Thursday, May 16, 2013

Silver Screen Stories: Matinee

 With these entries, I usually look back at movies from the true "classic" period (30s-70s), but there will be exceptions and this is one of them. I've been a Joe Dante fan for years, in fact Gremlins and The 'Burbs (starring Tom Hanks), are two of my favorite films. But up until the other night, I had never seen his 1993 film "Matinee", although now of course I wish I'd seen it years ago. It's a very good film, with a nice little mix of everything (something Dante has always been good at), comedy, drama, satire, teen romance, etc. And considering my avid love of classic horror/sci fi/fantasy films, it makes it that much better for me personally, as that is the basis for the film. In fact you could call it a love letter to that classic era.

"If I could be serious for a minute...."

The film stars John Goodman in another great performance, this time as Lawrence Woolsey, a "B-movie" producer who is an absolute sendup/homage of classic horror director William Castle. He employs the same style of showmanship and movie promotion that Castle (and Alfred Hitchcock before him) did, as well as the same types of "audience involvement" gimmicks used in-theater while the movie is playing, such as electric buzzers under the seat cushions and people dressed as monsters popping out and scaring the audience at the right time. He gives a few great pep-talk type speeches in the movie, talking up the magic of cinema, even making getting people to pay for cheap scares sound like a sacred art. It's great stuff, and for an old film buff like me, it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling for the way cinema used to be. 

That classic movie-going experience.

 The main character of the film is actually a young teen named Gene Loomis, whose family lives on a naval base in their small Florida town of Key West. The film is set smack in the middle of the of the early 1960s "Cuban Missile Crisis", with Gene's father serving on a ship that is part of the Cuban blockade. Gene is, like me, a massive monster movie fan, having several issues of Forrest J. Ackerman's "Famous Monsters of Filmland" scattered around his room, and he loves to take his little brother Dennis to these movies, both to share the experience but also to try and scare him. The basic plot set-up is that Woolsey's new film "MANT" is going to be playing at their local theater, and Woolsey himself is going to be there live and in person to promote it (along with his special gimmicks). The Cuban missile tension is going on through all of this, which Woolsey thinks is great for business because "they're already scared, now we're gonna scare 'em even more". A perfect send-up to the fact that 50s era horror and science fiction films often played on people's fears of nuclear terror. 

MANT! Part Man! Part Ant! All Terror!

The film features two "movies-within-a-movie". One being a lesser scene when Gene's mother asks him to take his brother to "something that isn't scary", so they go to see a family film called "The Shook-Up Shopping Cart", a send-up to Disney movies of that era like "Herbie the Love Bug". The other of course is the featured subject, the atomic horror film "MANT", about a man who, over-radiated by his dentist's x-ray while an ant crawled onto him, transforms through the "horror of science" into first a human ant (similar to the mixed up Fly-Man from 1958's "The Fly"), and later fully into a gigantic ant who terrorizes the city (an homage to "giant insect" films of the day). "MANT" even features an appearance by Kevin McCarthy (the doctor from the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") as a stereo-typical army general straight out of those 50s sci-fi schlock films. The film itself also features character actor Dick Miller (Mr. Fudderman from "Gremlins"), who as it turns out was cast in every single one of Joe Dante's films.

Amidst teen angst and budding entangled romance, the town gripped in panic at impending nuclear annihilation, and Lawrence Woolsey trying to impress a theater-chain owner to sell his movie and gain great success, the film's final act plays out. With the town selling out the theater, after having their interest properly aroused by Woolsey's promotional tactics, the packed audience marvel's at the cheesy horror of "MANT", all while being thrilled by seat-buzzers and special gimmick effects set up in the theater. And of course, meanwhile, madness ensues. I won't spoil how it all wraps up, but sufficed to say, it's a great ending to a very good film. 

 A true love letter to a by-gone era, both a satire of how silly people often were during those early "Cold War" days,  as well as a loving homage to a simpler time, of both society and the cinema that entertained them. I would highly recommend this film to anyone, movie buff or casual viewer alike. Joe Dante, when at his best, was a master of his craft, and I'd love to see him make a big theater comeback. So check "Matinee" out, you'll be glad you did!

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