Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 99 minutes.
Tag-line: "Lawrence Woolsey presents the end of civilization as we know it. Make that... Proudly Presents!"
Cast or Crew: John Goodman (C.H.U.D., THE BIG LEBOWSKI), Cathy Moriarty
(RAGING BULL, COP LAND), Simon Fenton (THE POWER OF ONE, A KNIGHT IN
CAMELOT), Omri Katz (EERIE INDIANA, HOCUS POCUS), Lisa Jakub
(INDEPENDENCE DAY, MRS. DOUBTFIRE), Kellie Martin (TROOP BEVERLY HILLS,
ER), Robert Picardo (TOTAL RECALL, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH), Dick
Miller (GREMLINS, THE TERMINATOR, A BUCKET OF BLOOD, CORVETTE SUMMER),
John Sayles (novelist and director, LONE STAR, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER
PLANET), Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE TWILIGHT
ZONE: THE MOVIE), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, THE TWILIGHT
ZONE), Naomi Watts (MULHOLLAND DR., KING KONG '05). Music by Jerry
Goldsmith (ALIEN, POLTERGEIST, GREMLINS). Makeup effects by Rick Baker
& Co. (VIDEODROME, THE HOWLING, STAR WARS, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF
IN LONDON). Written by Jerico Stone (MY STEPMOTHER IS AN ALIEN) and Charles S. Haas (OVER THE EDGE, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH,
Best One-liner: "Young lady, human/insect mutation is far from an exact science!"
Ah, MATINEE... I saw this film for the first time back when it came out in '93, and despite having no idea at the time who William Castle was, I was immediately drawn to the film's layered nostalgia and infectious sense of harmless fun; it's a paean to dedicated showmanship in a scary world. Probably not before or since has a movie so thoroughly and tenderly explored the life-affirming thrill and ultimate social value of horror cinema––it's about taking yourself (and perhaps a date) to the Lovecraftian brink and back again in a safe, controlled environment; to forget, even for eighty minutes, the considerably less exhilarating, quotidian terrors that linger beyond the limits of the screen.
Equal parts fan service and a sincere coming-of-age, MATINEE is for every lonely kid who grew up on B-movies, late-night TV spook shows, and monster magazines; the socially awkward ones who imagined that Vincent Price, King Kong, and Dracula were sort of their friends. It'd make a fine double feature with FRIGHT NIGHT, I must say.
Castle's career lived primarily in the shadow––or is that silhouette?––of Hitchcock. Castle believed they were equals; personally, I tend to wonder if Hitchcock even knew who he was.
Set in Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis, MATINEE follows movie producer/director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman, playing a not-even-thinly-disguised version of the manic, cigar-chomping, creature-feature ringmaster and gimmick-king William Castle) as he brings his new film "MANT" to Key West, forever changing the lives of a few teenagers who are making the transition to adulthood beneath the (anticipatory) shadow of a mushroom cloud.
And God bless William Castle––John Waters has said he'd rather have sat on his lap than Santa Claus' when he was a child––and damned if Castle isn't essentially the halfway point between Santa and P.T. Barnum. Here was a man who playfully threatened to kill audience members in his promotional materials, pioneered the Illusion-O Ghost-Viewer and Ghost-Remover, shoehorned contest winners into bit parts, handed out plastic coins in an attempt to energize cinema-goers, let the audience vote on killing off a character via a "Punishment Poll", marketed a film (sucessfully) to children about kids who must murder their uncle before he murders them, stuck vibrators on seat-backs and called it "Percepto," used fake life insurance policies to hype in-movie scares, and handed out cardboard axes for a movie where a fifty-nine year old Joan Crawford plays a twenty-year-old (in a flashback).
What Castle called "barnstorming" (following your film cross-country to promote it in person, maximizing the asses in seats like a carnival barker) is Woolsey's bread and butter, and he'll employ every trick in the book to make sure his audience has a once-in-a-lifetime film experience, combining all the joys of live theater, the haunted house, and a boardwalk magic show.
