Essays · Movies

‘Matinee’: Joe Dante’s Atomic Hustle 25 Years On

See ‘Matinee’! It will shock you that such visions of atomic mutations from yesteryear could leave you hopeful for a better tomorrow.
Matinee Vhs Art
By  · Published on January 30th, 2018

Hello, my name is William Dass, and I’m the author of this piece about Matinee. It’s been a quarter of a century in the making. You may not believe a small, quickly forgotten movie from 1993 about an even sillier genre of B-movie atomic spectacles from the Cold War era could thrill you in today’s highspeed world. And that’s okay. But, for some of you, the simple truth of this will be self-evident. Why, by the end of this piece, a truly perceptive few of you will see alarming similarities in that silly era and the social media nuclear brinksmanship of today which threatens the atomic fallout-free future of our children.

I certainly do.

From a master of horror specializing in showcasing the terrors of technology gone wrong and what happens when ordinary folk just plain make bad choices, came Matinee. There’s no trick he won’t exploit to leave you trembling in terror, whether it be audience electrocution or theatrical atomic bombs. He will shock you. Even if he has to install the seat buzzers himself. He will blow your mind with visions of the end of the world. Children’s lives will be endangered. Perhaps even lost.

He’s Joe Dante.

Matinee was Dante’s love letter to the bygone era of cinematic showmanship and a reminder of horror’s role in our lives. A role, I’ll add, which he and I agree is older than recorded history.

Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is a horror flick fiend with love for Famous Monsters magazines. Gene has recently moved to Key West after his dad was transferred to the Naval base. Once there, Gene’s dad is called out to sea to serve aboard a ship enforcing the naval blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Scared and uncertain, young Loomis gets interested in a coming attraction at his local theater: MANT. How could he not? The trailer offers to scratch an itch to which he doesn’t have the life experience to put his own words.

“So TERRIFYING, only SCREAMS can describe it. … FEAR will pierce your flesh until every nerve in your body EXPLODES.”

At the same time, Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), writer, director, producer of MANT arrived in town with his partner and leading lady, Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty), to promote and present the film in their unique way. They are pulling the strings that inexorably draw young Gene to the cinema.

Woolsey is a consummate showman. He makes micro-budget movies and fancies himself as a rival to Hitchcock. Where Hitchcock made thrillers, Woolsey makes movies like MANT. An ordinary man goes to the dentist to get his teeth x-rayed. Due to an unfortunate ant infestation, poor William becomes an atomic mutation of man and ant. You see? It isn’t subtle!

The beauty of Woolsey’s game is that it doesn’t have to be. It’s about the experience. The movie is just the vehicle that gets everyone packed together into a darkened room to experience the series of emotional wallops and jumps orchestrated by the maestro Woolsey.

Matinee Woolsey Framing

In the first draft of the script for Matinee, Woolsey wasn’t a character at all. In later drafts, he was a washed up science fiction actor on the tour circuit. By the final draft of the film, Woolsey was the director and producer we see in Matinee. That evolution is important to the film’s major success. Dante’s film shows the symbiosis between maestro and audience. Without Woolsey, Matinee wouldn’t have that.

Gene Loomis is the emotional heart and focus of the film. There’s no doubt about that. After all, he’s the person who experiences the catharsis Woolsey is trying to engineer. Loomis is us. We love the movies, and we can’t help but to want more of it. We need what it gives. Thrills. Revelations. Knowledge. Terrors. Experiences.

Woolsey is the architect of that experience. He puts dreams and nightmares on the screen for us to experience. But, your dreamers can’t keep their feet on the ground. They have to live up there in the sky with the stars — Okay, I’ll hold that line of argument right there. Let’s be straight. Yes, Woolsey’s a flimflam man with an advertising game indistinguishable from a con and plays fast and loose with facts and other people’s money. But, Woolsey’s dreams are bigger than his achievements. He believes in magic. In that regard, he is a believer of the highest order. Just, it also happens he believes in the monetary value of people experiencing the awe of his magic.

Loomis discovers very early on that Woolsey is social-engineering controversy around MANT. Once outed, Woolsey takes Loomis into his confidence and talks to him about why he got into the business in the first place.

“A zillion years ago, a guy’s 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 knows he is [alive]. And he feels it. So he goes home, back to the cave. The first thing he does is 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. You make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off. Everything’s okay. The lights come up.” – Lawrence Woolsey

It’s important to remember that filmmakers are ordinary mortals, same as you and me. They’re out on their hustle just like any other person. As Woolsey says in the film, they’re making it up as they go along just like everyone else. It just so happens that their hustle is all about putting our fears and hopes up there on the screen. Just like that caveman did before recorded history. If no one came to see it, how could they justify the struggle of crafting that message? We need our storytellers. But, our storytellers need us, too.

Matinee is a movie dedicated to the artistry of the cinema and the joy and purpose of experiencing it. Some of the technology Woolsey uses mirrors the theatrical gags employed over the years by producers trying to lure people into the theatrical environment. In fact, Woolsey is based on William Castle, whose introduction to The Tingler should be sufficient to spark your curiosity about his career. He uses a gag from Castle’s The Tingler with the seat buzzers. He also uses a gag premiered for Earthquake, with speakers designed to shake the walls. The higher and more real our terror, the greater the emotional catharsis when our hero wins the day and vanquishes the threat.

It’s funny the difference twenty-five years can make in your experience of a film. When I first saw Matinee in the early 90s, I was not quite a teenager. I remembered the fall of the Berlin Wall as a Thing Of Note that had happened. The Cold War was over. That air raid drill sequence in the film was so silly. What even was the point? The bombs never dropped anyway, and even if they had, a panicked duck-and-cover underneath a wood desk wouldn’t stop a million degree flash fry from vaporizing you. Preach on, kid.

Then, at the end of the movie, in the theater when the atomic explosion happens on screen. Hoo boy, it still looks great. In the 90s, I remember having the twelve-year old’s judgmental thought, equivalent to something like “Rubes.”

Rewatching it, I had a slightly different experience. After the false alarm of an incoming ballistic missile in Hawaii, it seems important to have a plan for what to do. The terror in Hawaii for those thirty-eight minutes touched me and colored my perspective on that moment. While I still agree that ducking and covering is so much nonsense, I wonder if maybe it’s a good idea to have some kind of order to hold onto in those moments. And that atomic explosion? My goodness did I connect with the guy who shouts “Jesus Christ, this is it.”

The world’s a mess right now. I guess it used to be, too. Maybe it will be tomorrow. Maybe that’s just the way it is. I don’t know. Woolsey tells Loomis in the movie that people who hid behind their hands aren’t getting the full benefit of the experience. Live your life in full-color terror with your eyes wide open. Because life goes on.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.