Video Rewind tells the stories behind forgotten VHS favorites from the video store era, one rental at a time! This month’s movie is 1993’s “Matinee”.
Hollywood loves making movies about Hollywood as much as audiences love watching them. Countless films about the film industry have enjoyed both box office and critical success, some even nabbing Oscar nods for Best Picture (and winning), in Hollywood’s ultimate attempt to pat its own back. Such films over the years include La La Land (oh so close to that Best Picture win), Argo (winner), The Artist (winner), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (nominee), Mulholland Drive, Bowfinger (should have been nominated), The Muppet Movie (seriously should have been nominated), Hollywoodland, and countless others.
Even recent television shows have explored the drama behind the industry, such as Amazon’s criminally underseen The Last Tycoon and Netflix’s on-the-nose titled Hollywood. All are fascinating and entertaining in their own way.
But few are as charming as Joe Dante’s 1993 effort Matinee, a love letter to small town America and the sci-fi, creature feature movies of the 1950s and 1960s.
Set in 1962 during the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis and growing fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, Matinee focuses on the town of Key West, Florida, less than a hundred miles across the ocean from Cuba.
The townspeople live in palpable fear of a nuclear attack, and shock movie producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) finds great opportunity in this fear to hype up and premiere his latest sci-fi/horror flick Mant!, a film about a man half mutated by nuclear radiation into an ant.
“A theory that has been written about in national magazines,” Woolsey says as he quickly waves a few magazines across the screen in his promo for his new film, the titles of which are blurred with movement and unreadable.
The promo opens with an Alfred Hitchcock-like silhouette to reveal Woolsey (he humorously gets mistaken for Hitchcock a little later, much to his dismay), boasting his new film will be presented in Atomo-Vision, an immersive new experience that brings the viewer into the movie.
While the Cuban Missile Crisis serves as the catalyst for a week the United States will never forget, Mant!, the film within Matinee, serves as the connection for a group of kids coming of age in Key West, Florida.
Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is a horror movie loving kid who collects Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (the ones on screen are from director Joe Dante’s personal collection), and loves spending time at the local movie theater, The Strand. Living on a military base with his mother and younger brother while his father is away in the Navy, Gene worries greatly about his father. Along with his friend Stan (Omri Katz), the coming premiere of Mant!, and a new girl in town named Sandra (Lisa Jakub), Gene is distracted just enough to experience one crazy week of growing up.
The role of Gene went to a young, London born actor named Simon Fenton, a blonde haired, Tom Sawyer type who could speak with an impeccable American accent. Fenton was fresh off the release of The Power of One where he played a younger version of star Stephen Dorff in a World War II boxing drama directed by Rocky and The Karate Kid helmer John G. Avildsen. Production on Matinee began just a couple weeks after the release of The Power of One in the Spring of 1992, and working with the Oscar winning Avildsen (Rocky) and the hit-making Joe Dante (Gremlins) was a promising start to the young actor’s career.
However, although Fenton would go on to steadily work in more than 15 television shows over the next decade (he has one credit since 2001), The Power of One and Matinee remain his only 2 feature film credits.
Being quiet and shy as a kid, Lisa Jakub relished the opportunity to play Sandra, the hippie-like rebel and status-quo disruptor who speaks her mind and rails against the system.
When the kids in school are practicing a duck and cover drill, bent over on their knees with hands behind their necks as protection against a possible nuclear attack, Sandra catches Gene’s eye (and the entire school’s) while arguing that this ridiculous drill does nothing as she’s pulled to the principal’s office. “The radiation will still get you and you’ll puke up your organs,” she yells at the kids ducking in the hallway. Be still Gene’s beating heart…
A self proclaimed huge fan of Innerspace as a kid, Lisa Jakub was thrilled to work with director Joe Dante, but nervous about a scene that involved a kiss with Simon Fenton’s Gene. The onscreen kiss would be Jakub’s real first kiss, and the scene originally also called for a little clumsy teenage groping. The 14 year-old actress asked Dante if that could be removed, and much to Jakub’s relief, Dante agreed saying he was thinking of cutting the groping anyway. And according to Jakub’s memoir, You Look Like That Girl..., the director added, “besides, there’s nothing there to grab!”
Playing Gene’s friend, Stan, was Omri Katz. Dante had worked with Katz before on the excellent but short lived TV show Eerie, Indiana, but the young actor was most known at the time for his role on the smash hit TV show Dallas, which ended its eight year run in 1991.
Stan’s crush, Sherry, was played by blue-eyed cutie and future Hallmark Channel movie queen Kellie Martin.
