Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Matinee.

criterion logoJohn Goodman is at his uproarious best as the gregarious creator of sci-fi thrillers, circa 1962, who brings his unique brand of showmanship to the unsuspecting residents of Key West, Florida.  Fifteen year-old horror fan Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) can’t wait for the arrival of filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey (Goodman), who is in town to première his latest offering of atomic power gone berserk, Mant!  But the absurd vision of Woolsey’s tale takes on a sudden urgency as the Cuban missile crisis places the real threat of atomic horror just 90 miles of the coast.  With the help of Gene and his high-school friends, along with Woolsey’s leading lady, Ruth (Cathy Moriarty), the master showman gives Key West a première they’ll never forget.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by director Joe Dante, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary with Joe Dante
  • Mant!, the uncut, full-length version of Matinee‘s film within a film
  • Keep Your Eyes Open for the Scary Parts, new interviews with cast and crew, including John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Kellie Martin, Lisa Jakub, Jesse Lee Soffer, Dick Miller, John Sayles, Robert Picardo, and Mark McCracken
  • The Making of Mant!, Joe Dante and Mark McCracken on the costumes and effects of Mant!
  • Who’s That Girl?, a new interview with Naomi Watts on her arrival to Hollywood and her role in Matinee‘s The Shook-Up Shopping Cart
  • The Trouble with Woolsey, Joe Dante on the music of Matinee and his collaboration with composer Jerry Goldsmith
  • Extended scenes and deleted content from Dante’s personal archives
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum

In his 2010 interview with Glenn Erickson discussing Matinee and lamenting the bare-bones DVD dumped on the market by Universal (after the director had repeatedly contacted the studio advising he held extra content he wanted included on a release), Joe Dante expresses a once held hope that the Criterion Collection might pick up the film for its library.  It’s hard to imagine that the Collection would have passed over Dante’s charming ode to the cinema of his youth and a willing director with a cache of extra content.  With its quiet cult following, its (liberally interpreted) take on cinema history, and the bump that might come by being paired with a release of Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), Matinee has the air of a potential Criterion Collection title, raising the profile of a lesser known film and filling the void of a title without a worthy Blu-ray edition.

Matinee‘s script originally conceived the film as a haunted movie theatre story (vampire projectionists, etc.) that culminated in its young protagonists returning to the cinema as adults and discovering it had been replaced by a video store.  Unable to secure financing for the project, the script passed through multiple hands with changes being made at each stop – the setting was moved from New Jersey to Key West, Florida; the Cuban missile crisis was brought forward as a central element; the character of Lawrence Woolsey (an amalgam of William Castle, Roger Corman, Jack Arnold, and Ray Dennis Steckler) was developed.  Universal ultimately became the film’s producer when private financiers repeatedly fell through, leaving the studio, signed on as a distributor, already invested in the project.  Despite the studio’s involvement, Dante describes the shoot as much more akin to an independent production and expresses a satisfaction with the film in keeping with its generally positive critical reviews.

Matinee is set in Key West, Florida, circa 1962, where high school student Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) and his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer) live on the local army base, struggle to find acceptance amongst the local kids, and escape their worries in the local movie theatre, the Key West Strand.  Their small world is turned upside-down when it is announced that sensational horror film director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) will be attending the Key West theatre to personally debut his new feature, Mant!, and the boys discover that their father has been deployed as part of the American blockade tasked to prevent nuclear missiles from being delivered by Russia to Cuba.  Tensions run high in the community, just 90 miles from Cuba, but Gene’s military connection breaks the ice with his schoolmates, particularly Stan (Omri Katz) who has his own problems wooing Sherry (Kellie Martin), a precocious girl romantically involved with juvenile delinquent/prison poet Harvey Starkweather.  Starkweather has only just been released and, unbeknownst to Sherry, threatens Stan over his budding relationship with her.  Gene, meanwhile, takes an interest in Sandra (Lisa Jakub), whose unconventional ideas single her out and gets her detention when she refuses to participate in an entirely useless air raid drill.  Gene also becomes fast friends with Woolsey after he recognizes the protest against his film as being a fabrication and chooses to go along with the filmmaker’s stunt in exchange for an opportunity to spend some time with Woolsey and observe him at work.  The first half of Matinee arranges its various characters and misunderstandings to converge on the Mant! screening with Gene finding an unconventional father-figure in Woolsey while his true father is away and facing mortal danger.  The film feels typically Dantesque, with its emphasis on young teenagers and its reflexive fascination with genre films and B-cinema.

Lawrence WoolseyIn its second half, Woolsey’s presentation of Mant! grows increasingly out of control.  He unknowingly hires a scared-straight Harvey to man the seat-buzzers, fog makers, and spark gap machines.  Starkweather’s inattentiveness and ineptitude allows Woolsey’s “Atomo-Vision” and “Rumble-Rama” to run out of control, convincing the theatre’s owner (Robert Picardo) that atomic destruction is nigh and that it’s time to seek protection in his bomb shelter beneath the Strand.  Through a conglomeration of events, Gene and Sandra are locked in the bomb shelter with a depleting air supply, Harvey runs off with Sherry and Woolsey’s portion of the gate, and the theatre is significantly damaged.  All works out in the end for Dante’s characters though – Gene and Sandra are freed, Harvey is arrested, Woolsey’s film is a success and scheduled for national release, and the Russians back down.  On a somewhat darker note, Matinee‘s ending also foreshadows the birth of the multiplex and looks ahead to Vietnam with its closing song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  