This is all handled expertly by Joe Dante, who infuses the proceedings with equal doses of nostalgia, silliness, and a genuine humanity (that feels as well-earned as anything from masters like Renoir or Altman). It's pretty damned great.
Without further ado, I'd like to delve into my eight favorite elements of MATINEE:
#8. The authenticity in storytelling and art direction. Not being a child of the 50s, I may be way off base, but there's a definite eye for detail in Steven Legler's production design,
and I appreciate little details, like burgeoning teens listening to a Lenny Bruce record
and hurriedly shutting it off when Mom pulls in the driveway.
#7. And whaddya know––Omri Katz! The kid in the striped shirt in the above screencap is none other than the star of Dante's EERIE, INDIANA, one of my favorite (albeit short-lived) TV shows as a child. He's effortlessly likable, and it's a shame he hasn't done much acting since the early 90s.
#6. The in-jokes. There are more obvious nods, like references to Castle's "rivalry" with Hitchcock; but there are deeper cuts, too––posters for everything from CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER to THE DEADLY MANTIS appear frequently in the background, and a fictionalized version of Samuel Z. Arkoff (of American International Pictures) even shows up to the MANT screening!
#5. Cathy Moriarty as the washed-up starlet turned horror
vixen; basically she's Joan Crawford in STRAIGHT-JACKET or Barbara Stanwyck in THE NIGHT WALKER. She gives
fewer shits than Bob Mitchum and has her most fantastic bit as the lobby
"Nurse" in a nod to MACABRE's mock insurance policies.
She very nearly steals this movie away from John Goodman and a giant "Mant" prosthetic, which is, at the end of the day, quite an achievement.
#4. Dante crony and "that guy!" legend Dick Miller and novelist/director John Sayles as Woolsey's shills:
out-of-work actors pretending to protest MANT in order to amplify the word of mouth (any press is good press, eh?). It's a classic technique, and one that I imagine the real Bill Castle must have employed at one time or another. In between the whimsy, however, Dante manages to sneak in a sobering aside about the Hollywood Blacklist.
#3. Robert Picardo as the scaredy cat/wet blanket theater manager,
who happens to have a personal fallout shelter in the basement.
twitchy demeanor and knack for physical comedy make the character
especially vivid, but even as you laugh at his panicked clowning, Dante
never lets you fully forget that the man has some valid concerns (it's
October '62, after all!) about nuclear annihilation. (It's the same humanism that allows Dante to give real pathos to character deaths in something like GREMLINS, even though the methods of murder are borrowed straight from the Looney Tunes.)
#2. The film-within-a-film, Lawrence Woolsey's MANT.
Tonally, it's spot-on––a hilarious mashup of THE TINGLER, PANIC IN YEAR ZERO!, THEM, and THE FLY with perfectly stylized imagery and dialogue. It certainly helps that he's packed it with B-movie actors from the era, including INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS' Kevin McCarthy
and THE TWILIGHT ZONE's William Schallert (both of whom also appeared in Dante's segment of THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE).
It lives up to the (Castle-styled) hype and is one of the most memorable 'film-within-a-films' I can think of.
#1. A second film-within-a-film, "THE SHOOK-UP SHOPPING CART" has a shorter, though no less memorable appearance.
Intended to be a spoof of eye-rolling, "safe" live-action children's fare of the era, like THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, or THE LOVE BUG, it features a sentient, crime-fighting shopping cart and a young Naomi Watts. Even the film stock and color correction are spot-on––it's clear that every aspect of this production was a labor of love.
Five stars. Perhaps one day, some inspired filmmaker will tell a thinly-veiled story of the effect the consummate showman Joe Dante's films had on their childhood!
P.S. I also recommend you check out J.D. of Radiator Heaven's nuanced take on the film here!