Director: Joe Dante
Screenwriters: Dana Olsen / Charles S. Haas
By Roderick Heath
It’s been a long time now since Joe Dante was regarded as much more than the maker of a few fondly remembered movies, and a perennial talking head commenting on even older movies. There was a moment nonetheless when he was counted amongst the ranks of major Hollywood talents who, like James Cameron and John Carpenter, emerged from the exploitation film scene of the 1970s and ‘80s to become a big-league hit-maker. Dante, the son of a professional golfer and born in New Jersey, first had ambitions to being a cartoonist, a slant on visual art that would inflect the rest of his career even as his interests turned towards movies. He gained attention with an artfully edited movie mash-up called The Movie Orgy (1968) and landed a job with Roger Corman. Dante became a member of his burgeoning New World Pictures studio, working in a variety of roles including editing Grand Theft Auto (1978) and making his directorial debut collaborating with Allan Arkush on Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a mischievous movie business satire which stitched footage from a variety of New World projects into a semi-original feature. Dante broke out as a director with 1978’s Piranha, a Jaws (1975) cash-in-cum-send-up that wielded its own peculiar sensibility, including an oil-black sense of humour and merry gore-mongering, and united Dante with then little-known writer and sometime actor John Sayles, who penned the script.
The duo left Corman behind to make The Howling (1980), another funny, more wilfully oddball genre effort that helped Sayles kick off his own, more serious-minded independent film career, and boosted Dante to mainstream attention. Dante found a second vital producing collaborator in Steven Spielberg, who brought Dante aboard to direct an episode of the ill-fated The Twilight Zone – The Movie (1982), and then backed Dante in making the comedy-horror monster movie Gremlins (1984) and the zesty Fantastic Voyage riff Innerspace (1987), with the teen sci-fi adventure Explorers (1985) in between. Dante worked out his rowdy, referential, horny side with the uneven sketch comedy Amazon Women of the Moon (1987) and his more overtly satirical streak resurged with The ’Burbs. Of these only Gremlins was a hit, whilst Explorers, seemingly the perfect expression of the ‘80s youth movie zeitgeist until its wry, deliberately anticlimactic last act, and Innerspace, with its loose energy and brilliantly delivered if slightly overextended comic spectacle, were both bruising failures. Dante revisited old ground with Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) to get his box office mojo working again. But Dante’s career after this proved awfully patchy: his follow-up Matinee did poorly at the box office, and he’s only made four features since, including the well-reviewed but barely-successful anti-militarist fantasy Small Soldiers (1998) and the failed Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003), as well as occasional TV episodes.
Dante had evident similarities with generational fellows like Spielberg, Carpenter, George Lucas, and Stephen King, in wielding a particular penchant for remixing the infrastructure of growing up American in the 1950s and ‘60s in terms of a personal fantasy landscape, the kinds of kids who had a dresser crammed with issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and painted Ray Harryhausen figures. Dante was often characterised as the impish rapscallion producing anarchically satiric desecrations of the same suburban Middle America Spielberg was perceived as enshrining. There was some truth in that, but at the same time it’s awfully reductive of both directors: Dante plainly loved his evocations of humdrum suburbia and the big dreamers it so uneasily houses, just as Spielberg’s visions of the same zones usually saw obsession and threat lurking under the placid surfaces. From today’s vantage it seems rather that Dante’s ultimate nemesis proved to be Tim Burton, who appeared on the scene just as Dante was losing career traction. Burton wielded a similar sensibility – fixation with the same zones of retro Americana and old movies, a mordant approach to lampooning the permanent 1950s lodged in the American collective mind, a fondness for plucky misfits as protagonists – and a more overtly stylised visual approach. Also, over the decades Burton proved willing to compromise in ways Dante never quite was. Dante’s approach was inherently ironic, presenting his seemingly straitlaced protagonists as bland on the surface but covertly perverse and unruly, where Burton signposted his inversions and dissensions in a manner that suited an emerging alt-culture better.
