It’s fall 1962 and an over-the-top, promotion-happy movie maker is gearing up to screen his latest monster movie in Key West Florida. Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) has a bunch of spine-tingling gimmicks and devices ready to make sure his big-screen atomic-themed monster movie ‘Mant’ will scare the pants off his audience.
As luck would have it the citizens of Key West have bigger worries on their minds other than a half-man/half-ant monster. The Cold War just got really chilly when President Kennedy announces the threat of a potential nuclear attack from missiles in Cuba and Key West looks to be a natural target. The Cuban Missile Crisis has begun and the entire town is panicked and ready to duck and cover at a moments notice.
But this doesn’t stop Woolsey from unveiling his movie and monster movie-loving Gene (Simon Fenton) wouldn’t miss an atomic-mutated creature feature for anything – even if it’s the last show on earth!
Director Joe Dante is well known for his love of old movies and the history of Hollywood. Listening to his commentary on Gremlins, he spends as much time talking about what other films the sets and locations were used for ages ago as much as the production of his own film.
He has great joy talking about older movies and incorporating nods, homages and tributes to them throughout his films. Even away from filming fans can hear him talk about his favorite films in the Trailers From Hell video series.
That’s the biggest thing that comes oozing out from Matinee – Dante’s affection for this time period and subject. There’s little doubt Dante had a great time recreating the old cheesy monster movies that were so popular at the time.
Filmed in black and white the clips we see of Mant is a love letter to those monster movies of the past. Everything’s there, the cheesy dialogue, cheap special effects, a ridiculous story and a cool cameo by Kevin McCarthy! Dante must of had a field day making this.
And decades before surround sound, IMAX screens, theater dining and the resurgence of overpriced 3D, audiences were lured into movies that were filmed in “Emergo”, “Percepto” and “Illusion-O”. Dante has great fun restaging those kind of gimmicks that were employed to make monster/horror movies even scarier and a more memorable experience.
He makes it all look so appealing you wish you were sitting in that audience. It’s almost impossible not to be to infected with that nostalgic feeling, wishing that era of moviegoing was still around and be left thinking, ‘gee, I wish I could go see ‘Mant’ like this. It looks like it would be such a fun way to spend an afternoon!’
Goodman is great as Woolsey. He’s the sly salesman and a BS artist ready to do or say anything to fill seats. Despite eveyone around him being more concerned that they might get nuked – theater owner Robert Picardo is especially on edge ready to leap into his bomb shelter as soon as the bombs begin to drop – Woolsey optimistically goes about trumpeting his film, creating as much hype as he can and hoping the real world tension in Key West will help make ‘Mant’ an even scarier experience for his audience.
He’s extremely funny and likable in this. The same goes for his put upon actress wife Cathy Moriarty who is worn out with his showmanship, but dutifully puts up with it all – with a sour puss on her face.
Meanwhile, Gene finally makes a friend at school with Stan (Omri Katz). They begin to bond over their fascination at the nuclear worries, the upcoming Mant and getting a date to take to it. Gene falls for outspoken, radical-in-the-making Sandra (Lisa Jakub) and Stan finally gets a date with school pretty girl Sherry (Kellie Martin). It’s too bad Sherry’s ex Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) who’s just out of reform school threatens Stan to stay away from her.
All these stories, characters and the Cold War atmosphere collide at the big screening of Mant. We have kids jumping and covering their eyes at Woolsey’s tricks, adults are running around scared of nuclear annihilation, Woolsey trying to impress a movie distributor and our teen heroes passions igniting. It’s a lot of funny stuff going on.
Goodman is the most memorable presence here. When I see Woolsey’s gimmicks start to play out with audience members it feels like he’s making a real experience surrounding his movie.
The audience signing contracts saying the theater isn’t responsible if they get scared to death, presenting the movie in Atomo-Vision and Rumble-Rama and naturally a real live Mant running through the theater to strike up close fear to unsuspecting moviegoers, I can’t help but have a smile on my face. It’s a kick to see and the joy Woolsey gets out of it himself is infectious.
The young cast are also quite good. Usually I’m rather cool on young actors and pick up a lot of forced acting on display and they usually just come off artificial, but here all the kids are very good. They feel and look like kids in ’62 should look and act.
Harvey is the one character I don’t really care for. His warped poetry and crazed antics get a bit too ridiculous for me. And I would have liked to have seen more done with Woolsey’s secret accomplices Dick Miller and John Sayles. But those are minor quibbles in a really enjoyable flick.
Matinee is a charming little movie that not only conveys a love for those long ago atomic monster movies, but also the fear the Cuban Missile Crisis instilled in the population. It’s part ode to William Castle and B-movies and part young teen romance. Melding them together, with a cigar chomping Goodman results in some pretty entertaining laughs.
Here’s, Siskel and Ebert reviewing Matinee