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MATINEE, THE BURBS, and Joe Dante’s Horror of the Everyday

In the 1970s, a new “class” of horror filmmaker began to take prominence. A class of creator who grew up devouring drive-in movies, creature feature showcases on television, and all-day horror and sci-fi marathons in local theaters. Along with the movement of New American Cinema that gave us cine-literate directors like Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg, we got “New American Horror” from directors like Carpenter, Hooper, and Landis. But of this class, one of the most singular filmmakers, with a breadth of film knowledge nearly unmatched, is Joe Dante, a director whose genius for the comedic and the everyday take on horror has never fully been appreciated.

Getting his start in the Roger Corman school of low-budget movie-making, and employed as Corman’s trailer editor for a number of years, Dante got to direct his first feature in 1976’s movie business send-up Hollywood Boulevard, co-directed with Allan Arkush. This was followed by Dante’s first solo film, the Jaws-riff Piranha, and then in 1981, the classic werewolf film, The Howling. After impressing Steven Spielberg by directing the best segment in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, Dante was tapped to direct 1984’s Gremlins. Already with these horror outings, Dante exhibited an ability to mix fright and funny, which he used to great effect in what I believe are his two underappreciated masterpieces, 1989’s The ‘Burbs and 1993’s Matinee, both getting their due in Blu-rays from Shout! Factory.

While neither is a straight-forward horror movie, usually classified as comedies more than anything else, the two films are demonstrations of the way paranoia and fear can manifest in the boring and mundane life in suburban America. In both instances, there are real things to fear, but panic spreads due to the characters’ overactive imaginations, and having seen too many movies.

The ‘Burbs,¬†written by Dana Olsen, depicts a seemingly idyllic middle-American cul-de-sac where a workaholic family man (Tom Hanks) is forced to take a vacation and can’t relax, and so becomes obsessed with spying on the weird new neighbors along with his doofy friend (Rick Ducommun) and the retired military nut (Bruce Dern), also residents of the cul-de-sac. They become convinced the new neighbors, the Klopeks (Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, and Courtney Gains) have murdered another of their neighbors after finding his dog running around and the man’s toupee left on the floor. Naturally, Hanks’ wife (played by Carrie Fisher) thinks he and his buddies are being morons, but he becomes obsessed and his methods become increasingly insane the more he dwells on the possibility.

Now, whether or not the Klopeks actually are nefarious, former-Nazi murderers–and the movie does a great job of making us think they alternately are and aren’t throughout–the point of the story is that Hanks’ character doesn’t know how to switch off, and he can’t relax even a little. It’s an “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” situation; rather than take time to reflect on himself and his family, it’s much easier to create a scenario in which the neighbors are doing something sinister. Who among us hasn’t peeked through the blinds to watch those living right next door doing something we don’t understand? And probably they’ve done the same to us in the past. It’s the paranoia of the well-off and unfulfilled; it’s hilarious and frightening, especially in a particularly ’50s-esque dream sequence.

A similar kind of fear is omnipresent in the 1993 film Matinee, a love letter to B-sci-fi/horror movies and sensationalist film producers in the William Castle mold. Set in Key West, Florida, in October 1962, Matinee,¬†written by Charles S. Haas, uses the Bay of Pigs, in which we were nearly in nuclear war with Cuba, as the background for a community of families obsessed with “the bomb.” Add in to this equation indie gimmick filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), traveling to Key West with his latest atomic age masterpiece, Mant, “Half-Man, Half-Ant…All Terror!” and exploiting the real fear of the atom for the benefit of his box office take.

Much of the humor in Matinee is borne out of how pedestrian and, again, suburban, Key West’s reaction to everything is. Very insular, very selfish, and largely unimportant. The high schoolers all want to use the impending nuclear annihilation to get laid, while several so-called grown-ups are reduced to blubbering, simpering fools. And the theater showing Mant ends up packed, with the kids all completely taken by the in-house tricks Woolsey employs, like seat-buzzers and a guy dressed as Mant running up and down the aisles. Woolsey plays the town like a fiddle, because, as he says, the world is about to end, “what better time to open a new horror movie?” To tie it to today’s unfortunate global climate, why do you think mainstream horror is back up and swinging?

In both films, Dante has an impeccable sense of place, much as he had in Gremlins, to show what happens when the unexplained and terrifying is placed in peaceful, innocent neighborhoods. Where John Carpenter uses this device for maximum terror in Halloween, Dante mines it for laughs and screams in equal measure. It’s a hard balance to strike. The ‘Burbs and Matinee are comedies about horror, using the iconography of the latter to enhance the former. There’s a joy in both, which can only come from someone who knows the world inside and out and revels in the ridiculousness therein.

There’s an alternate universe where The ‘Burbs, Matinee, and Dante’s 1990 sequel-cum-satire Gremlins 2: The New Batch were huge mega-box office hits. While The ‘Burbs opened at #1 in its weekend in 1989, none of the movies ultimately fared that well. Take another look at Joe Dante’s filmography; it’s full of much more pathos and pitch-perfect examinations of suburban malaise than you’d think. In that alternate universe, the sense of humor and adoration of the sillier side of horror movies are what audiences long for, and Dante’s breed of movie is as hailed as it deserves to be in this reality.

Matinee hits Blu-ray shelves on January 16 as part of Shout! Factory’s Shout Select series, and The ‘Burbs does the same on March 20. I urge you all to revisit these movies, and realize Joe Dante’s vision is even more relevant today.

Images: Warner Bros/Universal/Shout Factory

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He is the writer of 200 reviews of weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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