Saturday, May 22, 2010

Academy of the Underrated: Matinee (1993)

Matinee Poster and Amazon link

Joe Dante is a director we haven’t heard from too much lately, and more’s the pity. Though he’s never ranked with the great auteurs, Dante is a wonderfully energetic filmmaker whose offbeat showmanship and love for the medium has enlivened many a project. After the wonderfully cartoon-like GREMLINS 2 failed at the box office for some strange reason, Dante went and made the best movie of his career, and a genuine overlooked classic of the 90s. MATINEE, recently back in print on DVD, is a tribute to a bygone era of low-budget moviemaking, but goes beyond nostalgia to reflect on why we like to be scared and why it’s a necessary preparation for life in a dangerous world. It’s also just charming as all get out, a slice-of-life taken at the weirdest possible time, when the years-long contrast between Cold War fears and B-movie atomic terrors reached the boiling point.

It’s October in 1962, and Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a military brat living (for the moment) in Key West, Florida, sees a trailer for a brand new monster movie from shock impresario Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman.) MANT!, the thrilling true-to-life story of a half-man-half-ant monster, will not only have a special preview in Key West, with Woolsey debuting the new “Atomo-Vision” theatrical process, but Woolsey himself will appear. It’s a monster fan’s dream- but on the day he learns this, President Kennedy appears on television to announce that the Russians are building missile bases on Cuba and that the navy- Gene’s dad included- are being sent to blockade the island.

The show must go on. Woolsey, heading to town with his girlfriend/star Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty) is determined to make his monster picture the main event, and the kids are no less enthusiastic. Gene and his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) try to put their father’s absence out of their mind (he’s been gone before), and at school Gene finds himself drawn to the outspoken, beatnik-raised Sandra (Lisa Jakub), while his friend Stan (Omri Katz) manages to score a date with local beauty Sherry (Kellie Martin.) Unfortunately, Sherry’s ex-boyfriend, no-good greaser and terrible poet Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) is out of juvie and does his best to scare Stan away, while Gene- recognizing a local censor as a ringer for Woolsey to stir up controversy (and how could he not, since it’s Dick Miller)- worms his way behind the scenes of a premiere that’s as much stage show as movie. Everything builds up to one crazy Saturday afternoon, where MANT! premieres to a rambunctious crowd and panic is in the air.

There’s some debate over who deserves the most credit for this picture. Jerico Stone, the original scenarist, sued for screenplay credit, but was denied by the WGA. The guild’s arbitration process can be arcane and complex, and without access to the actual scripts I can’t really say how much of his work remains in the finished product. He did go on a bit of a letter writing campaign to just about any magazine that mentioned the film, saying Joe Dante was getting too much credit, which is possible. Far be it from me to ignore the plight of the oft-forgotten screenwriter.

Still, it’s hard not to see how, even if Dante didn’t conceive the film’s story, he was drawn to many of its elements. Woolsey is a riff on shock producer William Castle, who in the late fifties and early sixties experimented with all sorts of theatrical gimmicks, from floating skeleton puppets in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL to buzzing theater seats in THE TINGLER. GREMLINS 2’s “film break” sequence was a direct homage to Castle, which Dante had to fight the studio to include (his original plan included prop gremlins to be dangled in front of the projector, so audiences looking back would see the monsters in the theater.) I think it’s fair to hypothesize that Dante and Charlie Haas added at least some personal touch to Jerico’s original work. (It doesn’t help the writer’s case that he came off a little unhinged in his missives, apparently trying to ape Harlan Ellison.)

