Thrills and Chills on the Brink: Matinee at 25

01/31/2018  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

My dad was eleven years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

When I was a kid, dad would tell me how my grandparents would send him to bed at night knowing that he may not wake up in the morning; that there very well might not be a morning to wake up to at all. Until very recently, living under that kind of fear was downright unthinkable in my lifetime. But with madmen playing atomic chicken across the Pacific and the whole world on edge, now seems like a pretty good time to revisit a movie that is strangely nostalgic for the last time the planet stepped to the brink: Joe Dante’s unsung masterpiece Matinee!

Matinee is the truest expression of Dante’s utter adoration for the magic of the moviehouse. The popcorn, the plush seats, the opportunities for romance, the weird gimmicks to get people away from their TVs; all of it combines into one glorious communal experience. In the film, John Goodman plays movie producer Lawrence Woolsey, who pitches anyone who will listen on his latest creature feature, Mant!, and the process that will revolutionize the movie business: Atom-O-Vision! Woolsey stakes every last penny on this being a big hit. So what if the Russians are threatening to launch nukes right offshore? As far as Woolsey is concerned, the Cuban Missile Crisis is good for business.

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Yes, who wouldn’t pay good money to be terrified by the thing that already keeps them awake at night?

You read that right. Matinee takes place in Key West in October of 1962, during the most frightening time in human history, and our story follows a group of kids stuck in the middle. Gene (Simon Fenton) and his family live on the naval base, his dad a sailor on one of the ships blockading Cuba. All Gene wants to do is keep his little brother occupied by scary movies so he doesn’t have to worry about the real danger 90 miles away. Enter Woolsey, an icon of Gene’s beloved horror movie magazines, who teaches Gene a thing or two about the movie business. Along the way, Gene falls for fellow student Sandra (Lisa Jakub), outspoken in her pleas against the effectiveness of bomb drills. (She vehemently decries the famous “Duck and Cover” technique seen below.)

Combining a love letter to B-movies with a nostalgia piece about the Cuban Missile Crisis is admittedly a tough sell, one that ultimately did not pay off at the box office. The film opened January 29th, 1993, brought in $9.5 million, and was all but forgotten by March. In a cruel twist of fate, The Sandlot came along that April and became a hit, dealing in much of the same 60s nostalgia as Matinee. Coincidentally, both films feature kids confronting their worst nightmares, as well as a scene in which a monster tears through the screen of a movie theater.

So why did The Sandlot become a 90s staple while Matinee languished in B-movie obscurity?

In terms of nostalgia, Matinee’s specificity is a liability, not an asset. It’s asking quite a lot of your audience to look back fondly on Key West in 1962, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the films of William Castle all at once. Also, while many adults in 1993 likely lived through the crisis, this is a film pitched more toward their children. I don’t know many kids who were clamoring to see a movie about any of this stuff back in 1993. I know I wasn’t; I didn’t discover this film until about a decade later. It’s far easier to look back on more abstract notions like summer and baseball, which is all The Sandlot asks of its viewers. The fact that it took place in the 60s was incidental, because all kids go out and play in the summer no matter the era.

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When I was in school this was a tornado drill. I think the teachers just liked seeing kids cower in fear.

If the movie had come out today, Matinee might still be hailed as a master’s love letter to his craft, but also as a film with an inappropriately rosy lens of history. It is nothing short of strange to look back on this film 25 years later to see nostalgia for the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film paints it as a time when everyone is on edge, and while families quietly fret at home around the TV, people are straight up losing their minds in the streets. We see a cartoonish riot break out at the grocery store, as two men fight over the last box of shredded wheat in the Florida Keys. Dante tries to depict the fear of the era in a way that kids can relate to, but at the same time portrays adults reacting in fear like complete wackos. The theater owner (the always great Robert Picardo) not only keeps a pocket radio for military updates, but he also has a fully stocked fallout shelter ready to go in the theater’s basement.

