When I went to Jeonju International Film Festival in this April, I was reminded again that the old theaters at the downtown of my hometown were gone. Most of them are now replaced by a bunch of multiplex theaters, but I cannot say they were better than their replacements. While there were the big theaters where I could enjoy the movies like “Independence Day” or “Starship Troopers”, I remember too well how shabby several theaters were in early 1990s compared to the current standard; I am quite happy with the comfortable seat, nice bathrooms, and agreeable viewing condition in multiplex theaters.
None the less, these theaters have a place in my memory. Thanks to my frugal mother, I and my little brother learned that it was much cheaper to bring snacks rather than buy them at the theaters, but some snacks like dried squid were irresistible to us. When I watched “Face-Off” with my father, I learned that the movies rated ’18’ were not always forbidden to teenagers like me. I laughed frequently while watching “Bean”, and then, when the end credit rolled, I was embarrassed to find the neighbor family near my seat. So far, my brother has never ridiculed me for being asleep during the showing of “Entrapment” in spite of Catherine Zeta-Jones.
In case of young characters in Joe Dante’s cheery comedy “Matinee”(1993), they get the experience to be cherished for the rest of their lives at their town theater while the people on the earth as well as them are facing the dour possibility for the end of the civilization. It is November 1962, and Cuban Missile Crisis has just officially begun with the special announcement from President Kennedy on TV. Their town, Key West, Florida, is close to Cuba, and the tension is more palpable to the town people. The part of comedy in the film comes from how silly and hysterical people were at that time, but the world was quite close to the end at that time, and the situation was really serious to them. In case of Gene(Simon Fenton), one of the boys we meet at the beginning, his father is a navy officer on board in one of the ships in the blockade.
To an exploitation filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey(John Goodman), this situation is too perfect to miss for the promotion of his latest horror movie which, like many monster B-movies made during that time, exploits on the fear about atomic bombs and World War III. After arriving at the town with his girlfriend/leading actress(Cathy Moriarty), he does everything he can do to draw the people to the premiere showing on Saturday, including sparking fake controversy to draw their attentions(Here is a good lesson for some people: protesting against movies is akin to giving them free publicity).
Woolsey’s visit to town is fantastic news to Gene. As shown in his bedroom he shared with his little brother, he loves monster movies – especially the ones made by Woolsey. Gene approaches to him when Woolsey persuades people to watch his movie in front of the theater. They soon become close, and Woolsey generously shows his young fan how his plan will work at the theater. In one nice small scene featuring a simple animation based on their mutual imagination, Woolsey sincerely explains to Gene about his job. He makes cheap movies, but he knows what good horror movies are – the ones that scare the audiences a lot while entertaining them and then relieve them when the lights are turned on.
With his pleasant performance, John Goodman presents us an avuncular dreamer with ever-present optimism and jolliness. He is a movie business man belonging to the lower strata of Hollywood, but he tries to sell his films with imagination and passion. Plus, he is a good salesman with skillful showmanship; he will eventually talk you into watching his movies even if you know his movies are more or less than average B-movies.
As widely known, Goodman’s character is mainly based on the legendary B-movie producer/director William Castle. Like his fictional counterpart in the film, Castle did try to promote his films by any means necessary. For instance, a glowing skeleton was floated over the audiences in case of “House on Hunted Hill”(1959), and the seats were equipped with the buzzers to induce the audiences to scream in case of “The Tingler”(1959). When “Macabre”(1958) was shown at the theaters, the life insurance policy was given to the audiences in case they should die of fright during the film; he even had nurses stationed at the lobby and hearse parked outside the theater. When I talked briefly about Castle to an undergraduate student a few days ago, he asked me, with disbelief, whether he really did such things like those.
I do not think his tactics, as gimmicky as 3-D, enhanced his movies much(I personally think the best thing he did in his career was letting Roman Polanski direct “Rosemary’s Baby”(1968) instead of directing it for himself), but he certainly gave something to be remembered with smile, and that is endearingly reflected in Dante’s film. Before the premiere showing, Woolsey’s girlfriend, wearing nurse uniform, demands the audiences to sign the medical consent form in case they die while watching the movie, the electronic buzzers are wired to the seats for giving a jolt to the audiences, the smoke is fumed from time to time in front of the screen, the theater gets trembled thanks to “Rumble-Rama”, and a guy hired by Woolsey wearing a big rubber suit(guess what does it look like?) walks around the aisle to ‘scare’ the audiences.
