It’s October, 1962. John Goodman’s William Castle-type movie producer arrives in a small Floridian town with his latest schlock horror Mant. It’s a welcome distraction from the Cuban Missile Crisis and possible nuclear annihilation.
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a macabre sense of doom hangs over Joe Dante’s Matinee like a bad smell. It’s fervent ground for b-movie schlock director Lawrence Woolsey (played with relish by John Goodman) to unveil his latest extravaganza of pyrotechnics, theatrical gimmick and cinematic exhibition. Screenwriter Charles S. Haas, who worked with Dante on his 1990 sequel to Gremlins, concocts a William Castle-like filmmaker and producer whose pursuit of fame and fortune via exploitation is matched by a genuine love of the moving image.
Goodman’s great in the role; shades of Hitchcock, not least in his rotund physical stature but an excitable glint in the eyes that comes through the faux infomercials Dante frames like those old Alfred Hitchcock Presents shows. It helps that he exists in a time when cinema played a greater part of daily life, before the prevalence of TVs in every living room, and years before the concept of “home video” brought the movies to the small screen.
That sense of nostalgia is gleefully captured by Dante, a teenager himself in the late 1950s and 1960s, who finds a humorous route into a place and time (Florida, 1962) defined by a pervading sense of impending apocalypse. Through cinema, and more precisely Woolsey’s sci-fi horror Mant, we get a time capsule of pop culture’s fears and foibles as well as a delightful taste of film’s ability to entertain.
It’s a pity that Matinee itself lacks the imagination of some of Dante’s earlier work, falling short of its own self-contained standards. As a celebration of a movie producer’s devotion to the moving image, and his attempts to completely immerse his audience in on-screen drama, Matinee isn’t quite memorable enough to warrant the sorts of audience reaction (and interaction) it bestows upon itself through its film-within-a-film. Watching Dante’s nostalgia trip in a similar theatre would likely find more people checking their watches than collectively throwing their popcorn in momentous excitement.
That’s down to this ensemble piece having a few too many component parts. Dante’s usual “players” – the always amusing Dick Miller and equally energetic Robert Picardo – get some of the best scenes as a concerned citizen protesting against Woolsey’s horror films and an over-anxious theatre owner, respectively. But when Goodman is off-screen, we’re faced with the proposition of Simon Fenton’s Gene Loomis, a film fanatic who has been moved from town to town due to his father’s military service. Here, Dante’s focus switches to teenage coming of age but it fails to resonate, lacking the inventiveness of Explorers, for instance. The threat of nuclear war remains a distant backdrop, taking a backseat to an old-fashioned take on high school, friendship and romance.
Fenton doesn’t help matters. He’s a bland lead. He has that clean-cut 50s/60s “all American” look about him (despite being British), which is perhaps favourable in this recreation of the period but for a member of an emerging brand of movie nerd he exhibits about as much enthusiasm for film as most people manage awaiting a hernia operation. Goodman helps bring him out of his shell when they’re on-screen together but there’s a talent gap between the pair that’s too glaring to dismiss. It’s little wonder Fenton’s career failed to take off; he was never seen in a film ever again.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed Matinee on DVD courtesy of Arrow Video which released the film in a feature-laden Blu-ray in September, 2016.