It often goes without saying that a passion project is less than likely to be a commercially viable venture. Joe Dante, known best for the likes of Gremlins and The Howling, has of course done plenty of genre mash-ups that are pretty eccentric. But this is something a little different; a story about the experience of movie going itself. It’s set during a very specific era of his childhood, and the result is a nostalgic look into the past where double features played against news reels about the Cold War. It’s also a story about escapism and the lure of watching a creature feature at a time when the threat of real life catastrophes was all too plausible. However it’s also a film full of great characters and wry humour, so despite the blend of subject matters this is something which is easy to enjoy. Although perhaps you’ll get more of a kick out of this if you’re familiar with the kinds of rubber monster costumes the on-screen patrons 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 the concept is still as endearing as it is entertaining; the power of the atom as a catalyst for the creation of monsters. In this particular case giant insects. This release is the big event in a small Florida town, but there other headlines on the horizon. The year is 1962 and while portents of doom are brewing in the waters 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 features like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill – he’s all about the showmanship; the big sell of the big gimmicks.
Woolsey’s latest will be using similar high tech tricks (presented in Atomo Vision!) to make it even more realistic. Like Castle he even 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. As he arrives in town to set all of this in motion his audience are just starting to have their interested piqued. Science fiction fan Gene (Simon Fenton) along with his younger brother and their friends are all planning to see the film and to meet Woolsey who will be making a personal guest appearance. A lot of the standard dramatic elements are present and correct; absent fathers, awkward first romances, bratty siblings and classroom antics. But they’re all used effectively as the anticipation for the movie – and the prospect of war – starts to build.
There are perhaps too many side characters, but it’s a great cast so I can’t really complain. After all it’s always good to see the likes of Dante regular Robert Picardo, here playing a paranoid theatre manager who’s built a fallout shelter under the big screen. Of course there’s also a welcome cameo by Dick Miller, this time the promoter of a boycott claiming that horror thrills have a negative impact on young minds. To nobody’s surprise he hasn’t seen the film. In some ways it’s obvious why this was a hard sell for the studio (and a harder film to market) at the time. Does a comedy drama about these kind of cultural events really have mainstream appeal? Trying to get anyone to release, or watch it, during the year of Jurassic Park was probably an issue. But fortunately time has been kind and we can appreciate this today for what it is, instead of just comparing it to what it was up against.
Fans of recurring character actors and B-movies like The Fly or Them! might get more of a kick out of this of course, but in general there’s plenty to enjoy for viewers of any age. Looking at it more closely it’s fascinating to see how these elements feed into the major theme of escaping to the movies (or perhaps feeding your fears) during a crisis. In the bonus features Dante recalls the kind of tension an aircraft flying over would cause in his classroom, and the absurdity of ‘duck-and-cover’ drills in the school corridor. As a result it becomes clear how giant bugs offer a way for his characters to get away from the reality of breaking news, as well as their own domestic problems. It is after all a story about imaginative youngsters 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, stirring up local audiences and hiring hoodlums to operate hidden devices and wear costumes in the theatre. In the end all he wants do it is help them to feel good; to him it’s a public service. After all the scares you can walk out into the fresh air and feel relief… before buying another ticket and doing it all over again of course. In general it’s a feature with 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 and all of those nightmare inducing news bulletins quite smoothly.
A dream sequence and a scene involving locals panic buying are very efficient at conveying the period’s social anxiety. But this is balanced by 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 on the screen during Mant! itself. The big release date begins to feel like a real event as things unfold, and you can feel everyone’s anticipation for the first screening. When it finally arrives Woolsey’s film combines all kinds of B-movie influences. By itself this is also really entertaining with lots of low budget special effects and silly dialogue – some of which is taken right from the original sources. It might all be pretty silly but it’s taken just seriously enough, which is the right approach.
In the end this was never something that would stand up against a big summer blockbuster release from Amblin, but on its own merits the level of charm is consistent and the overall feel good factor is high. The lack of a direct fantasy element or a darker social commentary might feel out of place in comparison to the director’s other releases from the 1980s, but sometimes it’s good to have something with heart. Hopefully this Arrow release of an overlooked gem can find a new audience, whether it’s through family viewing or cult movie fans looking for something out of the ordinary.
Notes on the Blu-ray
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 extras 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 red hues 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 when Dick Miller is protesting. As always they’ve got a reversible sleeve with new artwork, and of course a collectors booklet will be included with the first print run.