While Joe Dante’s MATINEE is ostensibly a coming-of-age fear flick about a William Castle-like schlocky showman, the meta film within a film, MANT, is an affectionate love letter to the classic creature features that inspired a generation.
It’s time we break down who’s who in that meta-fun-fest… and why!
Set in Key West, Florida in 1962, a low budget movie producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a thinly disguised pastiche of producer-director William Castle, accompanied by his girlfriend assistant (Cathy Moriarity), arrive to promote their latest gimmick spectacular: MANT!
Not content to simply wire the seats with electric shocks like Castle, Dante adds “RumbleRama” and “Atomo-Vision” to the experience for MANT moviegoers. Woolsey is looking to secure a deal with a distributor — who is more than a passing nod to cigar-chomping AIP kingpin Samuel Z. Arkoff.
Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a die-hard monster kid whose dad is stationed at the Navy base, and his younger brother see the trailer for Woolsey’s upcoming opus at the theater and go nuts, as it is simply the greatest sci-fi horror movie never actually made: Half Man, Half Ant, ALL TERROR!
Can you heart take the shock? Because this is IT!
As Dante admitted in a “making of” doc, he actually shot MANT first, so it could be incorporated into the main feature. It’s a loving homage to all those B&W 1950s radiation-induced terrors that creeped, crawled and slithered across the atomic-age big screen.
Dante uses music cues from classic Universal monster movies of that period, and the graphics are in the style of promos for TARANTULA, THEM, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST and others. The inane dialog is a tribute to director Bert I. Gordon’s “explain-o-talk,” making things really clear for kiddie matinee audiences. Sharp-eyed viewers can even spot shots of crowds fleeing in terror culled from Ray Harryhausen’s classic BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. (Yup, there’s the Rhedosaurus as well!) While William Castle never came close to making a giant monster movie, that doesn’t stop his fictional counterpart.
Best of all are the unbilled featured players in MANT: the scientist is played by Robert Cornthwaite from Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic THE THING, the Army General is Kevin McCarthy from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and William Schallert, who was menaced by Edgar Ulmer’s THE MAN FROM PLANET X, plays the dentist who dispenses more than mere fillings.
Dante and his team have a blast as the hapless victim, Bill, first transforms a la THE FLY into an ant-man, and then a colossal ant right out of THEM. Naturally, Cathy Moriarity plays the heroine in the film — when she’s not monitoring Woolsey’s nurse’s station for kids too scared to endure his “Lloyds of London fright break.”
(For more on William Castle click HERE… who says this isn’t the Blumhouse Age of Mixed Meta Content?)
The boy, Gene, who’s no stranger to the wild, wild world of Woolsey, quickly ID’s two anti-horror movie protesters as the producer’s shills, thanks to his voluminous collection of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazines. They’re actually actors from prior Woolsey flicks — “That Guy” Dick Miller, and seasoned director (and ALLIGATOR scribe) John Sayles! Gene cuts a deal with the master showman to keep mum if he can assist in the complex gimmick setups, and is soon wiring theater seats for Percepto-like jolts to the butt.
In a subplot involving a local bad beat-poetry spouting JD, Woolsey hires the punk to run the RumbleRama controls, and then in a full MANT costume, jump out in the audience to terrify moviegoers (a la HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL’s “Emerge-O” skeleton).
While the backstage drama for the premiere of MANT is underway, there’s a more realistic world-ending scenario playing out: Russia has sent nuclear missiles to Cuba as a short-range launching pad to threaten nuclear destruction upon the U.S. But President John F. Kennedy will have none of that! He deploys the Navy to enforce a blockade to prevent Russian ships laden with ATOMO-DEATH to reach the Iron Curtain isle.
As the world stands still over a breathless weekend, the all-too-real fear of nuclear destruction trumps everything else. Gene’s dad is called up to participate in so-called maneuvers, but when JFK makes a televised address, it seems clear that we may not survive the weekend, much less make it to school Monday. It’s the end of the world as we know it… but not for shock king Woolsey!
“What a perfect time to open a new horror movie,” he enthuses to the theater owner. “Think of it, my friend. Millions of people looking over their shoulder, waiting for God’s other shoe to drop, never knowing if each sunset, each malted milk ball may be their last.”
While the school undergoes “duck and cover” drills, a young girl defies the principal and warns the quivering class of the true horrors of nuclear radiation. No DEADLY MANTIS fantasies for her!
This misfit of science naturally catches Gene’s eye. A military brat himself, always the outsider as the perpetual new kid in school, this is the one girl to take to a senses-shattering apocalyptic monster movie.
As the Cold War fervor hits the boiling point, Dante — who has more than a mere inferno on mind — pulls out all the stops.
When RumbleRama (a Sensurround-like subwoofer pushed way past 11) runs out of control, the theater owner is convinced A-bombs are falling, and our heroes are accidentally trapped in a fallout shelter… perhaps for all eternity! Will they emerge to a radiation scarred landscape to be the new Adam & Eve? How long will that canned fruit cocktail last anyway?
As the theater balcony begins to crumble under the low frequency decibel destruction of RumbleRama, Woolsey orders the projectionist to go right to the soul-searing finale of MANT! A super-realistic color atomic bomb explosion blast rips right through the black and white screen, emptying the theater of terrified moviegoers!
Thankfully, the world has not ended. It’s only a movie… only a movie.
Happily, Woolsey lands his distribution deal, Gene gets the girl, the punk gets collared and it’s another sunny rosy day in Key West… but things have changed irrevocably.
“It’s a different world from the one we knew only a few short years ago,” the MANT scientist concurs.
If you’ve never seen MATINEE, do so at once! It’s scary fun for kids of all ages! Best of all, Wallace Woolsey guarantees the time of your life… or your money back!