The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — four from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Yes, the atomic bomb is terrible. But more terrible still are the effects of atomic mutation. Observe the ant, a miniature marvel of social cooperation and prodigious strength. But if a man and an ant were exposed to radiation simultaneously, the result would be terrible, indeed … for the result would be …

Half man, half ant! The terrifying byproduct of the worst of what our tiny little atom has to offer! So terrifying only screams can define it! Experience the terror augmented by Atomo-vision and Rumble-rama, the new audience participation thrills that make you part of the show.

As promotional spiels go, the latest from “#1 shock producer” Laurence Woolsey (John Goodman) is a good one — pumping up interest in his latest picture, MANT!, as he previews it in small towns around the United States. But Woolsey’s got nothing on a real-world crisis brewing in Cuba, which sits 90-some miles from Key West, Florida (both the nation’s southernmost point and the site of Woolsey’s upcoming MANT! preview screening).

Gene (Simon Fenton) and his younger brother, Dennis (Jesse Lee), are U.S. Navy brats on the base in Key West. With a dad perpetually dispatched on hush-hush special-ops missions in the dead of night, Gene and Dennis give their mom a break by taking in every movie they can at the single-screen Strand. Shortly after they’re enticed by Woolsey’s preview pitch for MANT!, President John F. Kennedy delivers a special announcement: The U.S. military has detected in Cuba a buildup of Soviet-funded ballistic missiles, carrying nuclear warheads and capable of hitting a smorgasbord of cities in southeastern America (including Washington, D.C.).

In the wake of such news, the only recourse a young, racing mind has is to frame this crisis like a movie or, barring that power, against a movie — like a mental duck-and-cover. Such is the set up for the 1993 film Matinee, in which director Joe Dante casts his gaze back roughly 30 years (to his own teenage years) and explores the symbiotic relationship between political fear-mongering and the gimmicky inspiration of film producers. (Although Woolsey is introduced a la Alfred Hitchcock in a side-profile silhouette, he’s more of a proxy for producer William Castle and his shrewdly marketed sensory in-theater gimmicks like Percepto, Illusion-O and Shock Sections.)

By focusing on a threat more inevitable than invented, Matinee diverted from Dante’s typical fare — fantastical and frequently nasty films like Piranha, The Howling and, most profitably, two Gremlins installments, all informed by impishness of Woolsey’s real-life counterparts but infused with more violence than Dante’s mentors were allowed to muster. Matinee is not the only PG-rated film Dante made, but it is easily his most PG-rated. Sure, there are dreams of armageddon and, at one point, a child dangles over a collapsed theater balcony, but a couple of punches to the face are otherwise as aggressive as Matinee gets.

Couple such a resolutely uncommercial idea with a filmmaker whose résumé illustrated clear disinterest in compromising his idiosyncratic paranoia, and you might wish Matinee leaned a little harder into its nuclear wind. This doesn’t mean harsher or bloodier imagery per se, just something more assertive than its amiable, cool-breeze approach. 

The best parts of Matinee invoke sour-candy supposition that little has changed since Howdy Doody’s heyday, such as when atomic-bomb test footage interrupts jaunty-calliope tones of Jerry Goldsmith’s score or capitalism hoists its trophy in unmistakable triumph as people hoard groceries ahead of hunkering down (a pattern of panic that proliferated well into today’s pandemic era). However, Matinee often feels like several movies shoved into one — all with pleasant, episodic reminiscence occasionally papered over by hindsight pragmatism, none piercing too deeply into the hypocritical machinations at work on either side of a film screen.

Matinee apparently began as more of a fantasy in line with Dante’s other work, with the Strand a place of scary monsters and vampire projectionists. On the heels of his awesomely absurdist work for Dante on Gremlins 2: The New Batch, perhaps screenwriter Charlie Haas introduced real-world parallels into Matinee. (Original screenwriter Jerico Stone successfully litigated the removal of his full name from the final cut, co-credited for the story solely as “Jerico.”)

In any permutation, financing Matinee proved a challenge. Universal was set to distribute the film and had contributed a fraction of production costs, but Dante pressed the studio for a full budget after a financial partner went belly-up; they did so, he says, “to their everloving sorrow.”

There are certainly classic Dante elements in Matinee, from strong roles for his usual-suspect bit players like Robert Picardo (as the nuclearly nervous theater manager) and Dick Miller (a MANT! protester whose motives are suspect) to a little brother blackmailing his big sister over smutty missives to her misbegotten ex-boyfriend. But it often feels like Dante and Haas found a lot of young actors they liked and struggled to smash together a few respective stories.

