Friday, May 7, 2010

Proudly Presenting The End Of The World: Joe Dante's Matinee

Joe Dante's love and admiration for monster movies is fairly obvious. Look no further than The Howling (1981) or Gremlins (1984). Evidence can even be caught in The 'Burbs (1989). What's fascinating about Matinee (1993) is that it is both an endearing homage to the director's influences and an evaluation of how we've come to love being scared.

Dante's love letter to late '50s and early '60s creature features has some interesting notions up its sleeve. When director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) premieres his newest film MANT (a film within the film) to mass hysteria in a small Florida town, Dante appears to be having the time of his life. While Dante finds humor in the monster movies that once frightened a nation he never neglects their cultural significance. The black and white homage he's crafted has an absurdly comedic premise and hilarious dialogue which is all unmistakably played for laughs. But Dante also gives his tribute a historical context and allows for us to understand why people would be afraid of something we find so funny in retrospect. Fifty years ago, audiences weren't really horrified simply because they saw fifty foot beasts running amuck in major metropolitan areas. They screamed with terror because many of these flicks acted as cautionary tales for a country on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, young horror fanatic Gene Loomis (Sam Fenton) doesn't lose sleep over the grotesque mutants and massive bugs he eagerly watches on the silver screen. Gene's nightmares concern an atomic bomb obliterating him and his family from the face of the planet. By making films that so obviously exploit national concerns, Goodman's Lawrence Woolsey (loosely based on B-producer/director William Castle) made fear tangible. People flocked to the closest theatre to get scared out of their wits by giant monsters because monsters could be dealt with. Our growing worries were sugarcoated. The Army within MANT can destroy a giant radioactive ant but audiences were ignorant to the Army outside of the cinema that was having much more trouble protecting us from something real. These films simultaneously helped us address nation wide panic while helping us forget the horrors of the real world for a few hours.

Dante went to see these movies in his youth because he could sigh with relief whenever the curtain fell and the lights were raised. It's fairly irrelevant whether these films are good or bad - they're still fun. We embrace these pictures not for a life affirming message but for the thrills they produce. Yet Matinee offers us a message anyway. After watching our deepest fears manifested by men in rubber suits, leaving the cinema becomes invigorating; it feels great to be alive. What we've just witnessed was only a movie, but as the fear subsides, Dante leaves us to wonder if the threat is ever truly fleeting.

Previously out of print for over a decade, Matinee was re-released on DVD on May 4th.

-- Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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