Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is a “Navy Brat”, bouncing around from school to school, never being able to make many friends. His dad’s current assignment finds him in Key West, FL, in the fall of 1962. A fan of horror / monster movies, he’s delighted that moviemaker Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) is coming to town for the grand premiere of his latest flick, Mant!
Alas, life gets in the way of his pleasure. The Russians have put nuclear missiles on Cuba, and his dad is on one of the ships heading out to enforce the blockade quarantine.
The show must go on, however, and Gene winds up as sort of an informal assistant / sidekick to Woolsey as he sets up all the theater gimmicks that he’s known for. Though it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not the Commies will allow the premiere to go on as scheduled.
Matinee didn’t do to well at the box office. As a sort of darkly comic period piece, it was neither dark enough nor comic enough. And it was set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was certainly a time period that no one remembers with fondness.
The movie’s actual primary “goal”? It’s director Joe Dante’s homage to all those cinematic impresarios of the 50s and early 60s. Roger Corman. Ray Dennis Steckler. Joe Solomon. And especially William Castle, who actually did a lot of the things Woolsey does here.
I’m going to take some time out here to clarify a few terms that get bandied about rather interchangably, and hopefully clear a few things up.
An “homage” is a loving tribute to an artist or creator that incorporates a lot of the same stylistic elements. Occasionally it has a bit of fun with them, but it’s all good-natured. A good example here is Young Frankenstein (1974), which recreates the look and feel of Universal’s Frankenstein movies – to the point of even using many of the same laboratory props and equipment.
A “parody” makes fun of an artist, work, or genre, and is fully intended to be humorous. It takes the tropes of the artist or genre, and overdoes them to absurd extremes. Airplane! (1980) parodies the entire genre of airplane disaster movies. In the case of a parody of a specific work, there’s often a lot of “fourth wall” breaking MAD Magazine’s parodies are the perfect example of this.
A “satire” is a comedy with a specific target and is often a parody – it parodies the subject by taking its tropes to extremes in order to make a point (usually its absurdity or “wrongness”). The “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers (1967) is most definitely – and deliberately – a satire of Nazi pageantry.
A “farce” is a general absurd comedy. Nothing specific is being made fun of; it’s just an attempt to get you to laugh yourself silly. See, for example, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
A “pastiche” is anything that “pastes” together elements – large or small – from other works. It is NOT just a bunch of references / “Easter eggs” to other works; they must be significant story points. As an example, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) combines works of the Roman playwright Plautus into one coherent story.
Now it is possible for a movie to be more than one of these at the same time. The best example here is Blazing Saddles (1974), which is so masterful a parody of westerns that people forget that it’s a biting satire of racism, too.
Matinee also serves to mark that huge psychic shift in America. People like to talk about how the 50s were a time of “innocence” in this country…. Well, no they weren’t. Not really. There’s a pointed reference in the movie about the black kids all going to another school. Our “Fifties Idyll” is one that is lily-white. There’s also the blatant sexism, which is clearly displayed in the clips of the movie “Mant” that we are shown. Be that as it may, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the first indication that life wasn’t all Milk Duds and popcorn. The Communist Menace went from being a hypothetical to something real. Nuclear war was a real possibility, and it would be a global one – not just limited to a few cities or military installations. “Ducking and Covering” wasn’t going to protect us.
(One of these days, I’ll get around to writing my thoughts on that little movie….)
One other thing that I’m not sure any other reviewers / commenters picked up on was the character of the punk / delinquent Harvey Starkweather. I noted the name as a direct reference to Charles Starkweather, a teenager who went on a killing spree across the midwest, murdering eleven people over a two-month span in 1957-58.
It wasn’t just the existential dread and all the simmering racial and social conflict that boiled over in the 60s, it also saw the rise (at least in the popular consciousness) of the psychotic killer. Kennedy was shot by a single gunman, with no obvious motive. A college student kills his mother and his wife, then takes up a position in a campus clock tower and starts shooting and killing randomly. In this world, monster movies weren’t going to cut it anymore. Horror movies were already starting to reflect this – Psycho came out in 1960. Heck, one of the posters we see in the movie theater is for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
If there’s one thing to watch the movie for, it’s John Goodman. He’s clearly having a great time playing Lawrence Woolsey, and being a Grand Showman who knows what it is that brings people into the theater:
Hey, contemporary movie studios, you want to get people back into the theater and away from all the streaming services? PAY ATTENTION!
Woolsey [talking to theater staff]: I know some of you have never been in the motion picture business before, and some of you have been at it a long time. But I want all of you to look at the faces out here during this picture. There’s gonna be room in their heads for only one thought: “Don’t let it get me!” They know we can’t hurt ’em, but they’re still gonna be scared half to death. And all of you, when you thread the projector, when you tear the tickets, when you sell the Jujubes, you’re all a part of it. And just when it gets the worst, when they’re sitting there and their hearts are going like trapped animals out here in the dark, we save them. And they say, “Hey, it’s all right! Thank God! Hey, can I see that again?” P.S., No, they can’t. We clear between shows.
We saw Matinee for the first time a couple of years ago. Quite enjoyed it. A very enjoyable John Goodman performance as you mentioned.