Something of a forgotten gem, 1993’s Matinee sits between Gremlins and Toy Soldiers in director Joe Dante’s oeuvre. John Goodman steals the show as Lawrence Woolsey, a cigar-chomping director specialising in William Castle-esque theatrical gimmicks. Under the cloud of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he arrives in Key West, Florida to promote his latest atomic-themed B-movie. On paper, Woolsey is a cynical manipulator, exploiting people’s well-founded fears about nuclear apocalypse to make a quick buck, but Goodman brings Woolsey to life with an endearing sincerity.
Waxing lyrical about the magic of the silver screen, in one scene he spuriously claims that prehistoric cave paintings were the progenitors of monster movies. Woolsey’s own film, Mant, charmingly pays homage to everything from Them!, The War of the Worlds and The Fly. While genre cinephiles in 1993 delighted in spotting the numerous B-movie in-jokes, millennial audiences can now appreciate a new nostalgia at reacquainting with nineties child actors such as Omri Katz (Hocus Pocus, Eerie, Indiana) and Lisa Jakub (Mrs. Doubtfire, Independence Day). Setting the film in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a deft touch, too, and Dante does well to maintain the balance between family comedy and horror.
The duck-and-cover scene early in the film in which Sandra (Jakub) makes an adolescent stand against the teachers’ insistence that crouching on the floor is sufficient protection against a 30-megaton blast, comes across as simultaneously funny and genuinely harrowing. This is, of course, classic Dante material; the director has made a career out of juggling nostalgic Americana against the dark underbelly of US culture. Perhaps not quite as perfectly expressed as it was in Gremlins, Dante’s sensibility still serves him well here, and the tribute to a bygone age of cinema now works doubly well, allowing us to reminisce fondly over the cinema of the nineties as much as that of the fifties and sixties. Slightly less successful, however, is the younger cast.
In particular main character Gene (Simon Fenton) who despite a nicely drawn relationship with his younger brother, lacks sufficient depth or edge for us to truly care about him. Moreover, while Dante’s evocative settings and snappy, broad characteristation are consistently charming and warm, but he often struggles to know what to do with his characters and settings once he has them set up. Hence Matinee‘s rather loose narrative, in which half-cocked romantic sub-plots are stapled on to the young leads, and where Woolsey is given charge of an ant-suited simpleton employed to scare his audience. Nevertheless, the thin plot never detracts from the quaint charm of the production, which like Woolsey’s Mant, is escapist cinema at its best: entertaining, ephemeral, and just a little bit frightening.
Chris Machell | @MagnificenTramp