Collins’ Crypt: Feeling Nostalgic For The Nostalgia Of MATINEE

Joe Dante's most personal film gets an unfortunately timely release on Blu-ray

Joe Dante's 1993 film Matinee is often remembered for two things: "Mant", the film within the film that parodies the atomic monster movies of the 1950's, and John Goodman's character Lawrence Woolsey, who was very obviously an homage to William Castle, the gimmick-loving producer who gave us things like "Emergo" and "Percepto" to promote his films. It was not a huge hit, but these things struck a chord with horror fans, and even though the film is not a horror movie it's often brought up in conversation as if it were. But that's not saying the film has zero sense of terror and danger - the film's plot actually takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus it's kind of amusing (in a horrifying sort of way) that the film is being released on Blu-ray (via Shout Factory's "Shout Selects" label) a few days after a different kind of missile crisis: the alert that went out to Hawaiian residents over the weekend informing them that a missile was heading their way, emphasizing "NOT A DRILL" in its announcement.

Technically, it was true - it was NOT a drill, but an error caused by someone literally pressing the wrong button. It took nearly forty minutes for the terrified citizens of Hawaii to be assured that they were safe and the warning was sent in error (our reality-star-in-chief couldn't be bothered to speed up that process, and merely went back to golfing rather than send a Tweet - the one time in history people would have been happy for his Twitter addiction), which prompted a number of sobering stories from people who did their best to try to corral their families, fill bathtubs, etc. in hopes of somehow surviving what might have been a nuclear attack. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted for nearly two weeks, but as far as I can tell no US citizen was ever told by an official channel that a missile was actually headed their way, so those who were alive and can remember that terrible October of 1962 got off easy in comparison. I'd rather spend two weeks being very concerned that we might be on the brink of war than forty minutes being certain of it.

Luckily, Dante's film does not dwell too much on the panic of the day, as it's mostly used as an excuse for the filmmaker to showcase his true passion: movies! It's kind of a genius move on his part to take a William Castle-like figure but not have him making Castle-like films, as it lets Dante pay homage to two different eras that he loves at once. As someone points out on one of the Blu-ray's exhaustive collection of bonus features (it'll take you hours to get through the disc - and it doesn't even have a commentary!), Castle didn't make giant monster movies - his bread and butter was ghosts and people scamming each other out of inheritance money, largely leaving monsters to the other guys. The Tingler came close (as did Bug, his final film) but even one of the child stars of Matinee could probably tell the difference between The Tingler and something like The Fly, which was the kind of movie Woolsey was making with "Mant". That said, Woolsey and his gimmicks are straight out of Castle's playbook; the first time we see Goodman in the film is during a trailer for "Mant", informing the audience of the terrors they will see when the movie opens - just as Castle did in his memorable spots and film intros. 

Woolsey's also got the in-theater gimmicks, one of which is pretty much exactly The Tingler's "Percepto", a.k.a. the in-seat devices that would buzz at key moments in the film and give the audience member a jolt. I was lucky enough to see The Tingler a few years back in a theater that had a few seats equipped with the devices, and I opted to make sure my friend sat in the one that had it so I could amuse myself with her unprepared reaction, which turned out to be a good call since the movie kind of sucks. It takes forever to get to the fun stuff, and even Vincent Price can't quite compensate for the slow pace and dumb-even-by-these-standards plot. I enjoy Castle's other films quite a bit, but as far as The Tingler goes, "Percepto" is the only memorable thing about it, which is perhaps why Dante didn't see the need to change anything about it beyond the name ("Atomovision"). The other gimmicks Woolsey employs are more original but would probably meet Castle's seal of approval - the kids are asked to sign release forms when they enter the theater in case the movie scares them to death (an inversion of Macabre's life insurance policy), and having a guy in a Mant costume appear when a character in the movie turns to camera and says "There he is!" - a more elaborate version of "Emergo", the House on Haunted Hill gimmick that sent a skeleton flying over the heads of presumably terrified moviegoers.

As Dante points out in one of his interviews, it's almost impossible to believe that this was not only attempted, but the theaters went along with it. Dante holds up a manual for the Tingler devices that's about the size of the one you got with your major home appliance, laughing at how relatively complicated it was while lamenting how far things have fallen since. Nowadays it's almost a miracle if a theater manager will bother to silence a rowdy guest when someone comes out to complain, so it's fairly difficult to imagine these stooges setting up devices in X number of seats just to provide a quick little gag for one of their paying customers. The closest approximation would be Cinema 4DX theaters, which have rumbling chairs and shoot out water and fog effects during key moments in films that are shown that way (Geostorm was one recent option), but these are specially designed theaters that stay that way (and were likely set up by people from the 4DX company), whereas Castle's gimmicks were left to the individual theaters to install and maintain. 

