By 1960 close to 90% of American households owned a television set. This little bit of trivia plays a significant role in Joe Dante’s period comedy, set in Key West, Florida in October of 1962 when channels began broadcasting President Kennedy’s infamous television interruption talking about the presence of Soviet missiles on the nearby island of Cuba. As the entire Key West community (and the country at large) is thrust into a collective panic, B-movie director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) comes to Key West with his newest master-stroke—an exclusive showing of “Mant!” an atomic-themed monster flick that is set to play at the very height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when audiences are at their most terror-stricken.
Joe Dante’s Matinee is a wonderfully crafted, surprisingly under-talked about comedy from the 90’s that looks back at the troubling period in American history where threat of atomic annihilation seemed to sweep the public from their sheltered suburban reality. The opportunity for early ‘60s American satire and comic form are endless; Dante, taking this subject by the horns, manages to exploit the cultural hypocrisy at the time whilst honoring the kitsch tradition of his B-movie forefathers. Simply put, Matinee explores a 1960’s America Joe Dante identifies with intimately, when television was a relatively young technology and cinemas struggled to stay relevant amidst a revolution of new media.
The film starts out like a classic American B-movie monster flick—the people of Key West go about their lives day to day in an idyllic American suburb in comfort, yet the peace of the town remains just eerie enough for us to expect something terrifying to happen. Here tensions build when President Kennedy invades American screens with the broadcast that—for many—starts a worldwide panic. This is particularly the case for blonde-haired schoolboy Gene Loomis whose father is one of the men taking part in the massive naval blockade in Cuba. His school conducts a drill in the case of atomic annihilation—the kind of placebic exercise Gene’s feisty schoolmate Sandra loudly objects to. She, like most of us, knows how little “duck and cover” can withstand a nuclear strike.
Aside from exploring the world of scary B-movies, Matinee also explores the scarier “adult” world, a place full of paranoia, superstition and barely-contained hysteria. In Key Stone, where kids pettifog on trifling concerns, adults find themselves in a state collective delirium, fueled by the constant barrage of information distorted to the point where the danger of the outside world turns out to be as phony as Woolsey’s rubber ant creatures. Joe Dante’s delirium is both hilariously absurd and terrifylingly convincing. His comic approach to the public’s overexposure to television takes on a very real, frightening approach however when the town’s own atomic-induced madness mutates into its own all-consuming monster.
Joe Dante’s frenzy takes on many different appearances in the film; a disgruntled ex-convict, townsfolk opposed to Woolsey’s films and angry girlfriends. The most emblematic of these however must be theatre impresario who, after mistaking his theatre’s pyrotechnics for Soviet missiles, engages a timed lock which by a tragic coincidence seals Gene and Sandra in his super-secure bomb shelter. The irony in Joe Dante’s ludicrous scenarios is that these modes of protection and security ultimately become more of a threat to the characters than anything else in the film.
One of these misinterpreted ‘threats’ seems to be Lawrence Woolsey himself. At first glance, Woolsey’s desire to manipulate the fear in his audience appear to be the showman’s underhanded attempts to exacerbate a town’s fears, but the theatre, divorced from the superstition of “real world” problems, becomes almost a haven from the feverish madness of the town. Rather than exploit the fears of the townspeople Woolsey forms a retreat from the Crisis, channeling the collective frenzy into a festive communion. Television isn’t granted the same loving treatment by Dante, his tiny sets of antennae boxes isolate its viewers, casts a hypnotic spell on them and even seems to control their minds.
Interestingly, Joe Dante didn’t have to venture into the realm of fantasy or science fiction in Matinee. One must ultimately assume that at a certain point in the director’s own childhood Dante must have realized that the scariest things on the planet didn’t infest movie screens but the world he lived everyday.