Whoever’s responsible, the narrative does elegantly keep a lot of balls in the air; the action is kind of slow up until the third act, but it’s the buildup of a farce, and the payoff works remarkably well considering all the separate elements in play. It helps that, as anecdotal as the action seems, there’s a clear thematic thread to all of it, all based around the idea of fear. In the film’s first ten minutes we go from the harmless fear of monster films and urban legends, to a game show on TV making light of a woman’s stereotypical fear of rats, to the very real threat of nuclear war. The boys at school are intimidated by the whole “talking to girls” problem, and no sooner does Stan overcome this than he is confronted by the much larger fear of Harvey beating him to a pulp. Harvey, then, tries to lift the wrong wallet and a threat of violence turns into a job offer. There’s a marked contrast between the threats that are real and the ones that are illusions, meant to soften us up a little.

By now most people know that John Goodman is a really good actor, but his performance as Woolsey is possibly his best work. He’s theatrical and showy, but somehow unpretentious- always about to give a knowing wink when he knows it’s safe to do so. It takes both charm and finesse to pull off a character like this, to justify the love and admiration Gene has for this schlock showman, even if his movies aren’t so good.

Speaking of which, the film’s second major triumph apart from Goodman’s performance is MANT! itself, an absolutely glorious parody of the 50s giant bug genre. (The filmmakers are cheating a bit in having a film like this come out in 1962, when the genre was well on the wane, but whatever.) The performances are wooden but sincere (Cathy Moriarty, a fine actress, does a great job being bad), much of the dialogue is lifted outright from actual giant bug epics, and the whole thing has the stiff-lipped sincerity that made the old B pictures look almost classy. (I particularly like the old scientist who, whenever he delivers an even slightly technical term like “accelerated”, stops to provide a grade-school-level synonym.) Interestingly, it doesn’t fall back on the easy laugh of an obviously fake monster- the Mant effects are kind of good, actually. They’re what the kids who saw the film would remember. Unfortunately, the DVD doesn’t include the complete MANT! footage which made its way onto laserdisc, but a quick search of tube-esque sites should bring that up. (There’s also a nicely vicious parody of dopey live-action kiddie movies of the era, featuring Naomi Watts and Archie Hahn in THE SHOOK-UP SHOPPING CART.)

The film is loaded with topical references, with the occasional easy laugh from kids in school being taught to get three servings of red meat a day and the like. This blends with Dante’s fondness for inside jokes, including more than a few references to FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND- a young Dante once had an article published in the horror fanzine of note. Of course, it’s hard to tell the in-jokes from the material that’s actually genuinely important to the story, and this perhaps explains part of why this film is such a success. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how good the kids are- it’s hard to find young actors and actresses that can hold their own with the likes of Goodman, Moriarty, Robert Picardo, et. al. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, orchestrated by Alexander Courage, adding unexpected gravitas to what is, after all, a low-budget comedy.

I’m still debating in my head whether this qualifies for Academy of the Underrated or not. The vast majority of critics liked it a lot, but the film quickly disappeared for lack of support by Universal, another project by Dante that went without an audience for no good reason whatsoever. (Ironically, mere months after this paean to the monster movie ran its course, JURASSIC PARK revitalized the genre and broke box office records. It was a good time to be a monster fan.) The film’s intermittent availability on home video and DVD hasn’t helped any, and I’m tempted, on the balance, to put it in this august category simply because it deserves the attention. It’s a bit of a cheat- normally this category is for movies that people genuinely didn’t like- but I’m willing to do it.

MATINEE is a movie lover’s movie, and it expresses the magic of the cinema and its effect on American culture in a wonderfully irreverent and unpretentious way. It offers the hope that our rituals of fright and cinematic armageddon can, perhaps, equip us to better deal with the real thing. In a few days in October, Gene Loomis undergoes a rite of passage, and discovers that the adult world is as ramshackle and uncertain as his own. It may not be CINEMA PARADISO, but it is far and away Joe Dante’s finest film, and a warm and humane work that is well worth discovering. Or rediscovering- it may be nostalgia on my part, but the film has aged beautifully.

Story by Jerico and Charlie Haas
Screenplay by Charlie Haas
(bear in mind the above caveats about disputed screen credits)
Directed by Joe Dante

Grade: A

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