Matinee (1993)

11 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Where do I even start with this movie? “Matinee,” directed by Joe Dante and written by Charlie Haas, is a wonderful comedy with so many things going for it, and most of it surprisingly meshes really well with each other. What do we have? We have the Cuban Missile Crisis, young love, nostalgia, a schlocky filmmaker/showman, the premiere of his latest B-movie, several teenagers (including a jealous boyfriend), and even manages to bring in legitimate family drama as well. How are Dante and Haas able to pull all of this off in one terrific movie?

The movie is set in Key West, Florida in the fall of 1962—a time when B-movies represented innocence and imagination (and great silliness). Anything can happen in these movies, mostly thanks to gamma rays and radiation that manages to turn insects into gigantic monstrosities that terrorize cities. But suddenly, all that “nuclear stuff” doesn’t seem too innocent now that America has learned from President Kennedy that Cuba is armed with nuclear missiles, and the U.S. Navy is blockading against an oncoming Russian fleet. This of course gets the people in a panic, especially those in Key West, which is just 90 miles away from Cuba.

Enter exploitation filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), who specializes in grade-B horror movies and theatrical gimmicks. With the panic going on in Key West, Woolsey sees this as the perfect time and place to premiere his latest schlocky production, a monster movie about a man who mutates into a giant ant—“Mant!”—due to, you guessed it, radiation. For teenage army-brat Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), whose father is on one of the Navy blockade ships, the film’s premiere date is going to be a great day since he is a monster-movie fan. He sees Woolsey as a hero.

Gene is so much a fan of monster movies that he recognizes a B-movie actor when he sees one—that’s why he’s the only one to recognize one of the people who publicly denounces “Mant” a couple nights before its premiere, an out-of-work actor hired by Woolsey to further publicize the movie. (You see, it turns out that boycotters only make people further want to see the movie—I guess times haven’t changed since 1962.) Gene calls Woolsey up on the con and in exchange for keeping the secret, Woolsey shows Gene around the theater for a behind-the-scenes tour to see what tricks he has in store for his audience on Saturday afternoon.

While this is going on, there are numerous subplots in the real world—one involves Gene as he and his family (his mother and little brother Dennis) cope with the knowledge that the man of the house is now in the danger zone; another involves Gene’s new buddy Stan (Omri Katz) as he asks the “nice girl in the class,” Sherry (Kellie Martin), out on a date for Saturday, only to be threatened by a hoodlum (James Villemaire) who used to date Sherry; and another involves Gene as he befriends Sandra (Lisa Jakub), the daughter of a pair of beatniks who defend the “Mant” premiere. Sandra has her own ways of acting out—particularly, she’s the only one in school who states aloud that the classic “duck-and-cover” protection against the nuclear bomb won’t save anybody. (This even gets one of the kids in the hall to whisper, “That girl’s a Communist!”)

Everything leads to the final half-hour of “Matinee,” in which every plot development comes together. Gene, his little brother, Stan, Sherry, and Sandra end up seeing “Mant” on Saturday afternoon, there’s a large crowd because of the publicity, and Woolsey can use many of the surprises he prepared for this event—there are buzzers in the seats and a new process called “Rumble Rama” that has the theater shaking like it’s in an earthquake. He’s giving his audience a real show, and he’s loving every minute of it. Thankfully, so is a head studio executive who admires Woolsey’s childlike spirit.

And it’s easy for us to care so much for Woolsey throughout the movie. It’s obvious that this guy loves to make his movies, no matter how bad or laughable they might be, and he just wants to put on a show. John Goodman does a fantastic job at playing Lawrence Woolsey with a sense of enthusiasm and demented zaniness. How can you not love the bit in which he notices a stuffed alligator at a busted gas station, and immediately has an epiphany? (“She-Gator, Alli-Gal, GAL-a-Gator!”)

My favorite scene involves Woolsey telling Gene about his theory of “the first monster movie.” The way he puts it, a caveman is chased by a mammoth and barely makes it back to his cave alive. So he wants to tell people about the experience, and he draws a picture of the beast on his wall. But when he realizes people are coming to see it, he knows he has to make it look scarier (“make the teeth longer and the tusks bigger”). “Boom! The first monster movie,” says Woolsey. “That’s probably why I still do it. You make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up…” It’s a wonderful scene that gives an even bigger sense of what this guy’s all about.

By the way, the movie-within-the-movie (“Mant”) is quite a treasure. We see a lot of clips from the movie on the screen (or screen-within-the-screen), and it’s a worthy parody of those actual B-movies of the time. There are silly creature effects, a lot of “scientific” exposition, and inane lines of dialogue, such as when the mant’s worried wife tries to tell the Army general that “Bill” is only a shoe salesman, not a monster—the general replies, “Would you let THAT fit you in a pump?” It’s a joy to watch, when we’re able to.


Also funny is a one-scene parody of ‘60s children’s movies, about a man that turned into a shopping cart and shakes up crooks (who wear ski masks and fall down in comedic fashion, while being covered in paint and having quirky-happy music playing in the background).

Anyway, about the movie’s final act involving the big premiere, I can only reveal that everything that could go wrong does go wrong in ways you couldn’t begin to expect. (I won’t even go into how the jealous hoodlum boyfriend gets into the mix.) There are so many things happening all at once, and it kept my attention throughout. I was laughing and smiling at the creativity of the screenplay; everything set up before has paid off ultimately.

John Goodman does a great job, as I already mentioned. And the other actors do good work as well. The young actors (Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Kellie Martin, Lisa Jakub) are very likeable and appealing. And Cathy Moriarty, as Woolsey’s girlfriend and leading-lady in his film, is excellent as the bored, deadpan, busty blonde who always complains about how his man is too much of a dreamer to face the reality that their careers are “going nowhere.” (Of course, this doesn’t stop her from dressing up in a nurse’s uniform at the premiere and getting kids to sign “medical consent forms” in case they get too scared.) Also funny is Robert Picardo as the overly-nervous theater manager, who has a radio by his side in case the bombs come falling (he even has a fallout shelter in the theater basement designed just for him).

“Matinee” is chuck-full of surprises and pleasures, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s fun, amusing, imaginative, dramatic when it needs to be (particularly when it comes to Gene’s family), and rather brilliant.

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