As for "Mant" itself, it's a wonderful homage to atomic monster films that is thankfully played straight instead of as an overt spoof, which of course makes it funnier. My favorite little detail is easily the recreation of the dialogue you'd hear in these things, which often sounds like the screenwriter wanted to show off whatever he learned in his research ("The ant's saliva must have gotten into Bill's bloodstream and gone straight to his brain just as the radiation - which is measured in units called roentgens - was released!"). The title character is basically just Andre Delambre with a different kind of insect head (and arm), but unlike Delambre, who remained human sized, Mant eventually grows into a giant bug a la Them! and Tarantula, attacking a movie theater just like The Blob. Again, this is Dante mixing and matching elements to give a general idea, rather than zeroing in on one particular film or person, not unlike how Cabin in the Woods combined elements of slashers, monsters, and supernatural horror films to give its narrative and villains their own identity while generally being recognizable. As always, Dante throws in scores of Easter Eggs via character names and cameo roles, even doubling down in some cases - for example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers' hero Kevin McCarthy shows up in "Mant" playing a man named Ankrum, named after Morris Ankrum from Invaders From Mars and Rocketship X-M. It's the same giddy/geeky stuff he does in pretty much all of his movies, but in a film that doesn't actually belong shelved alongside them in the video store.

In fact I have to wonder if the non-horror loving portion of the audience even appreciated how well done it all was if they had no affinity for these films in the first place. On the flipside, it's a shame more horror fans didn't turn up to enjoy this stuff even if they weren't too interested in the dramatic narrative. Hell, "Mant" is so on point (they even shot it on black and white film stock, instead of just taking the color out) that you almost wish they made the entire movie. Dante and his crew shot about a reel's worth (and did it first so that it could be actually projected in the film instead of having the actors look at a blank screen and compositing it in later) and we see pretty much all of it in one form or another throughout the film (the third act is set almost entirely in the theater during the premiere), but it never wears out its welcome. More importantly, it never feels like something that was shot in a couple hours on one set, as most films within films often feel. I remember this being a particular blemish on Tropic Thunder, where the fake trailers and movies for its main characters never came off like actual movies, but sketch gags, which made it harder to believe that these guys were major stars in that world. That's not the case with "Mant" - while we don't see all of it, we see that they put a lot of effort into making it feel like there COULD be an entire movie somewhere (some footage from Beast from 20,000 Fathoms helps with the illusion), kind of like how you can take all of the McBain clips from The Simpsons over the years and form a coherent narrative out of it. 

Rightfully assuming fans might want to watch it without the pesky plot interrupting, Shout Factory's Blu has the film shown in its "entirety", complete with Woolsey's in-film intro. It allows you to really soak in the details (including an overt homage to Cronenberg's The Fly) and appreciate the Mant makeup, which is showcased on another bonus feature. Dante insisted on doing everything as they would then rather than play up the joke, and I had to laugh/sigh that the makeup/prosthetic work for an in-movie gag is more elaborate and impressive than the designs we get for primary villains in some newer genre films. Sure, it's a bit clunky and goofy, but so were some of the creatures from legit movies of the era. No one in their right mind would find the original Fly scarier than the more realistic remake version, which slowly transitioned the protagonist into a humanoid creature instead of just plopping a Fly-head on an otherwise normal human body, but it would have been anachronistic for Dante and his designers to use the practices of 1993 when recreating a 1960s movie. If you took a shot from "Mant" (particularly the ones where scientists and Army guys argue) and showed it to someone out of context they would likely believe it really was a film from that era.

It's funny, the film about nostalgia for a bygone era is now old enough for people to be nostalgic for its own bygone era, i.e. when studios like Universal would pony up the dough for films with such a specific point of view and niche audience, and give them the same kind of platform they would for their mainstream releases. In his interview, Dante even seems to feel a bit guilty that he made a film that they couldn't easily sell, but grateful that he was allowed to make the movie he wanted to with no interference and that Universal would let the widest possible audience find the film (it was released on over 1,000 screens - this kind of film would be lucky to get a dozen today and it would be alongside a VOD release anyway). It's somewhat amusing that one of the best loving homages to horror movies appeared in a coming of age drama instead of an actual horror movie, but I'd much prefer to see films like this than the umpteenth indie horror that swipes Carpenter's music (and/or title font) but has no personality of its own. Dante may have been paying homage to his favorite monster movies, but he smuggled those obsessions into a rather sweet teen romance/period drama about a very scary time in our nation's history. Most nostalgia-laden stuff of today checks all the boxes for audiences to say "Hey, I remember that show/movie/toy!", but doesn't bring enough of its own ideas to the table. Some filmmakers could stand to learn a thing or two from Dante on how to do this kind of thing right.