Mar 25, 2009

Why haven't you seen... 11

Them! (1954) Dir: Gordon Douglas & Matinee (1993) Dir: Joe Dante
The long awaited giant ant double bill… “at last!” I hear you cry.

What are they all about?
In Them, one of the great nuclear paranoia sci-fi movies of the 50’s, atomic testing in the New Mexico desert lead ants to mutate into giant man eating beasts, which threaten to destroy the nearest town, and subsequently the world!
Matinee, set in Florida’s key west during the Cuban missile crisis, is Joe Dante’s affectionate tribute to the sci-fi of the 50’s and 60’s. It sees a William Castle style producer going to key west to premiere his latest monster movie; a film that sees a scientist slowly mutate into a giant ant – or Mant. It’s also a coming of age movie, seeing a couple of young movie fans (Simon Fenton and Omri Katz) having their respective first dates at the premiere.

Why haven’t you seen them?

In the case of Them! It’s probably because you assume it will be silly; a black and white movie from the mid 1950’s about giant radioactive ants.
Matinee is a sadly underseen film; it received only a small cinema release in 1993 before drifting on to video. Though critically well rated and beloved of its small audience it never really broke out, and its DVD treatment (bare bones and panned and scanned) bears that out.

Why should you see them?
Them! is great fun, just as any movie about giant ants should be, but the silliness that would seem inevitable never really raises its head, because though the story is outlandish director Gordon Douglas and his cast get the tone completely right. Tongues are stuck slightly in cheeks, but this never detracts from the films thrills, which build until a genuinely suspenseful and beautifully executed ending set piece which (as in all these movies) sees the army called in. The special effects are excellent for their time and the performances are largely unafflicted by the hammery that could mark the genre. Along with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (also ’54) this movie is a cornerstone of paranoid sci-fi, from which the rest of the cycle would draw inspiration, as well as being one of the finest examples of the genre.

Matinee is both send up of and tribute to 50’s and 60’s sci-fi, parodying the gimmicky audience participation stunts pioneered by William Castle, while also providing extracts from Mant (Half man, Half ant, ALL TERROR), which is both an authentic and an hilarious tribute to the movies, and wrapping it all up in a sweet and believable coming of age story, set against a seriously scary backdrop. The construction of the film is intricate genius, and Joe Dante (a hugely underrated filmmaker whose Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes: Back in Action are also ripe for reappraisal) juggles all the elements with confidence. The coming of age story is a real charmer, thanks mainly to a touching performance from 14 year old Lisa Jakub, whose rebellious and feisty schoolgirl, afraid of what she believes may be imminent destruction, is a deft piece of character acting. Sadly Jakub hasn’t acted since 2000 (though she’s great in the 1999 short George Lucas in Love, which you can find on youtube).

John Goodman bestrides Matinee like a colossus; his larger than life appearance and personality perfect to play a character that is essentially a combination of William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock. But more than that he’s a fine actor, he gives Lawrence Woolsey real depth; we see the showman and the shill, we see him cantankerous and caring, he plays drama and comedy and he does it all beautifully, creating a genuinely memorable character. Even the smaller parts are well cast and played – Cathy Moriarty’s turn as Woolsey’s sharp girlfriend and Dante stock company members Dick Miller and Robert Picardo giving great performances. Blink and you’ll miss Naomi Watts, she appears in one of her earliest American roles, in a fake b-movie called The Shook Up Shopping Cart, which is hilarious.

The best part of Matinee, though, is Mant, which is deliriously brilliant, an hilarious joy even if you’ve never seen a 50’s sci-fi flick, but if you’re a fan of the genre it is even funnier, as well as reminding you of many of the classic B’s (most notably The Fly, The Incredible Shrinking Man and the original King Kong) into the bargain.

How can you see them?

All available editions of Them! are exactly the same, and the UK edition can be found for a few pounds. Matinee is more problematic. The American disc is out of print, but was closest to the original aspect ratio, but the US laser disc is the best ever release, in its full 1.85:1 ratio, and featuring outtakes from Mant. The cheap UK dvd is fine to see the movie, but if you can get and play the laser disc then it’s the only way to go.

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