The ‘Burbs was a modestly profitable movie but critically it met a largely indifferent response in 1989. Nonetheless it stands as one of Dante’s most quintessential expressions, and it’s a personal favourite film. Dante worked with a screenplay by writer Dana Olsen, who based it on his own childhood memories and having fun with the many urban legends of everyday whackos whose memories haunted the suburban placidity. The ’Burbs could well be the all-grown-up experience of the three young dreamer-adventurers of Explorers, having settled into monotonous adult life in the same suburbs where once the bushes could be a jungle and the neighbour’s yard an alien planet. The film kicks off with a technically brilliant and visually dazzling flourish as Dante perverts the Universal Pictures spinning planet logo by using it as the start of the longest zoom shot in cinema, descending relentlessly from space and zeroing in on Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac in a Midwestern suburb. The gag is manifold – as well as outdoing Spielberg’s famous jokes with the Paramount logo in his Indiana Jones films, Dante connects the tiny stage of a suburban street with the vastness of the Earth and the cosmos, at once dwarfed but also forming part of an infinitesimal texture. This commences a film that plays as a companion piece to the famous The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” in the tingling sense of paranoia amidst the utterly ordinary, and sense of a rascally mastermind toying with paltry, reactive humans all too ready to realise their violent and destructive sides. Except there are no aliens here, only Dante himelf.
Dante has his own “directed by” credit appear as shirtless, vest-wearing, hairy-chest exposing Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) appears, slipping on aviator shades with attitude as heavy rock starts pounding. Tom Hanks, still in his young, gangly, charming everyman phase, plays Ray Peterson, a man on holiday from his job who’s elected to spend that time lounging around the house rather than head off to a vacation spot, in part because he’s trying to escape the programmatic wheel of suburban behaviour. But being home all day proves a taunt to his imagination, a la James Stewart in Rear Window (1954). Ray is draw out of his house in the dead of night when a strange mechanical whirring noise and brilliant light are emitted from the basement of a neighbouring house. The house, which previously belonged to a well-liked couple named the Knapps, has recently been sold to a shadowy family called the Klopeks who never seem to come out by day, taunting the proclivities of the other people on the street. Ray’s other immediate neighbour is phone line worker Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommon), a tubby miscreant who’s likewise been left alone with his wife out of town and nothing to do but snoop. Across the street lives (Bruce Dern), a Vietnam veteran and military hardware freak who ritually raises the Stars and Stripes every morning and lives with his much-younger bombshell wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal). Teenager Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) has been left alone by his parents, whilst the elderly Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) keeps his real front lawn lush and the fake lawn on his head just as lush.
Dante sets all of these characters and their microcosmic lives up in a deftly choreographed sequence as the bike-riding paper boy tosses his wares into yards and the various denizens emerge in the sunshine – the boy hits Ray with the paper he throws him, so Ray reacts by tossing his cup of morning coffee after him. Walter avenges himself by sending his poodle Queenie on guerrilla raids to bite the paper boy, only for Queenie to prefer pooping on Rumsfield’s grass, a gift that spoils Rumsfield’s flag-raising ceremony. Jerry Goldsmith’s playful score makes sport of John Williams’ twinkly scene-setting for Spielberg, even sporting dog barks remixed into the music. Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) tries to talk Ray into going away for the week, but he commits to playing the bohemian homebody. Ray’s curiosity nonetheless keeps being lassoed by both the strange behaviour of the Klopeks and his friends’ increasingly tantalised and pushy obsession with it. Dante’s approach to all this is at once indulgent and sardonic, gleefully playing up the weirdness that magnifies under the gaze of the adventure-starved heroes with technically accomplished and wittily fleeting pastiches of various genres of film grammar, whilst also perceiving the ways those heroes become just the sorts of agents of malicious discontent they seek to uncover.
When one of the Klopeks, the youngest, Hans (Courtney Gains) finally emerges in daylight, Ray and Art finally goad each-other into heading over and pay a welcome-neighbour visit. This sequence becomes a masterful unit of humour and quick-fire pastiche and comic staging. Dante touches base with a burlesque of a Sergio Leone gunfight stare-and-shoot -out, diving in for close-ups of the many staring onlookers including the dog Queenie, watching in tense fascination as Ray and Art venture in, whilst Goldsmith quotes Morricone on the soundtrack. The camerawork shifts gear into a faintly gothic style with high angles and perspective distortion to create a menacingly looming effect. Facetious menace turns to farce, as the pair put their feet through weak wood in the porch and dislodge fixtures when striking the doorknocker. The house number 669 turns to 666, and a swarm of bees emerges from a secreted hive, driving the hapless duo to take shelter under Rumsfield’s hose: Rumsfield dashes forth to the rescue only for his lawn hose to snap and send him tumbling, and the scene concludes with men squirming desperately under squirting water. Later in the evening Ray takes his dog for a walk – or rather he takes it out and lets it off the leash to run riot – and finishes up falling into conversation with Art and Ricky: in arguing the Klopeks might be dangerous fiends and also trying to freak Ray out, Art cites local folklore in recounting the story of Chip, a soda jerk who slaughtered his family and went about his life normally for weeks afterwards only for summer heat to stir the stench of corruption. Soon Ray and Art witness Hans driving a car out of the garage simply to remove garbage from the trunk and pound it into the bin, before driving rain starts to fall: Ray then observes three Klopeks feverishly digging in their backyard in the storm.
