Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee Soffer, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, John Sayles, Kevin McCarthy
Written by: Charlie Haas, based on a story by Charlie Haas, Jerico
Directed by: Joe Dante
MPAA Rating: PG for language, and for mild violence and sensuality
Running Time: 99
Date: 01/29/1993

Matinee (1993)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Power Mant

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This unsung Joe Dante movie could be his masterpiece, the work in which all of his favorite themes come together in the best and most profound way. Matinee (1993) may not be as classic as Dante's Gremlins, but it's crazy fun -- a riot -- and often quite beautiful.

Set in October of 1962 in Key West, Florida, the movie depicts two major events. The Cuban Missile Crisis is unfolding, terrifying many of the adults, especially given the proximity. The father of two brothers, Gene (Simon Fenton) and Dennis Loomis (Jesse Lee Soffer), is stationed on a ship near Cuba, and a general worry is in the air. But most kids are more focused on another event: Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) is coming to town with his brand-new monster movie Mant!.

Woolsey is based loosely on William Castle, who made plenty of second-string horror movies and promoted them with all kinds of gimmicks in theaters, from electrified seats to a nurse stationed in the lobby asking patrons to sign waivers in the event of being scared to death.

All kinds of chaos happens in the romantic lives of the young, local high-schoolers, as well as little siblings who desperately want to see the new monster movie. An older ex-boyfriend is hired to play a real-life Mant, and they all wind up at the first showing.

Dante casts many of his regular favorites, including Robert Picardo as a nervous theater manager who prepares for the worst, and Dick Miller and director John Sayles as a pair of "protestors," who try to urge people not to see the movie (thereby ensuring that they will see it). Sayles and Dante had both previously worked for Roger Corman, and Sayles wrote the screenplay for Dante's Piranha and co-wrote The Howling. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) appears as an actor in Mant!.

Movie buffs that dig deeper will find hidden meanings in the characters' names, as well as less-noticeable actors who have been cast for having monster movies deep within their past resumes. There are movie posters galore, both pinned up in kids' rooms and in the movie theater's glorious lobby. 1962 was a great year, and among the new releases are Howard Hawks's Hatari! and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Such references are common in Dante's work, but this is one of the times he has tried to discuss the appeal of horror and monsters. It boils down to a lovely speech given by Goodman about the first caveman creating the first horror movie by attempting to make the woolly mammoth seem scarier than it really is. Fake horrors can be pleasurable because they are probably worse than anything in real life, and because they usually have some kind of conclusion. It's like a workout for our emotions; we exercise (and exorcise) them and leave feeling relaxed and relieved.

Working from a screenplay by Charlie Haas -- who wrote the brilliant Gremlins 2, very probably as part of the deal to get the riskier Matinee made -- Dante flawlessly draws parallels between the real-life terror of the impending missiles and the cinematic terror of the fictional monster. Starring in Mant!, the actress Ruth Corday (a hilarious Cathy Moriarty) constantly tries to tell people that the Mant monster is actually her husband, Bill. Likewise, the missiles, while seeming bigger than life, were merely a human problem.

The movie revels in the communal experience of both fear and relief, and perhaps a kind of bonding that occurs, and Goodman nails this in his performance. While he is kind of a snake-oil salesman, he truly loves his job and he truly believes in the healing powers of what he's doing. His interactions with the kids and his general exuberance, a larger-than-life figure with an ever-present cigar bounding around in the Florida sunshine, gives the movie its extra burst of poetry. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but one thing is for sure: Matinee is a movie for people who love movies.

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