Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, or so people still trading on yesterday's puns assure us. Yet at the core of this well-worn trope sits a big fat grain of truth, as each generation becomes nostalgic for a different decade, usually the one in which they spent their formative years. I certainly have fond memories of the punk rebelliousness of the 1970s, but do sometimes wish I'd been born early enough to have been part of the first rock 'n' roll rebellion of the late 50s and early 60s, or been able to embrace the more positive rejection of establishment values that later followed, one based on love and good drugs rather than angry discontent. The 1960s, in particular, saw a whole generation of American filmmakers really come of age and later revisit to draw inspiration from. It's worth remembering, after all, that before being swallowed up by the creative black hole created by the blockbuster success of Star Wars, George Lucas made American Graffiti, one of the most exuberant celebrations of early 60s youth culture. Twenty years later, former animator and Roger Corman graduate Joe Dante made his own film about growing up at the dawn of this most influential of decades. But despite also being partly driven by nostalgia for a more innocent time, the result was a very different film.
I first saw Matinee back in 1993 when it first landed on UK shores, and while I remember enjoying it, something about it didn't quite click. Maybe my expectations were based a little too much on the films that had first made me a fan of the cinema of Joe Dante, from the super-smart horror-comedy of Piranha and The Howling to the gleeful mayhem of Gremlins and its even wilder sequel. Maybe it was because the time and place for which it had so much affection was outside of my own experience, or perhaps I just failed to connect with the multiple stories being told within the film's framework. But coming back to it over twenty years later, I was completely suckered in from an early stage, and what had once eluded me now seemed crystal clear. No question of it, watching Matinee on Arrow's delicious new Blu-ray proved a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience.
It's October 1962 in Florida's Key West, and young Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is at the cinema with his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) enjoying the trailer for Mant!, the latest monster movie from larger-than-life producer and showman Lawrence Woolsey (a perfectly cast John Goodman), who is due to make a personal appearance at this very venue on the occasion of the film's local premiere. It's quickly established that Gene's father is in the Navy and that he and his family have to move to wherever he is currently stationed. As is always the way when they shift location, Gene knows absolutely no-one at his latest school, but his knowledge of monster movies soon sees him strike up a friendship with fellow enthusiast Stan (Omri Katz). But his eye is really caught by fiery female student Sandra (Lisa Jakub) when she loudly refuses to take part in the school's 'duck and cover' drill on the basis that it will offer no protection should the bombs start falling.
It sounds like a set-up for an archetypal coming-of-age tale in which teenage love triumphs over the barriers thrown in its way. And the barriers are there, chief among them being that Gene's father has been sent to take part in the American blockade of Cuba following the recent deployment of Russian missiles, while Sandra's parents are well-meaning but overly touchy liberals who are unlikely to approve of such a union. And that's if the strong-willed Sandra could possibly have any real interest in a boy like Gene. But against expectations she takes an immediate shine to him, and despite the opportunities offered by Sandra's parents' innate distrust of the military, his father's Navy background gets only a passing mention too late in the story to have any impact. Indeed, it turns out that the troubled road to love is to be walked not by Gene at all but his new friend Stan, whose love-struck pursuit of the bubbly Sherry (Kellie Martin) is derailed when he is soundly warned off by her previous boyfriend Harvey (James Villemaire), a quiff-haired and leather-jacketed former prison poet. Also juggling a collection of personal issues is Lawrence Woolsey, who despite his notoriety is in dire need of a commercial hit, while his actress partner Ruth Corday (a superbly cynical Cathy Moriarty) is so weary of his broken promises and child-like optimism that she's teetering on the verge of walking out on him. Thus while Gene may be our initial point of contact, his is not the only story being told here and quickly develops into an ensemble piece whose individual narratives overlap and interweave in sometimes intriguing and often amusing fashion.
Equally multi-layered are the setting and background politics of the piece, as the Cuban Missile Crisis brings public fear of nuclear war to a head, feeding the paranoia of tetchy cinema manager Howard (Robert Picardo) but delighting Woolsey, who sees this as a perfect time to release an atomic themed monster movie. For Gene, the impact is altogether more personal, taking his father away and placing him on what could be the front line of a conflict that could be a trigger for World War 3. It's a fear that gives birth to the film's most unexpectedly poignant scene, when Gene dreams that he hears his father's voice and wakes to find his mother tearfully watching old home movies of the family in less stressful times.