Art is the devil you know: a boy-man who quietly hates his wife and takes any opportunity to stuff his face when he visits the Petersons, whilst his first appearance in the film sees him sneaking up on crows that flock about the Klopeks’ yard with a shotgun. “Art’s got a gun!” Ray alerts Carol when he sees him trying to shoot one of the birds, as if that very phrase immediately evokes good cause to be afraid. Rumsfield keeps his own vigil, looking down into the street, silhouetted in his window and smoking a cigar. Meanwhile Ricky is so entertained by watching the trio’s expeditions he first invites his girlfriend around for a dose of prototypical reality television (“This is real – this is my neighbourhood!”) and later all of his friends to gawk when the chaos reaches a climax: Ricky even puts on catering (“I called the pizza dude!”) for his free show, and his guests form a ready-made audience for the shenanigans, clapping whichever piece of slapstick inanity provided for their amusement. What is still a relatively innocent preoccupation takes a turn towards the urgently obsessive for Ray, Art, and Rumsfield when Bonnie finds Queenie seemingly alone and bedraggled, and when the neighbours go to Walter’s house they find he’s mysteriously vanished, leaving his signature toupee behind. Not long after, Queenie brings bone for Ray to throw which Art recognises is actually a human femur, convincing them both it’s Walter’s. Carol finally tries to put an end to their snooping and paranoia by arranging for her, Ray, Rumsfield and Bonnie – Art is pointedly not invited – to pay a call on the Klopeks for a nice neighbourly housewarming.
Part of the specific pleasure of Dante’s films lies in his recurring gags and casting choices, and his delight in film buff touches for their own sake. Goldsmith pushes the point even further by including passages very lightly transforming his own iconic scores for Patton (1970) and the Rambo movies for the mockery. Dante contrives to evoke the Bates house of Psycho (1960) in the crumbling grandeur of the Klopek house and the occasional, backlit sight of someone mysteriously watching from high windows. As he so often did, Dante casts perpetual refugee from the Corman factory Dick Miller, who appears with another constant regular in Dante’s films, the inimitable Robert Picardo: the duo play garbage men Vic and Joe, who find themselves the bewildered audience as Art and Rumsfield charge out to stop them compacting the Klopeks’ garbage so they can check it for human remains. “My taxes pay your salary!” Joe tries to talk Vic into attending a meditation group, whilst Miller mutters ruefully after listening to the locals theorising, “I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out and the people are kinda weird.” Rumsfield fiercely reminds the complaining labourers as he lies upside down in a pile of garbage with shaving foam on his face. When Ray tries to ignore Art’s ravings about the Klopeks being Satanists by sticking his fingers in his ears and mumbling a mantra to drown him out, Art insists he’s already succumbing to the brainwashing influence and twists his words it into a mocking version of a Satanic chant: “I wanna kill. Everyone. Satan is good. Satan is our pal.”
A highlight of the film comes about half-way through as Ray, head ringing with his own imaginings, an occult book Art showed him, and too many horror movies on the TV (Dante inserts clips from The Exorcist, 1973, Race With The Devil, 1974, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, 1986), has a nightmare where he awakens in the night and finds Carol missing. Venturing out of the bedroom, he’s assailed by a huge chainsaw blade cutting through the wall, and then finds himself tied to a huge barbecue by masked Satanists. Carol dreamily calls to Ray, swathed in white silk, praising him for inviting the neighbours to a barbecue, as the devil worshippers tie him to a giant grill whilst repeating Art’s chant. Ray sees Walter and Queenie together rising from a garbage can, in a joke that feels plucked straight from Dante’s beloved Looney Tunes cartoons, where both dog and master give spooky warning with medieval axes buried in their head. Art appears in the guise of Chip, met by peals of canned laughter and applause like a beloved sitcom character and making cheesy one-liner quips, a flourish that anticipates the more sour media lampooning of Natural Born Killers (1994). Finally Ray awakens from the vortex of nightmare to the no less disorientating sight of Mr Rogers on morning TV singing ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour?’ Here Dante explicitly identifies Ray’s mind with his own, a whirling centrifuge where comedy and horror lose form, permanently colonised by a post-genre melange of pop culture stances.
