Thursday, April 10, 2008
Keep Your Eyes Open
As the Joe Dante-programmed festival at the New Beverly gets uderway, titled Dante’s Inferno of course, I thought it was an ideal time to revisit his vastly underappreciated 1993 film MATINEE, which I hadn’t seen for a number of years. MATINEE has been unfortunately made difficult to see in recent years, with the DVD out of print and even that was a bare-bones job which came without the complete MANT, a feature that had already been included on the old laserdisc release. So to see it again I had to make due with an old VHS dub that I fortunately still have of that laserdisc. It’s better than nothing. What I found is a movie that feels truly heartfelt and personal. Viewing it fifteen years after its release in theaters is about as wistful as I would have expected. I may not have been around during the time the film is set but I can certainly relate to its idea of just how special movies seemed when I was a child. More importantly, I can also remember when the thrill of going to movie theaters really did have a sense of mystery and magic to the experience.
Set in Key West just as the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs in 1962, John Goodman plays Lawrence Woolsey, monster movie maker who has arrived in town to preview his latest opus MANT (“Half man, half ant, all terror!”) which, we are told, will be presented in ATOMO-VISION. Much of how Woolsey is presented brings memories of William Castle to mind but the character really is an amalgam of various people and genres. The film MANT feels more like a 50s monster saga than anything Castle ever made (I know I’ve heard some of that dialogue in actual films) and since Goodman’s character has no affiliation to any major studios, this makes him similar to some of the regional filmmakers of the time—the name certainly recalls that of the Woolner Brothers. But the movie is told from the point of view of Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a military brat who has recently moved to the local base with his family and is still getting to know the new town. Into his world comes new friend Stan (Omri Katz, who had just worked for Dante on EERIE, INDIANA) who is dealing with a hoped-for relationship with Sherry (Kellie Martin) but is faced with the reappearance of her old boyfriend Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire—I’m guessing the name is a combination of Charles Starkweather and Harvey Lembeck from the beach party movies). As Gene begins to take an interest in cute peacenik Sandra (Lisa Jakub) he also gets excited by the arrival of Lawrence Woolsey and discovers an in so he can get to know Woolsey himself.
As charming as the period setting is, what makes the movie sing and the reason it remains such a heartfelt piece of work lies in what it says about not just the joy of seeing movies—especially horror movies--but in the primal ritual of going to the movies, something I think we can all remember from when we were small children. Lawrence Woolsey’s soliloquy about the process of entering a theater, the thrill, the trepidation, all the expectations that go with the walk through the lobby, brought a small chill to me viewing it this time. This seems especially true considering how the concept of going to a single-screen theater like the one in this film is something sadly retreating into the past far too quickly. In addition, the glories of MANT itself reveal it as just about the only kind of recreation in one of these movies which has ever worked. It contains just the right amount of silliness of those movies to tweak it in the right way but it also reveals the affection Dante truly has for those movies he grew up with. They may not necessarily be “good” but that doesn’t mean that they’re actually “bad”. You can tell that he truly loves them. And the way it deifies horror movies, or maybe more to the point, monster movies, it seems like he loves them, how completely thrilling they can be, most of all. “Keep your eyes open,” Woolsey reminds the young lead. It’s applying both the terror and joy in watching these movies to real life and I can think of few other examples which have ever bothered to treat the genre with such reverence. Watching the film this time, I noticed various movie posters in the theater’s lobby which includes not just classics like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, but CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER (announced for the Dante’s Inferno fest, then sadly replaced) and a few titles which seem to tie in to the film being viewed, especially the amazing British film THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE which could actually be considered a bit of a thematic cousin to MATINEE.
With a wonderful screenplay by Charlie Haas, the first half of the film is gentle, leisurely—almost surprisingly leisurely when watched in 2008. The child actors who play the leads—several of whom seem to have left the business, with the obvious exception of Kellie Martin—are each likable and not too affected. But even better are the adult actors including not just Goodman but Cathy Moriarty as Ruth Corday (she nails her MANT scenes big time), Dante regular Robert Picardo as the theater manager and the Mutt and Jeff pairing of John Sayles and Dick Miller as a pair of mysterious individuals who show up to protest the showing of Woolsey’s film—how great would a movie which focused on these two characters be? Jesse White, who actually worked with William Castle, turns up as a theater chain owner in his final film—from the look of him, it’s too bad he never got to play Sam Arkoff. A few other familiar Dante faces turn up as well (especially in some terrific roles in MANT), but most surprising is the early Naomi Watts appearance as the star of THE SHOOK-UP SHPPING CART, a particularly dead-on skewering of Disney movies of the period.
The idea of the past, of childhood being a simpler time, is something that I think we can all relate to. We can enjoy ourselves while watching MATINEE, but we know there’s more coming in the future which is out of reach of its characters. It’s one of the many affecting things about the movie, even though it wisely doesn’t make too big a thing of it. But it’s there in every scene.
The unique comic tone in Dante’s films going all the way back to the seventies is something that I’ve long been a huge admirer of and it’s a true shame that he’s fallen out of favor with the studios in recent years. There are few other directors whose films display such a true love for both the craft of making them and the movies themselves. I truly wish that at some point this year I could be lucky enough to go to the theater and see a new Joe Dante film. But I’ll be there at the New Beverly looking forward to the films that he’ll be showing along with whatever he might have to say about them in his introductions. Maybe I’ll even go to the midnight shows of GREMLINS 2 and THE HOWLING since I’ve only seen those about fifty times each and what the hell, once more won’t hurt. And it won’t hurt if I see MATINEE again very soon. On the list of movies that display the greatest, purest love for the movies and everything they mean to us in life, MATINEE belongs right up near the top.