FILM / Schlock around the clock: Matinee (PG) Joe Dante (US) Boxing Helena (18) Jennifer Chambers Lynch (US) Fire in the Sky (15) Robert Lieberman (US)

THERE was a time when Joe Dante seemed like Spielberg without the sugar, willing to show the dark side of childhood without distortion or apology. His episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie used the palette of a Tom and Jerry cartoon to nightmarish effect, and Gremlins made a potent appeal to the part of any cinema audience, however sophisticated, that likes to see things smashed up.

Since then, though, it's only the Gremlins sequel that has really brought out the best in him, and the title of Hollywood Mixed-Up Kid Extraordinaire has passed to Tim Burton.

In Matinee, Dante starts with a promising idea: the promotional visit to Key West, Florida, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, of a maker of schlock horror films, movies which, with their mutated villains and benign authority figures, rehearse the bigger dramas being played out on the world's stage. Jerico Stone's screenplay has much quiet fun with the early Sixties, a time when the nearest thing to a forbidden drug available was your parents' Lenny Bruce LP, and the school nutritionist primed young hearts for coronaries by urging red meat three times a day.

The young hero, Gene (Simon Fenton), whose father is on Navy blockade duty, is enough of a horror movie buff to recognise that one of the fundamentalists ('There's no First Amendment to the Ten Commandments') picketing the cinema where Lawrence Woolsey's Mant (half-man, half-ant, all terror) is about to preview was actually a bit-part actor on an earlier Woolsey production.

He uses this knowledge to gain admission to Woolsey's world, where fancy names like Atom-O-Vision and Rumble- Rama disguise crude effects - buzzers in the seats, flashes, loud noises - but a world for which Matinee has almost too much affection.

As the Cuban crisis builds, Dante cuts into his narrative a number of loving B-movie pastiches, not only of Woolsey shockers but of wholesome Disney-type entertainment (The Shook-Up Shopping Cart, for instance, which plays with The Baffled Bobcat).

The greatest joy of the horror pastiches is Cathy Moriarty as the long-suffering heroine ('He's not a monster, he's a shoe salesman'). Moriarty, who also appears as Ruth, Woolsey's girlfriend, has become a first- rate comic actress, more than a match for John Goodman, enjoying himself but undeniably coasting as Woolsey.

Where Matinee goes wrong is partly by becoming too farcical in structure, with all the elements uniting at the premiere of Mant. (Remember the movie- house climax of Gremlins? It's as if all Dante's formative experiences took place in a cinema.)

More importantly, the film starts moralising. We see nuclear explosions staged three times: first in documentary footage, then as a nightmare of the young hero, finally as an illusion put on by Woolsey so as to clear the cinema, in an unorthodox and grotesquely insensitive manner, when the balcony threatens to collapse.

The message seems to be: we must all, child and adult, learn to live with our fears. Matinee passes the time perfectly satisfactorily, but these themes need not be handled so patronisingly. Next to, say, the Australian film Celia, in which the heroine's fears were taken with complete seriousness, Matinee would look like the Shook-Up Shopping Cart.

Talking of double bills: Jennifer Chambers Lynch's debut film, Boxing Helena, wants to be up there with Peeping Tom as a dark study of obsession, but it would be more in its element sharing a programme with Bitter Moon.

Like Peeping Tom, Boxing Helena takes a grotesque plot (in this case, a surgeon amputating the limbs of a woman with whom he's besotted, and keeping her prisoner) and treats it lovingly, and less than realistically. There's a lot more blood in the average episode of Casualty, and there's no doubt that Lynch has tried to take the story towards poetry rather than horror.

She wrote the screenplay, but the original story came from Philippe Caland, who also produced. The mutilation becomes a metaphor, but a flailing, uncontrolled one. Does it stand for dependence (Helena eventually falls in love with the doctor, whom she spurned when she had a wider choice)? For men's tendency to treat women as aesthetic objects and to take away their power?

An audience might be more interested in teasing out the implications if Lynch's grasp of psychology, normal and abnormal, was a little less shaky. There's no point, for instance, in showing that the star surgeon, Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands), is obsessed with hygiene even when he's not at work, neurotically wiping perfectly clean glasses before daring to drink, and then have him happily slurp down most of Art Garfunkel's vodka-tonic.

Sherilyn Fenn, stepping into the role that Madonna and then, to her cost, Kim Basinger found herself unable to accept, does a charmless variation of her role in Twin Peaks. She's a scheming bitch, her captor is a wimp, and without anything to make you identify with either character, it ultimately doesn't matter whether you find the situations shocking or strangely bloodless, in more ways than one.

Jennifer Chambers Lynch discounts nepotism as the reason for her becoming the youngest female American film-maker, but certainly has it to thank for her early experience on the sets of Dune and Blue Velvet. She borrows freely from her father David's box of tricks - blurry slow motion for a parrot trying to escape its cage, wing-beats amplified to thunderousness, being only the most obvious example.

Fire in the Sky is a startlingly inept alien-abduction thriller, 'based on a true story', if that phrase still impresses you. An Arizona lumberjack called Travis Walton claims that extraterrestrials took him to add to their redneck collection, but returned him afer five days, for all the world as if they had been sent him on approval, and weren't satisfied with their purchase.

For its first hour or so the film takes the point of view of those investigating Walton's disappearance, before the aliens return him and demand their refund. The investigators assume that something more mundane has happened - namely murder - and their suspicions turn the whole community against the witnesses to Walton's abduction.

This is one sort of film, though not a very fresh or interesting one. But then when Walton returns, Industrial Light and Magic begin to earn their fee, and we get disjointed flashbacks to his other-worldly experiences, the longest memory being triggered, ludicrously, by maple syrup accidentally dripping into his mouth. The alien world is as contradictory as the aliens' behaviour, since they have total mastery of slime technology but suddenly decide to experiment on Walton with cruel metal devices out of Brazil.

Fire in the Sky shortchanges even the credulous. Still, mere days after the movie finished shooting in Oregon, the state suffered only its fifth recorded meteorite impact. And if that doesn't convince you that aliens are out there watching us, you just won't listen to reason.

(Photograph omitted)