It usually goes without saying that a personal project for a film maker is probably not going to be a commercial venture. Joe Dante, known best for the likes of Gremlins and The Howling has of course done plenty of comedy melded with various other genres. But this is something quite different, a movie about the experience of movie going itself. It’s a story set during very specific era of his childhood; a nostalgic look into the past where double features played against news reels about the Cold War, as well as a story about escaping to see a creature feature while the impending real life catastrophes were all too plausible. However it’s also full of character and wry humour, so despite the blend of subject matters this is something we can all enjoy. Although perhaps you’ll get a richer experience if you’re familiar with the kinds of old style rubber monsters the kids in the movie are lining up to see. It’s time to face the terrifying reality of atomic mutation…
Half man, half ant… it’s MANT! It’s probably as hokey today as it was back then, but it’s still as endearing as it is entertaining as a concept; the power of the atom as a catalyst of giant insects. This is the big theatre event in a small Florida town, but there other things going on here. It’s 1962, and while portents of doom are building out in the seas between the US and Cuba, film producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) thinks it’s the perfect time to start up the hype machine for his latest horror picture. Clearly modelled on William Castle, producer of things like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill, he’s all about the showmanship; the big sell of the big gimmicks. The latest Woolsey picture will be using high tech ideas of his own design like Rumble-Rama and Atomo-Vision (TM) to make it even more realistic. Just like the real life film maker he hands out warnings to those who might die of shock in the cinema and he appears in the trailers to give it all a personal touch.
While he arrives in town to set all this in motion behind the scenes, his audience are just starting to have their interested piqued. Gene (Simon Fenton) along with his younger brother and his friends are all going to be heading out to see the film and meet Woolsey who will be making an appearance. A lot of the standard elements are all present and correct; absent fathers, awkward first romances, bratty siblings and classroom antics. There are a lot of side characters at times, but it’s good to see the likes of Robert Picardo as a paranoid theatre manager who’s built a fallout shelter under the big screen, and Dick Miller as an outraged boycott promoter claiming that horror thrills have a negative impact on young minds. Of course, he hasn’t seen the film. You can see why this was a hard sell for the studios and a harder film to market, does a comedy drama about these kind of period events on and off the silver screen really have legs? In the year of Jurassic Park of all things. Luckily time has been kinder and we can appreciate all these elements today for what they are. Fans of character actors and films like The Fly or Them! might get more of a kick out of it of course, but there’s still plenty to enjoy for viewers of any age.
Of course the big question is how this feeds into the major theme of escaping to the movies (or feeding your fears) during a crisis brewing on the news. Joe Dante himself recalls the kind of tension hearing an aircraft overhead would cause in the classroom, and the absurdity of duck-and-cover drills in the school corridor. Giant bugs offer a way for our characters to get away from the reality of breaking news, as well as their own domestic problems. It is after all a story about the more innocent minds eager to see giant leeches and evil hypnotists. It’s all fairly light hearted and good natured, and the cynical side of cashing in on a national catastrophe is instead replaced with a more positive attitude. Woolsey just wants to entertain a crowd, hiring local hoodlums to operate his hidden devices and wear costumes to scare the crowd. In the end he wants them to feel good; after all the scares you can walk out into the fresh air and feel relief – before buying another ticket.
It’s got a lot of personality, whether this is from the exuberant film maker himself or his eager fans. The cast are all energetic, and the tone generally moves between childhood nostalgia with a few brief moments of nightmare inducing bulletins on TV. A dream sequence and a scene involving locals panic buying are all you need to convey the sense of social anxiety. There are some fun moments with the rest of the cast even if it’s slightly overloaded, whether it’s jailbird antagonist Harvey (James Villemaire) free thinking schoolgirl Sandra (Lisa Jakub) or the variety of familiar faces in the background or in Mant! itself. The release of it begins to feel like a real event as things go on, and we can anticipate the first screening along with the cast. Combining all kinds of B-movie influences when it arrives this is also really entertaining with lots of period special effects and silly dialogue – some taken right from the source. They take it seriously so we can amuse ourselves.
This was never something that would stand up against a blockbuster Amblin release, but on its own merits the charm and feel good factor is consistently likeable. The lack of a fantasy element or a darker social commentary might feel out of place in comparison to the director’s other releases from the 1980s, but this is solid family viewing all the way. Hopefully an overlooked release can find new fans, or even those looking for something out of the ordinary.
Arrow Video’s latest release of Matinee includes a number of brief but informative featurettes and interviews, including newly edited discussions with the director and his favourite “that guy” bit players. There are also some from the 2011 French release of the film including the entire film-within-the-film Mant! and an introduction from Joe Dante. There’s no feature commentary which is a shame, and the kind of video essay found on their horror releases is absent – I guess it’s not that kind of film. The picture quality is sharp with great colours, especially the oranges and reds of the movie theatre and the Florida sun. There are only a couple of instances where too much grain is apparent such as certain shots of Dick Miller protesting. As always they’ve got a reversible sleeve with new artwork, and a collectors booklet is included with the first print run.