30 Years Ago, Joe Dante’s Matinee Explained the Wonder and Terror of Cinema

Movies Features Joe Dante
30 Years Ago, Joe Dante’s Matinee Explained the Wonder and Terror of Cinema

As so many have pointed out, 2022 was a big year for movies depicting the symbiotic wonder and terror of cinema, from the broken dreams of Pearl to the glory and carnage of Babylon to the deadly spectacle of Nope to, finally, the bittersweet obsession of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which became an unofficial ambassador of this Dark Magic of the Movies mini-boom when it turned out to be the only one to net a Best Picture nomination. But 30 years ago, Spielberg’s sometime collaborator Joe Dante was already reckoning with the dark impulses behind a childhood love of cinema with Matinee. Like Spielberg before him, Dante’s ’60s-set remembrance bombed with audiences while hitting its movie-nerd target audience straight in the heart.

Many of Dante’s previous movies involved monsters, kids on an adventure, or kids on an adventure fighting monsters, though he skewed more satirical and less sentimental than, say, The Goonies, a similarly Spielberg-produced Warner Bros. release that even had a name reminiscent of Dante’s Gremlins. Matinee makes the monster-picture fanboy subtext of Dante’s referential movies into the text – it’s about Gene (Simon Fenton), an army-brat monster fanatic, coming of age in 1962 Florida – and expands on it, theorizing about the catharsis of getting cheap thrills from the movies, horror in particular, comparing them to cave paintings. “You make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up…” explains Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), an outsized huckster of a movie producer modeled on William Castle. A life of selling that catharsis to the masses has made Woolsey faithful to the church of cinematic hokum, and unflappable in the face of potential annihilation. As the Cuban Missile Crisis looms, he’s unbothered and sees only opportunity to sell his new monster movie: “Millions of people looking over their shoulder, waiting for God’s other shoe to drop, never knowing if each kiss, each sunset, each malted milk ball might be their last.” Is that so different from the romantic impulse that drove people out to the biggest hits – many of them horror – of the pandemic era?

The movie that Woolsey imagines his audience might imagine as their last is Mant!, an enterprise perfectly explained by its tagline: “half man, half ant, all terror!” Gene and his friends are dying to see it, and Matinee’s plot gathers up some comic threads, among them Gene’s tentative courtship of Sandra (Lisa Jakub), the school activist whose parents insist on their family’s free-speech right to see Mant! even though it has few to no socially redeeming qualities. (The free-speech angle is cooked up by Woolsey himself, staging moral-majority-style protests outside the theater before the film opens.)

Matinee’s cartoonishness is gentler than some of Dante’s other movies, saving the silliest antics for the clips of Mant! itself, which remain just on the right side of deadpan parody. (Dante also savages the Disney junk of the time with a coming-attraction clip from The Shook-Up Shopping Cart.) These are some of his most immediately believable human characters, and he doesn’t drown them in sap. As in those 2022 titles, the transporting catharsis of the movies turns violent, even (or especially) in the face of the younger characters’ innocence; Woolsey outfits the single-screen movie house previewing Mant! with a gimmicky “rumble-rama” sound-and-beyond system that threatens to literally bring the house down, and cause a nuclear panic in the bargain. Sandra, of course, gets in trouble at school for ranting about the ineffectiveness of duck-and-cover drills.

Matinee’s January 1993 release put it just a little over 30 years past the Cuban Missile Crisis, which means it’s now was old as that historical event was at the time. Doomsday clock notwithstanding, today’s threats of annihilation feel less coordinated, more diffuse by virtue of competition: Will a pandemic get us before climate change does? (No need to count out nuclear anxiety, either, at least not as casually as it may have been laughed off from the relative comfort of 1993.) The movie palace of horrors has become a multiplex, and the doomsday scenarios, slicker and more weightless than ever, have diffused along with it. In Matinee, the potential real-life disaster does enough work that Woolsey’s doesn’t need to be especially apocalyptic. Mant! has just enough tactility – a vivid pincer here, a grotesque mandible there — to provide a momentary jolt, and Woolsey uses his proto-4DX tricks to supplement the effect. Its real-life ancestors are so many B-pictures, literally and spiritually of January, that carnival-bark their way to the bank. Craft isn’t unheard of, but it’s definitely optional.

While Matinee can end with the happy hindsight of nuclear war not launching in 1962, nor in the 30 years that followed, Dante also merrily refuses to provide absolute reassurance. Before they part, Woolsey confides to Gene that older age doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom, and grown-ups are improvising just as desperately as kids are, sometimes with unimaginable responsibilities in their hands. It’s delivered with the cheerful wink of a man who still loves selling that escape into terror, and the release back into the world that comes packaged with it. Another 30 years past the movie’s future, bringing this original-release viewer from the cusp of teenage into middle age, and those words seem equal parts wise and terrifying – an admission that our survival is as fluky as any poor irradiated half-ant shmuck, and a lot less scripted. Dante releases back into the sunlight, knowing that our glorious post-horror relief, too, will fade. It’s what keeps us coming back into the dark.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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