Monday, February 2, 2015

Movies I Love: Matinee

by Patrick Bromley
Matinee isn't just my favorite movie of 1993; it's one of my favorite movies ever made.

The criminally underrated Matinee is Joe Dante's best movie. It combines everything that is so wonderful about him as a filmmaker -- his love of movies (particularly old monster and sci-fi movies), his wicked sense of humor, his mistrust of large institutions and his glee in the effects of anarchy -- and packages it in a way that's commercially accessible and uncharacteristically gentle and sweet without having to sacrifice his unique voice. You wouldn't even know it's a Joe Dante movie if you weren't already someone who recognizes that it's the most Joe Dante movie of all the Joe Dante movies.

Matinee tells the story of two hugely significant historical events taking place in 1962 Key West. The first is the test screening of a new giant monster movie called MANT!, directed by Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a William Castlesque huckster who specializes in horror movies with gimmicky releases. His latest, MANT!, is being presented in his new "process," called Atom-O-Vision -- the speakers are cranked way up, the seats shake, etc -- so Woolsey rolls into town with his girlfriend/star Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty) to win the town over and set up his premiere.

The second is the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Our entry point into both of these events is Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), an army brat who has recently moved with his mom and little brother to the base in town. Gene is a quiet kid who doesn't have a lot of friends. What he does have is an unending love of monster movies, and the opportunity to see the new Lawrence Woolsey movie isn't one he's going to let pass. He ingratiates himself to the director and gets put to work remodeling the theater and promoting MANT!. At the same time, he makes a couple of new friends: Stan (Omri Katz of the Dante-produced NBC series Eerie Indiana), who is trying to bring his more "experienced" classmate Sherry (Kellie Martin) to the premiere and avoid her psychotic ex-boyfriend, and Sandra (Lisa Jakub), a young hippie whose protestations of the U.S. military and outspoken critique of impending war make her just as much an outcast as Gene. All of these various story threads (and more) come together at the long-awaited premiere of MANT!, an afternoon at the movies that no one will ever forget.

Matinee was released in late January 1993, not making much of an impact and grossing under $10 million at the box office. I caught up with it at the second-run theater near my house about a month later with no expectations and barely an idea of what it was even about. While I was aware of Joe Dante as a filmmaker -- he was the guy who made Gremlins and Innerspace -- I'm not even sure I knew he was the director of Matinee. I sat down in the theater a blank slate. The movie was a delight: funny, warm, pushing a bunch of my buttons in addressing so many of the things I love. It's the kind of movie that doesn't really get made at a major studio anymore, and I left the theater wondering why more people weren't talking about it, but didn't necessarily think about it much more than that.
It wasn't until the ensuing months -- even years -- that I began to truly love it. I bought a Previously Viewed VHS of the movie during my tenure as a Blockbuster employee (my first attempt at curating my own movie collection) and then bought it again on Laserdisc. The more I revisited the film, the more I realized what a masterpiece it really is. Charlie Haas' script is one of my favorites ever written, effortlessly blending actual historial events with a fictional coming of age story and providing what remains the best treatise on why we love movies -- specifically horror movies -- I've ever heard, first when John Goodman explains cavemen painting mammoths on their cave walls and embellishing the teeth to make it scarier and again near the end of the film when Woolsey determines that Gene and Sandra are going to be ok because they've experienced the greatest fear (that everything they know and everyone they love was wiped out by a bomb) and lived through it. They've seen the coming attractions, he says. Is this not why we love horror movies? As a way of processing our real-life fears? I can't think of a more succinct or eloquent way of expressing that idea. Horror movies are our coming attractions.

Simply as a Joe Dante fan, the movie is a delight. Many members of his unofficial repertory company make appearances, including Dick Miller and John Sayles (who wrote Piranha and The Howling), Robert Picardo, Belinda Balaski, William Schallert and Kevin McCarthy (both playing characters in MANT!) and Archie Hahn, who appears in The Shook-up Shopping Cart, one of my favorite gags in the movie (his co-star is a young Naomi Watts). Many of the best scenes come from the movie-within-a-movie MANT!, which is a perfect and totally affectionate recreation of late '50s sci-fi horror, from the overly-explanatory scientist ("He'll begin to metamorphose...or 'change'") to the lunatic ramblings of the protagonist as he transforms and loses his sanity (at one point he shatters an ant farm, shouting "Be free! Be free my brothers and sisters!") Matinee would be worth seeing just for the genius of MANT!, but because it's a masterpiece everything happening outside that film is wonderful, too.