Sherry recently experienced a sort of sexual awakening with her older ex boyfriend Harvey, an up-to-no-good tough guy who frightens Stan almost as much as Sherry purring about the awareness of her body’s desires. Martin was best known for the TV show Life Goes On, in its 4th and final season during the release of Matinee.
Similar to Simon Fenton, Omri Katz and Lisa Jakub also left the business in the early 2000s (Katz is now a hairdresser, Jakub a writer).
But it was Katz and Jakub who would forever became familiar faces with the now Halloween favorite Hocus Pocus (Katz), and the comedy classic Mrs. Doubtfire (Jakub), both released later in 1993. While Katz’s career peaked with Hocus Pocus, Jakub’s would gain further traction and peak three years later with a role in the biggest box office hit of 1996, Independence Day.
While the teens of Key West awkwardly maneuver the ins and outs of young love, filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey is busy priming the town for the premiere of Mant!.
John Goodman found success and was well known as Dan Conner on the hit TV show Roseanne, but had an up and down track record at the box office. Goodman scored minor hits with Arachnophobia in 1990 and King Ralph in 1991. But despite earning good reviews for his performance, Goodman struggled at the box office in 1992 with the Babe Ruth biopic The Babe. Things wouldn’t improve with Matinee, but Goodman would hit big in 1994, perfectly cast as Fred Flintstone in the big screen adaptation of The Flintstones.
Perfectly cast in Matinee, the always charismatic Goodman gives Lawrence Woolsey the right amount of showmanship and heart — a loud, direct man, but with loads of charm. Woolsey knows people, and he knows how to create a spectacle as he aims to play on the fear of potential nuclear world war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while hustling his nuclear-tinged tale about a mutated half man/half ant.
Much to the annoyance of his longtime leading lady and girlfriend Ruth (Cathy Moriarty, gorgeous and hilarious), Woolsey is always looking for his next big creature-feature idea. “Manigator…Alliman…Gator Gal,” Woolsey ponders as he looks at a stuffed alligator outside of a gas station upon arriving in Key West. “Galligator,” he excitedly settles on as Ruth rolls her eyes, knowing all too well that she’ll be the star of such a ridiculous film.
The character of Lawrence Woolsey is a direct nod to the master of movie theater gimmickry and b-movie filmmaker extraordinaire William Castle.
Castle was the director of such classics as House on Haunted Hill (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), and The Tingler (1959). While Woolsey may have false visions of grandeur, he is no fool and knows his shtick will be short lived. While equipping the local movie theater with the “Rumble-Rama”, seat buzzing trickery of his Atomo-Vision (exactly what Castle famously rigged up for The Tingler), Gene asks Woolsey why he is doing all of this. “Takes more to scare people these days, too much competition,” he answers, well aware of the real world fear and tension that currently grips the country.
It’s these earnest moments that Goodman can pivot toward so quickly that make his performance so enjoyable to watch.
Woolsey may be a razzle-dazzle showman, a watch-this-hand-so-you-can’t-see-what-I’m-doing-with-the-other type salesman, but he’s all heart. And Goodman is the perfect anchor for the cast of kids coming of age in Matinee.
A large part of the third act of Matinee is dedicated to Mant! and the audience’s reaction to watching it.
The film is a fun mash-up of numerous b-movie sci-fi/horror films of the 1950s and ’60s.
Dante and his team went to great lengths to make Mant! feel authentic to the time. This included creating a human size, puppet-like ant suit modeled after the likes of Creature From the Black Lagoon and Them!, lifting some of the hokey dialogue word for word from films of the era, and musical cues borrowed from several low-budget, sci-fi shockers of the time including It Came From Outer Space (1953), Tarantula (1955), and The Deadly Mantis (1957).
It’s a wonderfully nostalgic addition to the already wonderful Matinee.
The audience in the film eats up every moment of Mant!, the buzzers and gimmicks getting them every time — leading to screaming, gasping, popcorn flying, and girls grabbing the arms of their dates. This was the case with Sandra, who sat with Gene to watch the much hyped premiere. But when Woolsey’s Rumble-Rama shakes the theater’s balcony a little too much, the entire theater feels the vibrations. This rumbling combined with the image of a burned out movie screen and blown out brick wall revealing a mushroom cloud in the distance (all part of the show), sends the nuclear war-fearing viewers of Key West into a panicked frenzy.
It’s here where Gene and Sandra end up trapped in a bunker built under the theater by the owner, left to think they may need to re-populate mankind and leading to Lisa Jakub’s first real kiss.
