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Retro Review: Matinee (1993)

In my humble opinion, "Matinee" is one of the most underrated films of all time.  I'm not a high-society movie snob, so don't think I'm saying it's on par with Casablanca or anything.  Not that Casablanca is underrated, but you know what I mean.  Matinee is a great "feel-good popcorn movie." It went pretty under the radar in 1993 (and since).  While it may be considered a financial failure by the movie studio, it's easily one of my favorite movies from the 1990s.

Recently, on an episode of the Gnarly 90s Podcast, we looked back on 1993 in a Time Capsule format.  Part of my job for the episode was to compile a list of movies for 1993, namely the top ten most successful films of the year.  I also had a list of other notable films from 1993 that we covered both on the show and in the special Patreon Exclusive After Hours episode.  

Unfortunately, even though it was highlighted in my notes, when we had finished recording, I realized I had failed to mention Matinee as one of 93's films worthy of discussion.  

I'll have to bring it up in a future episode because it's worth discussing.  And since I don't know when I'll get to squeeze it into another episode of the podcast, I'll cover it here on YesterYear Retro. 

Opening at number 6 at the box office, Matinee lasted only a short time in theaters, earning $9.5 million during its run in theaters.  Against a budget of $13 million, Universal Pictures considered the film a failure.  It basically threw the film into a closet and locked the door, as a DVD wasn't produced until 2010.  When the DVD finally came out, there weren't even any special features included.  A BluRay was eventually made in 2018 that actually had some special extra features.

Matinee barely made it past the cutting room floor.  When funding from Sovereign Pictures fell through in December of 1991, director Joe Dante turned to Universal Pictures, with whom he'd just signed a 2-year "first-look" deal.  Universal had already financed a small portion of the film's $13 million budget and agreed to pay to complete the movie.  

As a 9-year-old in 1993, I can't say I remember seeing advertisements for Matinee or going to see it in theaters.  Even though it was PG-rated, it wasn't something that would have caught m attention, and based on its performance, it's no wonder I didn't ever see it in theaters.  

Released on Super Bowl weekend, it was as if it was almost doomed to fail from the start.  The advertising campaign did a terrible job explaining anything to viewers other than to remind them that the director had also filmed "Gremlins" nearly ten years before.  

Matinee first caught my attention on television when it was broadcast one evening, probably in late 1994 or early 1995.  My first inclination is that it aired on WPIX-11 on a Saturday afternoon, but it could have just as easily aired on a weeknight on NBC, given its Universal ties.  

I'm not sure what made me record the movie on VHS, but boy, am I glad I did.  I was instantly enamored with the film and must have worn that tape out watching it over and over.  I cherished that old black VHS with my chicken scratch "Matinee" written on the label for many years.  For this article, I went digging into my small collection of old VHS tapes, and to my horror, I could no longer find it.  

I will continue searching for it, and should it turn up, I'll digitize it and add it to my YouTube channel.

The cast is filled with Hollywood icons, well-known character actors, and child actors who became stars much later in life.  These days, it seems like Hollywood likes to pass off near 30-year-olds as teens.  Matinee refreshingly assigned age-appropriate actors for the children.  They look like children and act like children.  They fit the movie perfectly, and some of them, like Lisa Jakub or Kellie Martin, go on to have their own wonderful film and television careers.  

Obviously, John Goodman receives top billing in the movie.  During the filming and release of Matinee, he's at the peak of his popularity on television's Roseanne.  By the way, he crammed filming Matinee between the end of the season of Roseanne and his next film, Born Yesterday.  He performs very well and makes you believe that he is indeed the huckster and film pioneer Lawrence Woolsey.  

Cathy Moriarty, one of my favorite female actresses, appears as Ruth Corday, Woolsey's long-time girlfriend, fiancee, or maybe wife.  I'm not really sure of their actual relationship status since it's never really mentioned.  As Woolsey's better half, she also plays the leading lady in all of his low-budget films.  Cathy's ability to portray how tired she is of Lawrence's showmanship and her distinct, recognizable voice makes her perfect for the long-suffering actress that dutifully supports her man.  

Several great supporting members round out the cast.  I immediately recognized the great Dick Miller, an icon of character acting, who appears as one of Woolsey's promotional "protestors." Robert Picardo, of Star Trek and Wonder Years fame, plays the hysteric theater manager who is terrified of but prepared for nuclear fallout.  B-movie legend Kevin McCarthy also appears in the movie within the movie, Mant!

Filming for Matinee began in March of 1992 in Florida and Los Angeles.  According to production notes, the interior scenes were filmed on two sound stages at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida.  Due to heavy tourism at the actual Strand Theater in Key West, the Cocoa Village Playhouse doubled as the Strand's exterior.  An additional week of filming took place actually in Key West, Florida.  

As the film opens, Navy brat Gene (Simon Fenton) and his little brother are watching the coming attractions at the Saturday matinee movie, a fictional children's film "The Shook Up Shopping Cart." A trailer for "Mant!" appears on the screen, boasting of atomic explosions, kitschy horror gore, and the corny sales pitch of "Half man... half ant... ALL TERROR!"  

After the movie, the boys head home.  A news broadcast on television outlines the developing Cuban Missile Crisis, and their Mom informs them that their father is aboard one of the ships headed toward Cuba.  Suddenly, being the first to see "Mant!" when it arrives in Key West becomes a necessary escape for Gene.  We then see his bedroom walls (and floors) are covered with movie posters and horror magazines.  Gene was definitely a fan of Woolsey's schlock horror flicks.  

Despite his introduction in the film with an Alfred Hitchcock profile silhouette (and later a fan asking him for his autograph thinking he was Hitchcock), John Goodman's Lawrence Woolsey is based loosely on real-life filmmaker William Castle. 