Woolsey, as anyone with a fondness of exploitation cinema of years past will quickly realise, is based directly on producer William Castle, whose carnivalesque gimmicks included insuring audience members for death by fright when watching Macabre; requiring anyone who walked out of Homicidal during its 'Fright Break' to sign a confession of their cowardice in a specially constructed "Coward's Corner"; and trundling a skeleton over the heads of the audience during a key scene in The House on Haunted Hill. Here two of his most celebrated tricks are entertainingly recreated, the first involving a fake nurse installed in the lobby to tend to anyone who might faint with fear (a role fulfilled by the weary Ruth, who shows an active disinterest in genuine afflictions), the second the wiring up of cinema seats with buzzers to deliver physical jolts to random audience members when the film itself spills over into the cinema, a process Castle notoriously employed in The Tingler. Adding to the mix here is a process Woolsey calls Rumble-Rama, which uses lower frequency bass notes pumped through giant speakers to trigger physical vibration, a real world technique that didn't actually make its debut until the mid-1970s, where it was marketed as Sensurround and famously employed to make you feel part of the action in Earthquake. Where Woolsey and Castle do part company is in the content of their films, the atomic mutation and wobbly dialogue of Mant! having more the feel of a movie co-directed by Jack Arnold and Edward L. Cahn, with a little help on the cast from Edward D. Wood Jnr.
As well as working as a multi-stranded drama, Matinee also shines as an ode to the specific pleasure of watching films on the big screen, or at least how we recall what it was like when we were kids. This is most overtly realised in a short sequence in which Woolsey almost dreamily outlines to Gene the lure of the cinema as an institution, and the camera snakes through the lobby and up into the auditorium as if drawn there by Woolsey's seductive prose. Re-watching the film also reveals just how thoughtfully the narrative is structured and how almost every even outlandish event is the result of visible cause and effect. There is little in the first half that does not somehow resonate in the second, from Harvey's jealousy of Stan's romantic pursuit of Sherry to a climactic structural breakdown that is set up early on in an almost throwaway comment from Howard to Woolsey about termites and humidity.
As if this wasn't enough, there's a further layer of small delights that feel almost designed specifically for film fans to relish. Principal amongst these is the Mant! film itself, a delicious pastiche of 50s atomic monster movies that absolutely nails their content and style, simultaneously sending them up whilst paying respectful homage to them. Less prominent but every bit as smart a piece of cinematic parody is the film that so bores Gene and Dennis that they walk out of it midway through. Titled The Shook-Up Shopping Cart, it perfectly apes those live-action Disney films of the late 60s and early 70s that anthropomorphised animals and inanimate objects, complete with bright scope cinematography, cheesy slapstick gags and larger-than-life comic performances from a well picked cast, who include in their number Dante regular Archie Hahn and a then unknown newcomer named Naomi Watts. Adding a dash of cult casting fun is the duo who turn up outside the cinema to protest the screening of this immoral film but who are actually on Woolsey's payroll to stir up public interest, a delicious double-act consisting of Dante and Corman favourite Dick Miller and director John Sayles, who co-scripted Dante's debut feature, Piranha. And keeping it appropriately po-faced as the army General who attempts to lure the title character in Mant! with big sacks of sugar is Kevin McCarthy, star of 50s sf masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers and by this point was something of a Dante regular.
It's always nice to return to a film after a break of a couple of decades and discover that it's everything you remember it to be, but it's a rare pleasure to revisit one and enjoy it far more than you did when you first encountered it, and that's certainly the case with Joe Dante's Matinee. Energetic, inventive and a great deal of fun, it's a film whose specific memories you don't have to share to be able to embrace the appeal of the childhood love of cinema that it so joyfully celebrates.
An absolutely gorgeous 1.85:1 transfer that wonderfully showcases John Hora's luminous cinematography, delivering consistently sharp detail, a generous contrast range and sumptuous colour, with crisp black levels, naturalistic skin tones and vividly rendered primes. Virtually spotless and displaying a very fine level of film grain, this is a real showcase for HD restorations of cult films from previous decades.
The Linear PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack is also in spanking shape, boasting an excellent clarity and the sort of dynamic range I more readily associate with DTS tracks, albeit without the sort of LFE bass tremors that Rumble-Rama would doubtless trigger on a Dolby 5.1 or DTS mix. Jerry Goldsmith's typically fine score sounds terrific throughout.
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also included, and include the sound effect created by Rumble-Rama.
Bit Parts! The Joe Dante Players (10:07)
Some of the film's key supporting players discuss their roles in Matinee and being part of Dante's regular troupe of actors, while Dante himself chips in on why he likes to re-use them. Robert Picardo recalls first working with Dante, Belinda Balaski reflects on the very different roles she gets as a character actor, and Archie Hahn claims he wouldn't have a film career were it not for being regularly cast by this director. John Sayles gives an idea what's required of a good day player, and Dick Miller (in an extract from the enjoyable biographical documentary That Guy Dick Miller) still regards Dante as his favourite director.