The original screenplay for Matinee was written by Jerico Stone, his follow up to 1988’s ill fated Dan Aykroyd comedy My Stepmother is an Alien.
Stone’s script bears little resemblance to the final film, however, because in his version a group of adults meet up at an old movie theater they frequented as kids that is now being turned into a video store. The script was more fantasy than the grounded, real world location of 1962 Key West, Florida. A large portion of Stone’s script was about the kids sharing stories about the vampire projectionist that worked at the theater, along with other ghouls and monsters that served as ushers and ticket sellers.
According to director Joe Dante, Stone’s script couldn’t find a studio to back it, so Gremlins 2 writer Charlie Haas was hired to take a pass at the script. Universal approved of the rewrite and agreed to distribute the film. When Stone saw he was demoted to only a story credit for the final product and Haas got the lone screenplay credit, he unsuccessfully disputed the Writer’s Guild for a joint screenplay credit.
Matinee remains Jerico Stone’s last writing credit.
Joe Dante says a mix of independent financing and backing from Universal was agreed upon to bankroll the picture.
But week after week, the independent money wouldn’t show up, leaving Universal to continuously cover the missing funds. When it became apparent that the independent money wasn’t ever coming in, Universal chose to finance the entire film themselves, a decision that Dante says led to his “everlasting gratitude and their everlasting regret.”
Upon completion of the film, then head of Universal Tom Pollock liked the finished product but was at a loss as to how to market it. Dante always envisioned the movie opening slowly, gaining attention and theater counts as weeks went by. Instead, Universal followed its tried and true model and opened Matinee in wide release on January 29, 1993.
Filming began on April 13, 1992 in and around Florida, including the towns of Maitland, Key West, and Cocoa. The Historic Cocoa Village was where the exterior shots for The Strand theater were filmed. “The Strand” is actually The Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse, built as The Aladdin Theater in 1924, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
The interior school and theater scenes were filmed on the back lot at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, back when Orlando was being hyped as “Hollywood East,” an idea that never really materialized. During lunch breaks the kids would run throughout the Universal theme park, riding the King Kong and Back to the Future rides. Lisa Jakub recalls how great it was filming in Orlando, and how as an only child she relished the time spent with the other kids in the cast. Kellie Martin and Jakub became good friends on set and remain close to this day.
Upon release in the Winter of 1993, Matinee enjoyed very positive reviews from critics across the country.
Roger Ebert rated the film a very high three and half out of four stars, saying “there are a lot of big laughs in Matinee, and not many moments when I didn’t have a wide smile on my face.”
Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly gushed, “Dante has captured the reason that Cold War trash like Mant! struck such a nerve in American youth: The prospect of atomic disaster was so fanciful and abstract that it began to merge in people’s imaginations with the very pop culture it had spawned,” he continued, “Matinee is a loving tribute to the schlock that fear created.”
Despite Dante’s efforts resonating well with critics, the positive reviews didn’t translate at the box office.
Much to the dismay of Universal that Dante mentioned earlier, Matinee only managed a #6 opening at the box office with a weak $3.6 million in 1,143 theaters. During that opening weekend, the film was beat by 1992 hit holdovers such as Aladdin, Scent of a Woman, and A Few Good Men. By its second weekend in release, Matinee had fallen out of the top ten altogether. Maybe Universal head Tom Pollack was right saying he didn’t know how to market Matinee, because the marketing efforts didn’t strike a chord with audiences.
The film’s theatrical run would top out at $9.5 million before hitting video store shelves that Summer (where once again it was overshadowed by Scent of a Woman and A Few Good Men).
At the end of the film, the Cuban Missile Crisis is over and Woolsey and Ruth leave for Cleveland.
There’s always another town full of people for Woolsey to work up and get excited for his latest low-budget extravaganza.
Perhaps a little more magic is lost in the world each time they travel to a new town, as it becomes harder and harder to scare people while the real world becomes a scarier place. But for now, Woolsey still has enough tricks up his sleeve to get the most out of his latest picture.
The world today has only gotten scarier since the 1962 depicted in the film. And while Matinee wasn’t appreciated in its time, it has only become more magical and charming since then. And like Woolsey, perhaps Joe Dante can find some solace knowing that his film offers a much needed escape at a time when it’s most needed.
A love letter to films they just don’t make anymore, MATINEE is a heartfelt tribute to the movies, coming of age, families with members in the service in harm’s way, and a beautiful look at the life that will always go on in the meantime.