We’re at this point in pop culture where everything seems to be dominated by nostalgia. Instead of using nostalgia as a vehicle for new and exciting stories, most of the pop culture nostalgia is simply retooling and revamping old characters and situations in the hopes that the familiarity will overcome any deficiencies within the story. It wasn’t always that way. In 1993, director Joe Dante provided a story that was rife with nostalgia for his youthful days of B-movie monsters and the omnipresent fear of nuclear annihilation with Matinee. While by no means a box office smash, Matinee endured as a cult classic because it spoke directly to those who had their own love affair with B-movie monster thrills that captivated Dante as a child, even if they were never old enough to see them in a theater. Now Matinee finally lands on Blu-ray with an extensive special edition from Shout! Factory. As they do so well, this is another splendid edition from Shout! Factory with a wide array of special features that dive deep into the heart of Matinee and why it has endured despite its initial flopping at the box office.
Matinee takes place in 1962. The film opens with an introduction from producer-director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a showman and huckster churning out B-movie pictures with in-theater gimmicks to woo the audience. Woolsey is a fictional character that is undoubtedly modeled on the great B-movie showman William Castle, who had an array of gimmicks for his movies such as “Percepto” and “Emergo.” Woolsey’s latest movie, Mant, will be playing at a special one night only screening at a small theater in Key West, Florida with the master showman there in person. The gimmickry of Mant will be presented in “Atomo-Vision” and “Rumble-Rama!” and the enticing trailer that starts the movie captures the interest of Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a young boy who has just moved to Key West with his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee).
For Gene, life in Key West isn’t too easy as he’s just moved there with his family as his father is a member of the Navy. Tensions are rising in Key West because of international tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. At school, the kids are undergoing various preparations for the possibility of nuclear war, including the laughably ineffective technique of duck and cover. Sandra (Lisa Jakub) is the only student who finds such precautions absurdly inadequate, and her vocal protests cause Gene to take notice of the socially minded young girl. Elsewhere in the youthful world of Key West, young Stan (Omri Katz) has his eyes on Sherry (Kellie Martin), but the local ne’er-do-well Harvey Starkweather (James Villemamaire). As the international tensions flare up with the dawn of the Cuban Missile Crisis, all these threads will intersect at the movie theaters for the highly anticipated showing of Mant.
Dante’s farce, from a script credited to Jerico and Charlie Haas, establishes these quaint American storylines that are all building to the big screening. What Dante and Matinee’s screenwriters capture is a sense of a youthful alienation that extends beyond the geographical borders and era of the film’s setting. Gene is a kid who feels along for the most part in his new surroundings and is able to find refuge for just a few hours in the movie theater. Later, as he starts to build friendships, the trivia of monster movies or sneaking off to listen to the forbidden profanity of Lenny Bruce provide a foundation for these friendships to build upon. Matinee captures the joys and perils of youth with its bonds forged by pop culture, first-time romances, and jealous bullies.
Matinee is also a love letter to a form of cinema that has gone by the wayside, the gimmick-based type of B-movie that William Castle made so well. Goodman embodies this type of hucksterism with his charismatic flair, and always with a big cigar in mouth or hand. A personal favorite scene of mine in Matinee has two protestors (Dick Miller, who is in practically every Joe Dante film, and writer-director John Sayles) protesting the upcoming showing of Mant before Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey confronts them. It’s only later revealed that they’re two actors who perform in Woolsey’s films; the showman is creating a circus atmosphere before the show even starts. In the lobby of the theater on the night of the big show, Woolsey’s girlfriend and star Ruth (Cathy Moriarty) hands out insurance policies, another famed gimmick from yesteryear.
The special features on the Blu-ray for Matinee contain featurettes about the making of the movie and the making of the movie within the movie, and how Mant captured a certain retro vibe. Interviews with Joe Dante and various other members of the cast and crew help further paint a picture of this lovingly nostalgic and original film.
Matinee is such an earnest film lacking in cynicism about the gimmickry of old that its warmth is infectious. Any fan of this film or Joe Dante’s work would be more than pleased with this edition from Shout! Factory. Even if you’re a movie lover unfamiliar, I recommend Matinee as a glimpse into a fictional representation of a different kind of movie, a starter’s course in the works of William Castle. Just about every gimmick that Castle unleashed on audiences is referenced in Matinee and employed during the showing of Mant. The only thing rarer than the earnest love emanating from Matinee are the outlandish gimmicks presented in the film.