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Matinee: of Missiles, Monsters, and Movies

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Our collective fears, values, and dreams are reflected in films. Few movies demonstrate this so explicitly as director Joe Dante's Matinee.

This warm comedy's setting is 1962, a time when an adolescent's two biggest concerns were nuclear war and getting a date. Matinee, although not a great film, remains a must-see for fans of 50's monster movies, for survivors of school "duck and cover" air raid drills, and for those who in the post-Cold-War era are already obtusely forgetting the once-ominous thermonuclear threat.

In spite of and partly because of that era's atomic anxiety, people flocked to the matinees, and among the favorite genres were "creature features." Those monsters were often created or at least aroused by the horror people really feared: atomic bombs and/or radiation.

Matinee is a movie within a movie. The diegetic director, Woolsey (delightfully played by John Goodman), reveals his cathartic philosophy of monster movies. At the box office of Mant, his new creature feature, people, bearing various burdens in their hearts, will gather. Inside the vicarious world of the theater, the audience will be frightened by the monster and then relieved when the monster is destroyed. Finally, the audience will leave feeling good that all again is well with the world.

Woolsey's Mant is--from today's perspective--a hysterical satire of all those old creature features. But during its first run in a Florida theater, a real monster arises. People in the formerly sleepy town panic as the Cuban Missile Crisis puts the world briefly on the brink of annihilation. But sometimes life imitates art, and in the happy ending the Cuban Missile Monster is vanquished and all again seems well with the world.

Copyright 1993 Mark D. Stucky.
Published originally in Integra, March 1993.

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