Joe Dante directed two very entertaining films: The ‘Burbs and Matinee. Light-weight comedies, even silly, but very fine efforts.
Dante started in low-budget films, working for Roger Corman, like so many other directors, before moving onto a few projects connected to Steven Spielberg. His biggest career film is probably Gremlins.
Dante has often chosen material that takes a satirical view of life, or of other film genres. One of his first films was Piranha, a takeoff on Jaws.
The ‘Burbs and Matinee fit nicely on Dante’s resume. He didn’t write either film but his fingerprints are all over the scripts. Dante also has a practice of using some of the same supporting actors in his films (Dick Miller, Robert Picardo).
The ‘Burbs (1989)
Tom Hanks was a star on the rise. He had made Big and was reaping the spoils of that breakout role, although these years of his career would contains a few misfires before A League of Their Own righted his ship.
Hanks had the vanilla persona that the script, and Dante, could fill in with the film’s colors. Hanks had mostly played goofy likable characters, who were usually in trouble over his head. Hanks plays Ray, some kind of executive or professional, the job is unidentified, but he’s worn himself into a big rut. He wants to spend a week of vacation at home, drinking beer, listening to baseball games and not making plans.
Ray, his wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) and son Dave, live on a quiet cul-de-sac, in an idyllic white-bread community. Filmed on the Universal lot, this street was used for many films and television series including Leave it to Beaver.
On this street, your biggest concerns have been keeping your house painted and lawn care. Until now.
Ray wants a quiet week, he thinks that will do the trick. Carol wants to go to the lake so Ray can get out of his rut and be normal again.
Trouble starts right away, courtesy of next door neighbor Art (Rick Ducommun), who seizes on Ray’s availability for the week, but also raises the specter of the creepy new neighbors, the Klopeks.
Art and Ray are joined by the neighbor from across the street, Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), some kind of retired military guy. Art has a wild imagination while Rumsfield is just paranoid.
None of them have met the Klopeks, but Ray has observed them. The Klopeks have lived on the other side of Ray for a month or so, but inexplicably, the paint on their house is blistered and peeling and the lawn is devoid of grass. It is like living next to the Munsters, which is weird because the television series was filmed on that street!
Ray, Art and Rumsfield begin to think something very strange is going on in the Klopek’s house. At night they hear an ear-piercing mechanical sound and see a huge blast of light from the basement. Then the youngest Klopek drives the trash from the garage to the street and beats it into the trash can. When it starts raining they agree to sort through the trash in the morning. That night, in the rain, Ray observes the three Klopeks digging in the backyard. The next morning the garbage men are picking up trash. Art, Rumsfield and Ray all bound from their houses and begin digging the trash from the truck, looking for something sinister from the Klopeks, but find nothing. The three are convinced that the Klopeks switched the trash during the night. They are going to need a plan.
Ray, Carol, Rumsfield and his wife decide to meet the Klopeks and welcome them to the neighborhood, taking them some treats. The Klopeks are an odd bunch, characters from some East European Gothic novel. The one clue that Ray comes away with from the Klopek’s house is the toupee of their elderly neighbor, Walter. Perhaps they killed Walter?
Art is convinced the Klopeks are practicing some Satanic rituals and gets this thinking into Ray’s head, to the point that he has a nightmare about being sacrificed on a huge barbecue grill. Art also recalls a story of a man who lived in town that killed and buried his family in the basement. Towns have secrets.
Art, Ray and Rumsfield decide to get into the Klopek’s yard while they are gone. Ray has convinced Carol to take their son to visit her sister. Like a military mission, Rumsfield sets up a command post on his roof in military gear. Ray and Art cut the power to the Klopek’s electrified fence and dig up their backyard, looking for whatever they buried. Not finding anything, they break into the Klopek’s house and explore their basement, where they find a furnace that goes up to 5,000 degrees. Do residential furnaces get that warm? They start digging up the dirt floor. Later, Rumsfield tries to warn them the Klopeks are headed home but Art and Ray don’t hear the radio. The Klopeks notice light in the their basement, turn around and will come back with the police.