When Matinee was originally released on laserdisc, one of the special features was the ability to watch all of the MANT! sequences cut together as its own standalone film. It's a ton of fun, but watching it altogether like that reveals just how brilliantly Dante spaced out the scenes and used all the best stuff in Matinee. It works better in the context of the movie proper than on its own.
The film deals with a number of recurring concerns in Dante's work as well. He has long been critical of the American military, going all the way back to Piranha (and best exemplified in two of his made-for-TV efforts: the HBO film The Second Civil War and his Masters of Horror entry Homecoming). In Matinee, we see the onscreen army of MANT! ignoring the warnings of science and exacerbating the "we've got a giant ant" problem by firing atomic weapons at the monster, which only makes it bigger. Their own inability to devise a solution other than "Shoot it!" makes matters much, much worse, and their solution is to destroy it by detonating the atomic bomb (recalling the words of Piranha’s Colonel Waxman: “Sometimes you have to destroy in order to save!”). The aftermath of the explosion leaves only a giant mushroom cloud and gaping “hole” in the movie screen, signaling the end of the film. The rash actions taken by the military have destroyed not only the city, but the movie MANT! as well. Then there's the only pro-military character in the movie's “real” world: Andy, an obnoxious boy who proudly wears a sailor’s uniform, shoots animals for fun, and suggests “blowing Cuba out of existence” before they have a chance to do it to him. His response to a presumed attack is characteristic of the military in the Dante universe; as MANT!’s audience members, believing the “bombs have dropped,” flee the theater, Andy can only collapse and faint.

Dante, a filmmaker fascinated by systemic breakdowns, has also always demonstrated an interest in the failure of technology -- these devices on which we depend so heavily will ultimately let us down. It's true of Rand Peltzer's inventions in the original Gremlins; it's true of the technology the boys use to build their ship in Explorers (which fails them until it doesn't). Nowhere is it more true than in Gremlins 2's Clamp Towers, an enormous monolith to technology that only malfunctions and wreaks havoc (leading to the movie's best line: "If you build a place for things, things come.") Nothing in Matinee works the way its supposed to either, from the equipmen Woolsey is using for RumbleRama and Atom-O-Vision to the bomb shelter built in the theater's basement by its nervous owner Howard (Robert Picardo). It closes prematurely, its air intake system won't work without being set manually and, best of all, the supposedly impenetrable fortress is easily cracked open by John Goodman and a crowbar.
Speaking of John Goodman, he gives what is my favorite of all his performances in Matinee. That's saying a lot, since Goodman is one of those actors who is always good and makes everything better just by showing up (the guy played Walter Sobchak, for crying out loud). His Lawrence Woolsey is funny and flashy and big-hearted, both a realist about the world and a dreamer of what is possible. He's a storyteller, a showman and a con man, but the kind by whom we love to be conned -- he's a filmmaker, after all. There is a joy to Goodman's performance that makes it impossible not to fall in love with Woolsey, a guy who is larger-than-life and exploding with personality. Those qualities are reflected in his movies, too. We see him through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend (played with terrific world-weariness by Cathy Moriarty), who is dragged along and asked to do ridiculous things like dress as a nurse to stand around in the theater lobby and collect fake waivers from the audience. She's impatient and often fed up with Woolsey, but she can't help but love the big lug. It's a great representation of our own feelings towards him: we should know better but we love him anyway. We know he's fooling us but we want to be fooled.

