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Matinee (DVD Review)

15 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 DVD
Rated ‘PG’ for language, and for mild violence and sensuality.
Stars John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton.

Some of it is the “Fight Pay TV” sign that hangs down from a theater marquee. Some of it is seeing Kevin McCarthy — who, after all, battled those pods in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers — cast as a “General Ankrum” in an homage to character actor Morris Ankrum. The latter was the one who seemingly always got the call to play doctors or obligatory generals in 1950s creature features (think The Giant Claw — though, truth is, Ankrum made tons of Westerns, too).

And some of it is the bulls-eye selection of 1962 movie posters that adorn the walls of the same plot-central theater. Or the double bill of Poe’s Tales of Terror and Burn, Witch, Burn pictured on the marquee of the same, a combo I’d easily pay to see tonight. 

In any event, you’d really have to be a pop-culture zero not to realize that the comic sleeper of i1993 was written and directed by a pair of savvy movie lovers (writer Charlie Haas and director Joe Dante) who grew up paying attention to what exhibition in the early 1960s was really like. Released 17 years ago to wonderful reviews but mostly cult business, this sweet but knowing nostalgia piece is something almost unheard of in the last quarter century: a quality major studio offering that opened in January. This likely means Universal was simply dumping a tough sell — yet before this new re-issue, the original Image Entertainment DVD release was selling in the $70-to-$100 range in the used marketplace.

From the first portly profile shot, in shadow, of John Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey character, we know he is spoofing producer/director/showman William Castle, whose schlocky oeuvre inspired a box set of key films (The Tingler, Strait-Jacket) released last fall around Halloween time. (That Sony collection also includes one of the most entertaining documentaries on a filmmaker I’ve ever seen). During his heyday, Castle wired theater seats to give patrons an extra jolt and hired non-medical personnel to pose as nurses in the lobby. The latter passed out disclaimer forms supposedly to protect the management if the movie ended up scaring anyone to death.

It isn’t just 1962 here but ’62 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nerves are already jittery and residents of a Key West military base are especially on edge – including a mother and two sons (one is the movie’s adolescent protagonist, played by Simon Fenton) worried that dad is going to be deployed in combat. In fact, he’s already been called up for Cuban blockade duty.

Into this beachside Florida atmosphere comes Woolsey to preview his latest extravaganza — MANT — which is the mutation you get when a man and an ant suffer radiation at the same time (Woolsey has another title on the same wavelength: Galligator). Thrown into this narrative mix are teen hormones; two Woolsey employees (John Sayles, Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller) who pretend to be morally outraged citizens; a couple semi-bohemian parents; a brassy Woolsey girlfriend who is both his lead actress and pretend lobby nurse (Cathy Moriarty); plus a portrait of school life in ’62 that’s not far off the mark. In one health or nutrition class, the teacher lectures on the importance of eating at least some red meat with each meal (bacon for breakfast, a burger for lunch and so on).

The result is already such a delight that it doesn’t need any extra audience-friendly breaks — but gets one when the boys’ mom suggests that the older brother take the younger one to the movies to ease his nerves. Showing is a comedy about a supernatural shopping cart, the kind of dopey fantasy Disney would have been making around this time with Dean Jones. And in the mock scene the brothers are watching on screen, I kept thinking that the cute actress in it looked vaguely familiar in a way I couldn’t place. Then it hit me: Naomi Watts six years before Mullholland Dr.

Supernatural shopping carts? Mutated MANTS? Well, I guess it’s not that big a jump to David Lynch.

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