"Yes, the atomic bomb IS terrible. But more terrible still are the effects of atomic mutation". So speaketh horror movie producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), addressing a cinema audience from upon the big screen. He's on screen to introduce scenes from his upcoming feature MANT! - a B-picture based around what happens when a man and ant are genetically merged by weird science.
In the theatre taking all of this in are Gene (Simon Fenton) and his terrified younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer). The place is Key West, Florida; the year is 1962. The siblings are still not used to being stationed here, there and everywhere while their father is away fighting America's wars. They're struggling to fit in to this latest town, as the local kids don't take too kindly to those shipped in to homes located on the nearby army base.
And so, Gene and Dennis keep themselves to themselves most of the time, finding their kicks at the local filmhouse, The Strand, where movies like the forthcoming MANT! fire their imaginations.
They're particularly excited to learn that Lawrence is due to appear in person at their local cinema for the premiere of MANT!. For Lawrence, who we first meet en route to the town with pretty wife Ruth (Cathy Moriarty), the town is the perfect location for him to turn his cheap sci-fi movie into a hit: with the Cuba missile crisis looming - President Kennedy addresses the nation via TV screens with a sombre warning of imminent war in an early scene - and Key West being just 90 miles away from the threatened area, Lawrence knows that the time is ripe to exploit his audience's fear of atomic warfare ... and make a mint while doing so.
His hope is that the elaborate gimmickry he has planned to put the shits up patrons will be enough to convince potential promoter Mr Spector (Jessie White) to book MANT! into fifty more theatres. Lawrence is unwavering in his confidence; Ruth is more sceptical. She's been with Lawrence long enough to know that his studio is floundering and if this film doesn't make money he'll be on his arse. At which point, she warns him, she'll leave him.
Meanwhile, Gene falls in with a group of lads at his new school, befriending cool kid Stan (Omri Katz). Stan's a fellow film fan and, with the whole town living under the shadow of being bombed at any moment, the kids are all looking forward to Saturday night's premiere of MANT! as a distraction. Gene even sets out trying to get pretty rebel student Sandra (Lisa Jakub) to accompany him to the showing as his date.
Will Lawrence manage to win his audience - and Spector - over with the tricks he has up his sleeve (electric shocks rigged to cinema seats, a man in a human ant costume running around the theatre mid-film, etc)? Will Gene manage to meet and work for the movie mogul, his idol? Will America enter into full-scale war with Soviet-influenced Cuba? And who will survive the maiden screening of MANT!? MATINEE is director Joe Dante's 1993 love letter to the B-movies he grew up watching in the 1950s and 1960s, along with the showmanship the likes of William Castle brought to promoting their latest titles.
Filled with references to pop culture of the era - everything from Dick Miller cameoing as a fervent campaigner against Woolsey's films; songs like "The Great Pretender" and "Locomotive" populating the soundtrack; Vincent Price double bills advertised on billboards; characters named after key players of 50s B-movies; visual gags/homages galore - this is Dante having an enormous amount of fun, while being blessed with what's clearly a very handsome budget.
But this isn't just a rose-tinted view of a bygone era when even the most innocent thrills excited the masses. Charlie Haas's screenplay taps into issues of the day such as there being separate schools for the black kids to attend, the media being capable of stirring up panic by playing on people's ignorance when it came to the nuclear war threat, and school teachers advising children that the key to a healthy diet was eating red meat at least three times a day.
Shot with a steady hand, in warm colourful hues, MATINEE may feel a mite twee considering its dark underlying themes (even the dream sequences appropriating the horror of a bomb landing are curiously free from menace) but never fails to entertain. Goodman is as reliable as ever as the charming showman as cocksure in himself as he is oblivious to reality; Moriarty is incapable of ever being anything less than sexy; Fenton is an agreeable protagonist who we can easily believe in.
Fluidly paced and often gently amusing (though rarely laugh-out-loud funny, save for the brilliant monochrome scenes from film-within-a-film MANT!), MATINEE is a film so friendly that even the arrival of a baddie - Harvey (James Villemaire) - and the addressing of certain political topics of the time can't really give it any weight.
The result is a highly enjoyable film that, afterwards, can't help but feel a tad lightweight despite providing solid entertainment during playback.
Arrow Video bring MATINEE to UK blu-ray and DVD in a lovingly remastered dual format release. We were sent a copy of the former to review.
The blu-ray disc is a 50gb dual layer affair, housing the uncut film (98 minutes 36 seconds including the opening Universal logo) as a healthily sized MPEG4-AVC file. Presented in its original 16x9 ratio, MATINEE looks superb here - the 1080p HD transfer, provided by Universal, is apparently identical to the one proffered by Carlotta Films' French blu-ray release (which I haven't seen). In short, it looks fabulous: vivid colours pop from an exceptionally clean print, detail is fine and sharp, texture is convincingly filmic throughout.
English audio gets the lossless HD treatment and is similarly impressive. Optional English subtitles are provided for the hard-of-hearing. These are problem-free and easily readable for the duration of the show.
The disc opens to an animated main menu. A pop-up scene selection option allows access to the film by way of 12 chapters.
Bonus features begin with the enjoyable new 10-minute offering "Bit Parts!". In it, Dante briefly explains how he became obsessed with movies such as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE from an early age, before discussing the attraction of working recurrently throughout his career (and specifically on MATINEE) with various actors. To this end, a handful of these names - Robert Picardo, Archie Hahn, Belinda Balaski, John Sayles and Dick Miller (his segments are culled from the terrific "That Guy Dick Miller" documentary) - who compares Dante favourably with Roger Corman - are on hand to big Dante up in individual 'talking head' style interviews.
"Atomo-Vision!" sees cinematographer John Hora and editor Marshall Harvey lead us through an 8 minute look back on the making of MATINEE. Both speak highly of the hard-working but accommodating Dante, while giving us a little introductory insight into their own pre-MATINEE careers. This engaging feature is littered throughout with interesting archive stills and clips.
Fans of the film may already have seen the next extra: a 2011 interview with Dante originally filmed by Allerton Films for inclusion on the French release from Carlotta Films. This is an excellent 32-minute chat with the ebullient director, who speaks at some pace about his joy of cinema as a young man, why early B-movies such as THEM and THE FLY struck such a chord with him, and ultimately about how he got to make MATINEE. He's philosophical about the film's lack of success at the box office, but rightfully proud of the end result regardless.
Next we have the full 16-minute version of MANT! (a disc highlight), complete with an optional 6-minute introduction from Dante - which is actually an extra scene from the above interview. Brilliant stuff, indeed; we even get the "original" trailer for MANT! too. Both look as pin-sharp as the main feature.
A 4-minute archive EPK is interesting for being shot on the set of the film (Dante hasn't aged!) but now feels lightweight when measured against the above interviews. 8 minutes of timecoded behind-the-scenes footage reveal the director to be an affable type with a knack for speaking frankly to his cast about what he expects of them, without ever causing upset.
2 minutes of scratchy deleted scenes will surely be welcomed by completists. As will the film's original 2-minute theatrical trailer. It's an entertainingly fast-paced affair, though the audio was slightly out of synch.
This release also comes with a DVD proffering all of the above, I believe, in standard definition, as well as double-sided reversible cover artwork. These weren't made available for review purposes.
MATINEE holds up well as a fun homage to far more innocent times. Dante is having fun, his cast are having fun, and all but the most cold-hearted of viewers are sure to have fun watching the product of their labours.
Arrow's special edition release is fantastic. Or should that read MANTastic?
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|
|see main review|