Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror! Such is the billing for Mant!, the latest offering from King of the Killer Bs, Lawrence Woolsey as he rolls into Key West in Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. This is the key event at the heart of Joe Dante‘s 1993 film Matinee which, like several of his other titles of the time, for example The ‘Burbs and Explorers, fared badly at the box office but has since gone on to become appreciated by a home viewing and cineliterate audience for the well-crafted feature that it is.
The plot of Matinee is deceptively simple as low-budget filmmaker Woolsey, played with gusto and heart by Red State and 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s John Goodman, arrives in town with his leading lady played with deadpan relish by Cathy Moriarty. There he orchestrates a one-man publicity campaign to promote the release of Mant! while also outfitting the cinema with various devices (“Atomo-Vision and Rumble-Rama!”) intended to give the audience a more “immersive” experience than they are accustomed to.
One of Woolsey’s local fans is thirteen year old Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) a horror fan and navy brat who lives on-base and whose father has just been despatched to join the Cuban blockade. Gene is busy negotiating the perils of adolescent life while also calming the fears of his mother (Battlestar Galactica‘s Lucinda Jenney) over his father’s safety. Inevitably, Gene will have a significant encounter with one of his idols while the world watches the game of brinkmanship unfolding just over the horizon.
Based on the legendary William Castle, director of House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts among many others, Woolsey is a born showman and huckster-with-a-heart who also cares deeply about his audience’s experience. In lesser hands, the character could have been a simplistic stereotype but Goodman, at that point mid-way through his long run on Roseanne and establishing himself as a cinema character actor, imbues him with a sympathetic humanity.
One of Dante‘s greatest strengths is in casting and Matinee has a superb ensemble cast throughout featuring, as always, several of Dante‘s regular strolling players including Robert Picardo and Dick Miller, both of whom had appeared in The Howling, Explorers and Innerspace, Picardo as the nervous cinema manager with a fallout shelter in the basement and Miller as a bit actor engaged by Woolsey to drum up local outrage to raise awareness of the film.
With a career which started with an award nominated role in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Cathy Moriarty was well-known at the time for playing glamorous bitches and here shows off her considerable comedic talents as both Woolsey’s long-suffering partner-in-crime Ruth Corday and the leading lady of the film-within-a-film.
Including Omri Katz from the television show Eerie, Indiana on which Dante directed five episodes, the juvenile cast are remarkably strong and Dante explained in a recent interview that he chose the young English actor Simon Fenton for the lead because he couldn’t find the right actor in the USA. Fenton had featured prominently in various UK television dramas through the late eighties and early nineties and would perhaps be most recognisable from Russell T Davies’ Century Falls.
It’s safe to say that Matinee is Dante‘s most personal film, based on his own childhood experiences attending matinee performances of schlock horror films in the early sixties. Much of the set dressing in Gene’s bedroom comes from Dante‘s personal archive or, as he puts it, “from the boxes in my garage,” but this film is so much more than Dante reliving his childhood. It is a love-letter to the B-movie creature features of the time and the people who made them which have long been regarded in some circles as responses to the Cold War paranoia that engulfed the USA in the early sixties.
Dante, along with scriptwriters Charles S Haas (Gremlins 2: The New Batch) and Jerico Stone (My Stepmother Is an Alien), weaves a rich tapestry that deftly examines the local children’s responses to the ever-present threat of nuclear Armageddon whilst also balancing the universal high school issues of popularity, bullying and dating. Interestingly the children, having grown up under the nuclear shadow, seem very sanguine as they participate in “duck and cover” exercises while the adults, by contrast, indulge in panic-buying and mass hysteria.
The kids, on the other hand, are scared witless by the fantasies being enacted on the screen in front of them – and beneath them – and around them; as one of the characters points out, some “seat wetness” may be a drawback of Woolsey’s all-encompassing approach. Strangely enough Woolsey’s fictional techniques in a 1962 cinema depicted by Dante in 1993 bear a striking similarity to a “new” immersive experience being touted by a modern cinema chain in 2016. Plus ça change…
This new disc release from Arrow Films features a very good transfer of the film, definitely better than the transfer in their recent release of The ‘Burbs. The extras include the full sixteen minutes of Mant! introduced by Dante, some minor deleted scenes and some short interviews recorded for this release with the scriptwriters and Dante‘s regular actors. The best extra though is a thirty minute interview with Dante recorded a couple of years ago by French television for the film’s reissue where he speaks about the making of the film with his usual clarity and lack of pretension.
Matinee is not without flaws. The pivotal scenes that take place inside the cinema during the screening of Mant! are overlit, perhaps for technical and budgetary reasons. With the financing on the film already precarious and over a hundred hyperactive extras of school age whose working hours would have been closely regulated, having the whole cinema set flat lit meant the camera could be placed anywhere and shot without losing time on every set up.
With the sensitivity of modern digital cameras it could likely be done in an almost darkened cinema, preserving the illusion, but on traditional celluloid stock it wouldn’t have been practical at the time. The middle section is also a little slow and baggy but the quality of the cast carries it through to a raucous finale.
Possibly owing a debt to the success of The Wonder Years, though far less cloying, with its nostalgic view of sixties life and accompanied by a killer soundtrack and an effective score by Dante‘s regular musical collaborator, Jerry Goldsmith interspersed amongst the pop hits, this is a forgotten gem that deserves to be watched again and appreciated for the finely-crafted piece it is.