Much as Matinee contemplates the nerve-jangled era of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with its clear-and-present-danger sense of imminent extermination, The ’Burbs evokes the fallout of the Reagan era’s homiletic appeal to renewed centrism and stability. That stability Dante sees rather as a kind of balkanization along the lines of suburban fence lines, everyone from the fairly decent young family man to the gun-toting coot and the hard rock-playing teenager segmented in their little worlds in uneasy truce rather than balance, but simultaneously, desperately seeking some cause to rally to, to relieve themselves of the pressure of their ordinariness in a country (any country) that needs mythmaking to cohere. Art’s leap to thinking the Klopeks are Satanists plainly lampoons the Satanic Panic that gripped the reactionary sectors of the 1980s, fuelled by texts like the fake memoir Michelle Remembers and the McMartin school trial, whilst he also evinces a fascination with seemingly ordinary people like Chip who abruptly become lunatics. Eventually, in the film’s climactic, sententious but well-handled speech from Ray, he indicts himself, Art, and Rumsfield as the actual examples of that madness in this story. Dante’s capacity to explore socially satiric themes with an unexpected edge of relevance and insight had been present since his early B-movies and would reach a height in his almost scarily prescient 1996 telemovie The Second Civil War, which took the themes in The ’Burbs to a natural conclusion and came up with a warning for the Trump era.
The urge to childlike anarchic action was one Dante had safely cordoned off in Gremlins in the title critters as the represented all the septic forces lurking under the surface of the idealised small town; in The ’Burbs the citizens degenerate into something like gremlins themselves. Dante is amused as well as alarmed by the immaturity of his protagonists, watching them become infantilised as they indulge their seemingly adult concerns. Art is glad to be out from under his wife’s thumb because it’s plain he regards her more like a parental control figure, and Carol increasingly acts like Ray’s mother rather than wife (casting Fisher as the film’s most mature person was a stroke of genius), resulting in a scene where Art and Rumsfield retreat like dejected boys when Carol won’t let Ray come out and play “until he resembles the man that I married.” For all his man’s man affectations, Rumsfield gleefully directs the other two using a “Red Rover” rhyme over a walkie-talkie. Hanks’ innate likeability is key for presenting a main character who does increasingly unhinged and destructive things. Meanwhile Ray’s actual child son Dave (Cory Danziger) is increasingly mortified by the spectacle of his father’s mischiefs. Ray’s attempts to remain reasonably sane and a restraining influence on Art are repeatedly foiled, as when Art writes an accusatory note to the Klopeks and Ray fears correctly they might assume he did it. Eventually he’s drawn into the mesmerising influence after the discovery of the femur – Dante gleefully mocks melodramatic style as Art and Ray scream in panic upon Art’s certainty the femur belongd to Walter, camera zooming in and out like it’s having a palpitation – and later when he discovers Walter’s wig mysteriously transposed from his house to the Klopeks’.
Carol’s attempts to defuse the escalating situation and make nice with the Klopeks results in a painfully uncomfortable and bitterly funny scene as Ray and Carol and Rumsfield and Bonnie finally encounter the three new neighbours. Hans is a jittery, pale, perverse youth, Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) is a fierce and cranky elder who barely controls his simmering anger at Ray, and his brother, Dr Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson) who first appears in a burlesque of horror movie anticipation as he emerges from the cellar, glimpsed in menacing silhouette, wearing surgical gloves smeared with red, only for this to prove paint from his hobby of making art from surgical scenes. The Klopeks (“Is that a Slavic name?” Rumsfield questions, sensing both Reds and corpses under the bed) are a perfect alloy of strange traits, from their midnight excursions and oddly impersonal furnishings (“It came with the frame.”) and general of foreignness, but Werner proves such a pleasantly affable, almost fey host that he seems to finally put relations on common ground. At least until Rumsfield starts in with aggressive questioning and Art, sneaking into the house whilst everyone’s distracted, unleashes the snarling beast chained up in the cellar – a Great Dane – and runs for his life, setting off the Klopeks’ improvised alarm system. Hanks’ comic acting is at a height in this sequence as Ray uneasily accepts the hospitable offer from Hans of his idea of an entertaining munchies – a canned sardine and pretzel – and tries to eat it, and later tries to distract from one of Rumsfield’s obnoxious ploys by suddenly suffering a sneezing fit that quickly becomes a real one.
