Mention the name Joe Dante, and some of the films that immediately spring to mind include Gremlins. Explorers and Innerspace. However, few people mention his sublime 1993 homage to cinema ‘Matinee’. A film that joyously celebrated the power of the big screen, the end of innocence and final years of monster driven exploitation filmmaking. At the same time, taking inspiration from the real-life B-Movie mogul William Castle. A showman who brought a range of gimmicks and live theatre to his films in the 50s and 60s. Ranging from The Tingler (1959), where the audience found their seat literally shocking. Through to Mr Sardonicus (1961), where the audience voted on the films ending.
While many laughed at Castle and his box of tricks, his legacy has continued to impact cinema from ‘Sensurround’ in Earthquake (1974) to the present craze for 4DX screens. However, none of the proceeding gimmicks associated with cinema has matched the sheer creativity of Castle. Or his love of low budget horror laced with theatre and physicality. However, Matinee places Castle’s showmanship front and centre in the fictional Lawrence Woolsey’s guise (John Goodman). As he prepares for his next interactive movie experience with the cheap monster flick ‘Mant’. Just as the Cuban missile crisis takes hold, and the horror of the movie monster is replaced by the real terror of a cold war.
The year is 1962, and John F Kennedy is entering his second year as president of the United States. However, the optimism of his inauguration in the winter of 1961 has been replaced by the paranoia and fear of the Cuban missile crisis. Something director Lawrence Woolsey not only understands but seeks to turn to his advantage. His low budget monster flick ‘Mant’ combining atomic fears with creature horror. From rigged seating to a live-action Ant-Man invading the cinema mid-performance. Its premiere set to take place in Florida’s Key West, just miles from a military base.
Meanwhile, forces kid Gene (Simon Fenton) has just moved to Key West with his younger brother, mum, and dad. His dad’s job taking him away from his family as the navy prepares for a possible nuclear crisis. At the same time, Gene buries himself in monster magazines and horror films to avoid the world’s uncertainty around him. His best friend Stan (Omri Katz) also passionate about comics and movies while beginning to embrace the teenage delights of girls and kissing.
As Woolsey’s new film storms into town accompanied by the great man himself, tensions rise off Florida’s coast. Gene’s love of monsters and all things cinema clashes with the reality of the world around him. As the last summer of childhood nears its end in a cinema rigged with special effects and tricks.
On its theatrical release back in 1993, Matinee earned positive reviews and managed a reasonable box office performance in the US. However, here in the UK, the film slipped under the radar, with little fanfare. Only reaching new audiences with a VHS and DVD release some years later. Therefore it remains a Joe Dante film that very few people have seen, despite its critical success and cult following.
Matinee is undoubtedly Dante’s most personal film, dovetailing his trademark love of comic book horror with a nostalgic exploration of the B-Movie system. One where the 50s inspired creature horror of Gremlins combines with the coming of age themes of Explorers and the community paranoia of The Burbs. His love of horror, fantasy, and childhood imagination merging with his own personal journey into film. A journey born through a teenage passion for movie theatres, comics, and escapism. Ultimately leading him into an apprenticeship with Roger Corman’s ‘New World Pictures’ in the 1970s. A studio where B-Movie horror and fantasy reigned supreme with low budget titles, including Dante’s directorial debut Piranha (1978). A film that would later lead Dante to The Howling, The Twilight Zone and Gremlins a few years later.
Ultimately this mix of teenage nostalgia, political change, and movie theatre showmanship creates a film within a film within a film. Woolsey’s monster flick ‘Mant’ shocking its audience in the final years of freewheeling exploitation cinema. While childhood ends with a kiss as the innocence and security of small-town life is invaded by the real horror of atomic war.
Delivering a film that is laced with love and affection for cinema and filmmaking. While also wistfully ruminating on a cinema experience long since vanished. One where the picture house sat at the very heart of a community. Local kids rushing to the Saturday matinee with their butter-drenched popcorn. In a world where a showman could still plough their trade by mixing theatre and film with carnival tricks and creativity. A culture slowly replaced by financial outcomes, studio mergers, and cinema foyers full of nachos.
Director: Joe Dante
Matinee is available to buy now on special edition Blu-Ray from Amazon