest meant to call more attention to the movie—while setting up the theater for all the gimmicks (many of which will be familiar to students of Castle) that will be deployed, including the miracles of “Atom-O Scope” and “Rumble-Rama.” One person eagerly awaiting the “Mant!” premiere is Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), who lives on the naval base with his mother (Lucinda Jenny) and younger brother, Dennis (Jesse Lee), and whose father has just been sent out to take part in the blockade. One day, Gene meets Woolsey himself and tells him that those “protesters” aren’t who they seem to be and Woolsey, both taken with this kid and wanting to keep a lid on his ruse, takes Gene under his wing to offer him a crash course in the fine art of hucksterism.

Finally, the day of the preview arrives, and Gene and Dennis show up with Gene’s new friend Stan (Omri Katz) for the festivities even as the rest of the world is bracing itself for a possible nuclear showdown. Also at the theatre are a couple of female classmates who are perhaps the only thing that could distract a pair of teenage boys from the likes of “Mant!” Gene finds himself attracted to Sandra (Lisa Jakub), a budding firebrand (whom Gene first saw as she was getting detention for interrupting a duck-and-cover nuclear attack drill by pointing out how useless it was) who is there with her parents, the town’s local liberals who have been suckered into seeing the film as a free speech issue. For Stan, things are a little more complicated. Attracted to classmate Sherry (Kelli Martin), he's there after having broken a date with her after being threatened by her ex-boyfriend, a failed hood and would-be beat poet. When she turns up as well, it goes bad for a while but soon they make up and begin making out in the audience. Unfortunately, the ex-boyfriend, whose last name—Starkweather—is a direct reference to another terror from around that time, has been hired by Woolsey to dress up in a Mant outfit and terrorize the audience at key moments and when he sees the two of them, his rage touches off a chain of events that livens up the preview to the point where the screening literally brings the house down.

Virtually all of Joe Dante’s movies have served to one degree or another as tributes to pop culture, especially the genre films that he himself grew up watching as a kid. “Matinee” is different in that while most of his projects up to that point had been movies that were themselves about movies and the people who watched them—“The Howling,” for example, was a funny and scary, meta-werewolf movie—in which the characters already knew all the werewolf lore from having seen things like “The Wolf Man” and acted accordingly. “Matinee,” on the other hand, was the first time that he had set a film in a real and specific time and place and observed the real-world ways in which the lives of the characters were shaped and affected by the films they saw, the music they listened to and the magazines that they read (and sometimes needed to keep out of sight from their mothers). A kid like Gene, for example, is at the age where he is young enough for most adults to still treat him like a kid but old enough to know that things are not as rosy and idealistic as people want him to believe. At home, his mother does her best to reassure him and Dennis that everything is okay with their father but the worried look on her face every time the television breaks in with news of the missile crisis says otherwise. The brief glimpses we get of his school life also show the kids being “taught” any number of dubious lessons, ranging from the nuclear attack drill to a “nutrition” lesson that essentially recommends the daily consumption of an entire stockyard.

Meanwhile, the pop culture that Gene and his friends consume, as crass as they can be at times, provides them with a way to process and deal with what is going on with the outside world in ways both big and small. A film like “Mant!,” as ludicrous as it may seem, could actually allow people that age to grapple with their questions and fears about the potential horrors of nuclear war by providing them with the chance to experience them for themselves, albeit in a vicarious and scientifically dubious manner. On a smaller scale, Gene and Stan go back to the latter’s home after school to get a real lesson or two via a surreptitious spin of a Lenny Bruce LP, though that is quickly shut down once Stan’s mom comes home. The greatest teacher of all for Gene turns out to be Woolsey himself—he may be a huckster who is always scheming a way to make a buck (in one of the funniest moments, he spies a toy alligator and begins instantly testing potential movie titles like “Galigator”) but he is the one adult who treats Gene as an equal and who, in his cheerfully sleazy way, shows him how the world really works. Unlike a lot of filmmakers, who might have just gone for empty nostalgia and nothing more, Dante truly understands the importance that such seemingly disposable cultural artifacts can have on people when they encounter them at just the right time in their lives.

One of the key ways in which Dante underlines the importance of popular culture is in how he presents the various clips from “Mant!”. In the hands of a lot of filmmakers, “Mant!” would have been depicted in the cheesiest manner imaginable, stressing the wooden acting, flimsy sets and ultra-cheap special effects in order to get easy laughs. However, Dante recognizes that, for the most part, most films were never that obviously awful and if they were, viewers around Gene’s age would often be caught up enough in the spectacle to overlook such things. As Dante himself admits in one of the supplemental materials, the vogue for the kind of atomic mutation movies represented by “Mant!” had already given away to things like the seminal “Psycho” and the Gothic-inspired Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by B-movie legend (and one-time Dante employer) Roger Corman and no single film ever dared to cram in as many over-the-top gimmicks as Woolsey deploys here.

That said, the chunks of “Mant!” that we do see offer a fairly spot-on recreation of that kind of filmmaking, right down to the familiar library cues on the soundtrack and the even-more-familiar faces who turn up in the clips (including such genre stalwarts as William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Cornthwaite and, inevitably, Dick Miller). More importantly, Dante approaches them in the same completely straight-faced manner that would have been utilized if “Mant!” had been a real movie, a move that makes the clips even funnier with the humor being borne out of affection rather than simple and sour condescension.

Truth be told, even if “Matinee” had benefitted from a better release date and an ad campaign that better explained things, there is a good chance that it still would not have been a huge hit at the box office. At a time when slam-bang filmmaking was all the rage (with the major studios essentially making wildly expensive versions of the same things that people like Lawrence Woolsey once cranked out for peanuts), a gentle coming-of-age movie that not only dealt with hero worship but was also in favor of it probably never stood a chance. And yet, the movie remains an absolute delight, a bright, charming and goofy (especially during the unfolding/unraveling of the “Mant!” premiere) film that will resonate and entertain whether you are old enough to have seen a William Castle joint when it first came out or young enough to have not even been born when “Matinee” was itself playing matinees. It is sweet but not saccharine and even though it does contain a happy ending, it undercuts the nostalgia with a chilling final shot that points to the future and shows that while the world may have avoided nuclear holocaust at that particular moment (sorry, Spoiler Alert!), another kind of darkness was fast approaching.

As for the Blu-ray itself, this edition of “Matinee” has been given a surprisingly hefty bounty of bonus materials. There is a slew of interviews with Dante and a number of his behind-the-scene collaborators in which they discuss the making of the film and its historical inspirations. The real treat, however, is what is billed on the box as the full-length version of “Mant!” itself. Now this is not a feature-length version of that nonexistent film—it is instead a 20-minute chronological assemblage of all the “Mant!” footage that Dante shot that essentially plays like a Good Parts version of the film with all the boring stuff taken out. While these clips are entertaining enough when seen in the film proper, it is here that one can really appreciate the effort that was put into making it as authentic a recreation of this kind of filmmaking as possible. Like “Matinee,” this featurette has been made with a lot of love and affection and it can be felt in every scene, even the ones in which the hapless hero is leaking boric acid after being zapped with bug killer.

“Matinee” is now available from Shout! Factory. ($34.95)


Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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