The Cinematic Splendor and Sleaze of Joe Dante’s Matinee

There’s a lot of Joe Dante himself in Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), the B-movie impresario in Matinee, Dante’s 1993 ode to classic monster movies, out now in a gorgeous new 4K restoration from Shout Select. Woolsey is a bit William Castle, a bit Alfred Hitchcock, and a bit Roger Corman, for whom Dante worked earlier in his career. As much as Matinee is a tribute to movie magic, it’s also a tribute to the people who create that magic, especially scrappy independents like Castle and Corman, whose ingenious gimmickry is just as valuable as Hitchcock’s artistry.

Woolsey is introduced via a Hitchcock-style silhouette, following actual black-and-white footage of nuclear tests. He’s onscreen at a small theater in Key West, Florida, in 1962, to introduce a trailer for his new monster movie Mant!, which will be showing in a special sneak preview the following weekend. The preview of Mant! is the most exciting event in town for the local kids and teens, even in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s especially true for monster-movie buff Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), whose father is deployed on a U.S. Navy ship somewhere near Cuba, on the frontlines of the crisis.

No matter how terrifying the outside world may be, Gene is determined to take his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) to see Mant!, and Matinee makes a compelling case for movies — even schlock like Mant! — as an essential way of processing the anxiety and trauma of reality. As much of a huckster as Woolsey may be, when he gives an inspirational speech about the power of horror movies to provide comfort and security for viewers via the vanquishing of evil, he sounds entirely genuine. Woolsey is a great marketer of cinematic sleaze precisely because he wholeheartedly believes in it.

Goodman is so good as Woolsey that Matinee drags a bit when it focuses on its kid characters, but Dante treats them with the same respect and positivity. He clearly sees himself in these young movie buffs, and he understands the allure of movies like Mant! for kids like Gene, who’s constantly forced to start over in new places thanks to his father’s military position. The early 1960s small-town setting might make Matinee seem like an exercise in rosy nostalgia, but these kids aren’t squeaky clean squares.

Gene makes friends both at school and with Woolsey thanks to his extensive knowledge of horror movies, and he and his buddy Stan (Omri Katz) both hook up with surprisingly worldly female classmates during the chaotic Mant! screening. Gene finds himself trapped in a fallout shelter with proto-hippie Sandra (Lisa Jakub), who gets detention for protesting useless duck-and-cover drills and admires Gandhi. Stan’s seemingly wholesome crush Sherry (Kellie Martin), who wears pink dresses and puts bows in her hair, is powerfully horny, telling Stan about how much her juvenile-delinquent ex taught her about her body’s needs.

Those girls reflect the often rewarding subtext of cheesy monster movies like Mant!, which could smuggle in both political messages and sexual tension thanks to their ridiculous fantastical premises. Matinee wouldn’t work nearly as well if Dante wasn’t able to make Mant! into a pitch-perfect recreation of its influences, complete with a cameo from original Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy. Dante captures the heightened thrills of those movies, but also the way they were overhyped by producers like Woolsey, who promises a movie about the dangers of atomic testing and delivers a story in which the title character is mutated while undergoing dental X-rays.

For Gene and his friends, it doesn’t matter that Mant!’s story is underwhelming, that its performances are stilted, or that its dialogue is repetitive. They eagerly embrace everything Woolsey has to offer, especially the in-theater experiences he dubs Atomo Vision and Rumble Rama. The Cuban Missile Crisis raises the stakes during the climactic Mant! premiere, but it’s almost superfluous, given how much of an intense experience Woolsey is able to create. He shocks the audience with buzzers under their seats, shakes the theater with booming speakers, and terrifies patrons with a live actor in Mant costume running through the aisles.

The live actors appearing in the theater during screenings of Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis probably won’t be wearing Mant costumes (although maybe they should), but the tradition of showmanship that Dante depicts in Matinee is still thriving, thanks to stunts like Coppola’s and modern inventions like D-Box and 4DX. More depressingly, the human greed and selfishness that he depicts during the Cuban Missile Crisis is also thriving, and the scene of shoppers fighting over boxes of cereal while panic-buying groceries could have just as easily been set in 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic.

In a way it’s appropriate that Matinee was a box-office failure that’s taken 30 years to get its full appreciation in a lovingly curated, features-packed home video release. If Mant! really existed, it would also be restored and released by a boutique home video label, with retrospective interviews from scholars and critics about the genius of Lawrence Woolsey. The genius of Joe Dante is that everything you need to understand the genius of Lawrence Woolsey is right there onscreen in Matinee.

Shout Factory’s new 4K UHD edition of “Matinee” is available now.

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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