Newly convinced of the Klopeks’ malfeasance by finding Walter’s toupee in their house, Ray resolves to take advantage of what he knows will be the family’s absence and contrives to get rid of Carol and Dave for the day, before setting out with Art and Rumsfield to invade the Klopek house. Art successfully knocks out the power to the house by shimmying up a power pole and cutting a live wire, an act that results in him getting shocked and falling through a shed roof, emerging singed and smoking, but does succeed in disabling the Klopeks’ alarms. Rumsfield keeps watch from his rooftop with a rife, infrared scope, walkie-talike, and animal crackers. Ray furiously digs holes in the Klopeks’ yard whilst Art lounges about, before they shift their attention to within the house. There they finally seem to identify the source of the strange rumbles and glowing, in the form of a huge, baroque furnace the Klopeks have been restoring. The Klopeks return home only to recognise someone’s broken in and retreat unnoticed to fetch the police, whilst Art and Rumsfield behold the beggaring sight of Walter being returned home by his children, having just been in hospital after a spell of heart trouble. Still digging in the cellar floor for any signs of buried bodies, Ray’s pickaxe hits something metallic, only for this to prove a gas line: Art manages to flee but Ray is still inside when the gas explodes and blows the house to pieces. Thankfully Ray emerges, battered and burned but alive.
The flow of great comic business continues right through The ’Burbs, from Ray plucking Walter’s toupee from where he stashed it in his shorts to Ricky, trying to distract the police brought by the Klopeks, leaping onto their windscreen and trying to pass off his houseguests as riotous invades: “There’s these people and they’re in my parents’ house and…they’re eating all their food!” The aftermath of the explosion brings the world onto the cul-de-sac, including cops who represent the judgement of authority and reality. In a moral-of-the-story vignette, Ray unleashes a berserk harangue at Art and accepts they’ve been acting like crazy people: “We’re the lunatics!” he thunders in between bouts of trying to strangle the still-recalcitrant Art. The peculiarity of The ’Burbs is that it tries to present a nimble, scabrous comedy with the trappings of a big-budget Hollywood movie, with Dante embracing the imaginative exaggeration of his heroes and his own genre movie touchstones, constantly, ironically contrasting the looming, swooning camerawork and amplified weirdness of the Klopeks and their home with the gleaming, idealised neighbourhood around them. Where Burton’s Edward Scissorhands a year later would touch many of the same conceptual bases of The ’Burbs, it allows its nonconformist heroes the stature of myth, where The ‘Burbs refuses to indulge, seeing as everyone, whatever their personal mythos, as victims of the persona they make for themselves as part of the general comedie humaine.
At least until the very end: in a climax reportedly reshot to please test audiences, Ray pledges to help mitigate the damage he’s caused, only to be confronted by Dr Klopek, who reveals a sudden sinister side and confirms that he did indeed murder the Knapps and intends to kill Ray too. Ray manages to fight him off and the sight of the Klopeks’ car boot stuffed with the bones of their victims confirms their villainy. This ending presents an interesting dichotomy when it comes to the difference, and occasional disconnect, between theme and movie language. On the one hand, it seems to spoil the theme of the self-appointed guardians of normality proving to be the true reprobates and seeming to finally justify their paranoia. On the other, given Dante’s blackly comic exaggeration throughout, to simply have the Klopeks prove to be mere, victimised innocents would see a bit of a long bow, and the revelation finally gives the constant come-ons of Dante’s outsized style, at long last, some proper horror movie images to indulge, including Dr Klopek snapping on surgical gloves in a slyly congenial but menacing manner, and the horde of bones. Dante tries to have his cake and eat it in finally seeing everyone as a bit cracked, as Ray wanders home dazedly with Carol whilst Art and Rumsfield smugly ride out the switchback in swerving between the status of villains and heroes. The resulting ambivalence is, ultimately, perhaps more interesting and lasting than any didactic message.
When Dante made Matinee four years later, he purposefully redeployed the core theme of The ’Burbs in introducing a major character, Sandra (Lisa Jakub), who’s the child of beatnik intellectuals and earns the distrust of her fellow students and the wrath of authority when she refuses to play along with her high school’s duck-and-cover drill, instead loudly and desperately insisting it’s all a sham and waste of time in the face of the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation. Here the voice of weirdo dissent is plainly valourised, as Sandra becomes the girlfriend of Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), the main character, despite him being the nominally straitlaced son of a Navy sailor. Matinee unfolds over the course of a week coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis: Gene and his family, who often relocate depending on where his dad is stationed, have recently arrived in Key West, and Gene becomes aware his father isn’t out on manoeuvres as he’s been told, but is on one of the blockade ships. Gene himself harbours his own subversive appetites, his burgeoning delight in B horror and sci-fi films. The ultimate sop to that proclivity falls right in his lap amidst the general unease: independent auteur Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), maker of such masterpieces as The Brain Leeches and The Hypnotic Eyes of Doctor Diablo, announces he’s going to be premiering his new atomic monster movie, Mant!, at the Key West Strand, a local movie theatre, to take advantage of the island’s current, flashpoint role in the zeitgeist.
