Matinee is fairly much a Joe Dante film as usual. There are cameos from Dick Miller and other 1950s science-fiction movie regulars such as John Agar, Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert and Kevin McCarthy (who plays a General Ankrum, named after Morris Ankrum, a regular actor in 1950s science-fiction films). Dante conducts an elaborate recreation of a 1950s atomic monster movie, right down to the bad effects, the acting style, the deadpan lines and the lighting scheme. (The only complaint is that the films setting of 1962 was well past the date when the fad for atomic monster movies had died off). There is also a clip from a film entitled The Shook Up Shopping Cart that does a very funny parody of Disney live-action films. The film is filled with a gee-whiz fannish enthusiasm the young hero is naturally a monster movie fan and rabidly collects, like Dante himself did, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
Most of all, Matinee is a tribute to that master of gimmicky showmanship William Castle, the director/producer of films like Macabre (1958), wherein Castle offered up insurance policies against death of fright; House on Haunted Hill (1959) in which a skeleton was winched across the theatre; and The Tingler (1959) where Castle placed electric buzzers beneath the seats, all of which feature in one form or another here. Theres an hilarious opening clip that imitates one of William Castles self-promotional trailers, promising a film shot in Atomo-Vision and spurious claims to being based on scientific fact by scientific magazines that are whipped past the camera too fast to be seen. John Goodman gives a highly enjoyable larger-than-life performance as Woolsey/Castle.
The good news is that Matinee appears to represent a maturity upon Joe Dantes part. While it never leaves the Famous Monsters fanboy territory that Dante has staked out behind, it is more substantial as a story than all of Dantes other films. It is less a film about monster movie fannish enthusiasm than it is about the era the films came from. Indeed, one gets the impression it could almost be a film about Joe Dantes own childhood. It has a nicely structured screenplay that enjoyably twists and turns through the awkwardness of asking girls out, first kisses, dealing with annoying younger brothers, juvenile delinquency, the madness that took peoples imagination during the Cuban Missile Crisis era and, of course, a love of monster movies. It is the first of Joe Dantes films that actually touches base with the subtext of the films he loves.
Matinee also does a good job of recreating the hysteria that momentarily swept the nation at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis the insanity of the Duck and Cover protection, the panic in the supermarkets. There is one wonderfully playful moment where John Goodman evocatively compares a cinema to the lair of a primitive caveman the food laid out in the nibble nook, the worn carpet like the floor of an ancient cave, the screening auditorium playing like the dark pit where the caveman paints animals on the wall to frighten and awe others.
Joe Dante next went onto make Small Soldiers (1998), which only rehashed Gremlins, and has since begun to slip away as a creative force, although did make an enjoyable return to form with Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), while the subsequent The Hole (2009) and the zombie comedy Burying the Ex (2014) have largely disappeared without notice.