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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

My favorite film of 1993 - Joe Dante's "Matinee"

On a podcast recently, much to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I declared Joe Dante’s “Matinee” my favorite film of 1993. I have seen Dante’s film too many times to count, but I have a few strong memories of revisiting it over the years, the most memorable of which took place in June of 2021, just as businesses across the country began to lift some of their Covid-related restrictions.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, “Matinee”--a coming-of-age film that takes place in Key West during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis–tells the story of Gene (Simon Fenton), a 13-year-old Navy brat obsessed with monster movies. Every weekend, he takes his little brother, Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer), to the local theater where they have a double feature every Saturday. During the week of the Crisis, filmmaker and monster movie extraordinaire Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman, patterned after real-life director William Castle) decides to open his latest film “MANT!” at that same theater in Key West where his new audience participation processes, “Atomo-vision” and “Rumble-Rama,” will be tested. With every citizen on edge, facing apocalyptic devastation, the question of Woolsey’s timing comes into focus, but his showmanship knows no bounds. What better time to scare people with a monster movie than when they’re already scared? Meanwhile, Gene and his friends have girl problems as they try to find dates for the big event.

It’s the rare end-of-the-world scenario in which kids play the biggest roles. Even Woolsey himself is an anti-establishment figure, one who loves to entertain the kids and thumb his nose at authority. When Gene and his friend Stan (Omri Katz) enter a grocery store, every grown-up runs around in a panic trying to scrounge up whatever groceries remain available so they can stock up their underground bunkers, chief among these items: shredded wheat and toilet paper. Gene and Stan seem more amused than freaked out. When the school engages in a drill in which kids have to line the halls, kneeled down with their hands over their necks, one girl, Sandra (Lisa Jakob), protests and is taken to the principal’s office, to which she retorts “Oh, but then I won’t be safe when the bomb falls!”

The height of the Covid era (2020-2021) also put kids in the headlines when it came to education and Covid-related mitigation in schools. I happened to work in a school district where classes remained in person. We managed to pull it off with tons of mitigation in place, strict rules, a completely different kind of attendance schedule and with the thought in the back of our minds that we would not meet every single expectation with regards to curriculum. It was known as a “hybrid model,” which was half in-person, half online. Not every school district could pull something like that off, but I’m quite proud of ours for staying the course. For that entire year, kids were masked, sitting at desks lined with plastic shields and were ordered to maintain a 3-6 foot distance from their classmates, so as not to risk spreading the disease. This generation of students would bear witness to what the end of the world could look like.

At the end of this school year, on the last day of school, June 4th, the Music Box Theater began to lift their Covid restrictions by allowing more masked patrons into their theater. They kicked off this new policy with a 35mm film festival centered on movies about going to the movies. The opening night film: Joe Dante’s celebration of the movie-going experience in the face of the apocalypse, “Matinee.” There could be no greater, more appropriate choice for the occasion. To help put that film into perspective for the younger audiences, the Music Box programmers wisely followed it up with a screening of William Castle’s “The Tingler.”

I remember watching "Matinee" that night, ever so grateful that the school year was over and we made it through all those months without a single outbreak and that students didn’t lose a year of real learning (unlike those who stayed online all year, which I can attest definitely had a negative effect on students worldwide). We did it and these students will never forget it. They followed our lead and trusted us to keep them safe. Wearing a mask all day had its challenges, for teachers and students, but we made it work.

Now, I could sit back, relax on tis peaceful Friday evening and enjoy one of my favorite movies. At the end of the film, Woolsey and his girlfriend, Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty), have this exchange:

Woolsey: “Did you see those kids back there? It’s like their whole world got called off, but then, no wait, it’s back on now. That’s how everyone looks now. People are walking around. They made it, safe.”

Ruth: “How long do you give that?”

Woolsey: “Couple weeks, couple years. Then, bang, someone else comes along with another way for the world to end.”

Ruth: “But this time they mean it.”

Woolsey: “Well, at least those two get a jump on it.”

Ruth: “Huh?”

Woolsey: (with a sly smile) “They’ve seen the coming attractions.”

I will never forget the emotions that came over me during that exchange. This film that I had adored all these years, one that continues to amaze me with its wit, its stellar young cast and its attention to detail regarding this particular moviegoing era, suddenly had another layer of relevance and depth that hadn’t been there before. It suddenly became something else. And how perfect that Dante didn’t fade out on Gene and Sandra on the beach holding hands looking out at the ocean with great optimism (although that certainly does happen). No, he closes the film with one more shot, a sinister element of our world that will continue to dominate life as we know it: the military industrial complex and all its implications. The lullaby “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” gets eventually drowned out by the sounds of ominous helicopters, the war in Vietnam right around the corner for these kids. Many more wars, big and small, will continue to disrupt their lives and our lives.

