When Reel Monsters Fight Real Monsters

One of the great things about being in my 40s is that I came of film age when filmmakers like John Carpenter and George Miller and Joe Dante were emerging to do whatever they wanted. The 80s were such a great time for bat-crap insane movies like Big Trouble in Little China and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (yes, I love that movie) and pretty much everything Dante made in that time.

I wrote that some months ago in a capsule review of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the ultimate Joe Dante movie. It’s the perfect summation of the filmmaker’s anarchic spirit, honed through years in the Roger Corman school of storytelling.

But even in his most “conventional” film, that spirit is as strong as ever.

Released in 1993, Matinee retains the vibe of Dante’s best 80s work. It’s a coming of age story set in Key West in 1962, in that moment when the reel terrors of Corman and William Castle faced the real terrors of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (In this respect, the film works as a companion piece to Peter Bogdanovich’s debut, the tense and poignant Targets.)

But the film (written by Charlie Haas, from a story by Haas and Jerico Stone) keeps the real danger in the background, a phantom image on TV screens. For young Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), the biggest thing happening in Key West is the arrival of his hero, shockmeister Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman, representing both Corman and Castle), for a sneak preview of his latest epic, MANT! (Technically, it’s just Mant, but I think a title like that deserves all caps, boldface, and an exclamation point at the end.)

As Gene quickly impresses Woolsey with his film savvy, and as the seasoned producer teaches his new protege the dirty tricks of the trade, we’re treated to the kind of high-school relationship drama few coming of age movies can do without. Gene, a military brat, finds himself attracted to Sandra (Lisa Jakub), the progressive loner whose parents taught her to question everything. Meanwhile, his friend Stan (Omri Katz) has fallen for the more traditional Sherry (Kellie Martin). Except that Sherry’s ex just happens to be Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), a short-fused hoodlum who thinks he’s a poet, and who’s less than thrilled to see her moving on. You get the idea.

It all comes together at the climactic premiere of Mant (“Half Man… Half Ant… All Terror!”). And since it’s a Joe Dante film, you know that means it all comes apart. The film within a film (like the film itself) is a glorious love letter to the kind of monster flick nobody makes anymore, with nearly every gimmick Castle ever used thrown in, along with a few I’m sure he wishes he’d thought of. And for a brief instant, the fears of the outside world threaten to overcome the safer fears within the theater.

But even then, Matinee never loses its sense of fun. And much of that comes from the cast. The young actors all deliver solid performances. Cathy Moriarty is a delight as Woolsey’s long-suffering but loyal girlfriend and leading lady; with just a look, you know she’s seen it all and loves it anyway. And it wouldn’t be Joe Dante without his wonderful repertory company, including William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo, That Guy Dick Miller, and an inspired cameo from a fellow Corman grad, indie legend John Sayles.

But the film belongs to John Goodman, in one of his finest performances (and this is John Goodman, so that’s saying something). He makes Woolsey more than a huckster, more than a showman. In his hands, the character has as much heart as bluster, and possibly more.

And when I can go this long in talking about a Dante film before mentioning Goldsmith (whose score is perfectly manic and light-hearted), that might be saying something too.

I’m not sure how easy it is to find these days (though if you have an all-region player, there’s a new BluRay just out in the UK), but Matinee does turn up on the Starz networks from time to time. However you track it down, I hope you will. This one is highly recommended.

Thanks as always for following along. Until next time…