Atomo-Vision! Making Matinee (8:04)
Director of photography John Hora and editor Marshall Harvey look back at the making of Matinee, and particularly the nature of their collaboration with Dante. Hora admits that he loves shooting period films but has only done two, and revealingly explains how the camera angles become more stylised as the film progresses in order to ease the audience into the wilder stuff. Harvey, meanwhile, states that as an ex-editor himself Dante loves being in the editing room and always shoots with the edit in mind. "Being an editor can be frustrating and fun," Harvey admits. "On a Joe Dante movie it's mostly fun."
Paranoia in Ant Vision (31:21)
Originally produced for a French 2011 disc release by Carlotta films, this interview with the typically upbeat Joe Dante is packed with interesting stories on the film and its making. The process of writing, re-writing and securing European funding (which ultimately failed to materialise) is covered in some detail, and having agreed to pick up the tab, Universal executive Tom Pollock's first reaction to the finished film was apparently "How am I going to sell this?" The influence of Dante's own memories and favourite genre films of the period are given appropriate coverage, as is the decision to base Lawrence Woolsey on William Castle – Dante even has a copy of the densely packed instructions sent to cinema managers on how to rig up their venues with the seat-buzzing 'Percepto' for screenings of The Tingler. It was also here that I learned that actor Simon Fenton, who plays the very American Gene, was actually British, selected when an exhaustive search failed to find a local actor who was right for the role.
All of the extracts from Mant! that feature in Matinee, edited together in chronological order and uninterrupted by cutaways or foreground action, which really brings home just how great a job Dante and cinematographer John Hora did on emulating the look and tone of science-fiction B-movies of the period. There's a nice reference to The Fly (a key influence on the afflicted Bill's transformation into Mant) in an exchange between him and his wife Carole – "Tell the truth, honey," the ant-headed Bill asks, "if I looked like this when we first met..." "I would have been afraid, Bill," Carole replies, "I would have been very afraid." It's all enormous fun, and while much of the dialogue has been lifted from key genre films of the day (I'm guessing some of the music has too), resident expert Dr. Flankon's habit of condescendingly simplifying big words for Carole ("You're seeing it in a magnified – or larger – form") had me giggling helplessly throughout.
The Mant! Trailer (3:32) is also a brilliant bit of pastiche that borrows footage from other genre B-movies, notably The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, absolutely nails the graphical style of the titles and captions ("Half Man. Half Ant. All Terror!"), and even includes an abrupt soundtrack splice-click at the end.
Also in this section is a Foreword by Joe Dante (6:18) to both Mant! and the Mant! trailer, also produced for the 2011 French disc release. There's plenty of useful information here, and I was unreasonably chuffed to learn that this film-within-a-film was shot on monochrome stock rather than simply desaturated in post, and that Dante's key instruction to the effects team was they should not deliberately trash up the Mant head and creature, but make it look as good as they could for the sort of budget these films would have had in their day.
Original EPK (4:26)
Typical of Electronic Press Kits of the period in its mix of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the film, all framed 4:3 and having a very videotape look. Keeping the illusion alive, Simon Fenton retains an American accent even in interview.
Behind the Scenes Footage (8:21)
Some welcome behind-the-scenes video footage from Joe Dante's personal archive of the shooting of four sequences from the film.
Deleted Scenes (2:27)
5 deleted single-shot sequences, including a nicely performed exchange between Gene and his mother. Right at the very end there's a single frame of something that looks distinctly unrelated – viewed on a computer with the right software, it plays for considerably longer and turns out to be a sequence from Edward Zwick's 1992 Leaving Normal. If this is meant to be an Easter Egg I've been unable to find a connection to Matinee, but it may just be a glitch on the review disc. That said, I still can't help wondering how it got there in the first place...
Original Trailer (1:55)
A lively and seductive sell that would have sent me scurrying to the cinema.
It's also Arrow's usual practice to include a booklet containing at least one authoritative essay on the film in question, but if so this wasn't included with the review disc.
A film that celebrates our childhood love of cinema made by someone who genuinely loved cinema as a child and whose affection for the experience as it once was has never waned. Smartly structured, peppered with distinctive and energetically performed characters, and vividly recreating its period setting without resorting to post-production visual game-playing, it's a hugely enjoyable work from one of modern cinema's most upbeat enthusiasts. A wonderful transfer and a fine set of extras make this another notch in Arrow's home entertainment belt. Highly recommended.