My students also got the sneak preview and now the future lies in their hands. They survived Covid. Now they have to survive the real world all over again. “Matinee” has this thought in the back of its head all through it. The kids go to scary movies and listen to Lenny Bruce albums when the grown-ups are away, taking in all kinds of anti-establishment messages that they’ll possibly use in their future. When Woolsey tries to stage a protest in front of the movie theater against his own movie, Gene calls him on it as he recognizes one of the actors pretending to be a zealot. Even Sandra’s parents, who try to be as cool and open-minded as possible, get a bit of an eye-roll from the kids. The kids in “Matinee” have arrived at that age where they can still trust some adults, but will begin to question what they have learned now that they have survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. How will those students I knew during those Covid years interpret what they went through?

Too soon to answer that, but there were all kinds of questions and feelings swimming around my head after leaving the theater that night and it occurred to me that I will never see this movie the same way again. I have seen the film at the Music Box before, back in 2000, with Joe Dante in attendance. I have introduced it to many friends. The last time I watched it was in February of 2023, a week before my friends Erik Childress and Jim Laczkowski would record our epic podcast on Director's Club about the films of 1993, a yearly tradition we have of covering the year in film from 30 years ago. At the end, we all read our top 20 favorite films of the year. At the time, I thought Peter Weir’s “Fearless” would top my list. In a way, it still does. Yet, as I watched “Matinee” again, it began to sink in that maybe I would have a change of heart.

This conundrum sometimes happens when it comes to making a ranked list of favorite films from a particular year. As film critics, we all have different criteria. I can’t speak for others, but for me, the criteria changes year to year and I cannot explain why. Many times, I pick the film that has the most profound effect on me. Sometimes, its cinematic qualities and huge ambitions move me the most. Sometimes it’s a combination of things (acting, quality of storytelling, strong directorial choices). And once in a great while, particularly with these retrospective shows, I throw all of that out the window and simply choose my favorite, the personal one that has brought me the most joy and enrichment through the years.

To many, “Matinee” is a very entertaining little comedy and nothing more, as if an “entertaining little comedy” is something anyone can easily create. In doing these podcasts and going back to view comedies I haven’t seen in 30 years, I have reappraised many that maybe weren’t aiming particularly high, but damn if they got everything right. Movies like “My Cousin Vinny,” “A League of Their Own,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and several others have suddenly shone brighter in the passing years since their release. There is a tone they get right. The actors pull everything off, seemingly with the greatest of ease. The cleverness of the screenplays possess qualities we rarely see in comedies nowadays. They’re not aiming to raise consciousness, rewrite the rulebook for cinematic excellence or change the world, but what they do accomplish is, in many ways, actually harder to pull off.

In the case of “Matinee,” in addition to it being a perfectly nuanced comedic film, I hear Dante’s satirical voice through Charlie Haas’ screenplay, a beautifully structured work where every new character or situation eventually pays off down the road, like one of those early, super-tight scripts by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (their “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” feels like a close cousin to this). I also hear the heart that has always existed in Dante’s work. While he’s often been thought of as a bit of an anarchist and one of the more looser cannons to come out of the Roger Corman film school, Dante knows how to see through the monsters and big concepts and arrive at the emotional center of his young protagonists. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad child performance in a Dante film and the young cast of “Matinee” might be the best he’s ever assembled (or at the very least, tied with “Explorers”).

Then there’s Goodman and Moriarty, who make a phenomenal screen couple. I have read some reviews on Letterbox’d that they wanted more of them and less of the kids. I guess I can’t argue wanting to see more of Goodman and Moriarty, particularly that opening scene when they're at the gas station and the attendant mistakes Woolsey for Hitchcock. Goodman, in one of many parts he was born to play, has the most magical moment of the film, as he teaches Gene the meaning behind his unrelenting showmanship. So few films have summed up the joy of going to the movies as well as “Matinee” does in just a few short minutes.

I also find much pleasure in hearing Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which effortlessly taps into the emotional pull (the impending doom of the family unit if Gene’s dad doesn’t make it home) as well as the mayhem of the third act, while also playfully underscoring the absurd-yet-sincere melodrama of the life of the American teenager. It’s one of his best.

And then there’s simply the experience of simply watching a movie that brings you great joy, big laughs and comfort after a long day that should never be discounted. Hell, I haven’t even gotten to how great all the films-within-the-film are (“The Shook-Up Shopping Cart” with a young Naomi Watts and, of course, “MANT!”) or how Shout! Factory’s blu-ray edition should be essential to every movie lover’s collection. Or the supporting cast including Dante staples Robert Picardo, John Sayles and the late, great Dick Miller. I have so much more to write about.

Is “Matinee” the most profound film of 1993? No. Does it represent the peak of artistic and cinematic excellence seen that year? No. Should it have been more highly regarded during the prestigious awards season of 1993? No.

Is it my favorite film of that year? Absolutely.

Hey, we’re all gonna die someday, maybe in a fiery, end-of-the-world, man-made disaster involving oversized insects crawling along skyscrapers. May as well be honest about what you love.

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