Dante’s sense of personal connection with the meat of Charles S. Haas’s script is easy to discern, as Gene eventually comes under Woolsey’s wing, much as Dante did with Corman, the older shyster-artist schooling the kid in both the flimflam side to his business but also his genuine, peculiar creative ideals in trafficking in safe, cordoned experiences of the dark side as necessarily purgative and cathartic. Woolsey is, nonetheless, more patently based on the legendary William Castle, the former big studio B-movie wiz who went independent and reinvented himself as the downmarket Alfred Hitchcock, making personal appearances in his movies and advertising and employing attention-grabbing gimmicks to hook his audiences. Many of the stunts and tricks Woolsey utilises in promoting Mant! are drawn directly from Castle and Corman’s playbooks, like wiring up seats to deliver mild electric shocks and trundling out dangling skeletons mid-movie, and trying to whip up audience enthusiasm by ironically appealing to their desire to see things possibly forbidden or just amusingly bad. Woolsey has his leading lady and girlfriend Ruth Corday (Cathy O’Donnell; her character’s last name Corday is a nod to Mara Corday, star of Tarantula!, 1955, and The Black Scorpion, 1957) also pose as a nurse selling fake insurance policies to prospective audience members, a nice gimmick that falls flat when Ruth repeatedly shows no professional interest in the actually injured.
Matinee indulges a portrait of teenagers from a “more innocent time,” for whom sneaking a listen to a Lenny Bruce album is the height of sophistication and daring. Gene, because of the family’s constant moving, always faces the problem of making new friends, and he dreads going to the local high school. He also has to take care of his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) a lot of the time, and his tendency to get freaked out by the scary movies Gene loves sometimes forces Gene to run the gauntlet with his fretful mother Anne (Lucinda Jenney). When some boys prefer him to the company of some nerd at lunch he meets Stan (Omri Katz), and they become fast friends. Stan has a fierce crush on school goddess Sherry (Kellie Martin). Stan works up the pluck to ask Sherry out on a date, and she happily accepts, but Stan is soon intimidated by Sherry’s older former boyfriend Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), a petty criminal recently released early from a jail stint because he also fancies himself as a Beat poet and impressed a literary figure. Stan connects with Sandra, as another misfit, albeit a local who’s never felt at home, and who refer to her parents by their first names. Meanwhile Woolsey is dealing with his own problems, including an increasingly disgruntled Ruth, who’s annoyed he won’t marry her, and his urgent design to get Mant! a booking in a large theatre chain, to pay off nagging debts like the impending lab bill for the movie, as he’s threatened with a lawsuit: “Boy this business has changed,” Woolsey comments, “They used to settle these things with violence.”
Matinee has a strong resemblance to many other post-American Graffiti (1973) nostalgia piece movies cast a half-humoured, half-anxious eye back to the prelapsarian days before JFK’s assassination. But it belongs in a special niche with something like John Waters’ Hairspray (1988) in exploring a similar blend of candy-coloured retro and sceptical coming-of-age meditations, laced with the director’s simultaneously fulsome and ironic sensibility. Matinee is probably the sweetest and sunniest movie Dante made, despite its depiction of a uniquely fraught moment in history that still transmits unease in cultural memory, and during the slow build towards the kind of comic chaos Dante was so good at it risks getting rather more cute than was his usual wont. Still, Dante captures the surreal segues for the lives of the boys into a world of grown-up threat, as when Gene and Stan go down to the blissful beachfront only to find soldiers and their great dark war machines ranged along it. Dante uses The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a leitmotif, both bang-on as period detail and a musical gesture conveying breezy, dreamy nostalgia and longing. The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” is used more archly as a theme for Harvey as he lurks in the bushes watching Sherry. Dante constantly illustrated his heroes’ inner worlds and transformative urges through dream sequences used as a vehicle for unfettering both fantasy and fear: Ray’s nightmare in The ’Burbs is one example, whilst the dreams shared by the trio in Explorers is perhaps the quintessential instance, as Dante depicted a shared subliminal space in which the heroes discover designs that open other worlds. Here Dante’s variation on this comes as Gene thinks he hears his father’s return and gets out of bed, only to find his house deserted, and when he opens the front door witnesses the apocalyptic eruption of a mushroom cloud followed by an exterminating wind: only then does Gene awaken, delivered back to much safer waking dreams of mutant man-ants.