The fact that Woolsey takes Gene under his wing and lets him work on the movie (only after Gene engages in some light blackmail) is another of the film's delights -- the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy of every monster kid who ever dreamed of getting to spend time around one of his or her heroes. And though Gene's father isn't in the picture (he's stationed elsewhere), Gene doesn't relate to Woolsey in a paternal way until the final few scenes. Like a lot of Joe Dante's protagonists -- whether it's Billy with the Mogwai in Gremlins or Alan with the Gorgonites in Small Soldiers or even the boys with the aliens in Explorers, Gene is best able to relate with an outside that understands him. The kids at school don't understand Gene's obsession with monster movies, but Lawrence Woolsey sure does ("It's hard to believe you're a grown-up," Gene tells him). As much as the movie is a love letter to old monster movies and the theatergoing experience, it's the friendship between Gene and Woolsey that gives Matinee its enormous beating heart.
By the time we arrive at the end of the film, Matinee has given us everything we could want in a movie: comedy, thrills, drama, the joy of first romance, a daring rescue and a sigh of relief that we've made it to the other side. This was a time when the country really did think it might be destroyed at any minute, and the way that Matinee captures that through the metaphor of some kids at a monster movie is nothing short of brilliant. Dante is too smart a filmmaker to resolve everything with a pat happy ending, leaving us with the image of Gene and Sandra (one of the most adorable young couples in movie history) running up the beach of Key West as military helicopters fly overhead, The Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" playing on the soundtrack. The world hasn't been saved. The fear isn't gone, but for now there is some respite. These kids will have the chance to grow up and hopefully make the world a better place. Better for peace. Better for love. Better for monster movies.

Matinee is a gift -- a movie that feels like it shouldn't exist and yet somehow does. To say that I love it somehow still undersells just how strongly I feel about it. Both an affirmation and a celebration of why we love movies, it is also a wonderful coming of age story and an effective historical fiction that says something larger about the human condition. While it may not be an Exploding Heart movie for everyone the way it is for me, I hope that some of you will use this 1993 Week as an opportunity to check it out. It is beautiful and perfect and it features more than one guy in a rubber ant suit. Why else do we go to the movies?


  1. It is an Exploding Heart movie for me for SURE, Patrick. It's my favorite Joe Dante movie and one of my overall favorites as well, for every reason you nailed so well.

    One of the finest moments of the film -- and all of movie history, I feel -- is when Goodman leads them into the theater, narrating as he goes, like a tour guide of dreams and the fantastic. It so perfectly sums up the appeal of movies, and not just as stories we are told but as an EXPERIENCE to be had. And shared. And talked about. And relived, over and over again.

    It's beautiful, and is giving me chills RIGHT NOW just thinking about it. My God, what a wonderful gift this movie is, one that feels like "I know, me too" to all of us who love them so.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it with us. It's what keeps us coming back -- just like the best movies -- over and over again.

    1. This has been in my Amazon basket for a while now, thanks to Patrick mentioning it before. I can't wait to purchase and watch it. It sounds like the best.

  2. I remember this coming out as a kid but never saw it. ill have to give it a try.

  3. As soon as I saw that opening line, I stopped reading and downloaded the film. What an absolute delight. I laughed hardest at the breaking of the ant farm and the words "I am the great liberator!" John Goodman radiates warmth and mischievous hucksterism, and this performance is yet another reminder of how much I love to watch him work. Thanks so much for the recommend.

  4. F This Movie crew, I regret to inform you that I won't be able to take part in F This Movie Fest 4 because I will be spending Friday and Saturday with girls, specifically my girlfriend and my best friend. Maybe next year!

    That said, I have yet to see Matinee, but I see it all the time at my local rental store. Never picked it up though because the box art struck me as REALLY REALLY awful, even after listening to you talk about it on your favorite films podcast. This article has convinced me to give it a watch though.

  5. As a native Floridian who knows a bit about the time, I LOVE this movie. The "Over-Explaining" scientist (also known as "We can't depend on people knowing big words like this") was my favorite.
    Only flaw/trivia is - as there is no basement in The Alamo - there couldn't be a basement in that Key West movie theater. Water table's too high. All bomb shelters in Florida had to be built above ground.

  6. As I went back through all the old podcasts as I'm newish here, I heard this movie turn up in your top five. I had never seen it before, so I was excited to see it. I would like to let you know that this now makes it into my top 5. I know what you mean when you say it is made just for you, and that may be true if for me, and hopefully many other filmgoers.

  7. It's a terrific film for all the reasons you mentioned. I thought of MATINEE when I read Stephen King's DANSE MACABRE, which opens with a story of a theater manager telling a matinee crowd that the Russians had launched Sputnik -- and it was a collision of movie horror with real world horror. I wonder if Charlie Haas read that story or had a similar experience.