Matinee is sometimes criticized for having too many sub-plots to attend to – Gene and Sandra’s romance, Woolsey’s over-the-top première screening, Cold War paranoia and Cuban missile crisis hysteria, Stan and Sherry’s misunderstanding and reconciliation, Harvey’s breakdown once again into criminality, the theatre-owner’s nervousness and his bomb shelter turned deathtrap – and some suggest that the film becomes muddled in its final act.  These criticisms just don’t resonate with me, as Matinee seems to present the coincidence of these stories in a manageable way.  More accurately, I think the real criticism is that these sub-plots take away from Woolsey and his film-in-a-film, Mant!  Dante’s take on the science-gone-wrong creature feature is highly entertaining, enjoyably silly, and boasts some excellent monster costumes and prosthetics.  As such, it’s not that Matinee‘s kids or its Cold War tensions are problematic, but rather that the film’s Mant! portions are so good that we don’t want to leave them.  Dante takes some liberties with history, as films like Mant! had largely come and gone by 1962, but Matinee is a reflection on the filmmaker’s youth, on his love of genre cinema, on the fear of nuclear destruction, and on the confusion over “why we couldn’t run out to the football field and have sex with all the girls” if the bomb was going to drop and they’d all be dead anyways.  Mant! and the Cuban missile crisis run parallel paths in Matinee, and Dante celebrates cinema’s cathartic power, allowing the audience a safe place to fear the atom (and all scientific and social woes) and the celebrate its containment and resolution.  B-movie schlock like Mant! falsely threaten our safety and, in turn, gives us a means to believe in our survival outside the theatre and appreciate the life we presently enjoy.

Mant! is often contrasted with the other feature depicted at the Key West Strand, a live action, Disneyesque comedy, The Shook Up Shopping Cart.  (Look out for Naomi Watts in one of her first Hollywood roles.)  The film contrives the possession of grocery store shopping cart by the spirit of one Uncle Cedric, the movie being inspired by Dante’s basic disgust at such films full of “leaden whimsy” passing as family fun.  The Shook Up Shopping Cart and other Love Bug-type movies were, in Dante’s words, the kind of films “that older kids certainly hated.  And that the younger kids were kind of bored with as well.”  Critical discussion of Matinee often compare the engaged catharsis of Mant! and the facile, bourgeois, and contrived nature of The Shook Up Shopping Cart, yet they are not the only examples of film or imagined communities presented in Matinee.  While not exactly movies, Matinee presents two shared mindscreens.  One is Gene and Lawrence’s shared, imaginary view of a woolly mammoth cave painting transformed and made more ferocious than the actual creature would appear.  The scene relates to Woolsey’s idea of the original horror movie being a caveman’s recounting of a dangerous situation and his embellishment of it to better convey to others both the fear he experienced and the heightened awareness he consequently enjoyed.  The second is Gene’s dream of seeing a mushroom cloud outside his door and then quickly being obliterated.  Dante describes the sequence as a dream of his own and one that gripped kids collectively at the time.  The final example is a true film-in-a-film, yet never seems acknowledged – Gene’s mother watching home movies late at night, crying at the sight of her now-deployed husband and their children.  All of these examples describe cinema as a kind of shared experience, a form of community building that allows us to mutually enjoy our experience and connect with each other, or at least find solace in those communities in absentia.  This can even be said of The Shook Up Shopping Cart.  Look around that scene – Gene and Dennis may hate the film, but there are plenty of laughing mothers and smiling daughters in that theatre.  Dante’s ode to a by-gone era and cinema extends far farther than the contrasts between Mant! and the Cuban missile crisis or Mant! and The Shook Up Shopping Cart, but to the broader place of cinema as a place for our shared consciousness, our constructed communities, and our therapeutic catharsis.

Mant PosterI must admit that at the time of Matinee‘s release in 1993, it looked like something of an anachronism.  Dante’s penchant for young, teenage protagonists and his romantic and idealized view of Cold War Americana felt like an ’80s holdover that could not compare with the marvel of real-life dinosaurs taking over an island theme-park.  I felt myself too old for Matinee‘s innocence, preferring a contemporary Mant! to Dante’s The Shook Up Shopping Cart.  Clearly the error was mine as Matinee is a hilarious and sweetly devoted movie about movies.  Goodman is his usually charming self, chewing scenery like Woolsey chews his huge, unlit cigar.  Cathy Moriarty is a perfect compliment as Woolsey’s companion and his dispassionate scream queen.  The kids are uniformly enjoyable (particularly Sherry’s weaselly brother) and Dante rounds out his cast with a plethora of inspired character actors.  The ’50s sci-fi aesthetic makes for an easy packaging design for a Criterion Collection edition of Matinee and we’d hope a cover treatment would make good use of the Mant! poster.

Credits:  Let’s start by promoting Nil Baskar and Gabe Klinger’s excellent volume on Joe Dante for FilmmuseumSynemaPublications, which includes a lengthy interview with Dante surveying his career and a very good essay by Klinger on Matinee and his related work.  Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s review of Matinee entitled “War Fever” is one of the most frequently cited articles on the film, and so he was a more than suitable choice for an essay contributor.  Dante states in his interview with Glenn Erickson that most of the features in his possession for a premium disc release of the film relate to deleted and extended content, and so we’ve included that as a special feature.  Erickson’s interview with Dante is excellent and we encourage readers to check it out for more information on the film.  Dante’s short film version of Mant! was a special feature on Matinee‘s LaserDisc edition, and so we’ve it included it here.  The remaining special features are all imagined for a suitably elaborate Criterion Collection edition.  In particular, we’ll mention that a feature on the score of Matinee might be especially interesting as Dante describes in his interview with Glenn Erickson that the film’s score was criticized as being “TV music”  and that Jerry Goldsmith was once again annoyed at Dante’s decision to use Bernard Herrmann for a temp score – in this case, a Dante favourite, the score from The Trouble with Harry.  The cover summary is adapted from Universal’s summary on its bare-bones DVD edition.

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