This is played as one big joke, almost as if to say “Wasn’t it silly that we used to act like this?” Of course, it’s easy to say that a full generation after the fact, in an immediately post-Cold War America. In 1993, we had won! What did we have to fear anymore? Certainly not nuclear annihilation. But as it so often does, history takes a strange turn, and Matinee itself now seems like a film from a simpler era. It’s a film made at a time when we didn’t have a nascent nuclear power breathing down our necks, or a president with an itchy trigger finger.

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One of my favorite running gags in the 90s was how bomb shelters were totally stupid.

The film falls into that trap that every generation hits at one point or another. The late 80s and early 90s were lousy with 60s nostalgia pieces. From The Wonder Years to Forrest Gump to The Sandlot, as well as the rise of Classic Rock radio and the revival of Woodstock, Boomer nostalgia for the 60s was inescapable for a while there. These things come in waves, of course, but it’s interesting to look at Matinee as one of the few pieces of that puzzle that tried to ride that wave and failed.

Matinee waxes nostalgic about the schlockmeisters of the 50s and 60s much in the same way that Stranger Things smashes our 80s nostalgia buttons today. Both occupy the same cultural space, dealing in the pop iconography of the era to evoke a certain mood and feeling. Stranger Things is fueled by the movies of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, remixing Reagan era pop culture into something new (and looks back on the 80s far more cynically than Matinee looks back on the 60s). 

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C’mon, everybody! Do the Mant!

Matinee evokes its era by blasting songs like “Walk Don’t Run” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, imagining the 60s exactly as it was with one notable exception: Mant! The centerpiece of the film is a movie spectacle dreamed up by Lawrence Woolsey that’s one-part giant bug movie (think Them! or Tarantula), and one part William Castle sensory overload (a la 13 Ghosts). Mant! depicts a man turning into a giant ant thanks to the wonders of atomic energy, complete with claws and animatronic mandibles. The effects work in these segments is wonderfully rendered, almost too good for the movies Dante is sending up.

The gimmicks don’t stop there, though. Woolsey has every seat rigged with buzzers to give the audience a little extra jolt, and his patented Rumble-Rama sound system literally brings the house down. Sparks fly out from the screen, hoses blast the audience with smoke and dust, it’s a full production. Nowadays it’s the kind of experience you can only get at Disney World, but back in the 50s and 60s, these were the gimmicks that got people into the theaters. And as Woolsey puts it, these are the thrills that make people appreciate being alive.

So after all that: Was it worth it?

From a financial perspective, Matinee still seems like a huge gamble. You take one of the most important events of the last century and use it as the backdrop for a cinematic love letter to the B-movies of yesteryear, and then gear it toward young audiences who likely have no frame of reference for either. Even today, that movie probably wouldn’t fly. There is certainly value in teaching young people about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but pinning so much of the film on 60s sci-fi kitsch feels like a move Joe Dante made purely to entertain himself. This was clearly a movie he wanted to make because these were things for which he had a strong passion.

Fortunately, that passion carries through in the final product. Matinee is still wonderfully entertaining, even if its motives and purpose don’t exactly make strong business sense. Instead, this feels like something more personal. Its nostalgia runs much narrower, but cuts all the deeper for it. In that regard, it has a lot in common with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, another love letter to 50s schlock that failed financially, but has built a strong cult following in the decades since. As an ode to crap cinema, Matinee is still a joy to watch. As an artifact of the 90s’ obsession with the 60s, this film feels more like a pure statement than some of the more brazen grabs for our parents’ nostalgia dollars. A couple decades removed now, Matinee itself feels very much like a product of its time. A version of this movie made in 2018 probably would not treat it history so kindly.

You can tell that Joe Dante really identifies with Lawrence Woolsey. Like Woolsey, Dante believes in the cathartic power of scary movies. Whether its creepy crawlies sending chills down our spine or the threat of nuclear war staring us in the face, nothing is more powerful than the rush that you get when you come out the other side okay. “Someday we’ll all look back on this and laugh,” as movies are so fond of saying. Matinee has that feeling that it was finally okay to look back on the Cuban Missile Crisis with a laugh. But as we now know, 25 years later, that feeling never really lasts.

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About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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