Joe Dante films always have a tremendous mischievous streak running through them. 1993’s Matinee certainly has it, but it doesn’t have the same sense of the macabre that permeates films like Gremlins or The ‘burbs. That’s because Matinee is the closest that Dante has come to delivering a straight-up drama. This is a love letter to 1950s B-movies and it perfectly replicates the low budget sc-fi/horror flicks of the period.
Set in Key West, Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the main focus is on John Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey, a publicity hungry, William Castle-esqe film producer shilling his latest low budget shocker – Mant! Caught up in the hype for the movie is Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a teenage army brat who is trying to fit-in after his father was posted to the area. Young love and a love of movies collide when a matinee audience of Mant! gets more than they bargained for.
It’s the attention to detail that makes Matinee work. Dante’s clear affection for low budget movies shines through and at times you’ll wish that you could really just kick back and watch Mant!, the film within a film that riffs on the Vincent Price 1958 B-movie classic The Fly. With a tagline that screams’ Half man! Half ant!’, Mant! fits perfectly into the world that Dante has created.
However, Matinee’s biggest asset is also its biggest flaw. The film’s main story elements don’t quite have the narrative drive to hold attention. It’s not bad, it’s just not overly engaging. I’d much rather watch an Ed Wood style film about John Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey – the film loses momentum every time it cuts away from him and this see-sawing, makes the film feel uneven.
Matinee may not be Joe Dante’s finest flick (that would be The ‘burbs) but it might be his most personal. The Roger Corman protege’s love for old horror flicks shines through. It may not always hit the mark, but Matinee really zings when it fires on all cylinders.