Whereas in The ’Burbs the movie pastiche was kneaded into the style of the film, Dante often settled for delivering films within films making wry sport of disreputable wonders, like the episodes in Amazon Women of the Moon that give the movie its title, a hilariously precise recreation of of ‘50s space siren movies, and the send-up of cheap Italian space operas in Explorers. Here Dante pokes good-natured fun at the general run of entertainment for kids in the day, when his mom makes him take Dennis to see a movie called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart. This proves a frighteningly accurate pastiche of the kind of live-action pablum Disney was turning out at the time, with the movie-within-a-movie sporting a very young Naomi Watts as a sunny blonde starlet opposite a double-taking co-star. Later, of course, he gets around to Mant! itself, which resembles less one of Castle’s or Corman’s films of the period and looks more like fellow trash titan Bert I. Gordon trying to make a Jack Arnold film. After getting bored during The Mixed-Up Shopping Cart, Gene and Danney leave, only to encounter a scene outside the theatre: two men, Herb (Miller again) and Bob (Sayles), claiming to be from a morals group called Citizens For Decent Entertainment, are protesting the upcoming Mant! screening. They face opposition with Sandra’s parents Jack (David Clennon) and Rhonda (Lucy Butler), who espouse First Amendment rights, whilst Woolsey himself emerges to argue with the men and pass out free tickets, encouraging people to make up their own minds. Gene susses all this out when he recognises Herb from a still from one of Woolsey’s previous films, and realises Woolsey’s just drumming up publicity from a different flank.
This sequence takes a deft poke at the art of using negative publicity as good publicity, and again later when Bob and Herb try to entice Harvey with their two-faced wiles: “What messages do these movies send to the youth of America? That atomic power is nothing but trouble? That it’s all right for atomic mutations to rip the clothes off of young women?” There’s also a dose of sly metatextual commentary on Dante’s constant casting of Miller in restoring him to his original setting as a B-movie face. When Gene confronts Woolsey about his stunt, Woolsey at first tries to report that “Herb turned against me,” but then drops the pretence in realising Gene’s too smart for that. Instead he explains he hired Herb when he was actually a shake-down guy sent to collect money and Woolsey saw an inexpensive actor instead, whilst Bob is a blacklisted actor. Much of the near-sublime quality of Matinee lies in the way Dante captures two ways of looking at Woolsey, from one angle a fly-by-night exploitation entrepreneur who’s a professional bullshit artist, and from another a hero bringing fun and fright a world of young Genes. Casting Goodman, at the height of his rotund charm and performing vigour, as Woolsey makes him instantly charismatic and likeable, and he readily opens up to Gene in sensing a kindred spirit. Gene and Woolsey’s conversations articulate the credo of a hermetic order of horror movie freaks, as Gene confesses to Woolsey, in a manner just about any cineaste might recognise, that with his rootless childhood he found his friends in the oddball likes of Herb and Vincent Price on screen. Woolsey readily identifies with Gene’s problems, recalling his own trouble fitting in, only to assure him, “Now I get my revenge, I get to scare everyone else – but it’s for their own good.” Woolsey goes on to explain the delight he takes hin making monster movies with philosophical zeal, describing some ancient encounter between a caveman ancestor and a woolly mammoth the man survived and felt the need to record his exhilarating escape for posterity. So he a picture on his cave wall and exaggerating its terrible features: “Bang!,” Woolsey announces as the caveman’s vision is illustrated as a threatening cartoon projected with imagination upon a brick wall, “The first monster movie.”
Woolsey goes on to explain that ebb and flow of fear and release, anxiety and catharsis, is the essence of the movie business and why he loves it so much. Dante stages Woolsey and Gene’s exchanges in a series of flowing, unifying tracking shots as Woolsey leads the lad off the street and into the temple of cinema. That temple is however also a profane space, a place for rowdy kids to stamp feet, roll malt balls down the aisles, and to gawk at anything that might provoke the ghost of a sexual fantasy, which Woolsey also knows well. The Strand’s manager Howard (Picardo) is a panicky fussbudget who has installed a fallout shelter in the theatre basement and keeps a radio on him at all times tuned to a military channel to get an early warning if the bombs start falling. Meanwhile Harvey, whose last name pays an unsubtle nod to the infamous serial killer Charles Starkweather, is present for bad boy angst, threatening Stan in between recitations of his poetry: “Destiny – it’s like a crazy river – where you see different people’s boats that they have going by on it…but tomorrow! Tomorrow’s a knife!” Homage perhaps to Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1958), which starred Miller. Harvey is both a source of comedy as an utter dope, and also a more immediate menace than the atomic bomb with his unstable and violent streak. He tries to steal Bob’s wallet when he and Herb are going through their spiel, only for them to catch him and reclaim the wallet, making as if they’re going to beat him up but then releasing him. Harvey takes their advice and gets a job, which happens to be for Woolsey, filling out a Mant costume with instructions to operate all of Woolsey’s gimmicks and lurch out to frighten the audience at intervals. Woolsey’s stunts include “Rumble-Rama”, which shakes the theatre, and his now process, “Atom-O-Vision,” for the grand finale.