Castle, a mid-1940s director for Columbia Pictures, has a list of B-movies to his credit and was an associate producer for an Orson Welles film, "The Lady from Shangai." In 1958, however, he struck out on his own, directing low-budget horror films.  To call attention to his own movies, Castle began running a gimmick where he would provide viewers with insurance policies from Lloyds of London to pay $1,000 should they die of fright during his film.  "Nurses" were also stationed in the theater, should they be needed.  Castle even paid the local undertaker to park his hearse outside the theater "just in case."  

While Matinee's Woolsey isn't meant to be William Castle entirely, he's still a low-budget horror producer who delves into outrageous promotion to sell tickets.  

Woolsey arrives in Key West to showcase his newest film, "Mant!" This movie-within-the-movie is likely based on the Jeff Goldblum hit The Fly, where a man is transformed into a half-man/half-fly mutation after a science experiment goes wrong.  In Mant!, the mutation begins after being bitten by an ant during a dental X-ray.  

While the film is set during an era of nuclear paranoia, the film is mostly about 1960s nostalgia and a coming-of-age story set amid the chaos.  Joe Dante has repeatedly stated that it reflects a simpler time and the "innocence of Atomic Age horror movies." 

While it's easy to say the movie focuses on Woolsey and his new film, it's really about the budding romances of teenagers growing up under the dark cloud of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Some residents of Key West suggest it might be a good idea to postpone the preview out of good taste and an already terrified audience.  Woolsey doesn't think twice when refusing to do so, stating that horror movies do best in tense political times.  He then hires some out-of-town guys (played by John Sayles and character actor icon Dick Miller) to stage a phony protest that calls more attention to the movie.  While the faux protest brings people to line up at the box office, Woolsey is busy installing the "Atom-O-Scope" and "Rumble Rama" special features inside the theater.

Gene meets Woolsey at the protest and tells him, as a reader of horror magazines and fan of Lawrence's own movies, he knows who the "protestors" are.  Woolsey, taken with the kid and wanting to keep the secret about his hired help from getting out, brings Gene in on the act.  He offers an inside look at his "production," which is more than just a film.  It's an immersive, multi-sensory production that he hopes will scare the pants off those who see it.

One of the best scenes in the movie sees Woolsey explain horror filmmaking to young Gene.  Woolsey describes the magic of the theater experience with an expertly written exchange: 

"People who go like this at the scary parts (covering his eyes) ... they're not getting the whole benefit.  You gotta keep your eyes open… Okay, like a zillion years ago, a guy is living in a cave.  He goes out one day—BAM!—he gets chased by a mammoth.  Now he's scared to death, but he gets away.  And when it's all over with, he feels great… He goes home, back to the cave.  The first thing he does, he does a drawing of the mammoth.  And he thinks, ''People are coming to see this.  Let's make it good.  Let's make the teeth real long and the eyes real mean.'' Boom!  The first monster movie.  That's probably why I still do it.  Make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, and everything's ok... the lights come up…"

Woolsey finishes with a satisfied sigh for effect.  I love it.

One other funny exchange, proving that Woolsey is always scheming, is when he spies a toy alligator during the middle of an unrelated conversation.  He immediately begins spitballing potential movie titles ("Alli-man, Man-igator... GAL-IGATOR!") before returning to the conversation. 
On the day the preview arrives, Gene and Dennis show up with Gene's new friend Stan (Omri Katz) as the world around them braces for nuclear destruction.   Also attending the premiere is a couple of female classmates, distracting the teenage boys from almost everything.  Gene is attracted to Sandra (Lisa Jakub), the strong-willed girl from school who received detention when she interrupted a duck-and-cover drill.  Stan is enamored by his "experienced" classmate Sherry (Kelli Martin) but faces a quandary.  He's with Gene at the theater after breaking off his date with Sherry following several threats from her much older ex-boyfriend, the town hoodlum Harvey Starkweather. 

Starkweather is a fun choice for a last name.  It's a wink and a nod to anyone who remembers Charles Starkweather, the serial killer from 1958 who was on the run after killing eleven people.  Charles was 19 and traveled with a 14-year-old girlfriend.  Pretty darn similar to Harvey and Sherry.

When Sherry shows up at the theater with her little brother and sees Stan there with Gene, she is immediately angry, thinking she has been lied to.  Eventually, through the help of Gene and Sandra, the two wind up making up (and out) during the film.

Harvey, the ex-boyfriend, was hired by Woolsey (relationship drama unbeknownst to him) to dress up in a Mant outfit and terrorize the audience (that's primarily young children, mind you) at key moments during the film.  At one point during his performance, Harvey spots Sherry and Stan swapping spit in the audience, and his rage kicks off a chain of events that literally brings the house down around everyone.  

During the confusion of the special effects gone wrong and the nuclear panic of the audience, Gene and Sandra find themselves locked in the theater manager's prized fallout shelter behind the big screen.  It doesn't take long after the door seals the two inside before they decide to begin an attempt at repopulating the planet.  

Matinee seems to be all but forgotten these days.  Although, during its time, it received much praise from critics, in the end, it wasn't very successful.  Perhaps because it was PG-rated, but that was part of the movie's charm to me.  Not everything has to be over-the-top adult oriented.  Even if Matinee had benefited from better timing and a more successful ad campaign, there is a good chance it may have never been a box office success.  You just never know. 
However, the movie continues to be one of my favorites.  It's a gentle, charming, and at times goofy movie that is funny and entertaining, regardless of your level of movie nerd-dom.  If you are big into movies and are deep into Joe Dante films and the history of "B" horror flicks, all the better!  If you just want a lighthearted popcorn movie, then this is for you, too!