Jul 17, 2021

MATINEE (1993)

Lots of filmmakers, especially those in the horror genre, were just kids during the 1960s when the Cuban Missile Crisis was a real threat to the existence of America and stability of the overall world. (If you’re a fan of the horror genre but have never seen the documentary The American Nightmare, you absolutely should, as this topic is discussed by all its horror director participants.) Living through this experience, while at the same time escaping to the cinema to see an array of B-pictures made by filmmakers eager to exploit this fear with their tales of gigantic insects or mutants caused by radiation, directly inspired many of them to become filmmakers. Joe Dante is definitely among them. 

Matinee is Dante’s ode to both that era of filmmaking as well as the turbulent political times of unrest that inspired it. Primarily known as a director adept at mixing horror and comedy, Matinee is more removed from Dante's generally utilized horror/comedy hybrids, though the genres are still a huge part of the overall experience. What results is an almost Capra-esque look back at what’s still considered to be the height of American exceptionalism, despite the recent memories of World War II still looming large in the minds of citizens and the threat of nuclear annihilation. America (especially the Baby Boomer generation) looks back on the 1950s and believes this was the last time society made sense. Dante captures that blemish-free illusion in spite of the international unrest, and like the fictional Lawrence Woolsey (based on the very real William Castle, director of the original House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and The Tingler), he looks to the power of cinema as escapism, especially in a genre that would allow Americans to exorcise their fears of the real world and lose themselves in a silly monster movie romp.

In this regard, Matinee is a success; where it falters, however, is in trying to tell too many stories and involving too many characters. Along with the international tensions, the drama of a young boy dealing with his father being stationed on a battleship, and the delight of John Goodman hamming it up as a shuckster filmmaker/promoter, we get not just one, nor two, but three teen love antics, a pair of shadowy and mysterious men covertly subduing crime while working on behalf of Woolsey, and a last-act “destruction” sequence that feels more perfunctory and confusing than it does exciting or thematically appropriate. Dante’s original intention for Matinee was much more mystical and esoteric, and much more firmly rooted in the horror genre, so that the finished product seems unfocused isn’t a surprise.

As a nostalgia piece, Matinee is a delight. As a cohesive narrative, it’s less effective, but Dante’s love for the time period and the silly radiation monster movies of the 1950s’ and ‘60s definitely comes through. This is Joe Dante at his most nostalgic and mature, so with that in mind, Matinee is easy to recommend.

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