Mant!, glimpsed in random passages during the screening itself, is a lovely if broad lampoon of ‘50s monster movies, styled much like the send-ups in Amazon Women of the Moon and, with O’Donnell-as-Ruth playing Carole, the wife of an unfortunate man named Bill (Mark McCracken), who’s transforming into a giant ant after being bitten by an ant whilst getting a dental x-ray, and becomes increasingly unhinged. Dante casts classic movie faces William Schallert as the dentist, The Thing From Another World’s (1951) Robert Cornthwaite as the compulsory grimly prognosticating scientist, and Kevin McCarthy as an army general trying to battle the gigantic, mutated Bill, and inserts stock footage borrow from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1951). In recreating the classic style Dante does a good job nailing down the look and sound of such movies, particularly the lighting, usually a touch directors get badly wrong, although the prosthetics for “Mant” and the later giant ant puppet are far too good to be from a real movie of the period. Dante makes sport of the sexism littering many such movies, building to the relished moment when Mant gooses his wife with his slimy claw (a queue for the watching audience to be shocked) as well as breathless sexual melodrama (Schallert’s lecherous dentist drive Bill to a murderous rampage by trying to seduce his wife whilst he’s encaged), whilst Cornthwaite’s scientist insists on repeating everything he says in a dumbed-down fashion: “He’ll continue to metamorphose – or change!”
The Mant! premiere kicks the film’s gentle, ambling tenor to a higher gear as the characters intersect and Woolsey’s machinery collapses the boundaries between life and apocalyptic fantasy, and provides one of Dante’s greatest set-pieces of orchestrated madness. Gene does good pal service when he helps Sherry and Stan make up by spinning a story that carefully omits Harvey’s menacing, suggesting Gene has nascent talents for good fiction. Harvey, catching sight of Stan kissing Sherry in the audience whilst he’s supposed to be menacing the crowd, socks Stan and chases him and Sherry around the theatre. The Rumble-Rama makes Howard think the bombs are falling, so he dashes to the basement to set his shelter to close, only for mix-ups to result in Gene and Sandra being locked inside it. Woolsey, with his can-do attitude and general cynicism (“I’m in the wrong business,” he sighs when Howard tells him the shelter was sold to him as completely impregnable), works to get the shelter door off before the two kids suffocate, only to find when he does dislodge it that the pair inside are kissing. Meanwhile a theatre chain owner Woolsey’s trying to land a deal with, Spector (Jesse White), is utterly delighted, taking the violence for ingenious choreography and part of the overall show. The theatre’s upstairs balcony becomes dangerously overloaded with rowdy kids having the time of their lives, and with the added Rumble-Rama the balcony threatens to collapse, with Dennis on it.
As in The ’Burbs, the chaos unleashed is a by-product of rowdy human energy, the desperate need for thrills and voyaging, and the urge to expiate darker urges, even when articulated via schlock. Only the steady hand of a clever film director can impose some form of order on such bedlam, as Woolsey confirms when he deliberately uses Atom-O-Vision, which deploys a mixture of lighting and 3D colour footage to make it seem as if an atomic bomb has blown out the back of the movie theatre, to frighten the audience into evacuating the theatre and empty out the collapsing balcony. Except Dennis doesn’t escape, requiring Gene to risk life and limb grabbing Dennis off the balcony before it sways and crashes down on the empty theatre floor. Meanwhile Stan tries to intervene as Harvey tries to kidnap Sherry at knifepoint, getting knocked out for his pains, but Harvey’s flight quickly comes to a halt as he crashes his car and is apprehended. All ends happily, with the blockade ending, Woolsey proposing marriage to Ruth as the drive off and assuring the kids that adults are just as clueless as they are, and Gene and Sandra going down to the now soldier-free beach to watch the Navy chopper bringing his dad home arrive. An ending that obeys Woolsey, and Dante’s, dictum that a good movie should end with the lights coming up and a sigh of relief, and an instance of life, if never entirely for good, for once playing along.