Made in the immediate wake of the Cold War’s end, Matinee is informed by the nuclear panic that defined the conflict for generations. Director Joe Dante’s 1993 comedy foregrounds the incredible terror and anxiety of knowing that total oblivion could be a moment away, and how those fears can be mitigated by escapism. Dante establishes the latter first, opening on a movie theater in 1962 Key West where an audience predominantly composed of children and teenagers watch a preview for a schlocky B movie about a man morphed into an ant by nuclear radiation. Shortly thereafter, two of the boys in attendance, Gene (Simon Fenton) and his younger brother, Dennis (Jesse Lee), are at home about to eat dinner when a TV broadcast is abruptly preempted to air President John F. Kennedy’s announcement of Soviets sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba. The film immediately and strikingly delineates the sense of existential horror that grips child and adult alike from the controlled scares of the monster movies that Gene and Dennis adore.
Dante’s gift as a satirist has long been his ability to respect the severity of the topics he skewers while remaining a fundamentally light-hearted, accessible comic voice, and that holds true of his approach to Cold War-era society. Gene and his classmates are subjected to duck-and-cover drills and exaltations of the benefits of eating red meat with every meal, and Dante homes in on the absurdity of such instructions being so sincerely given, tacitly underlining how these school plans are shaped by the government and other special interests. One can see the effects of this nonstop conditioning on the kids themselves, who speak with the chirpy patriotism one associates with 1950s propaganda films. One preteen girl dreamily talks about the “fighting boys” at a nearby base, while one of the many Navy brats at school constantly boasts of his attack readiness. Only Sandra (Lisa Jakub), a young girl who openly refuses to participate in nuclear drills for their obvious futility, breaks the mold of obedient schoolchildren, and her peers quickly denounce her as a communist.
Amid mounting panic over the Cuban Missile Crisis, Key West also finds itself the spot for a preview screening of Mant!, the new creature feature from schlockmeister Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman). Blatantly based on William Castle, Woolsey is a consummate professional at drumming up interest in his work. Woolsey even has some of his actors protest the film in order to generate controversy to boost ticket sales, and after renting out the town’s movie theater for his exhibition, he promptly installs motors in the seats so as to ensure that audiences more fully interact with Mant!
Woolsey gladhands almost as a reflex and cajoles producers, exhibitionists, and potential customers alike with a gregariousness that’s impossible to resist no matter how hard people try. Cigar permanently planted in his mouth or between his index and middle fingers, the man is a testament to the concept of being “on-brand.” Yet there’s a benevolence to Woolsey’s demeanor, from his avuncular interactions with super-fan Gene to the visible pleasure he gets in shocking crowds. Late in the film, the director takes one look at a flimsy bomb shelter clearly assembled by some fly-by-night operation to make a quick buck and laments, “I’m in the wrong business,” but it’s obvious that he’d never be as happy just fleecing people for pure profit.
Indeed, Woolsey’s desire to entertain is so great that he assembles a theatrical experience so intricate and multilayered that the Mant! screening comprises the entire final act of the film. At first, Woolsey’s gimmicks are relatively tame, form the gentle rumble of the theater’s seats, to a local teen who wears a Mant costume in order to scare audiences. Gradually, however, things spin out of control, with interpersonal conflicts coming to a head in the theater and the gimmicky effects getting more and more intense until the theater threatens to split in half and the audience’s pent-up nuclear terror is unleashed in a chaotic catharsis that terrifies the crowd but leaves them feeling ultimately reinvigorated. As much as the film pokes fun at classic B-movie dreck, the finale upholds the genre as a means not only of tackling subjects largely barred from mainstream, “respectable” cinema of the era but also providing a sense of release from the anxieties of the age.
John Hora’s cinematography mimics the bright colors and sharp contrasts of 1960s-era B movies and looks wonderful on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray. Textures are mostly stable, barring a few images where faces look slightly waxy. The disc comes with the original 2.0 stereo track as well as a 5.1 surround mix; both keep dialogue clear in the center, and the original stereo is a better reflection of the retro style of the film. However, the 5.1 track makes for a more overwhelming experience during the extended climax.
The most crucial extra here is the 18-minute version of Mant!, a spoof of Z-grade monster movies so spot on in its recreation of the genre's stilted acting, no-budget production design, and blunt expository dialogue that it's a shame Joe Dante didn't make a feature-length version of the film-within-the-film. There's even a making-of documentary about Mant! to go along with one for Matinee. Shout! also conducted new interviews with various members of the cast and crew, including Dante and Lisa Jakub, the latter of whom discusses the camaraderie among the young actors and how much trust Dante placed in them. The most interesting of the interview subjects, though, is production designer Steven Legler, who recounts how he managed to recreate 1960s-era décor and put together the massive theater set in spite of the film's financial difficulties and low budget. There are also a few deleted and extended scenes that contain little more than superfluous lines of dialogue.
Shout’s solid A/V transfer and set of extras does justice to Joe Dante’s underseen classic, made in an era that had only just emerged from omnipresent fear of nuclear annihilation.