Meanwhile, Ray has hit a gas line. Art escapes the house, as the Klopeks and the police arrive. Ray is still in the house when it explodes. He comes out of the house, singed from the fire, as Carol and David arrive home. The Klopek’s house is in ruins and Ray is being told by the police that he faces charges for destruction of property.
Ray throws himself in an ambulance, upset with the trouble Art has gotten him into. Alone in the ambulance, Dr. Klopek confronts Ray with taking a skull from the furnace; belonging to one of the Knapps, the previous owners. The youngest Klopek drives away in the ambulance as Ray and Dr. Klopek fight. Ray gets a hand on the driver and the ambulance crashes into Art’s house. Ray and Dr. Klopek fight, as the gurney Ray is on, rolls out of the ambulance and crashes into the Klopek car, where the trunk pops open and exposes a collection of human skulls and bones, which the police see.
As Ray and Carol walk home, Ray says they are going on a trip. As Art is being interviewed by a TV reporter, he says that suburbanites won’t take with being messed with, not noticing his house is on fire from the ambulance crash.
The film tells a good story of how easy it is to think differently of people who aren’t quite like everyone else. It’s hard to know what goes on inside someone else’s house, so our imaginations go to work. In this case, something sinister was going on, but they jumped to conclusions to make the connection. Ray didn’t really notice the Knapps had moved, and didn’t take the opportunity to get to know the Klopeks when he first noticed them. Right next door, Ray didn’t take the time to meet his neighbors, until his imagine took over.
As the philosophical and paranoid garbage men said, cul-de-sacs are weird, there is only one way in and out.
I live on a cul-de-sac, and I know very little about my neighbors. Rarely is anyone outside, except to mow the lawn or collect the mail. You come home, drive into the garage and lower the door. When you leave, you reverse the order. As Joni Mitchell wrote, the hissing of summer lawns is the only sound you hear, aside from the humming of every air conditioner.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film: “The ‘Burbs tries to position itself somewhere between Beetlejuice and The Twilight Zone, but it lacks the dementia of the first and the wicked intelligence of the second and turns instead into a long shaggy dog story.”
Overall, the film opened big and made money, although critics, like Mr. Ebert, were divided on the film.
The film was produced by Imagine Entertainment, owned by Brian Glazer and Ron Howard. One of the best parts of the film is a very effective film score by Jerry Goldsmith, which mixes the upbeat with darker tones.
John Goodman had a lead actor career going, with his role on Roseanne made him a popular and bankable actor. He cut his feature film teeth on some featured roles in Coen Brothers films.
In Matinee, Goodman plays a Hitchcock-type character, a director of low budget knockoff sci-fi films, something Dante could relate to in real life.
Goodman is Lawrence Woolsey, who will premier his new film Mant!, in Key West, where Gene and his family now live. Gene’s father is in the Navy and is out to sea because of the Cuban missile crisis.
Gene is a new kid at school and his first day is rough, getting acquainted and weathering the impact of the missile crisis.
The film recreates the period of the early 1960s quite well, staying away from most period rock and roll songs, but breathing in the cultural nuances of junior high school.
Besides trying to make new friends and being the man of the house with his dad away for the missile crisis, Gene is a horror film fan and the Woolsey visit is just what he needs.
Woolsey, couldn’t have picked better conditions to screen his new film. The town is on alert, paranoid, and his film’s premise describes the ecological disaster of atomic radiation, when humans turn into giant ants.
Woolsey also has Rumble-Rama, his technology of enhancing the sounds of action on the screen through large speakers and attaching vibrating devices to the theater seats to shock the audience at key points in the film. He also employs a man in an ant suit who will appear in the audience to scare the patrons.
The film is set during the time when producers were thinking up gimmicks to draw fans to their films. Since theater attendance was hurting from the rise of television, and cost-conscious filmmakers were attempting to score breakout films, any gimmick was fair game.
