The garish, grade-Z monster movies of the '50s and early '60s are best remembered for their low-kitsch appeal as innocently vulgar artifacts of Schlockus americanus. Yet for anyone who grew up with The Blob, Them!, and other deep-dish classics of the atomic-nightmare era, these movies weren't just tacky. The image of, say, a giant spider roaming the countryside on legs the size of oak trees was actually pretty awesome (even if you did happen to suspect the legs were cardboard).
The charm of Matinee, a witty and affectionate homage to the sci-fi trash of yesteryear, is that director Joe Dante (Gremlins) appreciates both the tackiness and the awe. The movie is set in 1962 Key West, where the residents are about to endure two unprecedented events. One is the Cuban Missile Crisis, which jolts them into a low-grade panic. The other is the arrival of Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a stogie-sucking independent movie producer out to corral the island's youth into the premiere of his latest believe-it-or-not epic, Mant (''Half man Half ant All terror!!''). Woolsey believes in ''showmanship,'' which means everything from administering electric shocks to the audience via their seat cushions to stationing his buxom paramour (Cathy Moriarty) in the lobby as a ''nurse,'' lest anyone die of fright. As played by Goodman in a genial, winning performance, this Poverty Row auteur is less sleazemeister than fantasy figure a benignly unscrupulous magician who gives the people what they want.
In Matinee, Dante focuses on a group of high schoolers trying to balance their cosmic fears and the usual hormone problems. Some of this stuff falls a little flat, especially when the film tries to turn Gene (Simon Fenton), the monster-buff hero, into a poignant Spielbergian figure. Still, Dante comes up with a lively cross section of early-'60s youth types. He gets eager performances from a couple of the actresses: Kellie Martin as a curly-lipped princess who has discovered sex and loves it, and Lisa Jakub as a very serious rebel raised by leftist bohemians. For the teenagers in Matinee, anxiety over the destruction of the human race becomes a primary bond, dictating everything from sexual initiation to the mania for horror films.
The Saturday-afternoon showing of Mant finally draws everyone together. Dante does a inspired job of re-creating the earnest, '50s-junk-movie style. He gets the details just right the actors who have all the charisma of sullen accountants, the just-hold-this-claw-please special effects, the ersatz-King Kong climax in which the bug hero scales a skyscraper as his wife shrieks in pity and terror from the ground below. By the end, Woolsey even throws in a mushroom cloud and a burning hole in the screen, to which the crowd responds with an enthusiastic stampede.
As silly as all of this is, we can almost buy what Woolsey keeps declaring that his cheap-thrill horror flicks provide a legitimate outlet for people's anxieties. In Matinee, Dante has captured the reason that Cold War trash like Mant struck such a nerve in American youth: The prospect of atomic disaster was so fanciful and abstract that it began to merge in people's imaginations with the very pop culture it had spawned. In effect, it all became one big movie. Matinee is a loving tribute to the schlock that fear created. B+