Although townie kids tend to look down on base brats, Stan (Omri Katz) becomes a friend to the flaxen-haired Gene. He also becomes a mechanism of Matinee’s plot, namely in his romantic play for Sherry (Kellie Martin), the aforementioned big sister whose criminally inclined ex with a wink-wink last name of Starkweather (James Villemaire) hasn’t quite gotten over her.

After he identifies Miller’s protester as one of Woolsey’s own bit players, Gene ingratiates himself to Woolsey and is afforded an inside look at the producer’s operation. Meanwhile, the sham protesters enlist Starkweather to assist with backstage gadgetry for the MANT! screening and don a Mant suit during the show to menace the crowd. (Although corny, it’s no different than the real-life dancing M3GANs taking the field at an NFL game or all those rictus-grin Smile plants strategically seated behind home plate for MLB playoffs.)

Unsurprisingly, Starkweather’s jealousy rears its rubber-suited head, and the ensuing hijinks are simply not up to snuff with the implicit threats that otherwise consume the film’s characters. They mainly serve to create third-act danger that involves Gene and his own would-be girlfriend, Sandra (Lisa Jakub), trapped in a fallout bunker, and a haywire Rumble-rama apparatus causing severe structural issues at the strand. It’s certainly kinetic and busy, but it’s mostly just chaos and not quite the commentary about the chaos Haas and Dante may believe it to be. Lobby posters for real-life works like The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Panic in Year Zero remind us that, yes, films like MANT! abounded. But Dante arguably addressed the insidious creep of conservatism more in past films less equipped to tackle that head-on. And a final button involving Starkweather’s blame feels like a blasé boomerism Dante tended to avoid.

In an earlier scene, Dante films Sandra realistically poking holes in a school’s duck-and-cover drill like she was Kevin McCarthy in 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. McCarthy is, of course, one of many actors from that era of paranoid pictures who turns up in MANT!, which Matinee intermittently features as its film within a film. Tossing together at least a dozen actual films about mad-science mutation, MANT! boasts a spot-on black-and-white aesthetic even as the goofy one-liners we hear feel a tad too contemporary in their cheek; the best in-joke is briefly catching sight of Miller’s actor character in the background of MANT!

Alongside clear analogs to Castle and Hitchcock (for whom an autograph-seeking fan confuses Woolsey, who signs anyway), Woolsey also embodies Dante’s persona as someone perpetually smuggling shiv-sharp toys into studio sandboxes. Woolsey believes MANT! will be his Hollywood breakthrough, and Goodman endows the impresario with a sense of ebullient opportunism. Woolsey is always workshopping ideas, even at swampy roadside rest stops (“Alli-man … Man-igator … GAL-IGATOR!”), and Goodman gradually uncovers a good nature to Woolsey’s boisterous, zealous salesmanship — one that feels less like the profaning of a cinematic temple and more like the promotion of its virtues as a haven, however temporary.

“It’s not a safe place to be, but today, there is no safe place to be,” Woolsey says, adding later that “It’s a different world now than the one we knew even just a few short years ago.” In our modern era of extreme time-dilation, ain’t that the truth. Woolsey’s summation creates a compelling conclusive notion for Matinee — that everything is chaos, the grownups in charge are just making it up as they go along, and whether it’s in a couple weeks or a couple years, somebody will come along with another way for the world to end. Woolsey is not a grifter, he’s an advocate for a sensible compass with which to navigate a crazy world. It’s too bad that by making Gene kind of a drip and Stan pureply a plot-mover, Dante and Haas sacrifice character beats to deepen that idea. (The final image could insinuate the juggernaut of America’s involvement in Vietnam on the horizon, but that’s hardly affirmed and only something you’d spot if aware of Dante’s past cynicism.)

For all its flaws, the side-eye glances Matinee gives help it avoid more syrupy pitfalls of the love-letter-to-movies subgenre. Although the screen-filling braggadocio of MANT!’s marketing belongs to a bygone era, Matinee understands everyone is always in perpetual anxiety. Times have never been simpler in the way of political homily and party messaging. There has only ever been the escape of popular entertainment, the ability to abscond for a couple of hours into exaggerated works of fiction and the hope that you can exhale and emerge to face another day.