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‘Matinee’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 29, 1993

Director Joe Dante, best known for pureed Gremlins, concocts an entirely benevolent monster mash in the imaginative "Matinee." In this funny, philosophical salute to B-movies and the B-moguls who made them, Dante looks back fondly on growing up with the apocalypse always on your mind and atomic mutants lurking under your bed.

Set in Key West on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, the charming story is something of a mutant itself. A hybrid of horror parody and coming-of-age awash in popcorn, it manages to be reminiscent of "Them," with its giant ants, and "Cinema Paradiso," a biography of an Italian theater.

The theater here is the Strand, a sprawling affair that is the place to be if you are a teenager in Key West on a Saturday afternoon in 1962. Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a 15-year-old Navy brat, and his kid brother (Jesse Lee) are entranced by a trailer for Lawrence Woolsey's (John Goodman) upcoming sci-fi thriller, "Mant": "Half man, half ant. All Terror!!! So terrifying only screams can describe it!" Woolsey is scheduled to attend the opening and Gene is determined not only to be there but to meet the "Master of Horror."

Woolsey, however, runs into serious competition for the townspeople's attention when President Kennedy takes on Khrushchev and Castro. An old-fashioned showman in the mold of the amazing Oz, Woolsey is undeterred by the threat of nuclear holocaust. "What a perfect time to open a horror movie -- never knowing if this malted milk ball will be the last," observes the sagacious cigar-chomper, ever ready to expound upon his theories (which are doubtless shared by Dante, who got his start making horror movies with schlock king Roger Corman).

Woolsey's character is based on B-legend William Castle, who wired theater seats to produce a mild electric shock for his 1959 production "The Tingler." With help from young Gene and an ex-con he's hired to wear the Mant suit, Woolsey wires the seats and installs Rumble-Rama, an innovation that frightened patrons mistake for incoming missiles. Luckily there's a nurse in the lobby -- actually Woolsey's favorite leading lady (Cathy Moriarty) -- to help with the casualties.

She plays the Mant's loyal girlfriend in the black and white film-within-the-film, a camp classic complete with dumb dialogue and dime-store effects. The Mant, a normal guy named Bill (Mark McCracken) who grows feelers after he's bitten by an irradiated ant, becomes progressively more destructive as he grows in size. She tries to soothe him: "Oh, Bill, if you could just listen to the man and put the insect aside." "Insecticide! Where?" screams the Mant, who clanks off to crumble buildings and tramp on cars.

"Matinee" is at its most happily deranged when focused on Woolsey and his enterprise, though there are more universal joys in the teenage hero's travails. Gene, chino-clad and Doogie-esque, becomes the family's emotional pillar when his father is shipped to Cuba. Then during a duck-and-cover drill at his new school, he becomes infatuated with a rebellious classmate who gets detention when she refuses to participate in the futile exercise. When Gene offers his sympathy, she shrugs: "They put Gandhi away for a year."

This light-hearted look at growing up under a mushroom-shaped cloud also features Kellie Martin of TV's "Life Goes On" as a pretty-in-pink coed whose relationship with a juvenile delinquent poet helps precipitate the climax at the Strand. Jesse White (a k a the lonely Maytag repairman) makes a delightful contribution as a lovably old-fangled theater owner wowed by Woolsey's hokey presentation. Still, it's Goodman who makes "Matinee" run with the alleged reliability of a Maytag. Half huckster, half hero. All heart!!! So gratifying only chuckles can describe him.

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