Joe Dante is a filmmaker with an evident love of cinema. His films tend to blend comedy and horror with a knowing wink. His masterpiece, Gremlins, is generally regarded as one of the darkest and most violent family films ever made, but Matinee (1993) is a far more restrained affair.
The film is a glorious love letter to cinema and its practitioners. Set in Key West, Florida, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Matinee stars John Goodman as Lawrence Woolsey, a purveyor of schlocky movies modelled on director William Castle. The film is split into two distinct halves: the first concerns the lead-up to the premiere of Woolsey’s latest picture; the second is the screening itself and the subsequent fallout.
Goodman is typically brilliant as a man with a genuine love for his work. While the basis is clearly Castle, it’s quite clear there’s a fair bit of Dante in there too – a producer of genre movies that might not be beloved by critics but are lapped up by the public at large. While Goodman’s most acclaimed work has come in collaborations with the Coen brothers, he’s a remarkably consistent screen presence in everything from The Flintstone to 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Matinee has much to say about the naivety and innocence of youth. Like Gremlins, Dante chooses to focus on the preoccupations of a group of children and thus the repercussions of the Bay of Pigs invasion remain rooted in the background while the protagonists eagerly await the arrival of their hero and his latest B-movie. This moment in time might have been the closest the Cold War came to a catastrophic escalation but, for teenagers in a small town, monster movies are far more significant, even if they do live in close proximity to a military base.
The film within a film, Mant!, is not merely alluded to but actually shown in fairly extended chunks. It is an astutely observed early 1960s horror flick and leaves the audience wishing they could somehow see a full version. Like most of Dante’s work and Matinee as a whole, this is a loving and thoughtful homage made by a man who truly understands that, sometimes, all an audience wants is pure entertainment.