Woolsey also hired a couple of sometime actors to help generate publicity for his showing. Their job was to protest the content of the film as being unsuitable for families, which would attract attention and paying customers. Gene figures out that one of these guys is really an actor in some of Woolsey’s films, so he uses that to tag along with Woolsey for awhile.
Meanwhile, Gene and his new friend Stan discover girls, and that adds a complication. Gene is attracted to Sandra, who like her parents are against government propaganda and are free-thinkers. Sandra gets in trouble for protesting the student safety drills at school; putting your head down is not going to save you from radiation fall-out. Gene is just trying to figure out how to be an adolescent, but he likes her.
Stan likes Sherry, a very popular girl who has older boyfriends including Harvey, who was in jail. Harvey is now out, and aims to reconnect with Sherry, and threatens Stan to stay away from her. Harvey is a want-to-be beatnik poet, and his prose is awful. A scared Stan, breaks his date with Sherry with a lame excuse.
The town is preparing for a possible war over the missile crisis, and this brings out the worst in some of the adults, especially junior high school teachers. The theater owner has even built a bomb shelter in the basement of the building and is ready to seal himself in with supplies at a moment’s notice. He has a portable radio plugged into his ear for the latest developments.
At the Mant! showing, Gene, Stan and Dennis are there. They run into Sherry who is mad at Stan for breaking their date. Sandra is there with her parents, but she decides to sit with Gene and Dennis, while Gene convinces Sherry that Stan really wanted to be with her but volunteered to sit with Dennis to because he gets scared at films like this. Sherry buys the reason and makes up with Stan.
During the showing of the film, Woolsey uses his special sound and vibrating seat effects on the audience. Behind the screen, Harvey in the ant suit is running the controls. Woolsey’s film seems to contain every bad sci-fi scene from other films. In the film, an ant, that has been exposed to radiation, bites a man and has become part-man and part-ant: hence the film’s name, Mant! Woolsey’s girlfriend (Cathy Moriarty) has a part in the film, and is stationed in the theater lobby dressed as nurse, having patrons sign release forms in case they are overcome with fright. Another gimmick.
At one part in the film, Harvey is supposed to come into the audience in his ant costume and scare the crowd. When he does, he spots Stan and Sherry kissing. He goes wild and starts hitting Stan. Woolsey tries to intercede and is knocked down. Stan runs, with Harvey and Gene chasing to the basement.
Stan finds a gun in the shelter and frightens away Harvey. Unfortunately, the door to the shelter is triggered and it begins to close. Gene and Sandra are trapped inside. Woolsey is able to pop the door open, finding Gene and Sandra kissing.
Backstage, Harvey pulls a knife and threatens Woolsey’s girlfriend, demands the ticket money from Woolsey and escapes with Sherry at knife point. They get in Woolsey’s car and run head-on into a police car. Harvey is hauled away.
Inside the theater, the crowd is getting out of hand, and causing stress to the structure of the old theater. Woolsey, through film projector trickery, causes the audience to think there has been a missile explosion so they will hurry out of the theater. Unfortunately, that causes the theater to begin to collapse, nearly swallowing up Dennis who is in the balcony, but rescued by Gene at the last moment.
The missile crisis had ended and Woolsey’s movie premier is buried inside the paper. He and his girlfriend are in a new car and heading to the next city to show their film. Woolsey says goodbye to the kids and confesses to his girlfriend that he might like to have kids someday, a backhanded, and surprising, message to her that he’d consider marriage. She says he is full of surprises, as the film ends.
Jerry Goldsmith again provides the score. As with The ‘Burbs, he mixes the light with the darker, but keeps the comedy vibe throughout. Again, as he did with The ‘Burbs, Goldsmith borrows snippets of music from the films being emulated in the film, to give it that realism and historic flavor.
Dante’s films usually deliver what that aim for, although he was never considered an A-list director, even with help from Spielberg. If you underestimate Dante, he will usually surprise you. His films are fun and entertaining. With Matinee in particular, pay attention, because you’ll miss subtlties and inside jokes.