Color, 1993, 98m.
Directed by Joe Dante
Starring John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee
Arrow (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Carlotta (Blu-ray) (France RB HD), Koch (Blu-ray) (Germany RB HD), Universal, Image (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
This love letter to the golden era of kid's horror and sci-fi matinee movies from the mid-'50s through the early '60s is perhaps the warmest film directed by Joe Dante, a sweet palette cleanser of sorts in between his big-budget special effects extravaganzas, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Small Soldiers. Like his previous kid-centric film, Explorers, this one left more than a few critics scratching their heads and moviegoers only turning up in modest numbers, but it's amassed a substantial cult following over the years thanks to home video and TV airings where its creature feature-friendly charms could be better appreciated. It also doesn't hurt that it's anchored by two of the best performances in the entire Dante filmography.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis looms in 1962 and atomic fears are at their height, gimmick-hawking movie director and producer Lawrence Woolsey (Goodman) descends upon a military-heavy neighborhood in Key West to hawk his latest masterpiece: Mant!, the story of a dental X-ray mishap that turns an innocent man named Bill into a mutated monster with a taste for sugar cubes. Accompanying Woolsey is his leading lady and partner in promotion, Ruth (Moriarty), who's getting a bit jaded with a life of nonstop showmanship. Among the fans eager to see the film are high schooler Gene (Fenton) and his younger brother, Dennis (Lee), whose Army dad has just moved them into the area. Gene has a crush on Sandra (Jakub) and uses the opportunity to help Woolsey with the big premiere as a chance for a double date with friends Stanley (Katz) and Sherry (Martin), but a jealous leather-clad rival, a concerned citizen's group with a big secret, and a twitchy theater manager ensure the big day will be more explosive than originally planned.
Dante's film takes a direct but lighthearted look at the ongoing debate about how children are affected by the horrors around them, cinematic or real, and how capable they are of processing it. Not surprisingly the film comes down firmly on the side of letting kids go see monster movies when they feel like it, especially if the threat of nuclear annihilation is just around the corner, though the destructive climax sends out a few mixed messages involving kids in peril. The film admirably evokes the time period and locale with a bright, sunny look that mirrors the overall attitude, and regular Dante composer Jerry Goldsmith contributes a warmly nostalgic, energetic score that's among his breeziest. While the young actors are all perfectly fine in their roles, they're easily overshadowed by Goodman and Moriarty, a killer team who could have been an entire movie unto themselves. Goodman perfectly nails the sly, sneaky, but lovable trickster who goes to incredibly complicated lengths to get butts in the seats, complete with a William Castle-style cigar in many scenes, while Moriarty is utterly hilarious both as Ruth and as the damsel in distress in Mant! (even getting the film's funniest line, "Bill, put that down!"). As usual it's also packed with the usual Dante characters including Belinda Balaski, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, and even John Sayles (who wrote The Howling), while a young Naomi Watts can be spotted in the cute Disney live-action spoof, The Shook-Up Shopping Cart.
For years Matinee was a prized possession among laserdisc collectors for its exclusive inclusion of the full 16-minute version of Mant! featuring all the footage shot by Dante for the main feature (plus the separate faux Mant! trailer seen in the film), and it's a hilarious treat in its own right. The film's first Blu-ray release courtesy of Carlotta in France (as Panic sur Florida Beach) ported that over and also featured the trailer, a photo gallery, and the original 4-minute EPK created by Universal with Dante chatting on the set. However, the heftiest bonus is "Paranoia in Ant Vision," a 31-minute interview with Dante about the project's origins after Gremlins 2: The New Batch, nailing the period details, compositing William Castle with atomic age sci-fi showmen like Bert I. Gordon, the wildly inappropriate nature of some Saturday matinee programming, and the challenge of immersing a modern audience in the mindset of the era. A separate 6-minute featurette with Dante goes into the judgment calls that had to be made about the special effects to be accurate to the period and look as good as they could for the budget of the time to help convey a childlike sense of belief.
The 2016 UK Blu-ray from Arrow features the same HD master created by Universal seen on the prior French Blu-ray (and the stripped-down German one), which means it looks perfectly satisfying with a nice representation of the film's intense shades of orange, blue, and purple. The opening scene has a slight blue tinge like it always has, so don't worry, that isn't any crazy teal nonsense like some other unfortunate recent releases. The bit rate is as high as its predecessors and in some cases higher, so unless someone ponies up for a fresh 4K scan from scratch someday, this is probably the best the film can look at home -- and that's fine. The LPCM stereo English audio sounds great, with optional English subtitles provided.
Packaged with reversible sleeve art featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys and the original poster, the first pressing also includes a liner notes booklet with a new essay by David Jenkins. Every notable extra from the French release -- the trailer, deleted scenes, EPK, French Dante intro, "Paranoia in Ant Vision," and full Mant! reel and trailer -- is included here, while new extras are added as well. Two minutes of deleted footage features more Cuban missile crisis coverage and discussion between the kids and their parents, followed by 8 minutes of raw video footage shot during the production with Dante (including some precious wide shots of the mant theater invasion). An 8-minute "Atomo-Vision!" video interview with cinematographer John Hora and editor Marshall Harvey goes into their rapport with Dante spanning several films and the "wacky" ideas they explored together, and a 10-minute "Bit Parts!" featurette on Dante's repertory of recurring actors including new interviews with Dante, Robert Picardo, Archie Hahn, Belinda Balaski, and John Sayles, plus footage of Dick Miller from That Guy Dick Miller. In short, its very likely to be the last word on Dante's lovable cult classic.
Reviewed on September 2, 2016.