Week 10 — Florida
When people my age — their early 30s — talk about the movies that shaped their childhood, the films of Steven Spielberg inevitably top the list. I’d go as far as to say that if your childhood memories don’t include films like E.T. and the Indiana Jones series, you’re not human. You’re a robot. Go away, robot.
While Spielberg was important to me as a wee lad, I would argue that equally influential were the second-string filmmakers whose success was at least partially due to their Spielberg connections. This includes guys like Don Bluth (Spielberg was an executive producer on both An American Tail and The Land Before Time), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, both of which list Spielberg as an executive director), and the man whose film is the subject of this week’s column — Joe Dante. Of these three directors, Dante is easily the most underrated and Matinee is easily one of his most overlooked films.
Matinee, released in 1993 to a tepid reception, was a very different kind of film for Dante, whose filmography is marked by flashier special-effects laden fare (Gremlins, Explorers). It’s a fairly low-key movie, a coming-of-age tale about a group of boys and girls growing up in Key West, Florida, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1950s.
Just as important as the children are to the film is the character played by John Goodman, Lawrence Woolsey, a B-movie maker who comes to Key West to test screen his latest monster flick “Mant” (as in, half-man, half-ant). As Matinee‘s movie-within-a-movie, Mant serves the purpose of giving Dante — and probably his audience too expecting another one of his FX fests — the opportunity to get their Sci-Fi fix (The “Mant” costume is pretty spectacular, I must say). Mant also serves as the centerpiece of the movie’s plot, tying all of the characters’ different stories together. In Matinee, all paths lead to Mant‘s Saturday afternoon screening. One of the boys, Gene (Simon Fenton) gets a job working for Woolsey. Another boy, Stan (Omri Katz) plans to skip the film premiere at first to try and score points with a girl, Sherry (Kellie Martin), by accompanying her to an art exhibition involving displays of little animals carved out of coral. In the end, Stan chooses to go see Mant rather than take Sherry on a date after Sherry’s poetry-writing greaser ex-boyfriend threatens to beat him up. As fate would have it, Stan winds up running into Sherry at the movie anyway — it turns out Sherry has been blackmailed into taking her little brother to see the movie after Sherry’s brother finds a stack of Sherry’s ex’s literature … “dirty poems that don’t rhyme”. The film opening works as a very effective plot device because, due in part to Woolsey’s hype, it’s perfectly believable that nearly every member of the town would be participating in the premiere to some extent — and they do, whether they’re protesting it or foaming at the mouth to see it.
The character of Woolsey is a fascinating one. Goodman outshines the movie’s younger stars. If you don’t recognize any of the actors or actresses in the preceding paragraph, it’s because most of them have pretty much dropped off the map. Martin is probably the most successful of the child actors in Matinee, having appeared on television as “Becca” Thacher on Life Goes On and as Lucy Knight on ER. Goodman, who was a TV star at this point as well as having appeared in a number of films including playing the legendary Babe Ruth in The Babe, is in his element playing the type of quirky gregarious character he’s practically made his trademark. It’s a lot of fun seeing the different gimmicks that Woolsey employs to turn Mant, which is no doubt a pretty crappy film on its own, into something more than a movie — an event — and certainly there’s a parallel that can be drawn between Woolsey’s attention-getting tricks and the current 3D movie craze. Some of the gimmicks used by Woolsey are based on real-life events, such as the idea of putting electrical buzzers in the theater seats to shock members of the audience as William Castle did with The Tingler. Other tricks include Woosley’s assistant Ruth, played by Cathy Moriarty, dressing as a nurse and having a table set up outside of the Mant screening where she has audience members sign a release form stating that the producers of Mant will not be held liable for any medical or emotional trauma suffered as a result of the film. Another trick is similar to one Dante used in Gremlins 2, making it look as though the movie projector has broken down, effectively breaking down the film’s fourth wall. Woolsey takes this a step further by having an employee dress up in a monster suit and run around the theater scaring audience members as a projector shows images of an atomic bomb detonating in the background while another projector gives off a faux fire effect, causing the audience to run panicking from the theater.
Mant‘s afternoon screening, which ends with its audience fleeing in terror, is where Matinee concludes; however, fear is a prevalent theme throughout the movie. For the residents of Key West terrified of an impending nuclear holocaust, fear is shown as a way of life — although it’s played off mostly for laughs with scenes like two men fighting over the last box of Rice Krispies at the supermarket and students practicing their “duck and cover” drills. In the later scenario, a little girl is shown to be the voice of reason. The girl, Sandra (Lisa Jakub), proclaims her disgust during one of the school drills, stating the obvious: That if “the big one” hits, ducking down and covering your head isn’t going to do much to save you. Sandra becomes Gene’s love interest — the culmination of the story has the two of them locked in a bomb shelter at the movie theater.
Woolsey, on the other hand, sees fear as profit. The town’s paranoia over nuclear obliteration plays right into the promotional strategy for Mant, in which the story is that nuclear energy is how the half-man, half-ant creature is born. When the movie theater owner raises concern that booby-trapping the seats might get the residents of Key West alarmed given the current nuclear crisis. “Exactly!” Woolsey responds. What better time to open a new horror movie then a time of national crisis? Yet, Woolsey doesn’t behave like the common shyster. There are moments in which he talks about the movie theater with a sense of reverence as if it were a temple. With Woolsey, nothing is as it seems. You’re left wondering how much of his behavior is an act and how much of it is genuine. Based of the character of Woolsey alone, one can deduce that there’s a lot more going on in Matinee than in most of Dante’s other work.
Matinee‘s uniqueness may have something to do with the fact that it was made at an interesting point in Dante’s career, coming out of the 1980s — a decade which saw Dante’s star quickly rise and just as quickly fall. Dante’s biggest hit was 1984’s Gremlins, a movie which inspired countless video games, stuffed toys and a breakfast cereal. Perhaps someone expected Dante to continue to produce movies with the same opportunity for licensing revenue. He did not. After Gremlins came Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), The ‘burbs (1989), and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). Unable to draw the big bucks like Zemeckis, Dante’s career pretty much flatlined, which is a shame really. At his best, Dante was something unto his own — Spielberg with the sap traded out for snark. Dante would never have another hit on the level of Gremlins and, when its long overdue sequel failed at the box office, it made sense for him to do a low-cost, more personal film.
Regardless of what the rest of the movie-going public thought of Dante, Explorers, Innerspace and Gremlins 2 were all heavily watched films by me when I was a kid, so at the very least I have a sentimental attachment to the guy. Beyond that, I really do think he has talent and a style of his own. I’m not going to try and convince you that Explorers is a great film — it’s not — but Dante had his moments of genius, many of which are on display in Matinee.
Matinee is a fun little film. It’s currently available on Netflix to stream instantly. If you’re logged into Netflix, click here to add it to your instant queue. It’s definitely worth a second look. If you do, watch out for a cameo by John Sayles and an early appearance by actress Naomi Watts.
What Rolling Stone had to say about Matinee: “John Goodman is ideally cast as B-Movie fright king Lawrence Woolsey, a character inspired by William Castle … but Charlie Haas’s script inexplicably buries this beguiling parody in a dull story about four teenager discovering sex in Key West, Florida…” (Rolling Stone, Issue 651, March 4, 1993)
Other film reviews from the March 4, 1993, issue of Rolling Stone include Falling Down, Untamed Heart and The Last Days of Chez Nous
Matinee on YouTube