Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The director of Gremlins tackles atomic anxiety and the king of the gimmick

Illustration for article titled The director of Gremlins tackles atomic anxiety and the king of the gimmick

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Midnight Special pays inspired tribute to the work of both Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. In its honor, we’re recommending excellent homages to other films and filmmakers.


Matinee (1993)

“You make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off… everything’s okay, the lights come up.” Joe Dante’s Matinee follows an audience’s uproar surrounding a pitch-perfect William Castle imitation: MANT!, a low-budget horror film about a half-man, half-ant, featuring a slew of cheeseball one-liners (“Do you think this is some picnic for me?”). MANT! might be played for snickers, but Matinee suggests that films beyond Hollywood can expose the real horrors of our own society.

In Key West, Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis, brothers Gene (Simon Fenton) and Dennis (Jesse Lee) erode fears of their father holding the blockade with the monster movies of Lawrence Woolsey. Unable to buy his way into Hollywood-controlled theaters, Woolsey (an emphatically grandiose John Goodman) takes MANT! to the local theater and rigs it with every William Castle technique possible: firecrackers, buzzing seats, smokescreens, and a local thug to terrify the audience in full costume. While occasionally embracing his grandiose vision as a storyteller, Woolsey never forgets his role as a cheap exploiter out to make as many quick bucks as he can.

Dante, however, suggests that MANT!’s horrors only expose the fears that lurk outside. Dante stages the Cold War paranoia with a sense of both winking amusement and wincing horror. He stages pitch-perfect parodies of “Duck And Cover” and grocery-store pandemonium, but Woolsey’s film clues the kids in to how helpless the adults around them are. Even when Gene follows two angry parents protesting MANT!, he discovers Woolsey paid them to create controversy, which only strengthens his distrust of authority.

Castle’s theatrical exploitation methods—most famously employed with The Tingler—blurred where cinema ended and reality began. Dante makes this explicitly political, with Woolsey both exploiting and revealing the terrors of the atomic age. By the time a bomb explodes on screen, Dante’s framing asks whether the cinema is meant to scare us in there or out here. That the film closes on a truly ominous image—a Vietnam-era helicopter flying along the shore—makes this often silly affair into a sharp attack on the military industrial complex that only subversive fiction can counter.

Availability: Matinee is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It is also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon and YouTube.