While it is hilarious to watch the audience reacting to these outrageous tactics, there is more fun during the premiere sequence while things get complicated inside the theater. Gene’s friend Stan(Omri Katz) recently begins the relationship with a schoolgirl he likes, but he is soon threatened by her ex-boyfriend who has just gotten out of a reform school. Stan lies to her that he does not have time to meet her on Saturday, but, unfortunately, when he goes to the theater with his friends, he soon comes across her. Furthermore, a guy hired by Woolsey is none other than her ex-boyfriend – you can see a big trouble coming to Stan.
Woolsey’s movie, “Mant”, adds extra hilarity to this uproarious situation. Like many awful B-horror movies from that era, it is fun to watch it due to its utmost serious attitude to a ridiculous story(“Young lady, human-insect mutation is far from an exact science.”). People in these movies are horrified at the sight of the huge monsters, and the audiences were probably scared at that time, but they now look as menacing as teletubbies to us. I sometimes watch the trailers for these movies posted on YouTube, and they have never failed to tickle me yet.
As the mix between “The Fly”(1958) and “Them!”(1954), “Mant” is made with lots of care as the homage to that era. The several music cues from the B-horror movies made during the 1950s including “It Came from Outer Space”(1953) and “Tarantula”(1955) were used for authenticity. Some of actors in “Mant” actually appeared in the science-fiction movies during that era, and Cathy Moriarty’s character, Ruth Corday, is the tribute to the B horror-movie actress Mara Corday. And there are also goofy dialogues to amuse us(My favourite line: “What in creation do you call that thing?” – “Bill.”).
The story must have come close to the director Joe Dante, whose career started with low-budget movies. After working as an editor for Roger Corman, he debuted as a director with “Pirahna”(1978), a goofy horror movie which was a cheerful parody of “Jaws”(it was followed by the horrible sequel which was incidentally the first movie directed by James Cameron, who also worked under Corman). He was later recruited by Steven Spielberg to direct “Gremlins”(1984), which is still his biggest commercial success, but his sensibility grounded on B-movies seemed not to get along well with Hollywood. Though he made some enjoyable movies including “Innerspace”(1987), his career descended along with several commercial failures including “Gremlins 2″(1990), the wackiest and the most anarchic film made by Amblin Entertainment.
Filled with his affection to B-horror movies and likable characters, “Matinee” is the sunniest work in Dante’s career. Like the audiences beholding the star celebrity, young characters in the movie are naturally less flashy than Woolsey, but they are engaging as the part of the world depicted with nostalgia. As the girlfriend with weary no-nonsense attitude, Cathy Moriarty nicely complements Goodman’s buoyant character. She is usually sarcastic about his business, and she grudgingly does what he tells her to do, but it turns out their relationship is solider than we think at first. She will always remind him the reality while standing by her man.
In the end, as we know, the crisis is over, and the people are relieved to see another day of their lives, and Woolsey moves to his next attraction to come with lots of hope as usual. However, as the last shot of the film implies to us, the most turbulent part of the American history will soon begin – and their world will never be the same as a consequence.
“Matinee” is a charming movie with sweet nostalgia. Though it is about an era very distant to me, it is lovable enough to make me to reminiscence my relatively less innocent experience with the horror movies during my childhood years. Like Gene was fascinated with monster movies, I was drawn to those old VHS tapes at the corners of the rental shops. There were freakish monster movies, disgusting zombie movies, spooky occult movies, and, above all, dead teenagers movies. I watched some of them; they were mostly not as good as I imagined from their VHS cover designs, which are, anyway, the loving part of my childhood memory. To be frank with you, I was a lot interested in “Friday the 13th” series movies and memorized the synopses printed on VHS covers, but, boy, how much I was disappointed with them when I finally watched two of them on TV. I was not entertained at all – and I could not understand why some big guy wearing a hockey mask(or bag) tried to kill the boys and girls older than me when they seemed to have a good time at the camp.
At least, we all can agree that my childhood was more innocent compared to the age of “Saw” and “Hostel”, can’t we?