“What’ve you got for me?”: Matinee, Joe Dante, and Cinephilia

I get to scare everybody else. But it’s for their own good. You get people who go like this [he covers his face with his hands] at the scary parts, they’re not getting the whole benefit. You gotta keep your eyes open.

Gene: What’s the benefit?

OK, like, uh, a zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great.

Gene: Well, yeah, ’cause he’s still living.

Yeah, but he knows he is, and he feels it. So he goes home, back to the cave. First thing he does, he does a drawing of the mammoth. And he thinks, ‘People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long, and the eyes real mean!’ [Mammoth roars] Boom! The first monster movie. That’s probably why I still do it. Make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up, ahhh! You see, the people come into your cave, with a two-hundred-year-old carpet, the guys tear your ticket in half—it’s too late to turn back now!—water fountain’s all booby-trapped and ready, the stuff laid out on the candy counter. Then you come over here to where it’s dark. There could be anything in there! And you say, ‘Here I am! What’ve you got for me?’

Midway through Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993), film huckster Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) walks the young horror fan Gene (Simon Denton) around Key West, Florida and lectures to him about why people love scary movies, and movies in general. I’ve transcribed his monologue above. It’s worth watching the film just for this scene alone, as Goodman’s irrepressible, good-natured showmanship and Charles S. Haas’s effervescent writing mix under Dante’s guidance to create a vivid origin story for cinephilia. For Dante, movies are our cultural currency; they’re both our instructions for and escape from reality. In Matinee, he sets that relationship against the backdrop of early ’60s Americana and Cold War hysteria as the Cuban Missile Crisis grips the nation.

The keyword I’d use to describe Matinee would be “affectionate.” It’s an affectionate paean to a moviegoing culture at its peak, with decades to go before video destroyed the communal experience; it’s an affectionate story of young love and small-town communities. Some characters, especially juvenile delinquent and Beat poet Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), may do bad things, like attempted theft and kidnapping, but they’re not really evil. Frantic civilians may act silly in the face of potential nuclear annihilation—especially the theater manager played by Robert Picardo—but they’re still vital parts of the community trying their best. Even when Dante puckishly caricatures someone, it’s done with his fanciful brand of loving humanism.

This trait is part of why I love Dante’s films. Even when he’s directing fairly gruesome horror, like The Howling or Gremlins, it steers away from nihilistic brutality, and is instead rooted in a passion for likeable characters, old-fashioned storytelling, and film culture. Matinee is more of a meta-horror movie, with a dash of social satire and coming-of-age drama, but these tendencies are all still on full display. Granted, I found the screenplay a little overstuffed with subplots, which were tied up pretty hurriedly during the climax, and a few of the performances are a little too bland, but the film’s so warm and endearing (albeit with an edge) that it’s easy to overlook these flaws.

Besides, the cast includes Dick Miller and John Sayles as a couple of B-movie actors masquerading as local do-gooders, plus a special appearance by Harvey‘s Jesse White as a sleazy theater chain owner. Besides the delightful supporting cast, the burgeoning romance between Gene and his peacenik classmate Sandra (Lisa Jakub) is very cutely done, and to top it all off, John Goodman has one of his greatest non-Coen Bros. performances. As Woolsey, he embodies everything cheap, tawdry, deceptive, and wonderful about popcorn cinema; as he chomps down on his cigars, you know he’s a con artist—but you think that he might just secretly believe in what he’s selling you. If aliens ever land and ask why we watch movies, maybe we should show them Matinee.

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