Forgotten Films is a semi-regular feature on Film Junk where we explore interesting movies that have fallen off the radar or slipped through the cracks over the years.
There aren’t many filmmakers who have shaped the culture of an entire generation quite like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did back in the ’80s, but the truth is, they weren’t alone. There is a whole second string of directors from the same era who followed their lead in creating iconic family adventure films, and Joe Dante would certainly be counted among them. From successful films like Gremlins and Explorers to quirky comedies like The Burbs and Innerspace, he brought his genre roots and special effects know-how to create some mainstream hits that almost everyone has seen.
But if Dante was such a big presence in the ’80s, then why has he faded from the public eye since then? The answer would seem to be a particularly impotent one-two punch: the self-deprecating yet unsuccessful sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and another film that absolutely no one saw, Matinee.
Released in 1993, Matinee made just $9 million in its original theatrical run. Part of the problem, I’m assuming, is that the movie didn’t have many stars except for John Goodman. Still… it had John Goodman! He was well known as Dan Conner on Roseanne at the time, and his last few theatrical releases had done okay (Arachnophobia and King Ralph, for example). However, the rest of the cast members were basically unknown then and remain unknown now.
Matinee is a love letter to the b-movies of the ’60s, with Goodman playing a schlock director named Lawrence Woolsey (based loosely on William Castle) who is promoting the release of his new film Mant! (“Half-Man, Half-Ant, All Terror!”). Way before Tarantino directed Grindhouse, this movie featured all kinds of mock trailers and arguably one of the best “films within a film”, ending with a final act that takes place in a theatre, not unlike Inglourious Basterds. Goodman is slimy yet lovable as Woolsey, and watching him set up his elaborate network of gadgets and gimmicks such as Atomo-Vision and Rumble-Rama, the movie seems all the more relevant today with the resurrection of 3-D films.
Although this is essentially a nostalgia-laden PG comedy aimed at a younger audience, there’s a lot of other stuff going on in this movie too. For one, it is a period piece set in Key West, Florida in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The main character Gene (Simon Fenton) has a father in the Navy, and everyone is on edge due to the threat of nuclear war. Gene also happens to be a fan of scary movies (in some ways his character seems to be almost autobiographical to Joe Dante), and it’s interesting how the film juxtaposes the escapism of a horror movie with real world anxieties, examining how the two can feed off each other.
The movie also touches on some other issues from the ’60s like censorship and liberal parenting, and it offers plenty of little cultural curiosities in the same way that Mad Men does. However, at its core, this is a coming of age story. Joe Dante has always been good at capturing kids of a certain age group, where they are just starting to become adults but haven’t completely lost their innocence either. Although the movie was always marketed as a John Goodman flick, the kids of Key West are definitely the main characters. The screenplay was written by Charles S. Haas, who also wrote Gremlins 2, along with a previous Forgotten Film, the cult teen rebellion flick Over the Edge.
As mentioned earlier, Matinee doesn’t have a ton of recognizable faces, but it’s worth noting that frequent Dante collaborator Robert Picardo (who went on to play The Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager) has an amusing role as a paranoid theatre owner, while Gene’s buddy Stan is played by Omri Katz, who also starred in the short-lived TV series Eerie, Indiana (which Dante directed several episodes of). Also, a 20-something Naomi Watts has a small part in the film within a film Disney parody The Shook-Up Shopping Cart.
Matinee is not necessarily laugh out loud hilarious and it may be a little too cute for some, but it’s definitely charming and well worth checking out for Goodman’s performance alone. Anyone who has a penchant for old sci-fi and horror movies from the ’60s is guaranteed to get a kick out of it. After being left out of print on DVD for a long time, Universal just recently re-released Matinee as a barebones disc. Take advantage and snag it while you can, or add it to your Netflix queue today! You won’t regret it.