Friday, January 19, 2018

Matinee (1993)

USA, 99 minutes
Director: Joe Dante
Writers: Jerico, Charles S. Haas
Photography: John Hora
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editor: Marshall Harvey
Cast: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Mark McCracken, William Schallert, Simon Fenton, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Omri Katz, James Villemarie, Dick Miller, John Sayles, Robert Picardo, Naomi Watts, Kevin McCarthy, Jesse White

Director Joe Dante's affectionate treatment of midcentury science fiction monster movies and the industry that spawned them is a mixed bag. It probably has too much nostalgia by rote and certainly way too much inadvertent '90s period detail, such as the boys' variously feathered haircuts. Officially the time setting is 1962. In fact, it's even more precise than that: October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But some fine Cadillacs in restoration do little to overcome those haircuts, let alone the ways of interacting. But never mind. John Goodman takes the reins as Lawrence Woolsey, a swaggering producer of shock cinema in the mold of William Castle, though he's also something of an Alfred Hitchcock wannabe. In Matinee, Woolsey is opening a new picture in a small Florida coastal town.

Castle, of course, was the man responsible in the late '50s and early '60s for gimmicky horror movies such as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts. They were released with arcane come-ons such as "Emergo," "Percepto," and "Illusion-O," which amounted to rigging the actual theaters where they played with things like joy buzzers under seats, or pulleys and ropes overhead for floating skeletons at strategic points. Castle concocted brilliant and hilarious gimmicks like distributing $1,000 life insurance policies to attendees, in case they died of fright. He also produced (and even made a cameo appearance in) Rosemary's Baby. In many ways, you're likely in for more entertainment with a good biography of Castle than this movie, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth checking out.

Like Edgar Wright, Joe Dante is a creative, interesting, and vaguely mocking filmmaker, even as he purposefully traffics in trash. Dante did Piranha and The Howling but he's probably best known for the first two Gremlins movies. Many argue that his best is 1998's Small Soldiers, which does for Toy Story what Gremlins did for E.T.. Matinee has a story to tell about nuclear anxiety, puppy love, and the innocent pleasures of those special weekend afternoon matinee shows (of which, as it happens, I don't actually have any experience). But I think Dante's heart is mainly in the savage black and white parody movie that Matinee is built around, the movie that producer Woolsey is busy hawking—Mant!, the story of a man, an ant, and radioactivity. The tagline: "So terrifying only screams can describe it."

We only see fragments of that movie but those scenes are the best part of this one. Cathy Moriarty is Woolsey's cynical girlfriend and the star of Mant!, where she screams a lot when oversize rubbery ant parts approach from the sides of the frame. She is a nurse and otherwise maintains a cool and practical manner. In Mant!, Mark McCracken is her husband Bill, who is turning into an ant. He says things like, "This is no picnic for me," and then realizes he has made another ant joke. TV's ubiquitous William Schallert—who I know best as Patty Duke's father—is Bill's dentist, Dr. Grabow, and for some reason the person who has to break the bad news to Bill about his condition. The dentist?!

Meanwhile, in real-life '90s color, the rest of Matinee works its paces. Woolsey's natural huckster instincts are on display, for example, as he hires people to protest the premiere of Mant! for reasons that make the movie sound irresistibly attractive. They are handing out pamphlets and speaking to the gathering crowds in front of the theater, when Woolsey shows up to confront them and swat them away with his winning arguments (and free passes for the those in the crowd).

In this mode, Matinee is mostly a soft and mild affair, livened with occasional period music such as "Theme From 'A Summer Place'" or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (but more often filled with tootling washes of banal movie music from Jerry Goldsmith). The picture is really busy when you start to add it up. There's the debut of Mant! and all the hype Woolsey is putting into it. There is an Unlikely Relationship between an Army brat teen named Gene (Simon Fenton) who is falling in love with Sandra (Lisa Jakub), the teen daughter of town beatniks, a regular family of "Ban the Bomb" types. There's another teen triangle with Gene's friend Stan (Omri Katz), Sherry (Kellie Martin), a sexually confident good girl, and her former boyfriend, a black leather jacket hoodlum named Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), who writes free verse. Also, the theater manager where Mant! is playing has a fallout shelter and thinks the end of the world has come. That's Robert Picardo from Star Trek: Voyager.

So it does get pretty busy at Matinee with all this going on, plus even more familiar faces, which sometimes register later rather than sooner, including Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, John Sayles, Naomi Watts, and Jesse White. It's bristling with lots of fun detail though it never quite builds up any steam—in many ways the parody impulse and the romantic comedy impulse are at war with one another. But Joe Dante's humor and boundless love for trash keep the wreck afloat, and the nicely conceived confluence of cheesy science fiction, nuclear anxiety, and nostalgia eventually limps home with dignity more or less intact. Make popcorn.

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