I am a fan of many of Joe Dante's films, especially his early, low-budget cult stuff like PIRANHA and THE HOWLING. I'm sure he would disagree, but he probably should never have taken Spielberg's phone call, because most of the films he's made for the major studios feel seriously compromised. But the man loves movies and especially genre movies, and that's evident in all of his films. With MATINEE (1993), he takes that affection even farther; the whole film is a passionate, nostalgic valentine to schlock cinema, its makers and its fans.
On the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis - October, 1962 - independent B-movie entrepreneur Lawrence Woolsley (John Goodman, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) and his favorite leading lady, Ruth Corday (a sublime Cathy Moriarty) brings his new science fiction horror movie, MANT, to Key West for a special preview screening at the local bijou. As tensions mount on an island only 90 miles from Cuba, several anxious young teenagers look forward to attending the Saturday matinee premiere, hoping for a brief escape from the looming horror of nuclear apocalypse.
It's odd, but I hadn't seen MATINEE since it originally came out on VHS, and I remembered it being more of an outright comedy. But while there are many laughs to be had - especially when the movie-within-the-movie is unspooling - there's also a lot of heart, non-mawkish sentiment, and childhood wonder mixed into the film. The performances are earnest and on-target, both on the part of the seasoned pros (including Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Belinda Balaski) and the young leads.
The screenplay by Charlie Hass is excellent, capturing both the era and the distinctive adolescent experience with sincerity and clarity. The character of Lawrence Woolsley (clearly inspired by producer William Castle of THE TINGLER , 13 GHOSTS and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL fame) is a particularly fascinating and layered character - showman, entrepreneur and conman, but also surprisingly grounded, intelligent and quick to act when things go wrong. The cinematography by John Hora is warm and adds to the nostalgic tone of the film, and Jerry Goldsmith's score - while sometimes a bit too sappy - is fine.
Dante's in-movie homage to 50s sci-fi flicks, MANT, is brilliant and hilarious, employing numerous familiar musical cues from the Universal-International genre flicks of the era (including the famous CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON sting), and wonderful, old-school special effects. The cast is great, too, with veterans William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy and Robert Cornthwaite making uncredited appearances spoofing the type of movies they're best remembered for.
In many ways, I think MATINEE is Dante's most assured film, deftly balancing both drama and comedy and not falling apart story-wise at the end (as many of his movies seem to). The flick is loaded with his trademark in-jokes and references, but this time they're woven into the fabric of the film's reality in an unobtrusive and wholly appropriate way. It's really a pretty remarkable film.
Previously released on DVD way back in 1998 by Image Entertainment, Universal's new disc is an utterly bare-bones affair that provides a gorgeous 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Dolby 2.0 stereo, and... um, subtitles. In English only. There are no bonus features whatsoever, and that's criminal. Joe Dante's audio commentaries are always entertaining and interesting, and if any of his films deserved one, it's MATINEE. Also, the old laserdisc version included a cut-together MANT, with all of the footage assembled and running as a short film. It would have been great if Universal had actually, you know, expended a little effort and included that on this new disc.
Since the original DVD is long out of print and has been commanding collectible prices, fans who missed that disc now have an affordable alternative. And the movie looks great. If you're a fan of the film, you'll want to pick this up. If you've never seen it before, I recommend that you check it out. It's really an underrated gem.